The Common Denominator – “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (Old School Raw, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, WWE Network, Royal Rumble, Wrestlemania 30, Monday Night Raw)

Happy New Year, everyone! I didn’t actually intend to take the past couple of weeks off, but the busy time of year that is the holidays coupled with not really a whole lot going on in the world of wrestling and it just ended up that way.

But all of that is about to change, baby! That’s right, the Royal Rumble is fast approaching. I guess it’s technically part of the whole Road to Wrestlemania experience, but as I have written before, the Royal Rumble is my favorite show of the year. That is to say, the Rumble match itself is my favorite match of the year. I don’t really care what the other matches on the card are. I was kind of hoping they’d to the mega 40-man Rumble like they did a few years back. The argument being that there’s only one title to strive for or whatever, plus they could fill it with lots of legends and other surprises or NXT guys to get to the 40, but oh well, no real clear cut favorite has surfaced yet, especially with the Randy Orton vs. John Cena WWE World Heavyweight Championship match on the card at least somewhat of a toss-up. Plus there’s still Elimination Chamber to go, so a lot can still develop there.

Anyway, Monday was “Old School Raw,” and as a longtime wrestling fan, I always like seeing the old guys come out and play. There was a nice mix of legends from the various eras in WWF/WWE history and even some love for guys who were primarily known as WCW performers, so I enjoyed the show. And yes, I both immediately recognized and popped for Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ entrance music and return. Jake was one of my all-time favorites. More on him in a minute.

So, I have a Kindle Fire that I got last Christmas, and just browsing through some of the titles I can get for free through the Amazon Prime membership my wife got for me, I came across these e-books called “The Raw Files,” by a group of what I’m guessing are friends or perhaps just fellow wrestling fans to decided to collaborate on the project. The guys are James Dixon, Arnold Furious, Lee Maughan, Stevie Aaron, Rick Ashley and Bob Dahlstrom. They appear to be from far-flung regions of the world but still have a very good grasp on the WWF’s history and wrestling history in general, so it’s a good read. At least one of them has actual wrestling experience as well, so that’s always neat.

Anyway, these fellas have taken it upon themselves to recap every episode of Raw going all the way back to the show’s launch in 1993. They offer analysis and commentary for every segment, including match ratings, any behind-the-scenes information they might have about an angle or wrestler, TV ratings for each show and all sorts of other cool stuff. Forgive me if I should already know who these guys are, but I don’t (although “Arnold Furious” is a ring name someone should steal right now!). The cover page mentions, but I’ve not been to the page to see what that is. The reading, however, has been a treasure trove of information for me.

You see, I’ve only read 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1996 (it’s one year per volume, and I think it’s like 2 bucks if you don’t have Amazon Prime, so, plug for those guys, I guess). But those are what I consider my “dark years,” as in if there was a period in my life when I would not really have called myself a wrestling fan, this is that time period.

I got married in 1993, and like many women, my wife was aware of professional wrestling’s existence (being from Memphis and all, there was no escaping it), but she didn’t really have any interest in watching it. Plus, I was a man now, not some punk kid, so watching “that fake shit” as I’ve often heard it called, wasn’t really a high priority. And even when I did watch, it was more likely to be either Memphis Wrestling (the USWA, with Jerry “The King” Lawler and the meaningless Unified World Title) or WCW. In fact, I think the last big pay-per-view I followed was Starrcade 1993, with the big Ric Flair vs. Big Van Vader WCW title match where Flair’s career was on the line. It was great and all, but I’m pretty sure that was the show that was supposed to be Vader vs. Sid Vicious and the wrestling world was hot for it, but Sid went and done perforated Arn Anderson with a pair of scissors and got himself fired.

I also saw the 1994 Royal Rumble, but only because my sister’s boyfriend’s brother (no really) had one of those illegal black boxes and literally the only time I was ever at his house, the Rumble was on. That was the one with Bret Hart and Lex Luger co-winning, and we all know how that ended up.

So, I completely missed Jake Roberts’ comeback tour with the WWF. I knew he had come back at some point, because I knew he lost to Steve Austin at King of the Ring in ’96, but that was all I knew. In fact, I wish I had been watching Raw during this whole period, because I didn’t get to see the shift from the post-Hogan-but-still-cartoony era to the not-quite-but-almost-Attitude-era. I didn’t miss it completely. I remember some of it, so I guess I was still watching WWE Superstars or something, but a lot, especially 1994 and 1995, is stuff I have very little firsthand knowledge of (but that includes King Mabel and Undertaker vs. Undertaker, so yay me, I guess).

