The Bloodline may be the true paradigm shift in wrestling

It’s been going for nearly three years and I’ve genuinely enjoyed most of it. Roman Reigns as the Head of the Table, a tribal mob boss, a proper heel megastar on top of the business is probably the most exciting thing WWE gave us in many years. It was great to see Roman finally embracing his potential, after such a long time of the company trying (and failing) to mold him into the second coming of John Cena, which – seeing their obvious differences – was a lost cause from the get-go. However, Reigns’ work since his 2020 return has been critically acclaimed and rightfully so, while his newly formed group, the Bloodline also gave us many memorable performances from his supporting players (members and opponents alike), with Jey Uso and Sami Zayn in particular going on the best runs of their respective careers and legendary Paul Heyman clearly relishing his role as the Wise Man, after years and years of delivering the same schtick for Brock Lesnar.

I’ve always considered this run to be historic, because believe it or not, this is actually the first time in WWE’s 60-year history, when the promotion decided to go with a heel performer to be their undisputed number one star and trusting him to carry the company’s business for years. It’s never been done before, going back to 1963. Like his father, Vince Sr., who gave lengthy runs to Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund, Vincent K. McMahon always believed that the face of the company must be a babyface. He chose Hulk Hogan, tried with the Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, ’Boyhood Dream’ Shawn Michaels, ran with fan-favorite Steve Austin and The Rock in the antihero- days, then hand-picked John Cena and later wanted Roman Reigns to fit this image as well.

Whenever a heel was holding down the fort for a longer period, it was ALWAYS due to 2 possibilities: having to bide their time for a worthy babyface candidate, or using the heel’s entire reign as a tool for making the next babyface megastar when he is finally defeated. This latter thing can still happen effectively with Roman and the Bloodline, but for 3 long years, this heel group and its leader didn’t just exist to pass the torch to the next person, they were the be all-end all and the focal point of the company. I strongly believe that if the COVID-19 pandemic never happened and we didn’t get a whole year in the Thunderdome, Vince would NEVER have actually risked this.

Yet, for a long time, I didn’t realize how truly special and game-changing this storyline was for the whole business. It was only late last year, when I started mentioning it in private conversations. It was only earlier this year, when I started making careful claims to our podcast’s core audience. And then in the past 2 months everything changed, I have made public posts about it, talked about it openly and now I’m writing an article saying: the Bloodline may very well be the best story ever told in the history of professional wrestling, and a historic turning-point that may disprove every fashionable 21st century theory about the business in the long run. Those involved in the game should watch this very intently – and learn.

On the 11th of July, I woke up to the news that the nearly 40-minute Tribal Court segment on Smackdown was watched by over 3 million people with a 0.94 demo as it went on, having gained over half a million viewers for the second quarter-hour after people started to find out that they had kicked off the broadcast. Just a couple of weeks before that I woke up to find out that the final quarter-hour of Smackdown, which saw Jey Uso’s decision of turning on Roman, gained 448k viewers compared to the previous segment. Just a couple of weeks before that, 2.9 million people were tuning in to see the Bloodline’s fallout from the Saudi Night of Champions event in the final quarter- hour of that show. Basically, more people change their channels SPECIFICALLY just for the Bloodline, than the amount of viewers AEW Rampage generally gets for their whole show.

Sure, it’s not 6-7 million viewers, like back in the day, but it’s not 1999 anymore, and it’s never going to be. TV has changed and the world has changed. The important part is that during the past year, starting last summer, after Vince temporarily stepped down, WWE as the industry leader actually STOPPED the slowly declining tendencies in their business numbers that come straight from the consumers, meaning TV ratings and live event attendance, which started to RISE all across the board (for the actual numbers, please look up any wrestling site that regularly updates them, compare it to previous years and do the math). This is the first time since forever that this has happened, and the craziest thing is, that it’s actually happening contrary to general market trends.

This wouldn’t have happened without the exceptional performances of Roman Reigns and the Bloodline (or their opponents) that helps produce great numbers even after a 3-year run with this story, but important to note is the patience WWE showed, taking their time to seemingly re-educate the core of their audience.

The Bloodline is the antithesis of everything a significant layer of fans believed about the future of the business in the 21st century, or imagined to happen after the Attitude Era and the Monday Night Wars. How many influencers preached and how many wrestlers breathed in the idea, that the workrate levels are going to take the business by storm, and athletic performances are going to be the most important part of it, because all of the audience knows it’s ’fake’, everybody is cynical, they won’t invest in the characters, or even believe them, thus we need to impress them with in-ring showoffs and that is going to be the focus of the new era? On the contrary, the Bloodline has been all about the character work from the get-go, in every single match Roman has had. The journey of the characters is the focal point and what happens? The ’cynical’ audience started to FEEL again, they are investing in the characters and they are screaming the roof off the place just for a face-off, without the wrestlers even doing anything. Sometimes you don’t even need the damn match.

