Between a Rock and a Hard Crowd

If you’re a die-hard pro wrestling fan, odds are you’re not exactly thrilled about the last few months of WWE storylines. Namely when it comes to the bearded elephant in the room. I’ve expressed my discontent multiple times, both through memes and wrestling shirts.

As a fan, a student of the game and someone who’s tried his hand at promoting for a few years, I keep coming back to “Why?”. Why do the higher-ups seem to systematically pick the sure-thing main eventers from 2005 over the steaming hot acts of the guys that came from the indies?

While I take great pride in my frustration over WWE not getting 100% behind the likes of Bryan, Punk and Ziggler, the marketing guy in me spots a (possibly) legitimate reason for WWE’s current course of action: for the first time, WWE is faced with not having one target audience, but two.

In the Golden Era of professional wrestling (80s and early 90s), kids flocked to the larger-than-life heroic characters of Hogan, Warrior and Savage. In the late 90s, the business once again surged, as the same kids – now more mature – got a new brand of ass-kicking rebellious sports entertainment in the form of Austin, Rock, Foley and D-X.

Reality or pipe dream?

Somewhere between the middle and the final years of the 2000’s, something shifted, and I can only assume WWE decided going back to the younger crowd, and targeting the corporate sponsorship dollars meant more to their bottom line. So, the “Ruthless Aggression” and the “Attitude” underwent an adjustment.

Cena went from a clever, aggressive, rapper/wrestler who opened Wrestlemania 20, eliciting the universal cheers from fans that now elude him as he F-U’d the Big Show… to a 50/50 Face/Heel that is revered by the young ones but fervently considered the “same old sh**” by the more wrestling-savvy crowd.

WWE clearly chose to bank on Cena’s unparalleled work ethic and have him spearhead this marketing shift toward the kids market, managing the increasingly passionate boos from the mature audience by labeling him “the most controversial superstar” in the history of the company.

While we simply don’t have nearly enough information to assess the merit of such a call, we can’t help but find amazing talent chained in creative restrictions, because the office keeps putting its faith in the sure thing or, at the very least, the safe thing: Cena, Orton and now, Batista.

As a pro wrestling fan, I thoroughly believe you’ll never find me as ready to discombobulate my mother’s basement’s furniture as I was when poor don’t-shoot-the-messenger Rey Mysterio came out as #30 in the Rumble.

See what I mean?

As a marketer, I can’t help but wonder the difficult choices that come across the McMahon desk in this respect: pleasing the young section likely means raising the ire of the smart section, and pleasing the grown-ups risks putting out a product that is a little too advanced for the 10-to-13s to follow.

Maybe this is when the brand split would actually make sense. Maybe Bryan and Punk don’t really move the needle that much in the money department, even though the crowds clearly come alive in their presence. Maybe they should have been booked in a stronger manner so they had a legitimate chance to do so.

(I still have booking nightmares about Punk losing to Triple H after Summerslam and Bryan’s very weird and even harder to explain title chase over the Fall.)

Maybe it’s politics. Maybe it’s just creative making mistakes that are hard to recover from. Maybe having a monopoly means pushing the vanilla midgets isn’t a priority. Maybe it’s just smarter business to cater to the kids and keep banking on the Cenas and Ortons. Maybe WWE really are letting the Yes Ship sail.

But one thing is for sure: the office is caught between a rock and a hard place. How do you manage two often diametrically opposed audiences in a cohesive product and show the stockholders the company is millions and millions in the black?

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