The WWE's Middle-Class Problem
If you listen to economists, politicians, social scientists and their ilk, we have a middle class problem. No, not a first-world problem (although this could be construed as a first-world problem) — the middle class is the problem.
The WWE’s dirty problem is that their roster is terribly middle-class heavy. One only has to watch the incredibly disappointing Survivor Series to see the writing on the wall. The recent spate of major injuries (bye, bye Seth, Cesaro, Nikki Bella, Daniel Bryan, Randy Orton) puts a big, nasty ‘period’ at the end.
Perched on top, the WWE’s upper class is a combination of the elderly (The Undertaker), tired (John Cena), part-time (Brock Lesnar), and nostalgic (every returning superstar cameo). The entire system is built like a house of cards.
In the face of losing their bank (cough Cena cough) for the foreseeable future and the loss of so many names suited to inherit that mantle, the issue isn’t whether the WWE can replace him. It’s that they have far too many who won’t be allowed to do so because the WWE doesn’t know who to bank on now.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘’That’s not really a problem, they have too much talent?’ while the other half is saying, ‘They have Roman Reigns!’ Fair enough. To the latter, ask yourself how hardcore a wrestling fan you are and you can predict my retort to that. Or, better yet, see for yourself.
To the former, it will take a bit more convincing. Let me explain.
Let’s say wrestlers are like baseball players. An elite baseball player is considered a ‘Five Tool’ player: they can run, defend, throw, hit for average, and hit for power. A pro wrestler could be considered a four-tool player: they wrestle technically, wrestle to the crowd, the look, and can talk the talk.
Reigns’ issue is the same one that affects most of the WWE roster in some form. They all have blemishes (and most the time just a one). Wrestlers like the new champion Sheamus or IC-champ Kevin Owens have the potential to be headliners. But whether it is mic skills, a semblance of adaptability, or a cooler gimmick (though in Owens’ defence, apparently he sells a ton of merch), there will always be something holding them back from breaking through. Trying to project who can be a headliner for years to come is like trying to gauge whether you’re NBA franchise’s star player is worthy of a max level contract.
This is partially explains why anti-heroes like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan have been so popular in recent years and why Reigns has earned a cold reception from segments of the WWE fanbase. Fans see Reigns as being pushed into the upper class without the prerequisites. How is he better than Cesaro, really? How is he more effecting than Dean Ambrose? There is no answer. Whereas Bryan and Punk appeared to shove their way into the upper-class party and swing fists once they got there, Reigns had the door opened for him, a red carpet laid out. It’s not so much that he was picked, it’s that he was picked before others were given the chance to succeed or fail.
The bigger issue is the WWE itself. As in, they can’t get out of their own way. Sometimes, the WWE is like a head football coach who can’t figure out how to put their players in a position to succeed. Hand them a Porsche and they drive it like a 4x4. How else do you explain why Dean Ambrose hasn’t been given the same push as Rollins and Reigns? Or why Ziggler still languishes in girlfriend-boyfriend purgatory?
You would assume it lucky for the WWE that they’ve got an all-timer on the roster: Bray Wyatt. His rise isn’t a total surprise, however. He ascended from the ranks of the middle class by coming through on his pedigree and selling every ounce of character on the mic and in the ring. But his presence isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Blue-chippers are supposed to rise to that level. Otherwise the industry would collapse without making a sound.
To truly understand the middle-class problem, look no further than Seth Rollins. Losing his sudden headliner ability is where all this became a big, glaring problem. Rollins was pegged by most as the weakest of the three members of The Shield and instead has proven it’s most capable. Yet his rise feels very much like a reflection of the uneven system: Reigns’ perceived push (ironically, fans chanted his name over Rollins and Ambrose during their Shield days…only to revolt against him once he was out on his own) didn’t win over fans, so they opted to use Rollins and save face. And Rollins soared.
Rollins rise didn’t stagnate anyone else’s possible ascension to headliner: it was a product of the competition for it. Prior to Rollins’ rise, a number of performers had chances but failed to secure it. With Rollins going down, those same wrestlers are now going to be relied upon to fill his recently broken-in shoes. A bloated, limited middle class all fighting for the same opportunities is a slog.
All that said, credit that the WWE is trying to find a star. They aren’t sitting on their hands and hoping for the best. You could argue this is how you do it, testing the market so to speak. Give your audience a bit of Owens in primetime and see how they react.
Except then you turn your attention to the depressing state of perhaps the one A-lister on the slate and the most ignored by the WWE, Sasha Banks, and wonder if there is a process at all. She is undoubtedly a four-tool wrestler. The issue there is inherent: women at the top have never been part of the business. Now before you scream Ronda Rousey in my ear, understand that unlike the UFC— a relative infant in as a sports promotion — the WWE has decades of precedent behind it. Not a lot of which saw fit to feature women as their stars, their ‘face of the company’ so to speak.
Sasha Banks is without a doubt their best talent. Somehow, it feels as if their underutilizing her at this point is more to stoke the fervor than to purposefully piss off the fan base. Except it is difficult to look passed the push given to Charlotte at Banks’ expense. Charlotte is close to a four-tool talent, too, but she thus far has lacked that edge, that ‘it’ factor that makes a star transcendent. The ‘it’ requisite of a star who carries a card, who carries a promotion for years the way The Rock, Stone Cold and Cena have done.
We are in for some strange days ahead in the WWE Universe. A big, pale, gingered Irishman as champion isn’t a bad thing, but it somehow seems indicative of everything the WWE is struggling with.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb @NPBroadcaster