Admittedly, I would prefer to make my living as a performing singer/songwriter. That hasn’t happened yet. But, if I ever get to that point, I will need to remember one simple rule, perhaps above all others.
Listen to your audience.
Let’s say I somehow manage to have something resembling a hit song. It propels me to where I am able to make a respectable living. But, after awhile, I get tired of singing it every night. But, the audience loves it. Guess what. As much as I want to be able to make a living doing what I love, I’m playing that song, even if I grow to hate it. Why? Because it’s my damn meal ticket. Because it’s one song out of a two hour performance. And mainly, because I wouldn’t want to go back to having a “real” job.
I don’t talk about professional wrestling much within these pages, but I’m going to now. Vincent Kennedy McMahon is not listening to his audience. Last night was the annual Royal Rumble event, a pay per view that I generally enjoy because the match itself is usually very entertaining. However, the story last night is about the crowd reaction to the product.
Those of you who don’t follow wrestling may not have any idea about who Daniel Bryan is. Suffice it to say that right now, he is clearly the most popular wrestler in the eyes of the fans. He consistently gets the loudest, most sustained reactions and probably has for a least a couple of years. In the wrestling world, this is generally enough of a reason to make a guy the champion. It happened to Hogan, Austin, Rock, and John Cena. Daniel Bryan has actually held the main WWE Championship, winning it at SummerSlam by cleanly beating John Cena last August.
For about 2 minutes.
Then Randy Orton cashed in his Money in the Bank contract (he won an event which gave him the chance to get a title match any time he liked). HHH in his capacity as guest referee for the match which had just concluded then hit Bryan with his finishing move and gave Orton the belt.
So-called smart wrestling fans (smart marks, or smarks) saw this coming. A large percentage of us figured this would result in a program where Daniel Bryan eventually took the belt from Orton and the WWE would see how well Bryan drew (how much money he made via pay per views and sales of tickets and merchandise) before he inevitably lost his spot as the #1 guy.
Not so much.
What followed was three months of Daniel Bryan losing and being verbally buried by onscreen bad guy (heel) authority figures. Three weeks ago, Bryan joined a heel group, and the fans - online and in arenas - clearly weren’t having it. Two weeks later, the WWE did the right thing and aborted that angle, having Bryan leave the Wyatt family. It was a truly special moment as one man led a packed arena in excess of 10,000 people in chanting a single word which has been his catchphrase - “YES!” The crowd was happy. And perhaps more importantly, it appeared that the WWE had finally decided to listen to their audience.
Not so much.
Daniel Bryan and Bray Wyatt (leader of the heel group just discussed) opened last night’s Royal Rumble with a fantastic match. The crowd was hot; very enthusiastic and responsive throughout. Bray Wyatt actually won, but did so in a manner that was reasonable and realistic - at least from the perspective of professional wrestling. The audience was somewhat deflated, but being a “smart” crowd, seemed to understand the outcome. The next match was Brock Lesnar vs The Big Show, and Lesnar won. It was a fairly quick match, and the crowd was into it. Nothing really wrong here.
But then came the championship match of Randy Orton vs John Cena. The crowd crapped all over them from the start. “Daniel Bryan” chants started almost immediately and were heard throughout, along with “boring”, “this is awful”, “we want Divas”, and “you both suck.” The problem wasn’t the wrestlers involved; they worked hard and tried to win the crowd over. They failed because the majority of the people who bought a ticket to sit in that arena and watch that show wanted Daniel Bryan to be in that match. They want to see Daniel Bryan as champion, and they took their opportunity to make it clear to the WWE.
I would have paid a large amount of money for a backstage camera trained on Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
Orton won after a distraction by the Wyatt Family, which sets up a feud with John Cena. That’s fine. Next came the Royal Rumble itself. The winner gets to headline the biggest event of the year, WrestleMania, in a title match. Daniel Bryan was not scheduled to be part of it. The crowd clearly didn’t care.
The match works like this. There are 30 participants, starting with the first two in the ring. Every 90 seconds, a new man enters. Wrestlers are only eliminated once they have gone over the top rope and both feet have landed on the floor. Sometimes those stipulations come into play in determining a winner, but they did not on this occasion.
