Where Did Wrestling’s Audience Go?

Nick Paglino

Vince McMahonAt the peak of the Monday Night Wars, the total wrestling audience was over 10 million viewers. Between WWE, WCW and ECW, over 10 million watched.

These days, that number hovers somewhere around 5 million viewers.

Where did those 5 million-plus people go?

That’s the question that simply can’t be answered by those who defend today’s wrestling product. Wrestling isn’t art. It has ZERO redeeming social value. There is only one way to judge it, and that’s by how popular it is. Five-star matches? Trending on social media? Branding? That’s all nonsense. Drawing money is the be-all, end-all.

TV ratings are the quickest, most consistent way to judge. It’s the primary tangible impact the product makes from week to week. Crowd pop doesn’t matter. A small crowd can generate a big pop. HOW MANY PEOPLE WATCHED? It’s all that matters. Everything else meaningful is generated from that.

If you want to look deeper, PPV buys matter, too. Live gates matter, too. Both of those are also down.

There is just NO WAY to put a positive spin on what’s happened to wrestling over the past decade. I’ve come to realize that marks will try to do just that, however, because if they’re watching, they like it. Common sense. Not everyone watches with a critic’s eye. In fact, I’m jealous of those who don’t.

If you like it, you like it. Good for you. I’m more discerning. And even if you like it, you can’t deny the numbers.

So, what happened?

*Many of the 5 million-plus that disappeared were WCW fans, period. Those who grew up with TBS Saturday Night. When WCW disappeared, so did they. If they were at all cognizant of WWE, they perceived WWE as the enemy. When WWE put WCW out of business, WCW fans certainly weren’t going to reward Vince McMahon by watching Raw.

*Lack of competition: the “Audience of One.” When WWE became sole owner of American wrestling – which, make no mistake, WWE is to this very day –  McMahon no longer had to please his audience. He could book for himself, i.e. grind axes, nurse grudges and do a lot of things just to prove he could. Good or bad, doesn’t matter. It’s whatever McMahon likes, and there’s nothing else to watch anyway. TNA isn’t perceived as big-league, not in the least. ROH is off the radar.

The Monday night competition between WWE and WCW created nightly electricity, too, a back-and-forth that just can’t be duplicated.

*Wrestling programming just isn’t as good as it used to be. You may like it. But if it was good, more people would watch it. It isn’t. They don’t. Again, remember the standard this is judged by: HOW MANY PEOPLE WATCHED?

*There aren’t stars. WWE has one full-time star, maybe two. TNA doesn’t have any, which is a reflection on TNA, not its performers. Kurt Angle is a big star – just not in TNA. When wrestling was at its peak, water-cooler talk revolved around stars. “Did you see what Austin did?” “Did you see what The Rock did?” “Did you see what the nWo did?” Guys like Dolph Ziggler and Jack Swagger couldn’t have gotten on TV during the Monday night wars. THEY’RE NOT STARS.

*Certain truisms of the business are being TOTALLY IGNORED.  Play-by-play announcers are storytellers, not characters. You need faces and heels, and they need to act like faces and heels. If you blur the distinction, you blur the fans’ vision and understanding. Some might call such changes bold and experimental. I call them FAILURES.

*THE WRONG PEOPLE ARE RUNNING WRESTLING. I’ve beat this to death, but how can we say wrestling is trying its best to involve the right people when Jim Ross and Paul Heyman are only peripheral? Brian Gewirtz is long since past the time frame of booker burnout, and he’s never been very good anyway.

Wrestling is theatre of the absurd, carny huckster nonsense. Maybe it’s not meant to progress. Maybe it doesn’t deserve to progress. Maybe it’s just fake wrestling.

Pay no attention to the clichéd excuses: All the other entertainment options on cable, Monday Night Football, the cyclical nature of the business, blah, blah, blah. Cable TV and Monday Night Football were around in the late ‘90s, as I recall. And it’s amazing how the business never cycles down despite creativity and star power.

It reminds of me of Jim Cornette’s excuse for bad business for Smoky Mountain Wrestling in the springtime: Prom season. It was either wrestling or the prom for those crazy Tennessee kids, and they picked the prom!

Much of this missive is greatest hits. Opinions and the obvious regurgitated. My main purpose is to ask you: WHAT HAPPENED TO THOSE 5 MILLION-PLUS PEOPLE? Have you seen them?

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m.weekdays on WXDX-FM, Pittsburgh, PA(105.9). Check out his web page at WXDX.com. Contact Mark by emailingwzmarkmadden@hotmail.com. FOLLOW MARK ON TWITTER: @MarkMaddenX

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