A few days ago, WWE released their fourth quarter earnings report -- and it was a doozy. Despite a worsening pandemic and hundreds of staffing cuts, WWE still brought in a $238.2 Million profit. Yet, according to recent reports, not everyone in the Titan Towers are secure in their job status. With the releases of Lars Sullivan and Steve Cutler, there is worry that more cuts are on the way.
On most measurable metrics, Vince's Empire should be flailing. Ratings have continued to decline, the WWE Network is more or less dead and soon to be exclusive to the Peacock Network (sans U.K. subscribers), and the all-important 18-49 demographic gap continues to close between AEW and RAW.
But that’s business, am I right? We have seen Billionaires from Jeff Bezos (Amazon) to Elon Musk (Tesla) increase their wealth exponentially, while millions upon millions have lost their jobs and homes due to the ongoing pandemic. Vince is no different, as he has no doubt protected his assets, even at the cost of his own employees.
Measuring the quality of the Stamford’s output has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of profit it makes. However, many WWE fans still defend it to death, and point to online bias as a culprit. Now before I get into the meat of this article, I want to emphasize one major component of this piece that I do not want to have lost:
If you genuinely like the WWE product; great! I never want to tell anyone what they should and shouldn’t watch. However, as someone with a background in communications and psychology, I can hopefully explain some of what is going on here – and why there seems to be a disconnect between what is generally considered to be “good wrestling” by critics and fans, and what WWE is putting out.
To paraphrase what WhatCulture’s Adam Cleary said in his most recent video online, WWE is full of main event talent stuck in the mid-card. These are athletes ready for a major title run, but when you have literally dozens on your roster that could fall into that category, they all just sort of blend in together, making it so that nobody truly stands out.
Exception exist, such as Drew McIntyre and Roman Reigns, but you can’t give everyone a championship. So, they just become lost in the endless shuffle with the risk of never reaching their peak potential.
This is part of the reason why we see such little planning for the future, continual start-stop pushes, and a product where everything just feels the same week to week (remember this last statement).
There is a dichotomy between rosters in other promotions – be it AEW, New Japan, Ring of Honor or Stardom. There is a clear hierarchy based on age, experience, and talent. This not only sets a great baseline for interesting stories, but it allows the viewer to follow the natural careers of these superstars as they make their way to the top of their craft, and root for true underdogs.
WWE really doesn’t have this at all…
So even with a roster of main event players, as mentioned, WWE is losing out in most metrics, including wrestling critics like myself who are no longer entertained by the inefficiency of storytelling and lack of direction with the product. But there are still many fans who point to constant praise of AEW and critique of WWE as a sort of fundamental bias that exists with the internet wrestling community.
Enter the Mere-Exposure Effect
The Mere-Exposure Effect is a psychological concept where people develop a preference for something based on familiarity and repetition. This is also referred to as the Familiarity Principle.
While the news of AEW joining forces with New Japan, Tokyo Joshi Pro, Gatoh Move, NWA and Impact Wrestling is a major deal to someone like myself – others viewed it as sort of “meh”. “Why should I care about these other promotions?” is the common thread I hear in complaints against this. The Mere-Exposure Effect explains this in such a way that WWE fans are so familiar with their own product, they will continue to like it no matter what – as well as reject anything else that seeks to compete with their time.
Familiarity is comfortable, and easy to settle into. As an avid fan of death metal and hardcore, Amazon Music kept on feeding me bits of Spiritbox (not really either) in generated playlists. It sounded “meh” to me at first, until I was exposed to it so much that the band grew on me. Then I realized that the lead singer, Courtney LaPlante, was in an older band I liked prior, and suddenly, I gave them many listens – and I am now a big Spiritbox fan.
A similar principle applies here. Think of how John Cena has gone from being booed out of most arenas to now being loved by those same fans. Cena grew on us. He became “cool”.
Now I was lucky to have been exposed to All Japan, New Japan, and ECW at a younger age, so I knew more was out there beyond WCW and WWF. I was an early advocate of TNA and Ring of Honor in the early 2000s, and waited far too long for the women’s revolution, because I was already watching and enjoying Shimmer.
Point is that if a hardcore WWE fan doesn’t really know anything other than WWE, or past mainstream WCW, there’s a slim chance they will ever open up to a product like AEW or New Japan – because they simply aren’t familiar with it – and there are psychological studies to hammer this point.
I have long grown tired of the traditional WWE formula we see every week, but to a fan who is overly and comfortably familiar with it, it may be miles and miles better than any other company. They won’t care about the poor storyline continuities, character progressions, quality of matches, or who is winning what demographic. They just want to enjoy some damn wrestling the way they’ve always known how.
And there’s a beauty to that, really. As an X-Phile, you don’t have to convince me that seasons 10 and 11 of the X-Files were mostly a miss – but I’ll be damned if I didn’t watch and enjoy every minute of it.
WrestleMania will no doubt be loaded with main event stars stuck in the mid-card with little direction. Stories will mostly be rushed with little build, and a lot of stars on the card will likely deserve better than what spot they have. However, it is WrestleMania, though – and there comes a certain inherent familiar magic with it that it simply doesn’t matter who is doing what on the show.
So, does it really matter if critics like me shit all over WWE, both in corporate policies and creative direction? Does it matter if AEW is getting all of the praise right now from most within the IWC?
Not at all.
I write this to point out that familiarity bias exists in all forms of media and life, and that it becomes important to separate what is personal and what is critical. If you truly do not care about a critique of a show, then there’s no reason to show up to the comments section of social media to defend it. You simply like what you like, and there’s a psychological reason for it. That isn’t to say that a longtime WWE fan couldn’t get into and enjoy AEW, but it might be just a little bit harder for that fan to accomplish as such.
To conclude, this isn't meant to put all wrestling fans into a specific box. There are plenty of fans who enjoy both WWE and AEW, and a plethora of others. This only possibly explains the most vocal portion of the fanbase that slams wrestling critics and AEW any chance they get.
So with that, enjoy what you enjoy, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise -- mere-exposure effect or not. But perhaps lay off the critics, eh? They're only doing their job to measure these products in metrics that you likely don't care about.