Live crowds are the lifeblood of wrestling, otherwise it’s just a handful of men or women in a ring, a man or woman in a weird golf shirt (sometimes striped) and another small handful of people at a desk talking at you and to each other.
It’s hard to say what this last year will have done to pro wrestling systemically over the long term, or even more so, whether it can recover as a whole and build forward. One thing for certain over the last year, especially in North American promotions, is that companies have worked extremely hard to push their talent and project what they believe fans think is relatable or interesting in the wrestling context. For the most part they’ve got it right.
Fans are a barometer of success and a punctuation mark on the wrestling experience — they are the periods, commas and question marks that punctuate a wrestler or storyline’s path. Even more so, perhaps critically so even, they are the exclamation point. They are the acknowledgement that what you’re doing works. Above all, as wrestling consumers, they are the boss. Or to rip off an often-memed WWE trope — holistically fans are “the authority.”
When a wrestler comes out of the entranceway, you can quickly tell whether or not they have a connection with fans. It’s identifiable the moment their music hits. We saw it with many at WrestleMania this past spring where it’s fundamentally inarguable that that was the largest gathering of wrestling fans to date during the pandemic era, even if it wasn’t at full capacity. The fans were there for the wrestlers, the matches and each moment from the solitary to the grandiose. What they loved, like the Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair match, grabbed them by their hearts and strung them along as the story unfolded. That was special.
It wasn’t so because WWE said it was, it was unique and a moment in time because fans dictated it to be so. It’s that organic quality you can’t control, and is perhaps sometimes a pitfall for the company.
Let’s take AEW as another example. Cody Rhodes is debatably the face of the company. Kenny Omega is the champion(s). Yet, no other face or heel was cheered as loudly as Hangman Page, Britt Baker or Orange Cassidy, or even Sting for that matter. No moment was as perfectly raw as when Serena Deeb came out on the Buy-In Pre-Show and was so fired up that the crowd fed off it to the degree that it in turn fired her up even more. Wrestling crowds are special that way.
Fans are the gauge. They expose booking flaws and tell you what they like or don’t; it’s folly to continue in any respect, whether you’re WWE, AEW, ROH, NJPW, Impact and especially NWA right now, with executing decisions that do not serve your product, your roster, and above all the people who invest time and money into the experience, and whom companies depend on their continued patronage.
The last calendar year has been difficult for professional wrestling. Companies shut down, worked reduced dates, set up shop in single locations and moreover were forced to book the kind of shows they thought would work. It’s relied on bookers, creative, wrestlers and announcers to tell their stories in the ring and collaborate. It’s worked in some cases, and others less so.
Monday Night Raw, for example, I don’t recall ever being this bankrupt of logic, and it shows in its viewership from week to week. I believe for many there’s a fundamental baseline in wrestling, in that at a bare minimum the product needs to be good and the narratives need to make sense. Raw lacks that. Conversely, you turn over to Smackdown or even NXT and you get equally great wrestling, complemented by more sound decisions creatively that are reflected in positive viewership movement with Smackdown specifically. With NXT, who can say much other than the show was once the ticket to watch and now through this last year the only marker we have (viewership) is erratic and begs for course correction. WWE has done a lot right, as much as they have done wrong. Yet the silver lining is that through this last year the company has made some good decisions, such as rewarding Lashley with a WWE title reign, or crowning Belair, or finally pushing Roman Reigns as a heel. These are positives.
Over at AEW, we’ve seen much of the same within their own baselines. They fluctuate like any other show on TV, but creatively, like WWE, have made calculated decisions based on what they either think works or what fan reactions are in social spaces in the absence of in-arena responses. Nonetheless, much like WWE, All Elite Wrestling has also spent swathes of TV time over the last year with meandering segments featuring people like Cody, who as much as I appreciate and love his work overall, his oversaturation levels have certainly risen. Another example are the drawn-out stories such as the Shaq-Jade and Cody-Brandi (and Red Velvet) storyline that literally dragged on longer than necessary. At the genesis of AEW few could match Cody’s pops, but now perhaps as a byproduct of pandemic booking, his pops were dwarfed by Adam Page’s this past weekend.
Fans returning also poses an interesting question. In my opinion, Kenny Omega and Roman Reigns are going to be the top 2 wrestlers this year on lists like PWI’s 500. Through much of the pandemic by this point — Reigns a little longer — both have been apex heels in their respective companies after multiple years as faces, and the questions to pose are: can they maintain their heat with fans returning and can they adapt to fan response? Because in my estimation, Reigns and Omega were certainly not booed at WrestleMania and Double or Nothing respectively in the way they should have been considering their roles.
What blooms from the products as fans respond to it is what’s going to matter, especially for these two whom are heels, act like heels, have heel managers and are in all manners detestable as characters in different ways. But if the fans flip on them, what then?
Casting fans as “punctuation” is appropriate. They stamp the end of sentences. They question decisions and they get excited about moments in between the pauses between them. Wrestling is all those things when you stop and ponder it for a moment.
With some wrestling companies returning to live touring this summer, American-based companies must be prepared to react to how fans respond to their decisions and programs. No longer can any company simply book their shows on their own whims. Surely all to varying degrees make decisions based off their own internal metrics, but WWE and AEW especially need to ensure they are able to capitalize on rabid fans returning to arenas so as to not squander an opportunity to build off the buzz live wrestling creates.
Brandi Rhodes phrased the renewed reality well a few days ago: with fans returning to shows, what’s over is what’s going to be over and there’s no debating the point. What is, simply is, and what’s relatable and connectable can’t be overshadowed and needs to synergize with wrestling companies in order for them to truly step forward into the post-pandemic world on the horizon.