WWE must be able to answer these huge questions to have a successful 2020.
WWE has been a mixed bag in 2019, a year defined both by historic moments like the first-ever all female WrestleMania main event and dreadful storylines like Seth Rollins vs. Bray Wyatt.
From a business perspective, it’s been a disappointing year, too. A year after signing a pair of landmark TV deals for Raw and SmackDown, WWE has experienced noticeable dips in a number of key areas, including revenue, live event attendance, merchandise sales, TV viewership and the number of WWE Network subscribers, just to name a few. There is no singular reason as to why WWE, which should be riding high as the world’s No. 1 pro wrestling promotion, instead experienced noticeable setbacks this year.
Rather, a vortex of circumstances—including the rise of WWE, poor morale, superstars looking to leave the company and a lackluster TV product—have left WWE with more questions than answers in regards to its immediate and long-term futures. Heading into 2020, WWE’s ability, or inability, to answer those questions will ultimately determine whether the company has another down year or if it finally rights the ship.
Here are five important questions WWE must be able to answer in 2020.
How Serious Of A Threat Is AEW?
WWE can’t seem to decide whether or not AEW is a legitimate threat.
WWE has played a game of cat and mouse with AEW as both companies have sent mixed messages about how worried they are about competition from the other side.
As a company with a long and storied history—not to mention a built-in audience, better TV deals, more exposure and more familiarity among wrestling fans—WWE shouldn’t have a problem defeating AEW in the new “wrestling war.” What that victory might entail isn’t clear, though, and it sure doesn’t seem like AEW will be going away anytime soon. But just how legitimate of a threat is AEW? At least so far, AEW Dynamite doesn’t have anywhere near the audience that Raw or SmackDown does and is instead trying to keep pace with the much newer NXT, but it’s clear from some of the little potshots the two sides have taken at each other that WWE vs. AEW is the closest thing we’ve had to a pro wrestling war since the “Monday Night Wars” ended way back in 2001.
Though WWE is easily coasting to victory as of right now, the longer AEW sticks around, the more likely that it will become a viable competitor to WWE, especially if it assembles the right mix of talent and continues to book a quality product. In 2020, WWE needs to decide if it wants to truly battle AEW by continuing to take the company head on or if it wants to continue “doing its own thing” without even taking AEW into consideration. There are certainly pros and cons to each strategy as booking its product in a way meant to spite or combat AEW could backfire while ignoring it altogether may not work, either.
But WWE’s little game of taking cheap shots at AEW isn’t exactly a recipe for success while the same is true of AEW doing the same.
Should Vince McMahon Cede More Control To Triple H?
WWE NXT head honcho Triple H may need to take over the main roster.
Vince McMahon’s vice grip on WWE’s creative process has been a particularly hot topic of debate in 2019, when he’s become notorious for “tearing up” scripts for both Raw and SmackDown at the last minute.
Just as McMahon has been praised for many of WWE’s great accomplishments, he also takes most of the blame for things that go wrong, which comes along with the territory of having the final say-so on all of WWE’s creative matters. It’s no secret that 2019 has been a downright terrible year for WWE in terms of creating compelling storylines, pushing the right performers and delivering must-see programming, and many fans have attributed WWE’s shortcomings to McMahon’s unwillingness and/or inability to change with the times. What’s made that all the more frustrating is that Triple H, who heads up the creative process of NXT, has catapulted NXT to new heights, helping the brand land a surprisingly lucrative TV deal because the product is arguably the best and most consistent in all of pro wrestling.
The widespread expectation is that McMahon will never cede full control of WWE to Triple H, but with “The Game” demonstrating with his strong booking of NXT that he might be just what WWE’s main roster needs to improve its programming, 2020 is the year in which WWE will need to seriously consider whether McMahon should take a step back and ultimately let Triple H have more control over—or at least more input regarding—the way the main roster is booked.
Especially with Triple H working with many of WWE’s rising stars and helping them develop their characters in NXT, he should have significantly more influence regarding the way they’re booked on the main roster.
Will Part-Timers Continue To Rule The Roost?
WWE continues to rely far too heavily on part-time stars.