And I know I’m missing a lot of the experience by just reading about it, but it has been quite a ride seeing the end of one era and start of another play out, especially with the benefit of knowing how everything ended up in the long run. Especially since I’ve reached 1996 and know what was going on over on Nitro at the time. Plus, going forward I watched Raw during Nitro’s commercials, so I’m not going in blind anymore.

It’s a weird time period in the company’s history. When you’ve got the likes of The Ultimate Warrior and IRS and Doink the Clown on the same series of shows with Steve Austin and Mankind and Goldust. You also have the transition from champions like Hogan and Yokozuna to Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. Yeah, Undertaker is in there through the whole run, but I’ve gotten far enough into it that he’s getting away from being an undead urn-powered zombie and more into just a twisted badass with a dark side. If you didn’t know, just from the ratings and the commentary, you’d really be concerned for the general well-being of the WWF as a whole during this time period. Remember, we’re more than a year away from the WWF’s first ratings win over WCW after something like a year and a half of domination. But, as we all know, the competition ultimately plays a major role in changing the company’s direction, probably saving it from what might have been seen as an inevitable collapse.

On that note, competition that is, I’ve been keeping a closer eye on TNA lately, what with the sale rumors and going-out-of-business rumors. I recently sat down and got on the ol’ DVR to catch up on the past few shows, including Magnus being crowned the new TNA World Champion. He also turned heel, I think. I say “I think” because I’m not entirely sure if he was a face or a tweener or what already. Anyway, they seem to have trimmed the roster down significantly and are going forward. But there’s one thing that I think they need to recognize if they haven’t already.

They are not competition for the WWE.

And I don’t say that to disrespect their efforts. They obviously have fans. People do watch their shows, even if it’s a fraction of the WWE’s audience. They do not have to compete directly with WWE to have a successful company. What they do have to do is take advantage of the opportunity they have, that being a weekly national TV time slot on primetime basic cable. That’s all Raw was when it launched. That’s what Nitro was when it launched. Yes, they were both already well-established wrestling promotions, but the shows themselves had to find an audience.

In 1993, the WWF was at perhaps its lowest level of popularity since the pre-Hogan days. Raw was not the marquee flagship program that it would later become. Nitro’s start was a little better in execution and reception but it by no means immediately captured the world’s imagination.

Word has begun to spread that Jeff Jarrett and country music star Toby Keith are planning the launch of their own wrestling promotion. I don’t use the word “rumor” here as some have because a rumor can mean some idea that a journalist or blogger or whoever just pulled out of their ass. This seems a little too oddly specific to just be a rumor. So, let’s assume that this is a legitimate news item.

So, I said TNA is not competition for the WWE. And that’s true. There aren’t people out there going, “Man, do I want to watch WWE or TNA?” That’s not only not the case, it never will be. Even if somehow TNA suddenly quadruples it ratings for Impact, no one has to choose between Impact and any of WWE’s programming. There’s no head-to-head competition, and here in the day of the DVR, even if there was, you could just watch one later. WWE presents a very specific kind of wrestling show. The “E” indeed stands for Entertainment. There’s a theatricality and production value in WWE’s programming that is more akin to a regular scripted TV show, with a little Reality TV, soap opera and sports thrown into the mix. And people watch it for what it is. Their shows draw thousands of paying fans, their monthly pay-per-views garner hundreds of thousands of buys, and their merchandising is well into the millions of dollars.

TNA does not have that. That is not what TNA is. TNA is a wrestling program about wrestling with old-school storylines and old-school angles. There’s some remnant of the edgier “Attitude-esque” stuff that WWF and (to less success, outside of the NWO) WCW were running more than a decade ago, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Again, someone is watching. It’s wrestling. If wrestling fans want to watch wrestling, outside of what the WWE is doing, this is their best available option from the standpoint of easy access and availability.

If WWE is number one, and TNA is number two, it there room for Jarrett and Keith to launch a third promotion on a national level? I know, it’s kind of hard to call TNA a “national promotion” after their attempt at breaking out of Orlando failed, but again a primetime slot on a national cable channel is nothing to take for granted. And I don’t mean to knock Ring of Honor or any other “indy” promotion. In fact, you could call TNA an “indy fed with a nationally broadcast TV show” and not be too far off the mark. I just don’t have easy access to ROH programming and I’m at a point in my life where I can get enough wrestling content from my cable box without going out looking in the online world for it on a regular basis.

