WWE’s Fandom Conundrum

When I wrote my column about becoming more interested in companies outside WWE, I briefly mentioned naming this blog. “That Wrestling Fandom” was specifically named to not be WWE specific. But I also deliberately picked the term “fandom”, because I anticipated that at some point I’d be talking about fan culture. And here we are.

I think WWE and their fans are in an endless cycle of no-win situations.

Fans, myself included, cry out month after month for long term storytelling. Shotgun booking appears to be public enemy number one at times, and yet is all too prevalent in WWE’s programming. The obvious example going back a few months was when Finn Balor lost to Kane towards the end of last year when he was considered to be Brock Lesnar’s obvious next challenger.

And yet, when WWE try to have a feud simmering under the surface for months, that doesn’t go down well either. Sasha Banks vs Bayley is a rivalry that has burst back to the fore after last night’s Raw, and nobody seems to care anymore. The time for a heel turn, based on crowd reaction, was 14 months ago. People say this is a feud that has gone nowhere for six months, but Banks looked like she was turning heel around Wrestlemania 33 – over a year ago in April 2017.

But isn’t this what fans have been crying out for all this time? Bayley and Banks have had moments where they’ve done battle, but they’ve always reconciled at least enough to be on the same side. Shouldn’t the Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber, even the battle royal at Wrestlemania, shouldn’t all these moments have been adding chapters to the story so that when we got to the point of a turn it made total sense? Shouldn’t it have been the case where the longer that went on and more elements were added that it was all anyone was talking about today? Apparently not.

It’s the same with the superstar who actually is public enemy number one: Roman Reigns.

This is a guy who was the least experienced in a group, and the least revered, so he had to work doubly hard to get to the top. He nearly made it at the 2014 Royal Rumble, but wasn’t quite good enough. He had his championship opportunity taken from him by the man who used to be his brother but had turned on him in 2015. He fought to make his own legacy past family members who overshadowed him. He fought against the establishment who placed insurmountable odds against him, and forced the championship out of his hands multiple times when he finally did climb the mountain. He was never really seen as “the guy” by the fans, so he went about taking out the biggest beast in the universe, came closer than anyone else has to beating him and can even say he legitimately did beat him, yet still can’t call himself champion because that beast is on the run.

I say all that, I’ve been rooting against Roman as much as the next guy through all this. But if you take the fact that it is Roman Reigns out of the equation, isn’t that a great character arc that spans five years? And therefore, isn’t that exactly what we have been after? If anybody else other than Roman had been in this spot, they’d be the most over guy in the company by a long way.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve started asking myself the question: is there anything WWE can do to get Roman cheered? For such a long time, the answer was to turn him heel first. But I’m not even sure that can work. It’s become the cool thing to boo Roman, and that’s not going to change even if he has a heel run before turning back face.

Reigns crowd

That means it really doesn’t matter what WWE does with him. Whether he’s at the top of the card, the mid-card or opening the show, the fans will either boo him or not care.

And that’s what I mean by an endless cycle. The only way the fans will stop booing Roman is if he isn’t around, but WWE have invested far too much in him to not use him, and for that matter not use him at the top of the card. He’s also too good not to be used. He’s far better than Cena was at this stage in his run, and aside from an over-reliance on a couple of moves (it’s fine having signature moves, but when your entire move-set can be counted on one hand that’s an issue) Reigns is actually pretty good.

There’s no doubt as well that over-exposure becomes an issue. NXT produce some fantastic storylines that last for months on end, but they only have one hour of TV to fill each week, and they have so much talent to fit into their show that you can easily get away with not featuring a top star for one week.

Compare that to Raw, and Roman Reigns’ absence a few weeks back. Within hours, Twitter was full of people wondering if no Reigns meant that WWE had given up on his push, when in fact he was never advertised for the show and was never scheduled for the show.

And yes, compare that to New Japan. It’s a completely different ball game when it comes to their storytelling. Their “storylines” aren’t always about why these guys are fighting. It’s about how these guys are fighting. Kazuchika Okada v Kenny Omega was a phenomenal piece of storytelling, but it seemed like the “story” of Omega being the better man to help New Japan’s global expansion was secondary most of the time.

Instead it was the intricacies of each match that made it what it was. It was the allusions to moves used or countered in previous matches, something as simple as Okada not kicking out of Omega’s One-Winged Angel in the first two matches made the finish of the third so much more meaningful. It’s not that New Japan doesn’t have storylines, but the focus is so much more on competitive rivalries rather than personal ones.

That’s the real frustration for me. WWE has an incredibly stacked roster. When guys like Breezango have proven they can be entertaining, and can go in the ring, but are essentially jobbers, that tells you how deep the roster goes. But WWE storylines of late have taken away from matches more often than they add to them.

AJ Styles vs Shinsuke Nakamura should have been an all-time great WWE rivalry. But once Nakamura won the Royal Rumble, WWE clearly felt like the match would sell itself. That meant that when it came to Wrestlemania, while excited for the match, it still felt like it lacked something. And since Nakamura turned heel, the booking of the feud was horrific.

I mean, do I even need to mention Bobby Lashley vs Sami Zayn?

Bobby Lashley Sami Zayn.jpg

It’s like the current generation of wrestling fan is a different breed. NXT is widely considered to be the best of WWE’s products, but while their stories are better rounded, in theory they should be far more fleeting and less fleshed out than their main roster counterparts because of the significantly less screen time they have.

I think the modern wrestling fan is just that, a fan of wrestling. The matches, the talent and quality on display. This is a wrestling fan who needs convoluted storylines for the sake of storylines less than ever before.

Arcs of characters, sure, but not necessarily storylines. Omega v Okada was a story told over two years, but it’s not like they went about costing each other matches for the months in between their battles. They weren’t always in storylines together, and because they went off and did their own thing, each match was different because each wrestler was in a different place. That was the wonderfully simple story.

And yet, the real magic comes with emotional investment. Look at Omega v Okada. Look at Ciampa v Gargano. WWE’s main roster writers currently seem incapable of pulling that off, and until they do the frankly stupid level of talent they have on their books will compare really badly with their NXT and Japanese competition.

Even if they did, I’m not sure we would appreciate it, because we have no patience for WWE anymore. A desire for long term booking, and no patience to let things play out. A no-win situation indeed.

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