Popular culture is an interesting beast to understand. How do skinny jeans become the new "in" thing? How does the "hipster" beard somehow become a thing? What about Ugg boots and Pumpkin Spice everything?
As a counselor and social analyst, this is something that always makes me wonder. 15 years ago, big and baggy was cool. Now, my wife makes fun of me if I throw something on from that era.
Why was it cool and now it isn't?
With Pro Wrestling, the issues are a little deeper than style, look or food trends.
Interestingly, many wrestlers come from Cleveland. The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Dana Brooke and Johnny Gargano all claim Cleveland as home, as do others.
The biggest issue is connecting with their audience, something the NFL is starting to have an issue with for the first time in years.
For those who haven't watched wrestling in years, there really is only one place left to find it: the WWE. Yep, what you might have known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) now is World Wrestling Entertainment thanks to losing out to the World Wildlife Fund for the WWF initials.
TNA, Total Nonstop Action, is the next "big" organization but they are struggling to pay their bills and could close or be bought by the WWE soon. Ring Of Honor is great at what it does but is unlikely to break out from where they are. Lucha Underground is a very niche market that has little hope to grab any Pop Culture buzz and New Japan Wrestling is the WWE of overseas but not going to catch on in the US.
nXt is the closest thing to the next big thing but it is a part of WWE and they will never let anything get bigger than RAW, even Smackdown has taken a big back seat to RAW, so nXt has zero chance of being seen on the same level anytime soon. If you haven't watched wrestling in years, get your free month of the WWE Network and check out a few weeks of nXt to see the future of the business, it is really exciting.
So how could WWE help bring Professional Wrestling (a term they hate as they prefer Sports Entertainment) back into the mainstream? Here are a few ways:
Focus On the Athletes
Few have thought about it but the NFL is so popular because of the product on the field. It isn't characters. It isn't marketing. It isn't storylines.
Those things have taken it to the next level but they are not the main product and they are not strong pieces of the product. The actual product, the play on the field. The athletic ability, the play calling, the creativity and what we see on the field is the best part of sports.
The same was once true when WCW was at their high point. They used the athletic ability of their Cruiserweight Division at important ratings times, opening and 9PM when WWE kicked off, because it worked. Watching wrestlers with their unique talents fly all over the ring, show innovative offense and engage the crowd was good enough to draw ratings and interest.
Rarely there were storylines behind the matchups. Instead, people were interested because of the product in the ring. The wrestlers, wrestling were enough to draw eyeballs. It works for other sports, it can work for wrestling.
WWE, TNA, RoH and the rest are full of very talented workers who can bring attention to their product by how they perform. People would talk about the moves, who they thought was more exciting and have highlights to share on social media.
One thing we know about our current culture is that it is an "On Demand" one. Pushing things down their throat just doesn't work. The WWE should have learned this years ago but still the Roman Reigns type pushes continue to happen.
Fans know when something is unnatural and react as such. When someone is supposed to be a big fan favorite but viewers see a limited reaction from the fans in the arena, something doesn't fit. Like any TV show that doesn't seem to have a grip on it's fans, when the WWE pushes wrestlers who fans are not behind or are not bought into, interest wains.
Consistency in Stories
Pro Wrestling will always have storylines. There will always be heels (bad guys) and faces (good guys). There will always be a plan in place behind the scenes. Outcomes will always be decided in advance.
While that is all true, there has to be consistency. One week A.J. Styles knocks someone out with his Phenomenal Forearm (a cool move in my opinion) but the next week someone similar can't get up quickly from the same move.
They also can't present someone as big and menacing or scary but never have his outcomes ever be big, menacing or scary. Bray Wyatt is currently a good example of that, he rarely wins anything but is presented as a big time threat. There is no consistency with that and makes things tough for fans to follow.
Listen to the Crowd
The NWO was something the crowd got into very early when Scott Hall and Kevin Nash started showing up. It was that crowd reaction that led Hulk Hogan to finally to decide to join the group. Boom, history but it was the fans' reaction that led to it really taking off.
Same thing with DX, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock in WWE. The organization tried some things out and when the fans reacted, WWE built them up.
Recently, this was true with Daniel Bryan. He isn't big. He isn't good looking. He isn't what WWE normally wants to get behind but the fans were and really forced the organization to get behind the Yes Movement.
So far, with Styles, Finn Balor and Kevin Owens, WWE seems to be buying into listening to the crowd but Reigns, Triple H, John Cena and others still are seen with bigger value.
Bringing back Bill Goldberg to fight Brock Lesnar is proof of that.
Much like the "don't push" notes, fans can tell who is connected with the fans. Fans, of anything, want something they can get behind. Recently, I got into Luke Cage on Netflix not because of what others said or a big marketing push but because the product engaged me.
Same thing happens with wrestlers. Listen to the crowd and get behind those guys.
Pro Wrestling may never become what it was in the years of the NWO, DX, Steve Austin and the Rock. It can, however, become mainstream once again. All it takes is some simple adjustments.
With such strong connections to Cleveland it will be interesting to see if WWE, or one of the other organizations, can engage the mainstream fan base once again.
If you still watch wrestling often, why? If you have stopped, what could they do to get you back?