The current state of the professional wrestling landscape, as we know it today for both better and for worse, can be directly traced back to the night of Monday 4th January 1999. On that infamous evening, during the middle of WCW Nitro, commentator Tony Schiavone uttered the immortal words that are now lodged firmly in grappling folklore:
“Fans, if you’re even thinking about changing the channel to our competitions, do not. We understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their World Title. Ha! That’s gonna put some butts in the seats.”
The ‘competition’ that Schiavone was referring to was, of course, Monday Night Raw, the WWF’s flagship show that had been routinely trounced by World Championship Wrestling for the previous 18 months in what had by then become known as the ‘Monday Night Wars’. Thanks to a combination of the über-cool nWo, a bevy of marquee names such as Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and Sting, and energetic, talented young high-flyers like Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio and Chris Jericho, WCW was in a very strong position indeed.
Filled with self-confidence, the seemingly untouchable WCW, under the creative direction of one Eric Bischoff, regularly took barbed digs at the competition, and this night was no exception – by highlighting the fact that Rawwas pre-taped, and revealing in advance that a former WCW talent was going to win the WWF’s premier title, WCW was once again demonstrating to its viewers that it was the superior show and product. It was a gamble that had paid off many times before – but on this occasion, it spectacularly backfired.
Either not recognising, or being ignorant to, Foley’s mainstream and ‘everyman’ appeal, Schiavone’s flippant comment immediately led to 600,000 US viewers switching from Nitro to Raw to see the historic, interference-filled clash between then-champion The Rock and Mankind.
By attempting to damage their competitors, WCW had actually driven its own fans away from its product and towards the WWF, and inadvertently started a downward trend that would see them lose their position as the United States’ number one wrestling promotion.
Less than three years later, Vince McMahon would proudly announce that the World Wrestling Federation had purchased WCW for a paltry $2.5 million, and arguably the greatest, and most creative, period in wrestling history came to an abrupt end.
Almost fifteen years later, World Wrestling Entertainment is now in danger of making the very same mistakes that played a big role in its competitor’s downfall, albeit for different reasons and in a media landscape far removed from that of the late 1990s.
The Del Rio incident
On January 8th 2013, WWE took the decision to announce via WWE.com and its social media channels thatAlberto Del Rio had shockingly defeated The Big Show to win the World Heavyweight Championship onSmackdown – before the show had even aired on US television.
The rationale for this was simple, as Joey Styles, WWE’s Vice President of Digital Media Content for WWE.com, confirmed on Twitter on 9 January 2013 by responding “Bingo!” to the following tweet:
In short, WWE wanted to be the first to break the news.
On the face of it, there is a semblance of logic to that viewpoint, when you consider the sheer multitude of wrestling news sites currently in existence, many of which are intent on reporting the latest rumours and spoilers from both tapings and house shows (although we don’t do that, obviously!). With Del Rio’s win pre-recorded, it was bound to become common knowledge online before long, so why shouldn’t WWE reveal the results of their show before someone else beats them to it?
The simple answer: because WWE’s number one priority should be attracting as wide an audience as possible to its programming, suspending their disbelief and maintaining their interest once there, and getting them to engage with both the superstars and feuds on offer. By giving away the result of such an important bout prior to the show even airing, WWE actually dis-incentivised its audience from watching Smackdown.
Perhaps more ironically, though, WWE had penalised all of those that had chosen to engage with its social media channels, by literally slapping them in the face with a colossal spoiler, irrespective of whether they wished to see it or not.
The Alberto Del Rio incident is arguably the WWE’s biggest social media gamble to date, but it is by no means the first: whilst a great resource, social media has become an uncomfortable bedfellow of many wrestling promotions, but particularly WWE, in recent years.
The biggest problem, in this writer’s opinion, has been WWE’s incessant promotion of its social media channels – often at the expense of its own talent and programming.
‘WWE’s love affair with social media’
There is no doubt about the benefits that social media can bring to companies in 2013: effectively a 24/7 marketing channel with previously unheard-of viral reach, popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube offer organisations such as WWE the incredible opportunity to speak directly with audiences, to promote TV shows, products and appearances to targeted demographics around the world, and to extend their voice beyond the realm of the “typical” wrestling fan.
