That headline alone is going to make some folks roll their eyes, but this isn’t what you may think it is. I am going to make two things clear right away:
- I have nothing against “casual fans”
- This is not a disguised attempt to bash WWE.
However, a point was made from another article on another website regarding casual fans that I will paraphrase:
“Criticizing a promotion for not appealing to casual fans is a risk-free way to demonize their creative.”
And that got me thinking; is the casual fan serving the current industry? What even is a casual fan, and why should anyone care?
So I tried to answer three questions in the exploration process:
1. Are casual fans growing the wrestling industry?
2. Are they in as great of numbers as they were during the 80s and 90s booms?
3. Are they in the best interest of the professional wrestling craft?
C.M. Punk was wrong when he said that no casual fans exist. They certainly do, but to what extent is another question entirely. But first, we must define what a casual wrestling fan is:
What is a “Casual” Wrestling Fan?
In short, the fan that simply won’t invest a lot of time into this craft.
That by no means is a bad thing. We all have lives, and many would rather spend it not glued to their television for 10+ hours a week to catch every bit of pro wrestling they can. They may miss a few weeks of Raw or Smackdown (or even Dynamite), and they can jump back in whenever they have time. These fans likely don’t care about work rate, psychology, history, or background. They just want to be entertained.
It’s similar to a sport you may appreciate, but won’t dedicate X hours per week to. I like to watch basketball, and I’ll generally follow the NBA standings — but I rarely tune into games unless it’s playoff time, and even then…
This is a father watching WWE with their young child to bond. It’s a bored viewer on a random Monday, Wednesday or Friday night when there isn’t any other major events or sports on in that time. It might even be a jaded, or lapsed fan that used to love it, but just doesn’t care as much about it anymore.
Any and all fit the description of a casual viewer. So with this established, this begs the first question: Do they help the industry grow? You would think so since “booking for the casuals” is so fiercely defended, even by wrestling legends like Eric Bischoff and Booker T. These casual fans are the bread and butter, right?
Casual Fans Aren’t Growing the Wrestling Business
Casual fans aren’t really growing the wrestling industry.
WWE books to casual fans. This has been well known. So where has this gotten them in the past two decades?
Credit Chris Harrington for putting all of this info down, but the infographic tells it all (and there’s more to come). We see the expected boom of average attendance during the Attitude Era, but after WCW was bought out; and after a terrible Invasion angle, numbers plummeted by 2003.
Numbers rose a little since 2003’s low point, but when it comes to attendance, by 2012, WWE had lost half of their audience in a 10-year span. In 2022, attendance figures have mostly leveled out at an average 5-6,000 per Raw/Smackdown. You’ll get your larger figures from larger markets like New York and Los Angeles, but the bottom line is that numbers haven’t risen much in 18 years. Numbers have gone from a steep decline to a slow descent.
Ratings tell an even bleaker story.
That is a complete ratings history of WWE Raw from 1995-2015, courtesy of Brandon Thurston at Wrestlnomics. As you can see, it’s a complete slope downward post-AE.
You want 2016-2021? You’ve got it. It’s the same downward trend.
Now luckily, attendance figures for Premium Live Events have held fairly steady for your “Big 4”, and even Royal Rumbles 2020 and 2022 brought in over 40k in large markets.
You know, casual fans.
But as Scott Steiner put it: The numbers don’t lie. World Wrestling Entertainment has been on a downward slope in regard to attendance, TV ratings, and for the most part, PLE attendance (sans larger events/markets) for nearly two decades now.
If booking for casual fans is “necessary”, then why haven’t WWE grown their audience in over two decades?
How much of the Fan Base are ‘Casuals’?
Glenn ‘Disco Inferno” Gilbertti once called AEW fans ‘super, uber, ultra marks’. As if he wasn’t a super-uber-ultra mark for himself at a time where most fans were just laughing at him when he was wrestling professionally.
That aside, let’s ask another question:
Ratings are down. Attendance has been declining (even slowly). Any profits on WWE’s end have come from a lucrative Saudi Arabia deal and a notable increase in ticket prices (this means higher gates).
How many casual fans even make up the fan base anymore when the industry has been in a decline for some time?
This is hard to answer without empirical data, but Punk may have been half right about this. If booking to casuals works, then clearly we should see similar numbers to the 80s Hogan era and 90s Attitude Era, right?
Yet the numbers don’t reflect that. So where did they go after WCW closed shop and the Ruthless Aggression era fizzled out?
Could it be that an entire generation just Gen Z fans just outgrew the product in the 2000s and are now watching MMA?
This is exactly what I’m saying.
This graph only goes to 2015, but it’s not hard to see the clear rise in MMA’s popularity. Even UFC 264 in 2021 drew an incredible 1,504,737 buys.
Fans that long left WWE during the 2000s are not only watching MMA, but they’ve grown up. They have families and careers. But with so much out there to do, and so much streaming content, unless they were hardcore fans, they’re likely not watching much anymore. Even Logan Paul and Ronda Rousey aren’t giving a giant boost for ‘casual’ fans to tune in.
With the rise of tribalism, and a very steady number for both WWE and AEW ratings, I think it’s fair to assume that at this point, casual fans make up the minority of the overall wrestling fan base. Possibly even a very small minority.
