Don’t Blame The Fans; WWE Is To Blame for Fan Backlash By Dan Murphy
The 2015 Royal Rumble didn’t go quite as planned by the suits in Stamford.
Roman Reigns, the winner and the heir apparent to the WWE Championship, got booed out of the building. Even The Rock couldn’t get Reigns over with the Philly fans.
So WWE called and audible and found a way to insert Daniel Bryan into the title picture, leaving themselves plenty of wiggle room for WrestleMania.
In recent years, it has been fashionable to criticize the so-called “Internet Wrestling Community” for rejecting storylines. WWE likes to believe that the Philadelphia fans are not an accurate representation of WWE’s true fan base. When things don’t work out as WWE Creative intended (such as Batista’a babyface run last year or the cult following of Dolph Ziggler despite all manners of burial), WWE seems to blame its fans.
It’s ridiculous. It’s like a rock band putting out a jazz album and then getting miffed that their fans don’t care for it.
WWE’s most ardent fans are rejecting the product the company is producing. The fact of the matter is that WWE only has itself to blame for this predicament. Here are a few reasons why:
Bryan has unfinished business. Bryan was a Cinderella story last year, and for good reason. He was robbed of the WWE title at SummerSlam 2013, starting a feud between Bryan and The Authority. The Authority called Bryan a B-plus player and stacked the deck against him, making Bryan an underdog that the whole fan base could rally around. The they simply tried to change horses mid-race. Batista won the Royal Rumble and was fast-tracked to ‘Mania, while Bryan was inserted into a feud with the Wyatt Family.
Imagine Luke Skywalker giving up on Darth Vader in the final reel of “Return of the Jedi” and contenting himself with fighting rogue wookies. It makes no sense. There was a clear story arc in place and WWE Creative left it unfinished. Of course the fans are going to want to see it through to its completion. Why invest in a story – especially a story with a $9.99 price tag, or up to $59.99 for standalone PPVs – if the storylines aren’t going to be tied up in the end.
If the protagonist never gets the chance to defeat the antagonist, then what’s the point?
Bryan’s title reign was cut short due to injury. While he was out, The Authority continued the storyline as Brie Bella feuded with Stephanie McMahon. When Bryan returned from injury, it’s only logical that the fans wanted to see his storyline play out to its culmination. WWE’s failure to understand that displays a grossly oblivious grasp of basic storytelling.
Over-emphasis of the importance of social media. For the past few years, Michael Cole has encouraged fans to Tweet about matches using specific hash tags. Whenever something WWE related trends on Twitter, WWE makes a point to spotlight it as a major accomplishment. WWE has conditioned its fans to believe that when something is trending, the whole world must be talking about it.
Then, after the Royal Rumble, #CancelWWENetwork trends.
WWE downplayed it and quickly announced that the WWE Network had finally reached the one million subscriber milestone. Of course, the original goal was for one million domestic subscribers (which WWE has yet to achieve), but through a misleading news release and the power of omission, they managed to score a PR coup.
The lesson to be learned is that it only takes a relatively small amount of people Tweeting and Re-Tweeting a topic to cause it to trend. So, after all those times WWE presented trending topics as being the “Voice of the WWE Universe,” they sweep #CancelWWENetwork as being insignificant. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. WWE over-emphasized the importance of social media; now, when something fans criticize the product on social media, the fans are conditioned to believe that it’s a true mass movement, and now just a few hundred fans Tweeting at the same time.
Fans are trained to hate management. The Steve Austin/Vince McMahon rivalry was terrific in placing the common man against the megalomaniacal millionaire boss … but that was 16 years ago. Yet it’s still the default formula for WWE programming today – popular babyface has to jump through hoops at the behest of an evil authority figure.
Today, the authority is Triple-H and Stephanie McMahon, who are also two of the main public faces of the company. Every week, HHH and Stephanie give the fans a new reason to boo them. Then they suddenly become respectable businesspeople and act as ambassadors for the company, shaking hands, wheeling and dealing with investors, working with developmental talent.
Most WWE fans over the age of 10 are able to distinguish storyline from reality (though WWE does have a large percentage of fans younger than 10 who cannot), but it still creates a conflict, because WWE has made The Authority its top heel act. The fans don’t trust The Authority. They don’t like The Authority. They’re going to oppose anyone they see The Authority supporting.
Daniel Bryan and CM Punk talked about “glass ceilings” and “brass rings” for the past few years, and won over the fans because they succeeded even when “management” didn’t think they could, blurring the lines between reality and storyline. Then, a big muscleman with an impeccable pedigree waltzes into the main event of WrestleMania, and WWE Creative somehow doesn’t expect a backlash?
Reigns fits the mold of WWE’s ideal “superstar,” the same “A-plus” player HHH and Stephanie have been talking about for the past two years. He was exactly the sort of wrestler the fans had been conditioned to reject.
In other words, it’s not the fans’ fault. The fault lies with WWE for failing to understand logical story development, failing to give the fans what they want, using social media to misdirect instead of engage, and relying on stale “evil owner” tropes instead of giving its stars a chance to establish themselves on their own.
Without the competition of another national wrestling entity like WCW, maybe WWE’s next biggest “competitor” will be their own fans, who are increasingly able to voice their dissatisfaction and enable changes, just as the quarterly Monday night ratings did years ago.