The Smoking Gun: How the WWE is banking on newness for an old feeling
There’s a saying that how we buy - when we feel like we have everything - is a story about ourselves.
If you’ve got a roof over your head, aren’t struggling to cover your bills and expenses, the things you buy tells a story about who you are. It sounds pretty obvious (cause it is) but as is the case with obvious things we tend not to reflect on them too closely because we mostly take them for granted. When you really think about it, you can learn a little something about yourself by the things you don’t need but buy anyways. We buy concert tickets cause we’re musically inclined, we donate to charities because we care about the world, we buy drinks for our friends because we treasure their company. These all tell us something about ourselves.
There is one constant, however, that virtually every human being likes new stuff (look no further than the release of the next iteration of the iPhone and the point is proven).
When it comes to content, more specifically our sports content, we especially love new stuff. Because while the sports news cycle gives you ever monster home run, posturizing slam dunk, or graceful soccer goal every day in the highlight reel, those things can get repetitive. Very few people can entertain themselves in perpetuity watching every MLB home run to the left outfield.
Some sports have built their business model around this. The NFL, for instance, has mastered the art of the ‘new stuff’ phenomena. The NFL has turned ever day into an opportunity to market to their fans. Every announcement becomes an event. The NFL Draft went from being a one-off, check-the-headlines-at -9 a.m.-the-next-day kind of feature into a three-day, notifications-queued-on-your-phone (oh my God I missed picks 13 through 16, what the hell!?) kind of event.
The WWE was, has, and always will be a business built around a yearly calendar. The WWE is in the business of ‘newness’. However, they’re also in the business of nostalgia.
Fans follow this stuff whether it’s April 21, July 4, or December 25. The WWE knows his. It’s central to their business model. We remember while we crave more. Thus the WWE books storylines by the same model as an episode of Empire, bringing plotlines full circle and culminating episodes or a season’s worth of tension with a twist fresh and unforeseen. When done right, it feels like holding your mouth open under a soft serve ice cream machine that change s flavors every five seconds. When done wrong, it’s like doing the same thing under a horse’s ass.
If we follow by that rationale, then the WWE has been doing a bang-up job since Wrestlemania.
It began with Shane McMahon. In a what’s-old-is-new-again kind of way, his return was a windinto the WWE’s sails. He reminded the hardcore fans about a bygone era without Twitter and Instagram while invigorating the general fanbase. It had that new car smell.
Rewind a year to find the last time the WWE was booking much of anything to a degree that was engaging. Seth Rollins' Money In The Bank steal at last’s year’s Mania was an inspired choice. Every moment in the ring was a star-making turn for Rollins. His schtick was a throwback. Fast forward to Shane O’ Mac’s big return and you get that same feeling. Like we’ve seen this before but never quite like this.
But while the momentum of his first day back had the force of a tsunami, the waves ebbed with each episode of Raw from Fastlane through Roadblock. Then we hit Mania. And while it was generally well-received – gimme some more AJ Styles v. Jericho and the Women’s Title any day of the week, please - it had some underwhelming moments that definitely bordered on soft-serve horse crap (how many times do we want to see The Rock triumphantly return and take up 25 minutes of our time burning his name with a flamethrower? Please, never again). McMahon against The Undertaker featured some old-school spots and wonderful storytelling (as if we were watching a 2000 version of the grandest stage of them all). For the most part, Wrestlemania was a greater fool's version of what we always get.
What has come in the weeks after, however, has been booking exquisite. It’s been a throwback to a bygone era wherestorytelling – and not marketing – has pushed the product.
One of the major reasons is the ‘newness’. The WWE have picked the perfect time to start pushing fresh, exciting talent like never before. In the last three weeks, the WWE has debut Enzo and BIG Cass, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, Baron Corbin, and to a lesser extent Apollo Crews and The Vaudevillains. What’s most important is not that new players are in the fold, but that they are throwback players. New faces with old souls.
Four months ago (or really, at any time in the last few years), this influx of new performers would have improved a major issue worse. As I’ve written, THE WWE was in an unfortunate spot of being too middle-class heavy (compounded by the loss of Seth Rollins and John Cena to injury). In a manner, HHH’s return to the main spot at Mania against Roman Reigns was a symptom of this. While new performers is fun, if they aren’t legitimate blue chippers, what’s the point?
The WWE has picked their new performers very carefully, it would seem.
Enzo and Big Cass have been simply dynamite since the moment they hit the WWE. Enzo is like a punk-rock version of Scotty-2-Hotty (in the best possible way) while Cass is a more serious version of Rakishi (let’s be honest, Rikishi was the enforcer on that team). Enzo’s charisma is out of this world and reminds me of vintage Edge or Christian. They stand as excellent foils to The New Day, especially in this new age of moral relativism when it comes to heels and faces. The New Day aren’t really heels anymore but neither are they faces. Enzo and Cass have likely hit that territory already. Putting the two teams across from each other is pure fandom bliss. Are you imagining the promos yet? I am.
Anderson and Gallows, too, appear to fill that intimidating, destruction-weaving tag teams that the WWE has missed in some time. The last time a new group walked into the WWE with as much terrifying physicality was The Shield (ironic that Reigns has been their first target). Some of the great tag teams in wrestling history have had that very M.O.: The Road Warriors, The Natural Disasters, Demolition, and The Outsiders. If the WWE chooses to book Anderson and Gallows that way, they can forge a similar kind of foothold.
Baron Corbin, too, has that intimidating appeal. Whether he plays out in the long run is yet to be seen. Though his shtick isn’t nearly as refined, he has a bit of an Undertaker feel to him. Physically very agile for a man his size and personality-wise a bit of a badass (golden glove boxer, anyone?), Corbin isn’t your standard big man. Corbin has a high-ceiling (at the moment, there is more excitement around him than fellow debus Apollo Crews and Vaudevillains seem fun, they haven’t connected with the audience as quickly).
The WWE has realized that nothing sells like something that looks fresh. And nothing tastes better than something seasoned. By bringing in performers with new spins on time-tested characters, the WWE has poised itself for a hell of a run to Summerslam. And since it's trendy, this can't be ignored…
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.