How many people believed since the 90s, that the business MUST push the envelope further, we need crazier moves, more athletics, more spectacular forms of violence, and also giving wink-winks to the ’smart’ fans, speaking their language, going outside the box, because there is no other way forward? Well, the Bloodline is just as simple, as it is layered. They are not breaking the fourth wall in any significant manner, they are not saying outrageous things on the mic, nor doing them in the ring, they are telling us a simple story, in a logical and easily digestible way. When the wrestling world (WWE and AEW included) was attempting to do crazy and surreal cinematic matches during the pandemic, Roman and his crew managed to make the presentation of actual wrestling very cinematic, without breaking the unwritten rules and framework of the business, or sacrificing its believability.

How many people tried to emulate the Attitude Era and WCW for decades, believing that the key to attract and keep an audience is going for surprises, shock value, holy sh*t moments, always giving people the unexpected and trying to top yourself every week? The Bloodline story was deliberately built on ANTICIPATION instead. They have yet to do one single self-indulgent twist for the sake of having a twist and just surviving the given week with it. They weren’t trying to shock the audience, but rather build up the anticipation for the otherwise logical (and quite predictable) twists, making them yearn to finally see them, and causing them to jump out of their seats at the moment of fulfillment. If we can still remember what it was like to anticipate Santa Claus as children, I think this is actually a tremendous psychological tool in storytelling and find it hard to believe that no one has really made it this important before on a large stage.

How many people have said that the world is so fast now, the attention span of the viewers is so short, that we need to make everything quicker, the action, the stories, the whole business? Three years have passed and the business is going UP, hello! With the Bloodline, WWE was first to successfully realize the long-term storytelling format in episodic TV-wrestling that many have attempted – and failed – to do properly since Eric Bischoff. This clearly disproves the idea that the audience cannot and will not pay attention in the long run and they are going to get bored if they do not get instant gratification. They can and they will, if we give them a reason to, if the story remains both coherent and good, and if they get to anticipate said story ALWAYS going somewhere.

The Bloodline may very well be THE paradigm shift in wrestling that has finally killed off 25-30 year old beliefs and anomalies, which we thought to be the new norm in the business forever. There is a good chance, that it was the Bloodline that killed off the shades of the Attitude Era for good, and locked away niche-ideas about wrestling’s supposed future in the djinn’s lamp for a long-long time.

Somehow, after all the attempts, from both inside the company and the outside, it was WWE who showed how to do a consistently successful wrestling product in the 21st century. The ’how’ must change, because otherwise we keep paddling in the same spot, yet the ’what’ of the business is the same as ever. They didn’t try to re-invent the wheel, but they found new ways to turn it. Those who produced and performed this storyline showed the way for the entire soul-searching industry and the only question is, who is willing to take note of that? Although the Bloodline was the first of the new wave, now there are more and more talents on the roster, who are gaining ground patiently, step by step and are now on a higher level compared to a few years ago. The slow-burn method is now the norm, and the core audience is now trained to expect that, and are less willing to give up on stars or stories on their first whims or disappointments.

Case in point: Cody Rhodes. Before WrestleMania, I was adamant that Cody has to beat Roman. I was absolutely bummed when he didn’t, but time has proven this decision to be correct. Cody would be in a horrible spot right now, if he had to compete with the Bloodline story as the world champion. He just can’t, and he would be forced to play second-fiddle, no matter how good and competent he is to fulfill that role. For him, that’s a no-win situation. But now, he is doing great, he is the biggest babyface star in the business, fans are loving him everywhere he goes and he is well on his way to become an even bigger star for his next opportunity. (There is another lesson here, if we remember his interviews from his AEW days about heel and face roles being outdated, having seen him flop hard in Jacksonville trying to walk the line, and then becoming a major player in a white meat babyface role, but that’s for another time.)

In my 19 years of watching wrestling and 12 years of working in the sport, I’ve had a crazy journey, I learned exciting or painful lessons about the business and about life, and had tons of passionate arguments about the true reality and nature of pro-wrestling. It took all that time for me to develop a mindset of principles that I consider to be the best and most valuable in this business and the way it tells its stories. During all the time the world has changed a lot, both for the better and for the worse, and yet I feel that much of what this mindset represents is not just alive and well, but has become the pinnacle of the business and is proven by hard data to actually WORK.

I’m always symphatetic to fans who still like something else, in spite of all this. Maybe you like different wrestlers and a different style, not at all what the Bloodline delivers to us. We all like different movies, music and sports, we have different values and that’s fine, there is more than enough room on the planet and on the internet as well to co-exist with all our likes and dislikes. In my native language, there is a saying roughly translated as: ‘Never argue about tastes and slaps’.

Watch and enjoy whatever you will, that’s why there are options to choose from. But downplaying the relative boom and very much evident success that the Bloodline has brought to the wrestling business and claiming that it’s somehow not the driving force behind the resurgence of our favorite industry, just because they are not really your cup of tea, is folly. Worse than that: a factual error.

Can’t wait to find out where this whole thing goes, but even if it goes nowhere, it sure has been a beautiful journey and quite a ride to behold!