Last Tuesday’s edition of WWE SmackDown Live featured a world championship match in which a man named James Ellsworth — whose claim to fame in professional wrestling is his lack of any defined muscle structure or a chin — defeated WWE World Champion AJ Styles. This is Ellsworth’s third appearance on television, but his physical deficiencies certainly seem to be amusing to the WWE writers. Whenever his tiny frame is trotted out in front of the live audience, they respond well; they’re already in on the joke. (The joke is that he looks like Benjamin Button stripped down to his underwear.)
What isn’t immediately clear is if this sort of thing, the in-joke, appeals to the average couch-dweller with a universe of entertainment options. WWE TV ratings are down, yet again, and fans, journalists and most likely the McMahon family themselves are wringing their hands trying to sort out why.
But this is a story that’s trotted out every year, a doom-and-gloom narrative that casts doubts on wacky narrative decisions like this Ellsworth business or forcing people to cheer Roman Reigns. We all forget about this come WrestleMania season, when Triple H, the Undertaker, the Rock and other mainstream figures invariably make their return to WWE programming and ratings go back up again. We wave away the signs of trouble as merely the cyclical nature of the pro wrestling industry, but this repetition is not a feature of the system; it’s a bug. WWE is going to have to change the way they structure their programming in a hurry, lest they see their core audience continue to age and abandon them for the galaxy of other entertainment options available to the modern consumer — Netflix, Hulu, UFC, video games, social media, etc.
Back in 2012, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported that 30 percent of WWE’s audience at that time was 50 or older. Two years later, WWE revealed that 66 percent of their weekly viewers were over the age of 35. Ratings for both Monday Night RAW and SmackDown have remained around the high 2-million to low 3-million people range — even after WWE’s much-ballyhooed second go at a brand extension, which saw both shows given unique rosters and exclusive titles.
Even if the ratings decline story is one that recurs every year, it’s one that sees a new basement every year, too. A show that once pulled in an 8.4 rating on basic cable now doesn’t even come close to its glory days. Unlike with narrative programming, it’s harder to blame the usual suspects— DVR and streaming services—for WWE’s ratings decline. Yes, WWE is scripted entertainment, but it is also sports, with the unpredictability of the event baked in. One should be encouraged to watch it as it happens, because anything can happen. Live sports remain one of the largest sources of audience for cable networks and they pay exorbitant amounts of money to secure the rights to broadcast them.
So why does the audience for John Cena, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, and Dean Ambrose sink faster than it does for the NFL or NBA? It’s that damned aging fan, the one that’s 30 to 50 years old and has been watching since the days of Roddy Piper cracking Jimmy Snuka over the head with a coconut on Tuesday Night Titans. We’ve seen it all — the heel turns, the handicap matches, the run-ins, the title switches and even the brand extensions. The characters change — from Hogan to Michaels to Austin to Cena to whomever’s next — but the stories stay within their boundaries. The narratives are riffs on tropes that fans my age (32) have been witnessing for more than one decade. James Ellsworth is Gillberg, who was Brooklyn Brawler before that. Bray Wyatt’s turgid feud with Randy Orton isn’t far off from Jake the Snake Roberts’s program with Ultimate Warrior and the Undertaker — minus a poisonous snake.
Familiarity also breeds a certain amount of appreciation, as the long-time fan sees classic tales dusted off and rejiggered for the times. Wrestling has been telling the same stories since the beginning of the territory system — virtuous babyfaces, heels who cheat to win, underdog victories over insurmountable odds, redemption sagas, etc. But someone always finds a way to repackage them. The great Monday Night Wars boom found a way to sell the traditional product to old-school wrestling fans and children alike by dressing it up in skimpy outfits and letting the expletives fly freely. Adults returned and children watched for the first time for the same reason: It was naughty.
Dunderheaded gender politics, xenophobia and pimp characters wouldn’t necessarily fly in a modern context, so since 2008, WWE has retreated to a routinely predictable, vanilla version of the show. I didn’t need to watch the AJ Styles/James Ellsworth match once Daniel Bryan announced that it was a non-title affair and that Dean Ambrose would be the special referee; Ellsworth was winning thanks to Ambrose’s meddling, screwjob finish we’ve seen a thousand times. If more than 60 percent of the WWE audience is old enough to have seen already countless versions of this same match (and recognize a new version when they see it), then why watch?
Of course, if you are in the 22 percent of fans under the age of 17, then maybe you’ve never seen this before. But as the WWE audience gets older and older, will they come back every week to see the same old, same old? Worse yet, with the advent of the WWE Network — a Netflix–style streaming service with a massive library of content, there’s more wrestling to watch than ever. RAW, SmackDown, NXT, two pay-per-view events a month, original scripted and reality programming, reruns, plus special events like the Cruiserweight Classic means that you might never be able to keep up with everything unless you devoted most of your entertainment time to wrestling. Even the biggest fans will have a difficulty finding the time to keep up with every single storyline across multiple programs.
Increasingly, it seems that overwhelming its audience is WWE’s number-one strategy, always giving more to older, hardcore fans— more short-form online content, more live events, more ancillary content and more catalog content in the form of overtures to purchase the TNA tape library. Sure, this is delicious, dripping wet red meat for people like me, but imagine being a new fan and having to figure out who the Spirit Squad is after they show up on SmackDown. Hardcore fans and new fans alike really want the same thing: content that surprises us, that shakes us out of our complacency and demands that we watch it every week. And in the process of surprising the legacy fan, you just might strike gold with the next generation, too.