By Chuck Carroll
In many regards, 2018 has been a banner year for WWE. The signing of UFC mega-star Ronda Rousey as a full-time wrestler sent shockwaves through the sports world in January. Five months later, the company closed on massive multi-year television rights deals for both Raw and SmackDown that are reportedly worth in excess of a billion dollars each. Additionally, SmackDown will be jumping to broadcast network television next fall which will significantly increase potential viewership at a time when the promotion is desperate to attract a new audience.
There was also the returns of Daniel Bryan and Shawn Michaels to in-ring competition, the first ever all-women’s pay-per-view, Renee Young becoming the first woman to occupy a full-time role on the Raw broadcast announce team, gobs of mainstream media coverage of the John Cena-Nikki Bella love saga, the 25th anniversary of Raw, the 1000th episode of SmackDown, and stock values that at one point flirted with triple-digits.
But for all the good, WWE will also be flipping the calendar carrying a ton of unwanted baggage. The company faced global backlash for proceeding with its controversial partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the abrupt departure of top star Roman Reigns who announced a recurrence of leukemia after more than a decade in remission, and a significant erosion in live event attendance. The company also enters 2019 scrambling to find ways to boost alarmingly low ratings with viewers tuning out in droves.
So what will the new year bring for WWE? The company is putting a bow on 2018 by vowing wholesale changes and to cater more to what fans want. Vince McMahon has also stated that they know what needs to be done to increase ticket sales, which means they should be sprucing up those presentations as well.
As we look ahead, here are six things that I could possibly see happening over the course of the next 12 months.
Ratings Will Continue To Fall
The good news for WWE is that the changes being promised by the McMahon family and appearances by John Cena should garner enough interest to shore up slumping viewership from now until the Royal Rumble. The better news is that, historically, fan interest swells between the Rumble and WrestleMania. Subsequently, with a surge in casual viewers tuning in to see how the card for the biggest show of the year is shaping up, ratings tend to prosper. The combination of the two should put WWE on solid enough ground for the first third of the year.
It’s what happens once the fallout for The Granddaddy of Them All concludes that should concern WWE. For therein lies the very real possibility that the ratings slide will return and at an accelerated pace.
Just as ratings traditionally increase on the road to WrestleMania, they fall as casual fans tune out once the big storylines are put to bed. WWE also runs the risk of losing more of its core audience should they fall back into the same creative rut that led them to the current mini viewer crisis. It will be imperative that the fresh storylines are indeed fresh and not rehashed outdated booking.
>>MORE: From the world of Pro Wrestling
Let us also not forget that WWE is also battling the same fierce opponent as everyone else in television: cord-cutting. It’s difficult to measure the exact impact the shunning of traditional pay TV service is having on pro wrestling, but there is no doubt it is playing a role in the overall decline. The number of customers canceling cable or satellite TV service was expected to climb to an estimated 33 million in the US this year, according to research firm eMarketer. The number represents a nearly 33 percent increase from 2017.
The net result could be SmackDown and at least the final hour of Raw routinely averaging fewer than 2 million viewers. In fact, SmackDown has already eclipsed the sub-2 million mark while the third hour has come dangerously close to it. Both shows have posted all-time record low ratings on a number of occasions this year, including in the past month, which brought about the promise to “shake up” the status quo.
It would behoove WWE to explore with its respective networks the possibility of live streaming the shows. No, that would not be a cure all for the ratings freefall. However, it would stop the bleeding and plant the seed for future growth as audiences continue turning to Over-the-Top video services in droves. Media researchers at eMarketer also estimate that 170 million people will subscribe to at least one OTT service by 2022. The number represents 58 percent of the population.
Shortly after this year’s WrestleMania, the sports-entertainment giant touted the number of subscribers to its WWE Network had swelled to more than 2.1 million. Of those, 1.8 million were paid subscriptions. However, by the end of September the number of fans paying $9.99 per month had fallen to about 1.6 million. The number is still up nearly 10 percent from the same time a year ago.
But don’t expect to see either Raw or SmackDown streamed live on WWE Network anytime soon. At least not in the United States. They would instead need to be streamed on FOX or NBC platforms since those networks own (or will own) broadcast rights for the next five years.
Ronda Rousey Will Lose At WrestleMania
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. WWE loves mainstream attention. Absolutely loves it. That’s a big reason why they’ve invested so heavily financially in Ronda Rousey. She brings tremendous value to the table and her victory over Alexa Bliss at SummerSlam to capture the Raw Women’s Championship generated an enormous amount of global press coverage.
