We are on the cusp of the biggest return to wrestling in some time. I’m of course talking about live audiences. Wrestling is at its absolute best with a hot, filled crowd and the atmosphere they provide. It’s no secret that wrestlers and fans alike have been eagerly anticipating this moment and as Wrestlemania and AEW has already shown, the returning crowds really do elevate the overall product’s presentation. The big question however, is why are there people out there expecting WWE programming to majorly improve from a crowd return? What about a live audience do you believe will improve the day to day writing of the product?
Monday Night Raw has been a show on decline for the better part of a decade. I’m talking about a declining viewership of 300,000 – 400,000 viewers by June each year. This is an undeniable fact. Is it because the Raw roster is past it? Far from it. Wrestling audiences grow when the storytelling is dynamic, when the characters are people you invest in and the conclusion of feuds/storylines are satisfying. With that being said, what in the last 12 months gives you faith in WWE having consistent and high quality storylines moving into the next year? With the exception of what is being done with Roman Reigns on Smackdown, nothing is at a high level consistently for a program of this level. If that sounds brutally harsh, let’s have a look back on the past 12 months.
Let’s start near the beginning of the Thunderdome era of WWE. In an effort to keep Raw “must-see”, Raw was invaded by a masked force not unlike ANTIFA of all things. These mysterious figures laid waste to the Raw set, caused chaos on Smackdown and threatened the very stability of the show in ways not seen since the debut of Nexus. That first week, they had something. Like all things WWE runs at the moment though, this was quickly run into the ground. For a few weeks they laid waste to the set with chainsaws, assaulted wrestlers backstage and brought the company to its knees. Their reasoning? These NXT stars felt betrayed by WWE, the system and everyone involved. They were WWE’s Retribution for wasting their talent and other injustices. After a few weeks of this, we were treated to learning their names including such gems as “Slapjack” and “T-Bar”. In their debut match, they lost. Mustafa Ali was soon revealed to be their leader leading to the start of a feud with The Hurt Business. As a reward for causing mayhem and grinding Raw to a halt, WWE drafted the faction to Raw in October, less than 3 months after their debut. This pretty much should have stopped the storyline there and then right? Unhappy wrestlers who feel cheated by the system rebel and get everything they wanted? No of course not, too easy. They all got laid out the following week by The Fiend and floated around the mid card until they disbanded on a pre-show 5 months later. Crowds being back will help things like this I’m sure.
You might think that’s an unfair storyline to pluck at random but you can select almost anything from the last 12 months as a prime example of WWE not knowing where they’re going with their own plans. Let’s look at Heavy Machinery and the rapid decline they had. Here we have a tag team where one half got more over than the act ever could. Otis clearly overshadowed Tucker and to be fair, this was nobody’s fault. This might be down to his pure comedic timing, or, the fantastic work of a writer for coming up with the pairing of Otis and Mandy (only to be fired a few weeks after its conclusion) but either way, Otis really came across as the star of this group. Credit where it’s due, before crowds left, the obstacles between Otis and Mandy made for solid tv. It was in no way an “A” plot but it was perfect midcard material, especially for Wrestlemania season when you needed a “moment” to pay off. Otis defeated former 2 time World Champion Dolph Ziggler at Wrestlemania, overcame the obstacles and shared a moment with Mandy Rose all in one night. This was payoff but because WWE thought they knew best, this needed to continue and they needed to push things hard until it broke. The first mistake they made was deciding to sideline Tucker, half of the tag team that got Otis over in the first place, and strap Money in the Bank to Otis. Let’s be real, nobody was ever going to buy Otis as a champion, especially with the talent we have in WWE today. The delusion of what was going to happen with this spiralled to the point where we had dirtsheets claiming this was going to be cashed in for a tag title match or something to that effect. If you’re the type who thinks “Of course Otis wasn’t going to win the belt, he never was going to be successful” then why sideline Money in the Bank like this? Instead of doing literally anything, Otis held the briefcase from May until October and did absolutely nothing with it. One of the most exciting gimmicks WWE has was just a prop for a surreal feud with the Miz which killed any and all hype around Otis. Mandy and Tucker got booted to a different brand, Otis was stripped of the partners that made him special and he was left floundering until he dropped the briefcase to The Miz after Tucker betrayed him. To make this even sadder, Tucker and Otis never had a feud from this tag team split/potential world championship win and instead Tucker was taken off TV mostly until his release. Otis is now failing as a heel, directionless and heatless, significantly worse off than he was 12 months prior. Storytelling at its absolute finest but again, I’m sure the return of crowds to arenas will make all of these directionless long term angles pay off much better.
