In recent articles I’ve spent some time discussing the tendencies of the modern consumer. Discussing their anti-social, isolationist habits or even how companies are hooking different types of customers. This one is a little bit different and while it doesn’t apply to every product (looking at you Marvel comic book films) it does seem to be trending a certain way.
In the late 1980s through the 1990s there seemed to be a shift in culture where everything had to be larger than life, so to speak. Our characters and personalities had to be loud and boisterous even if they weren’t exactly telling us the truth. Geraldo Rivera went from controversial and even somewhat disgraced reporter to talk show host where he and Morton Downey Jr and later the likes of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich built empires off of insane drama even if most of it were staged. Our athletes stopped looking like talented regular guys and they became jacked up weightlifting supermen like Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Bo Jackson. Mike Tyson was boxing’s king and while short in height was definitely loaded as far as muscular builds went. Everything about our culture was about bigger, faster, stronger and in the 90s that moved into a new territory when the “it” thing was to push things to their extremes. Extreme sports, extreme flavors, extreme everything. Of course this was topped off with massive action movies featuring guys like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, two incredibly huge bodybuilder actors.
In 1998, McGwire and his equally steroid laden rival, Sammy Sosa were moonshotting baseball to heights it had never seen before. A few years later a great player already in his own right, Barry Bonds, allowed that attention to drive his ego towards taking the same PEDs so that he was setting historical marks with his own home run blasts. Football players became incredibly dangerous. Faster and stronger than ever, getting hit by an NFL player was like getting hit by a speeding truck and the concussion totals racked up as a result.
And yes, I am going to use it as a perfect outline for where this is all going but professional wrestling was built to superstar heights off the backs of Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior and other muscled superstars with chiseled frames, unattainable for most human beings without some sort of medical help. Even in the late 1990s, Bill Goldberg, Scott Steiner and HHH were all huge wrestling stars with bodybuilder looks and The Rock would later carry the massively muscled action star torch for the next generation of film goers. Vince McMahon himself was a massive bodybuilder and made it clear that his wrestlers were not “wrestlers”, they were “superstars” as they were larger than life.
Fast forward 10-15 years. Vince is still trotting out huge specimens with guys like Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Batista and Randy Orton all being extremely muscled characters over the past decade or so but the fans just aren’t buying the same way. Sure a couple major events sell out quick – Wrestlemania is always packed with 60,000-100,000 people every year and they have no issues selling out the Royal Rumble show in January or the SummerSlam show in August. Those events have been around over 30 years each respectively and much of that turnout is based on long time habits and tradition. Some people just want to experience a Wrestlemania and come from all over the world to do so. Most will tell you of their issues with the current product. The out of touch booking, badly written storylines but the biggest development has been how the company has worked so hard to ignore the characters the fans *want* to cheer.
For over five years the company has been pushing a guy as the main star based on looks alone. Roman Reigns looks the part of a super star in Vince’s mind. He’s a good looking Samoan, cousin of The Rock, again with a sizable muscular frame (notice a pattern here?) who bears more than a striking resemblance to another Hollywood heart throb these days, Jason Momoa. Vince keeps making sure this guy wins and main events every show. The fans constantly revolt against it. A few years back the guy they really wanted was Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson is his real name) because while he was small, skinny and didn’t exactly have movie star looks, the guy is great in the ring. They cheered hard for him and Vince continually pushed the guy down the ladder as retaliation for the fans not obeying who HE wanted on top. Eventually it hit a point where fans were hijacking every show with Bryan’s signature “Yes” and “No” chants until the company had to give him the main event and title at Wrestlemania 30. A few concussions later and he was on the shelf not cleared to wrestle while Vince got to forge ahead with his Roman Reigns stuffed down your throat project.
So where am I going with all of this? Wrestling fans didn’t want the big muscular dudes anymore. They boo John Cena. They really boo Roman Reigns. They wanted Bryan, they wanted CM Punk, they want the very small Johnny Gargano on WWE’s NXT project. And the company has seen ratings drop precipitously, not just because of the company’s claim of more entertainment options than ever diluting the number, but because people can’t stand watching 3 hour shows built entirely around characters they have no interest in. House shows (wrestling events that are not televised) used to be big business for the WWE, the attendance has dropped and while overall averages are still reportedly in the 5,000 range, some photos make you wonder exactly how cooked those numbers might be. WWE has made a ton of money on licensing products to everyone that will make anything WWE related (especially toys) and on TV deals with USA Network, FOX and overseas in countries like India and China where the product is still seen as more viable. Networks don’t seem to be scared by the ratings because it still pulls in some of the key demos they look for. However, make no mistake the ratings today are at the level of or worst than in the mid-90s when people were so fed up with the product they switched to WCW to watch Nitro out of both curiosity and disgust.
WCW doesn’t exist today but what does is New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor. Two companies that are on their own fairly regionally successful but in the past two or three years, their emphasis on wrestling and just putting the best wrestlers on the card has paid off. There are almost no hugely muscular characters on their shows, just guys that put their heart and guts out there for the fans to see. All of a sudden, these companies are making waves. New Japan introduced a group of characters a few years back called The Bullet Club. It was a direct homage to the 90s WCW group the New World Order and WWE group Degeneration-X. The group has become so hot in it’s latest incarnation that Hot Topic now sells their t-shirts and they are flying off the shelves.