Now things are about to get real for Rousey who appears to be booked to face Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch at WrestleMania. What could be more shocking than for the real-life UFC badass to lose at the biggest show of the year? Certainly, that would also garner plenty of attention.
But this isn’t just about getting headlines, it’s about stoking the flames of the red-hot Lynch who continues to set herself apart from the rest of the women’s division. While Rousey unquestionably has the bigger name outside of sports entertainment circles, it is Lynch who wins the popularity contest among the WWE Universe.
WWE is promising to listen to fans and the masses have made it abundantly clear that they stand by “The Man.” It would be in the company’s best interest to stay true to its word for more reasons than just to curry favor with fans. Millions of non-wrestling fans will be exposed to Lynch through the build to the match via the mainstream attention Rousey will garner. Could that be the beginning of her journey to become WWE’s first homegrown female crossover star? It’s a possibility. With the Women’s Revolution it’s time for one of those women to follow in the footsteps of The Rock and John Cena. The Bella Twins are blazing that trail somewhat, but the stage is set for a female wrestler to go full-blown Hollywood.
Bella Twins: Tag Team Champions
Mr. McMahon’s recent announcement that the long-awaited tag team titles would finally be coming to the women’s division served as an early Christmas present for those who have been clamoring for it, including many in the locker room.
It’s unclear whether there will be distinct titles for Raw and SmackDown, but I expect there will be. Logistically, it makes sense especially with the latter moving to a new home next fall.
Look for The Bella Twins to get their hands on the gold at some point. On the men’s side, WWE has a track record of giving the tag titles to veterans for a final run and help build the next generation. Most recently you can point to The Dudley Boyz and Matt and Jeff Hardy. Nikki and Brie would fit the same bill perfectly.
Women’s Exclusive Show On WWE Network
As WWE continues to search for “firsts” for the women’s division, one possibility outstanding is a weekly show that is exclusive to the women’s roster. I have spoken to a number of female talents who would be very open to the idea. In fact, nobody I spoke with was even remotely opposed to the idea. The only concern raised by the group was figuring out production logistics.
Conceivably, the show could be taped following SmackDown or Raw each week. If it is kept in-house and streamed on the WWE Network, it could also feature a blend of talent from both rosters and afford them more time to grow the tag division, which could be stifled at times given the time constraints on television broadcasts.
To be clear, there have been no reports that such a show is in the works.
205 Live Gets Cancelled
But… if a women’s exclusive show were to come to fruition, one way to solve the production logistics would be to cancel 205 Live, which is currently taped after SmackDown. It would also keep current production costs relatively flat.
Truthfully, 205 Live has to be on the chopping block regardless of whether another show will be put in its place. Viewership on the WWE Network has fallen greatly, and it is often not among the 10 most watched shows of the week, according to The Wrestling Observer. Often, it is beat out be pay-per-view replays and other original content.
What is WWE really getting for its investment in the cruiserweight division right now? Not much.
About Those Changes…
Has WWE truly seen the error of its ways? And will it stick to the overhaul its promised? Only time will tell. I expect for the shake-up to be noticeable in the short-term but will eventually settle down and lead to stale content once again. Will the booking be as poor as what we’ve seen of late? Hopefully not.
Keep an eye out for the latter part of the year. It will be interesting to see how much of Vince McMahon’s attention is pulled away from wrestling and given to the rebirth of the XFL which will kickoff in 2020. The WWE patriarch has invested tens of millions of his own dollars to fund the football league and is going to want to have a hands-on approach to its operations.
As it stands now, very little goes on-air that doesn’t have McMahon’s fingerprint on it. As beloved as he is by fans, critics also blame him for the lackluster storylines driving away audiences. Some say that his way of booking is antiquated and that he hasn’t been able to keep up with the changing times. But that’s not necessarily true.
Still, they clamor for Triple H to take the reins, citing the success that he’s had in growing NXT. While technically still a feeder system for the main roster and a proving ground future Superstars, NXT stands on its own feet. The roster is talented enough and the action unique enough that the group is able to sell out major arenas for its Takeover events. In many cases, tickets for those shows are harder to come by than the Raw and SmackDown tapings at the same arena just a couple nights later.
Should McMahon take a step back to focus on his new venture, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more of that style of wrestling find its way to Monday nights. And that is the one change fans are most clamoring for.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.