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What does Raw 25 Say About WWE?



According to The Wrestling Observer, the 25th anniversary of Monday Night Raw did major numbers in the ratings with an average of 4.5 million viewers, making it the most watched cable show of the night. The Observer’s Dave Meltzer also speculated that the silver anniversary of the WWE flag-ship show will be the highest number that the company draws this year, which is very possible.

It’s somewhat ironic that professional wrestling as the highest rated cable show on a Monday night makes such a noteworthy headline in 2018, but was a weekly occurrence when the program was at a peak two decades ago. Does that say the WWE product was better at that time than it is now? No, not necessarily, but it makes a rather bold statement about the status of the industry as a whole. Granted, the show was promoted with some of the biggest names in the history of the sport, including Stone Cold, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, and others all advertised for weeks prior to the broadcast. Obviously, the nostalgia factor was the draw and that was the reason behind the major boost. The throwback aspect created the “special event” atmosphere for the show, but such a contrast within the numbers makes a statement beyond just a “blast from the past” scenario.

While the numbers can vary depending on the football season, Raw usually averages around three million viewers a week, a great number for a television show, especially for a program that runs weekly throughout the calendar year. From a sports entertainment prospective, the genre was capable of much bigger numbers during its previous era. The three million viewers a week is a steady, but stagnant number that sports entertainment is expected to draw within the modern television business. That’s nothing for WWE brass to scuff at either, as the TV rights fees the company was paid totaled nearly $180 million last year.

Still, the contrast of essentially a 30% increase in viewership for an old school show suggest a harsh reality in 2018, there are people who would watch wrestling, just not current wrestling. Where are those 1.5 million viewers the rest of the year? Why can’t the current product draw them or retain their viewership?

It’s unfair to compare any era to the boom period of the 90s, simply because that peak was a matter of timing and the puzzle pieces organically fitting into the right place. You can’t book Steve Austin, The Rock, and Mick Foley to pursue and find success in sports entertainment in the same place at the same time. You can’t book Scott Hall and Kevin Nash with WWF contracts that expired within days, and then Eric Bischoff with the concept of the NWO just a few months later. But, why have ratings been stagnant for a decade?

Entire books were written on the series of events that altered the course of sports entertainment, but instead of the complex contracts and politics that made WCW implode, there are fundamental aspects of the industry that define the current climate. The bottom line is, much of the WWE structure has become complacent and that has led to a lack of legitimate, money-drawing stars. It can’t be said enough that the shut down of WCW, a form of true competition, caused a seismic shift within the industry.

Without Ted Turner or Eric Bischoff next to Vince McMahon in a marathon for ratings, revenue and sports entertainment glory, the McMahon empire grew, buying the video libraries and trademarks for nearly every major wrestling promotion that existed in the United States. In many ways, McMahon owns the history of the sport in America, and it was a tremendous business move, as it was the foundation for the WWE Network that distributes pay-per-view events today. Perhaps it was just a natural effect of the security that the undisputed top spot of the business provides, but the WWE in terms of star power has plateaued.

The reasons for this are a matter of opinion, but when figures from the past can increase an audience by 30%, the message appears to be that those extra 1.5 million viewers that tuned Monday night don’t view the current generation as legitimate stars. The most disappointing aspect of this whole situation is the current roster absolutely has the talent to draw bigger numbers in the ratings and be perceived as major stars by the general public. In fact, the argument can be made that today’s performers are generally better athletes than those that wrestled during the Attitude era. Further more, it could also be argued that there are consistently better matches now than in years past. All due respect to Kurrgan and Tom Brandi, but they weren’t exactly delivering epic matches on Raw in 1998. Does the combination of Chainz and Skull compare to the Cesaro and Sheamus tag team?

So, what is the problem with the structure of modern WWE?

Some will say nothing, and they could be right. World Wrestling Entertainment is a publicly traded company and touted record-setting profits at their most recent conference call so from purely a business prospective, the organization is on the right path. The flip side of that is the record profits were after a series of cost-cutting measures, including the elimination of pyro at events. Along with that, there was a recent increase in some merchandise prices, as some new t-shirts are now listed at $27.99 so in many ways, instead of increasing its core audience, management attempts to generate more revenue for its existing fan base. Making money is certainly an indication of success so that works for now, but what about five years from now?

I’ve written it for years, but WWE’s tendency to rely on part-timers or nostalgia acts to boost numbers for key events does nothing to create money-drawing stars to main event shows when those aging performers decide to completely retire. For example, the past several years of WrestleMania were built around part-timers or stars that returned for a short run. When The Rock worked the main event of WM two consecutive years against John Cena, it did great numbers for the short-term, but the opportunity cost was that platform wasn’t used to elevate a performer that will be on the roster to main event future WM shows.

Essentially, what current WWE star could main event WrestleMania as the featured draw?

The total of WWE’s complacency is that their agenda, not the fans dictate the direction of the product, and they can still run a profitable business with that agenda because of the previously mentioned lack of competition. If Nitro was still on the air, could management shoehorn Roman Reigns into the main event of WM? If WCW was still in business, CM Punk could’ve walked onto Nitro for an industry-shifting debut instead of an underwhelming UFC debut. Sure, they are independent promotions, but to the general public, WWE is pro wrestling in America, and Monday’s ratings suggest the possibility of more viewers is there, but nothing to draw them to the product, except the occasional old school event.

Roman Reigns will continue to be the most pushed athlete on the roster, despite how lame or generic his TV persona continues to be on a weekly basis. That’s not his fault either, he’s doing the best he can with what he’s given. The fans appear to demand a Reigns heel turn so the narrative of the show will fit the boos he receives, but the corporate agenda says otherwise. If management had to truly maintain its ratings against another sports entertainment product, business would dictate the direction of the product. However, if the general public wants to watch pro wrestling in the United States, they will watch WWE, and Vince says they will watch “The Big Dawg.” Make no mistake about it, the monster push Lesnar received as champion for a year will be used to push Roman when he beats him for the title at WrestleMania 34.

The major problem with the anointment of Roman Reigns as the top guy because management wants him to be the one to attend the sponsorship conferences is that it creates a glass ceiling for everyone else on the roster and thus limits the star power they can achieve. For example, no matter how over Finn Balor gets on Raw or if there’s an opportunity for him to reach the next level, he won’t get the chance because management has reserved that spot for Reigns. As a result, you will have a select few part-timers that can draw money, and the rest of the roster that will always be at least one rank underneath Roman as far as WWE’s priorities.

Does this mean that the current field of WWE stars will become as big as Stone Cold, The Rock, or Mick Foley? No, but the Raw 25 ratings prove more people would be willing to watch sports entertainment if there was a compelling product, and the current roster definitely has the talent to deliver better numbers. More than anything, there’s a sense that today’s roster is being underutilized and it often creates an underwhelming atmosphere. Why hasn’t Samoa Joe been used for more than an opponent for Brock Lesnar, who will ultimately be used to push Roman Reigns? Why was Nakamura booked as just another wrestler upon his arrival on the main roster? These questions can be asked about many stars.

Again, Raw 25 proved there’s more of an audience there, but the dip of the ratings for next week’s show, even after the Royal Rumble, will prove that the current product can’t retain those viewers. Considering the cash WWE is making now, and the reality that there won’t be any major competition anytime soon, there’s no reason for them to change their path. But, with ratings that have stayed the same for a decade, and Reigns as the only new star seen as a priority, will there be a point when the usual three million viewers declines? Touting record profits is excellent for PR, but when stars that retired draw a 30% increase in the ratings, it doesn’t make an enthusiastic statement about the perception of the current roster.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta

image credit – WWE

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