The group is popular for a variety of reasons – all of the characters involved are extremely talented in ring workers and they’re characters with a great deal of range from extremely comedic to very serious and can pull off a great deal of storylines. WWE since the end of the competition with WCW took away the ability for their superstars to do promos unscripted, so nobody is allowed to be themselves. It seriously ruins the organic nature to the product and prevents guys from getting to the top that Vince doesn’t want there. It also prevents any real connection to the fans. Unless you’re a Make-a-Wish kid, attending an elementary school selected for a reading event during Wrestlemania week in the event’s host city or paying a lot of money for the WWE Axxess convention for 2 seconds and an autograph, there is zero accessibility to the superstars. Larger than Life must also mean, not in your lifetime.
For The Bullet Club, it’s the complete opposite. They do a weekly 15 minute, well directed, well shot, well scripted episode of a YouTube show called Being the Elite that comes out every Monday. The Young Bucks, Nick and Matt Jackson are the architects of the whole thing and they themselves have been so successful at marketing themselves they are making money at WWE levels without ever having had to have been there. Everyone else on the show and in their orbit are now doing similar business via merchandise sales, appearance fees, etc. They have been brilliant at marketing themselves. But where they truly shine is their connection to the fans. They will have 10-20 hour travel days sometimes being on the road 6 out of 7 days and a couple of those trips are to do fan signings at places. They go out of their way to make sure to include fan events in their schedules and this fan friendly concept spills over to their Twitter feeds where they talk directly to their fans, ask for their feedback and opinions. Sometimes Cody (Rhodes, yes, son of the famous Dusty Rhodes) will go out of his way to make sure some fans can make it out to shows or he’ll set up viewings for them if they are struggling with a hardship or another. They’re all so likable and accessible.
This is definitely a reason why their next big idea, one they had on their own radar but one they took on a bit of a dare from Wrestling writer Dave Meltzer. He said that he didn’t think Ring of Honor could sell out a large arena, at least not right now. The stats backed him on this somewhat, as no other company outside of WWE had done it since the late 90s with WCW and Ring of Honor was at best doing smaller venue sellouts. Cody and The Young Bucks pooled their own money together and announced ALL IN for September 1st at the Sears Centre in Chicago, IL. The venue had a capacity of 10,500 and nobody expected them to be able to fill it. The event was slated for September, a time traditionally when wrestling companies don’t draw all that well. The ticket sales went live without a presale and without a single announced match for the show.
29 minutes & 36 seconds.
Thank you. Very much. pic.twitter.com/imOxKUSNsC
— Cody Rhodes (@CodyRhodes) May 14, 2018
It sold out in 29 minutes. The sellout was a testament to how the fans feel about these guys. Cody, The Young Bucks and possibly the hottest wrestler in the world today (and maybe since Steve Austin or The Rock in the 1990s) Kenny Omega are all in shape, all strong guys who work out and yes, even have a that aforementioned dreaded muscular frame, but they’re not some stiff, antiquated bodybuilders in the ring and it’s clear they wear it differently than most of the guys Vince covets. They break the old time molds of what wrestlers can do in the ring and they connect with fans. They’re accessible and that matters.
People took notice of the sellout. WGN America decided to carry the one hour live pre-show. Both New Japan and Ring of Honor’s streaming services picked up the event (neither actually had a hand in promoting the event or putting any money in – this was a completely independent venture by three novices to the promoting side of the house) and it’s going to be offered by traditional PPV providers.
ALL IN is a direct challenge to the structure of pro wrestling that has been in place for generations. Of course once it sold out they added a fan convention which also sold out immediately. Why not? The entire event is fan service. The success of this emboldened New Japan and Ring of Honor to work together to book Madison Square Garden next April during Wrestlemania Weekend. Yes – WWE’s Wrestlemania is in New York and that same weekend the venue which has always been home base to the company was booked for the first time by rival wrestling promotions since the 1960s and Vince couldn’t stop it. It also sold out extremely quickly, something WWE has done only twice in the past 15 years at that place. Incredible, to say the least.
As it turns out consumers, especially millennials, want accessible, real down to Earth people that they can relate to as their form of entertainment these days. Who are younger generations of viewers watching? Not as much traditional television. They’re watching YouTube or Twitch stars doing mundane tasks such as talking about or playing video games they themselves could play or unboxing packages or whatever. These are real people for the most part delivering this content. There’s no real need to play a character – if you’re funny, you’re funny. If you’re talented, you’re talented. If you’re real, well, you’re real. Authenticity matters to this generation of content consumers. And people connect with those people via comments, live chats or social media. It’s a direct link that might actually be answered because this is the livelihood of these people.
These consumers have turned away from jacked up real athletes and as a result don’t watch real sports at the same clip. Ratings for the NFL (12% for the 18-45 demographic) and MLB have dropped dramatically and while some of that is because of other controversies (for the NFL concussions and the National Anthem debate play some role) it’s not at all surprising that younger viewers are watching eSports in record numbers to the point where League of Legends and the like have massive corporate sponsors and teams and the paydays are getting big for some of the players. Look at the players – they look just like anyone else. They’re relatable. They’re accessible. They’re real people.
It’s a dramatic shift in content consumption. Heck, Millennials don’t even want fake in their porn these days.
So when you think about what you’re producing whether that be a product or a form of entertainment or whatever – think about how consumers can access it. Will they be able to ask questions directly about it? Is the product or content more than something you’re just putting in a can and releasing without any conversational efforts to the community that consumes it?
It might make all the difference in a world where Larger than Life has been cut down to size.