WWE aims to rebrand itself - East Valley Tribune: Sports

WWE aims to rebrand itself

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Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 12:15 am

Hard-core grappling fans may consider the idea blasphemous, but I can understand why Vince McMahon is trying to distance him and his promotion from the term "pro wrestling."

At this point, it's probably best for both sides.

Following last month's "Wrestlemania 28" pay-per-view show, McMahon proclaimed that WWE would no longer stand for "World Wrestling Entertainment." Rather, it has become a title for a company trying to branch into other forms of show business and form its own cable-television network.

WWE announcers must refer to performers as "superstars" rather than what McMahon now perceives as the lowbrow term of "wrestlers," even though the grappling genre is what built his multimillion-dollar empire.

"I think every brand has to re-create itself," McMahon told the Los Angeles Times. "I want everyone to look at us in a vastly different way than they have."

Mind you, McMahon's effort is like putting lipstick on a pig. At the end of the day, WWE's core business still consists of guys and gals in tights conducting faux fights inside a ring. That's pro wrestling.

McMahon also is himself to blame for the seedy perception the industry maintains in the public and corporate worlds. He is the one who long approved tasteless and offensive storylines before an attempt to market PG programming in 2008 and reinvent WWE as "family-friendly" fun. WWE also long ignored signs of substance abuse among its performers, which led to a rash of premature deaths that painted the entire genre in a negative light.

Besides being negatively affected by the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed-martial-arts pay-per-view shows, McMahon and Co. have struggled to find compelling storylines and another generation of performers with the same kind of appeal as late-1990s icons like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. This is exemplified in an annual pro-wrestling survey conducted by The Sports Poll, a service of TNS.

Of the roughly 12,000 participants in last year's survey, 20.8 percent described themselves as "fans." That is the lowest number since The Sports Poll began compiling information in 2000 and the third consecutive year showing a decline. The percentage of "avid fans" (6.3) also is the lowest in 11 years of TNS surveys.

Interest of "fans" declined in five of seven age groupings -- including a 5 percent dip in the coveted 18-24 demographic from 2009 to 2010 -- and all but two of six financial brackets (under $20,000 and $100,000-to-$150,000 annual income). There also were drops in the two largest minority demographics -- black/African-American (44 percent to 39 percent) and Hispanic (33.4 percent to 32.4 percent).

The television ratings for this week's "Monday Night Raw" (USA Network) reflect how the disconnect extends to former fans who can't even be lured by nostalgia. The heavy advertising and mainstream promotional push that WWE gave for Johnson's on-air 39th-birthday "celebration" -- as well as a "Wrestlemania 28" headline rematch featuring John Cena vs. Mike "The Miz" Mizanin -- resulted in almost the exact same "Raw" ratings from the previous week's episode, according to the pwtorch.com website.

While the total of 5.22 million viewers will keep "Raw" among cable television's highest-rated shows, the number is lower than for pre-"Wrestlemania" episodes when Johnson first returned to WWE. And the decline comes at a time when Johnson is starring in a just-released blockbuster movie ("Fast Five" with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker).

This likely indicates that those fans who were intrigued by seeing Johnson in earnest on WWE programming for the first time in years didn't see enough of what they liked in other segments or at "Wrestlemania 28" -- a show that was a major domestic success on pay-per-view -- to regularly follow the company once again.

So between stagnant-to-declining domestic growth and no traditional fixes in sight, I can't blame McMahon for trying to think outside the box and reinvent his product by eschewing the term "pro wrestling." McMahon, too, can now continue his quixotic quest to become known as more than a grappling promoter even though he has flopped with such prior endeavors as the XFL football league, World Bodybuilding Federation and, more recently, B-grade movies.

WWE will continue to draw fans to its grappling offerings. But by disavowing "pro wrestling," WWE has left itself open to competitors who will embrace the term in hopes of siphoning some of the former's dominant market share. For example, TNA Wrestling has rebranded itself as Impact Wrestling to better push its Thursday-night shows on Spike TV.

Niche promotions like Ring of Honor, Dragon Gate and Juggalo Championship Wrestling already place a greater emphasis on in-ring action with less elaborate storylines on their Internet pay-per-view shows. Although unlikely judging by the current state of the industry, the best-case scenario for those companies would be a bump in interest from new fans who are turned off by McMahon's proclamation.

After all, there is no better way to show the love of "pro wrestling" at this point than by supporting a struggling industry on a grass-roots level.

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