I’ve written about this before, but when I was a kid, there was a plethora of wrestling content available to me on basic cable. Between the WWF, NWA, AWA, UWF and Memphis (and others depending on the year in question), I could (and did) easily watch 10 hours of wrestling every week. And that was with three national promotions and a handful of regional promotions putting out shows. If that seems like a lot, consider that today, with Raw, Smackdown, Main Event, and Impact, that’s 8 hours of first-run wrestling, every week. With just a little effort, I can watch NXT online. If I’m still not placated, I could tune in for Total Divas or find some wrestling online. At the height of the late 90s wrestling renaissance, I got two hours of Raw, two hours of Smackdown, three hours of Nitro, two hours of Thunder, and (when it was on) ECW on TNN. WCW Saturday Night and WWF Sunday Night Heat were also available should I be so inclined. That’s more than 12 hours of weekly original programming.

So, do Jarrett and Keith have a chance at succeeding? That will depend on their definition of success. I feel like they won’t have too much trouble getting a timeslot. I just wonder how high they’re going to aim. FOX Sports seems like about the best bet as long as they don’t mind getting bumped for big sporting events (much like the Atlanta Braves used to preempt World Championship Wrestling on WTBS all the time). Fox Sports has shown all kinds of wacky sports content in an effort to fill up hours of programming, so this doesn’t seem like too bad of a proposition. They could aim lower, for something like CMT. Toby Keith has enough appeal with the ‘Murica audience that it seems like it would be very easy to find a home on the country music station. They, like MTV and VH1 before them, have veered away from just focusing on music-related programming, so this seems quite doable. Or maybe they want to take it in a different direction, say straight-to-Hulu or something.

But do fans want more wrestling than they are getting now? And if so, what are they looking for? I won’t speculate (yet) on what kind of wrestling show Jarrett and Keith might be looking at putting together or who else might be involved, but whatever they come up with it needs to be something that, again, isn’t trying to be direct competition with the WWE. The only real “competition” for the WWE right now is UFC, in terms of a somewhat similar fanbase, brand recognition, and star power. In fact, I’m actually kind of surprised that Vince McMahon hasn’t tried to start his own MMA circuit (yet).
What Vince and company have done, however, is finally pull the trigger on the WWE Network. There’s far better coverage of the big press conference elsewhere on this site, and chances are that if you’re interested in the network at all, you’ve already read up on it, but since I actually watched the big press conference I will weigh in with some thoughts (not random thoughts, though…I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes).

I think this is a great deal for real wrestling fans. Assuming you already have the means for viewing streaming content, you can get a year’s worth of WWE Network for about the cost of two pay-per-views. My only complaint is that it launches in late February, and there’s no way I’m not ordering the Royal Rumble, so it would have been nice if they could have launched at the first of the year. Still, I’ll basically pay $90 for Wrestlemania 30 and every pay-per-view for the rest of 2014.

Plus all the other content! I can not stress how many hours of my life I will devote to watching old pay-per-views and other shows. I can’t wait to watch old episodes of Nitro with my son (who only vaguely remembers WCW…he’s 15) and providing “commentary” on the shows. Sadly, I’ll also be able to go through and point out all of the dead people, so that’s kind of sad. We also get ECW, so that’s cool. I’m hoping we eventually get World Class, the AWA, and whatever other promotions’ libraries Vince has acquired (please tell me he finally got Mid-South/UWF).

Seriously though, $9.99 per month? That’s $119.88 a year for all 12 pay-per-views, 24/7 streaming programming, and the On-Demand archives. That honestly is a wrestling fan’s wet dream. Now granted, I’d expect the daily 24-hours to be broken down into three 8-hour programming blocks or something, but still, I can’t really think of a downside. Again, this would be appealing to people who really, really like to watch wrestling, otherwise it wouldn’t necessarily be worth it. I mean it’s a little more expensive than Netflix and it’s admittedly niche programming. But when you think about how much NFL Sunday Ticket, NBA League Pass, NHL Center Ice or MLB Extra Innings cost, it’s pretty comparable. Also, in case you didn’t see the press conference, the network is being run, from a technical standpoint, by the MLBTV people, so they have a pretty good idea of what they are doing.

So, what’s the common denominator here? Things are about to change forever, and not in a TNA “things are about to change forever” kind of way that they seemed to announce every few months a while back. This really is a game changer. The landscape of the industry truly is about to undergo the biggest transformation since the collapse of ECW and WCW more than a decade ago. Especially if TNA manages to survive and Jarrett and Keith get their new promotion off the ground and make a serious showing on the national scene. Couple that with the WWE Network launch, and it’s like another Wrestling Boom all over again. Think Hulkamania and Rock & Wrestling, think Monday Night Wars with Austin and DX and Goldberg and the NWO. By the end of 2014, it’s entirely possible the world of pro wrestling will be almost unrecognizable. I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here either. This really could (or at least might) be putting the industry into a completely new direction.

Of course, they probably still won’t put the WWE title on Daniel Bryan. Anyway, thanks for reading.

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