I could spend hundreds of words continuing about a lot of this but what’s the point? If you get it by now you get it. No tracking back over Rollins/Mysterios’ feud over or family betrayal and blood feuds that are casually dropped out of nowhere will make any difference at this point. I could go for the absolute obvious and just recap almost anything to do with The Fiend, dolls or dreaded GOO but I wouldn’t want to put you through reliving all of it again. I’m not here to just shoot fish in a barrel, I’m here to try and make the case that just because fans are coming home, quality storytelling isn’t. Certainly not with WWE programming. Nobody has been perfect this past year but a lot of other companies have been significantly better. AEW has told some great long term stories with MJF/The Inner Circle, Britt Baker’s rise to dominance, the continued slow build of Hangman Adam Page or Jon Moxley/Eddie Kingston. Impact has had some real hits with Moose, Deonna Purrazzo and the surprising success of Eric Young. These companies have had their faults too with storylines and other major companies like NJPW have struggled these past 12 months but expecting fans in attendance to remove these problems is beyond naive. This problem likely persist until WWE is under new management and if you want proof, let’s take a look at one more case here and turn the clocks back to when fans were still in arenas.
Through the tailend of 2019 and the start of 2020, WWE infamously ran a storyline with (deep breath) Lashley, Lana and Rusev. They took two popular and dominant stars, a prominent women’s wrestler and played out a cuckold storyline over a few months. Lashley looked uncomfortable, awkwardly pretending to have an affair with Lana, Rusev went from being white hot with fans for years to being embarrassed on TV weekly and Lana looked to be the only person enjoying herself. (To her credit, she might actually be a better actor than half the talent on the roster today.) This resulted in a “divorce” between Lana and Rusev and possibly the most surreal segment on the final Raw of 2019. As Lana and Lashley were about to be married, Liv Morgan showed up to profess her love to Lana.This was followed up by a mixed tag match between both “couples” and was promptly dropped. Liv and Lana did nothing, Rusev quietly left from his contract without having a real barn burner with Lashley and the newlyweds sort of awkwardly continued together for a few months until The Hurt Business could fully be formed. An angle that succeeded in nothing but ensuring Rusev looked like a loser before his release, this was a prime example of awful television. WWE believe that them doing 3 times their viewership on Youtube is a way of showing how much of a hit this storyline was but by that logic, Khali should be brought back due to his Youtube drawing numbers. The reality is they mistook clickbaity Youtube videos as an indicator of them being onto something. What really happened is fans had to endure agonizingly embarrassing and awkward segments that cooled two monsters to such a degree, it took 2 years for both of them to be back in a credible position. Both men are significantly better off now but it took significant rebuilding on both accounts. What makes this all worse is this is what WWE ran in the final few months before crowds were unable to make it to TV.
There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic for the future. If you don’t try and enjoy the show, you’ll become just another one of the hundreds of thousands that stop tuning in each year. You can’t however, expect a systemic failure in storytelling and long term planning to turn around overnight. I’m sure that we’re about to enter a period where we have about 8 good weeks of television with fans returning to arenas and the build to Summerslam but please, for your own sake, lower your expectations. We’re going to get an awful lot very quickly followed by panic and burnout from a writing team and last minute script changes. Cherish the small moments when we have them and just hope that those fans will not only show support for the good on the shows, but make the company know when they’re going the wrong way again. Whether they do or don’t, for your own sake, don’t expect everything to be fixed because there’s somebody sitting in the seat. The sad reality is that the only audience that matters is the WWE’s audience of one.
Thank for reading and if you want to share your thoughts or hear about future content from me first, follow me on twitter @IEZephyr.