Story is extremely important to WWE. They value it over the in-ring performances and proof of that can be seen by watching Raw where the show has opened with an Authority promo almost every week for the last two years. Somewhere in the early 2000’s the WWE lost its flair for telling great stories. They left a formula that worked for one that seems to be less focused. Slumping ratings are an indication that something with this current formula needs to change soon. More recently there is another reason that WWE is inconsistent with storylines and that's the Network.
The WWE no longer operates under the motto if you build it they will come. They instead are focused on building a better mousetrap. That mousetrap is designed to get people to subscribe to the WWE Network. There was no greater indication of this then how they have handled the Kevin Owens John Cena feud.
Owens debuted as the perfect foil for Cena a few weeks ago and seemingly landed an almost unthinkable debut match with John Cena at Elimination Chamber. There were probably only a handful of people who could have ever predicted that. WWE had created buzz because Owens was extremely fresh and the surprise element of it was a welcomed change.
This match was drawing in hardcore fans and building strong heel heat for Owens with casual fans. That’s just what the WWE needs to do to garner interest. Especially considering the company has been void of top heels for the past few years.
To their credit Owens and Cena delivered a match that was not only fun too watch, but provided a certain level of electricity that has not been felt since Punk and Cena met at MITB 2011. The Owens win was also a welcomed change from the status quo. Cena was beat clean and the value of a win over him can never be overstated.
The WWE had an easy follow up for this angle. Keep Cena and Owens apart until SummerSlam. The story is straightforward. Owens is an NXT star (technically as long as he is NXT champ), and can hold the win over Cena the rest of the summer building towards a rematch at SummerSlam, WWE’s second biggest event of the year. Owen’s can claim that he’s too busy in NXT to messing with Cena.
This is what the WWE of the past would have done. They probably would have had the two meet in a tag match or two and kept them largely apart to keep fans excited for when they would eventually meet. Yet, that’s not what the WWE is any more. Instead they function to drive their business model more directly.
Before the Elimination Chamber event was over WWE announced that Owens and Cena would meet at MITB in two weeks. This was done so that fans who were only subscribed on the free month program would not cancel later that night and would stay on for the next month. They had just witnessed a really good match and WWE was promising to give it to them again in two weeks.
In the past the WWE would have let their product stand on its own. They would have let the fans decide to continue to watch because they were impassioned about the product and wanted more. In this case they laid the mousetrap. They prayed on the fans desire to see the next match between these two so they gave it away cheaply to get subscriptions and it comes at the cost of doing this story correctly.
Kevin Owens asked for a fight with John Cena, but he’s also a man that fights for a prize. He got his win over John Cena. So the next night on Raw he would likely not give Cena a rematch. It’s not in his character to do so. He could claim there’s nothing in it for him. This would kick the story into the next gear. How does Cena get Owens to agree to another match?
In the meantime it allows WWE to different things with Owens and Cena to help support the next two summer specials and keep people interested in watching Raw and Smackdown. A quick rematch not only doesn’t fit the story line, but it will never be as special as it could have been if it was giving time to simmer.
The WWE is putting short-term Network subscriptions above a better long term product. The WWE certainly needs its network to be successful, but it can’t do that on the back of sacrificing storytelling. When you stop doing what you do best bad the long-term results are not good.
It only takes a look back to Survivor Series 2014 to see how true this is. The WWE did not have the option to use Brock Lesnar to headline the show, or at least they didn't want to pay extra for that. So they devised a match between Team Cena and Team Authority to cover the event, but it still lacked teeth. So they decided to have the Authorities power at stake.
That was their hook. The Authority lost and people were abuzz about the product and the show the next day. This was a free month for WWE network so many fans got to see this and it was a big success in building subscribers. There was one problem.
The WWE had booked heels in the company so bad that the only real heel presence of note over the past year was the Authority. The WWE clearly had no plan to fill the void they left so the next month of Raw and Smackdown was a bit confusing and left fans scratching their heads as to what the direction of the company was.
So the WWE rushed the Authority back with a poorly contrived angle that only made things worse. The story they told lacked consistency and logic. Those are two very important components to a proper wrestling angle.
In the meantime Network subs have continued to grow. Whether they would have organically anyway we will never know, but one consistent theme has continued since this debacle, Raw ratings have been bad. There were five shows in between Fastlane and WM31. The rating got worse each week until they finally recovered in the go home show the week before WM31.
Pundits can talk all they want about the product good and bad, but in the end ratings matter. WWE’s main weapon to get new subs for the Network is getting fans to watch Raw, which hopefully captivates them enough and holds their interest to subscribe to watch the monthly events.
The hope then becomes they see enough network content that they stick with the company and the product going forward. The company will always need the content from Raw and Smackdown to hold fans attention.
They way to achieve this is the WWE needs to take a less tricky approach to gaining viewership. They need to fall on more traditional methods of setting a feud hyping it over time and making the fans want more. They cannot simple give away angles and matches for short-term gains that will only serve to decrease the value of everything going on in the company.
It all relates back to the analogy about taking care of your lawn. People who use too much fertilizer as a short cut to keep their grass green eventually develop problems in their lawn they can’t fix. Weeds and crab grass spread everywhere and they start having to use pesticides that further weaken their grass. It becomes a constant battle to keep things in balance until eventually one day you have to start all over.
The WWE needs to realize that while the financial gains are always going to be paramount it’s the long-term future they need to look after. They have gambled on the network and it will hopefully pay off, but they will struggle to maintain if fans are losing interest in the product itself.