For someone like Vincent Kennedy McMahon, who has spent much of his career in a quest for the ‘holy grail’ of mainstream acceptance with a myriad of failed attempts including the WBF, the XFL, WWE Studios and, most recently, wife Linda’s Senate campaign, it’s no wonder that World Wrestling Entertainment has grasped so tightly to the world of social media, and the possibility to finally take WWE mainstream.
Indeed, so intense was WWE’s belief in social media, the company actually acquired an ownership interest in micro video-blogging site Tout in 2010, championing the channel through a selection of exclusive superstar clips and featuring its fans’ short video clips on WWE programming itself. For the casual fan, this was incredible – getting the chance to have your face seen on an episode of Raw or Smackdown alongside your sporting heroes. But for the dedicated fan that had stuck with the organisation through thick and thin, the question had to be asked: wouldn’t this TV time be better spent developing some of the WWE’s undercard talent?
Over the past five years, WWE’s love affair with social media has gradually increased, to the point that, this writer would argue, its current use of social media does, in part, actually alienate a proportion of viewers, and attracts attention away from what is actually taking place in the ring.
At its heart, social media should be used to complement a brand or product; as a marketing tool, albeit a highly interactive and, at times, reactive one, social media’s main strength and modus operandi is creating engagement and brand advocates – a band of dedicated supporters that will align themselves to your brand and firmly stand by it in the future.
A good example of this being done well by WWE is the company’s recent announcement of their first-ever crowd-sourced WrestleMania video, offering fans around the world, who are unable to be at the event itself, the chance to feel that they are involved in the promotion’s biggest event of the year. This is a great demonstration of using the medium in an innovative fashion to engage with an audience and to create long-lasting brand advocates, fostering a strong sense of involvement and community amongst the audience.
It could be argued though that WWE has, at times, lost sight of the reason for using social media. Taking nothing away from WWE’s social media success – with over 11 million Facebook fans and 2 million Twitter followers at press time, not to mention the countless millions that follow the WWE’s top stars, the WWE’s digital team should be applauded for capitalising on an opportunity for worldwide reach, and making the most of each and every newly-emerging channel to increase their market share and their product’s ‘digital noise’.
But, numbers aside, one has to ask: to what end? Each and every week, viewers have to listen to Raw commentatorsMichael Cole and Jerry Lawler enthusiastically announcing at numerous points throughout the three-hour broadcast that Raw, the upcoming PPV, or a particular talent performing on screen is currently “trending worldwide on Twitter”, meaning that a sizable proportion of Twitter users are all busy on their computers, tablet devices or mobile phones talking about what is currently happening in the programme.
For WWE, that’s great in one sense – during its flagship show, literally millions of wrestling fans are marketing their television show for them, for free. For a wrestling promoter, it’s a dream come true – in theory. In practice, what it also means is that there are, at times, millions of wrestling fans talking with other wrestling and non-wrestling fans about an episode of Raw or Smackdown – but not actually fully engaging with the product on the screen.
Shifting focus back to the squared circle
Whilst interactivity and digital noise are important for any television show in the modern era, the focus – of both the audience and the commentators – should be on what is happening inside the ring, not what is happening on a computer screen.
Take the promotion of last year’s WrestleMania main event, for instance, between The Rock and John Cena. One of the biggest WWE matches of all time, bringing together the promotion’s past and present, should have been pre-empted by heated promos between the two multiple-time WWE Champions: instead, The Rock seemed more concerned with talking about the fact that his inane sayings like “Fruity Pebbles” and “Kung Pow Chicken” were trending worldwide instead of building up his opponent John Cena and developing an actual storyline for fans to buy in to.
WWE, and wrestling promotions in general, need to recognise that there is a time and a place for social media. It’s a terrific tool for promoting the product, and for listening – and reacting to – what your audience has to say about you. But it should enhance what you are offering, not detract from it.
The other important point to make is that not everyone is actually on Twitter and Facebook – whilst the popularity of Twitter, for example, is growing by the day and now boasts more than 200 million active users worldwide, there are still an large percentage of people that don’t use social media on a daily basis and who may just want to watch a good, entertaining wrestling show.
Airing as it does in a late-night slot on a Monday evening, the irony is that Raw is likely to ‘trend’ regardless each week, if the show on offer is engaging and action-packed from top to bottom. WWE needs to focus its attention on the compelling action that takes place in the ring, not what fans to one another are saying outside of it, if it is to stand a chance of still being in such a strong position to enjoy the next technological revolution in the future.