So why are we supposed to book to casual fans?
Are Casual Fans Best For Pro Wrestling?
Joey Janela was quoted in July of this year in regard to the beef between Jim Cornette and Kenny Omega. This revolved around an idea that Omega was “ruining” wrestling in a Cornette-led pro ‘casual fan booking’ argument:
“People don’t watch it anymore because they know what the deal is and MMA exists, the guys on the top now shouldn’t take any blame. Blame the cartoonish 90s & early 2000s – if anything guys like Kenny have made strikes & moves look more dangerous & more real than ever before.”
“Wrestling has always been aimed at children, a casual fan in 2022 is a father who watches wrestling because their child likes it & eventually 75% of those children will grow up to be teens and stop watching it because its weird and they want to have an actual social life..,Then there’s us morons who like it so much, we decide to get in the business inducing brain damage on ourselves so weird old men can go on Twitter and talk shit about us because they wanna reminiscence their youth because they are old and miserable as fuck and near almost dead..” – Joey Janela
Look, the casual fan will always exist in professional wrestling. The casual fan exists in any fandom, be it entertainment, sports, or even general hobbies. However, based on evidence of decline, it doesn’t seem like adhering to the perceived interests of casual fans is the right move.
It’s great that a casual fan can sit down and enjoy an episode of Smackdown or Dynamite — but we really want the hardcore fan base, right? The ones who will be loyal to the product. The fans who understand the nature of the business in and out and who will invest their time and energy into it. The ones who will convince their friends and families to watch and help get them to invest as well.
These are the fans we should be booking to, is it not? What does history say about it?
Wrestling “Booms” Come From Niche Influences – Not Casual
If we take a look at the catalysts for growth in professional wrestling, they all come from very non-casual sources.
The territory days’ of professional wrestling were largely influential to the mainstream 1980s WWF product. Not only did McMahon either buy out or raid nearly all territories and talent, but even took their creative ideas with it.
Hulk Hogan? You can thank the CWF and AWA for that one. When you look at realistic and heartfelt feuds booked over weeks and months time, you can thank Jerry Jarrett, Jerry Lawler, and the Memphis wrestling scene. You want highly produced and overdone vignettes? Look no further than WCCW out of Texas. Celebrity involvement? You can thank Andy Kaufman to a large extent.
The list goes on of territory promotions that directly influenced what the WWF would become during the 80s. No, the smaller territories (what are essentially Indies feds) did not book to the casual fan base. They existed in their specific region and aired in local TV markets. They booked for their fans.
This also goes for ECW, who were niche, primarily booked for their hardcore Philly base, with a small local TV slot. Yet without ECW, you simply don’t have the Attitude Era. When the UWFi invaded New Japan, that sparked the idea for the nWo for Eric Bischoff (who frequently visited Japan) and ran with it.
Are you seeing a pattern, here?
And now with AEW coming into existence in 2019, they have delivered (for better or worse) consistent in-ring wrestling, long-term storytelling, and creative freedom.
Now that Paul Levesque has taken over WWE creative, we are now slowly shifting to longer matches, long-term storytelling, and seemingly more creative freedom. Hell, Ricochet and Santos Escobar were given over 20 minutes on Smackdown.
A million plus hardcore fan base was recognized in AEW, and now Papa H is trying to lure them in by doing what WWE probably should have been doing all along, that AEW was already kind of doing…
And it’s good if WWE is headed in this direction. But I’m also not blown away as a longtime Indies/Japan/AEW fan.
When ‘casuals’ see something that hardcore fans can’t stop talking about to the point that it comes trendy, then they tune in. Buzz has been created. It’s happened for any wrestling boom over the span of wrestling history.
Booking for casual fans may work for a super profitable gate here and there, but not for the longevity of the craft. I know both major promotions do it. It’s not just WWE with Logan Paul, Bad Bunny, and Ronda Rousey.
AEW has welcomed Mike Tyson, Snoop Dogg, Shaq, and now even Bow Wow into their shows. They’ve even pointed out fans in their own audience, from Lamar Jackson and Melissa Joan Hart to Kevin Smith and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
So I’m not giving AEW a pass on celebrity involvement/casual fan appeal.
But the major point is that these attempts to bring in “casuals” and book for them are statistically not making long-term gains. The data is literally in front of your face telling you as such, as “casual” booking is what led to the slow decline of WWE from 2002-2019, and the eventual rise of AEW with a large enough hardcore fan base to support the product on a major TV network.
Any revolution in pro wrestling comes from radical, niche ideas that lives a little outside of the box. History has shown this time and time again. It comes in form of presentation, style of booking, and even style of matches. History also shows that if you book for your hardcore fan base, the casual fans will catch up and adapt.
However, if internet fans who think they know more than they actually do keep pushing the narrative of needing to book to “casuals” then the craft will keep declining. If industry podcasters and “experts” continue to live in the past, then pro wrestling will have a dim future. If trolls continue to divide the fan bases based on the notion that casual booking is a must, and that there is a “right” way for pro wrestling to exist — then pro wrestling is headed towards some very dark times.
Casual fans will always be around, but history and data prove that appealing to them won’t ensure that professional wrestling will be.
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