The “Daniel Bryan” chants didn’t start until around the 20th man entered. The crowd clearly became increasingly irritated as each new entrant wasn’t named Daniel Bryan. When Rey Mysterio came in as the last man, that was it. Nearly everone and every move was roundly booed. It was fascinating to watch.
There was a moment when the match could have been salvaged. The last two were Roman Reigns, who is likely going to be THE NEXT BIG THING, and Batista, a man who just came back - as in this was his first match in four years. We smarks knew going in that Batista was going to win, and is slated to beat Randy Orton at WrestleMania 30. However, the crowd began to chant for Roman Reigns. Less than 5 minutes later, Batista eliminated Reigns, and the crowd booed him out of the building.
This is the direct opposite of what the WWE wanted. I don’t know what they’re paying Batista, but it’s probably a substantial pile of money for a relatively light schedule. He is supposed to be the returning hero who will help make WM30 special.
And the crowd essentially told him and the company to fuck off.
If they had listened to their audience going in, Daniel Bryan would be the one getting the headline spot at the biggest event of the year. But, even when that wasn’t possible because the man wasn’t in the ring, they could have called an audible and had Reigns win. Yes, finishes are often changed on the fly. It would have been a bit difficult, but not impossible. Instead, we got to watch the WWE shove their plans down the throat of their audience while the fans puked them back up.
Years ago Vincent Kennedy McMahon hitched his star to Hulk Hogan; wrestling wasn’t the machine that it became. To explain how he took his father’s company from a regional promotion to a national entertainment juggernaut would take more time than I care to devote. Suffice it to say Hogan played a major part, and it started in 1984.
In the mid 1990s, the then WWF was floundering. WCW was killing them in every imaginable way, and they were being led by a faction featuring Hulk Hogan, now as a heel. Cue “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The WWF was smart enough to ride the Austin bandwagon for as long as they could. There were other wrestlers involved, but Austin is undisputedly the most popular wrestler ever. Even Hogan didn’t draw like Stone Cold did at his apex. Eventually, the WWF bought WCW. It was huge turnaround, and occurred largely because Vincent Kennedy McMahon was forced to listen to his audience. Had he continued to do what nearly bankrupted his company, the WWF would have ceased to exist.
Today, the WWE has no competition. No wrestling company is even close. They have developed a way of doing things that precludes any one man from becoming bigger than the company. Why? Simple. Hogan and Austin both eventually left. Austin didn’t go work for the competition, because...well, there wasn’t any, and he essentially can no longer wrestle because of injuries. Vince isn’t stupid. He never again wants to rely on any one man for the well being of his company.
As long as he keeps making large piles of money, he doesn’t have to listen to his audience. And, here’s the thing about wrestling fans. We *desperately* want to enjoy the product. Those of us who were drawn in as kids and/or teenagers wind up being fiercely loyal to guys we love, and most of us don’t really understand why. I think that essentially, we love good stories, and when wrestling works well, it’s just a good story punctuated by choreographed violence. I won’t get into the complexities of it, but it’s not that different from a great movie or TV show. Some of us walk away for awhile (I have, twice), but many come back when a new wrestler captures our attention. We love it when a match and angle work, and we hate it when our intelligence is insulted. Yes, some of us are actually intelligent. But, wrestling has its roots in carnivals, and just like guys who peddle worked games to marks walking down the midway, those in charge clearly think their audience is stupid, and I often believe they dislike not only us, but themselves as well. After all, in their eyes, they’re making a living by selling a pretend sport with predetermined outcomes. And we buy it.
So as long as the machine keeps making money, why would they listen to us?
Because nothing lasts forever. Because last night the crowd in Pittsburgh provided a strong indication that there is growing frustration with the product. Because eventually, when you keep bitchslapping your customers, they will find something else to do. Pro wrestling may only have on major company in this country, but the rise of UFC was no accident. I don’t watch it, but plenty of their fans used to watch wrestling, and many do both. They use lots of old-school wrestling tactics to promote their product, and to the best of my knowledge, their matches are legitimate.
We’ve walked away before, Vince. Even with your WWE network on the horizon and the income it will likely bring, we may still do it again. Book that Batista/Orton WM30 Main Event, and make sure Bryan is jobbing (losing) somewhere in the middle of the card. Ignore people chanting his name during other matches, both during the event and leading up to it. Eventually, you will stop hearing it, and not just because you are clearly not listening.