As has become the norm over the past several years, WWE has utilized a full dose of part-time stars in 2019, ranging from Cain Velasquez to Tyson Fury to Ronda Rousey to Brock Lesnar.
The part-timer well, however, has dried up a bit due to the retirements of stars like Batista and Kurt Angle, the apparent retirement of The Rock and the increasingly infrequent appearances of stars like John Cena and The Undertaker. When you look at WWE’s 2019 earnings reports—whether for Q1, Q2 or Q3—there is little to nothing that suggests that these part-time stars are making a significant or sustained impact when it comes to key metrics like TV viewership or the WWE Network subscriber count. Of course, that begs the question: Will WWE ever move on from its over-reliance on part-time stars?
While there has been little to suggest that WWE will change that philosophy anytime soon—especially as one report states that the WrestleMania main event could be Lesnar vs. an unproven part-timer—it’s something WWE will want to seriously consider in 2020. Most of WWE’s part-time attractions are at the very end of their careers while others, like Velasquez and Fury, may not ever develop into big draws in the world of pro wrestling, leaving WWE in quite a self-created predicament in which it’s relying on stars who don’t have much of a long-term future with the company.
WWE can and should use part-time draws when it fits the story, but the creative team needs to find the right balance between adequate use and overuse.
How Can WWE End Its Ratings Woes?
WWE must move away from the silly storylines that defined 2019.
WWE’s viewership has sunk to historic lows in 2019, with Raw generating the lowest non-holiday audience in the show’s 26-year history just two weeks ago (and then setting another record just this week) while SmackDown did the same shortly after WrestleMania 35 in May.
Aside from the obvious disappointment of its ratings slipping so much, the worst news for WWE is that there isn’t one specific thing that has caused its viewership to plummet so much in 2019. Rather, a number of factors have combined to form an unstoppable storm of circumstances that have caused fans to tune out on a consistent basis. Truth be told, fans could probably have their pick when coming up with reasons why WWE’s product has been so poor in 2019 and why that’s been reflected in its disappearing audience: Poor storytelling, a lack of major stars, overlooking popular stars, complacency, no long-term storytelling, etc.
When all those issues happen at once, you get a TV product that is highlighted by terrible feuds like Roman Reigns vs. Baron Corbin, transforms a world class wrestler like Chad Gable to Shorty G, and somehow finds a way to make Seth Rollins fall from being its most popular wrestler to its most disliked. WWE needs to find multiple solutions to multiple problems in 2019, and that’s a lot easier said than done. But the company and its creative team must start by using crowd reaction to dictate its storylines, doing a better job of crafting long-term plans and featuring overlooked stars, just to name a few.
If WWE cannot consistently tell better stories, create new stars and make the most out of the talent it does have, the company will continue to disappoint both in the ratings department and as a whole.
Who Is WWE’s Next Big Star?
WWE doesn’t have a clear No. 1 star who can carry the company like John Cena.
WWE has a number of top stars, including Rollins, Reigns and Becky Lynch, who have performed well as main eventers and strong overall performers in recent years.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a current WWE star with the type of over-the-top charisma and mainstream power that has defined so many faces of WWE in the past, including stars like The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan and John Cena. All of those aforementioned names were larger-than-life superstars who transcended the pro wrestling business to become household names in pop culture, and in examining WWE’s current roster of full-time stars, it’s essentially impossible to find anyone who’s even come close to accomplishing that or will at any point in the near future.
Though Cena himself has said he doesn’t expect there to be a “face of WWE” moving forward, pro wrestling is still, at its core, a star-driven business that needs those larger-than-life stars to thrive. Without those stars and with WWE focusing on the company as a whole rather than on building up individual stars, there is a clear lack of star power from the top of the card to the bottom, a reality that negatively affects WWE’s influence in pop culture and its perception as a consistently engaging form of entertainment. Until WWE finds its next Austin or Hogan—the type of revolutionary star who can dramatically alter the industry—it’s going to be awfully difficult for WWE to attract new fans.
WWE’s No. 1 goal in 2020 should be not to create a number of top stars, which is something it already has, but to find that new “face of the company” type of star who can carry the business for the next 10 years.