I spent last week in sunny Orlando, Florida for NXT TakeOver, WrestleMania 33, and a variety of other theme park related activities. It was my second Mania, having attended in 2012 to watch The Rock and John Cena collide after a year long build. I also witnessed the beginning of the Daniel Bryan movement after his 18 second loss to Sheamus. Five years later, I find myself reflecting on the passionate crowd response that weekend which marked a huge change in Bryan’s career, and comparing it to what I experienced in Orlando.
The dynamic was completely different for Mania 33, and being amongst the hub of die-hard wrestling fans and observing their habits in person for such an event opened my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I was already keenly aware of the current nature of WWE’s audience, but experiencing it at that level cemented a lot of my perspectives.
As we all know, WWE is inadvertently gravitating towards the niche – the most passionate crowd members of all, in order to squeeze every last dime from their reliable pockets. While cashing in a TV deal with the USA Network, they’ve created an overload of television content that runs off casual fans. You must be dedicated to follow WWE in any real capacity due to the time investment required. For those who want more, it is available in ample supply on the WWE Network. This has created a unique subculture of people who will spend a lot of money on WWE, and also fill social media with their opinions, typically about what WWE is doing wrong.
There is always fair criticism to throw WWE’s way, certainly. But WrestleMania 33 week demonstrated how false, inaccurate, and in many ways, completely irrelevant the vocal opinions of the most passionate fans are. Who are these people, you ask?
They are the minority who think they are the majority. They believe that what they want and think is not only correct, but that it’s what everybody else wants and thinks. They have been given the tag of “smart fans”, but in reality, they’re the biggest marks of all.
They’re the people who complained about Goldberg beating Kevin Owens for the Universal Title when watching at home, and gave him a frosty reception at WrestleMania. Until the bell rang. At which point, they reacted with more pure emotion than they did for all their weekly favourites, because the star power, physical charisma and storytelling is more important than their so-called educated opinion and pious prejudices. The next night after Raw, they did the same. A cold reaction to his music. Then Goldberg talked, and when he was finished, he received resounding Goldberg chants from fans living in the moment and not self-consciously overanalysing.
They’re also the people who chanted “We Want Balor!” in the Brock Lesnar segment on Raw and believe he’s a superstar. He has New Japan cred, NXT cred, and has been lucky enough to never be overexposed thus far due to injury. Him, they’re willing to treat like a big deal. Until they finally get him, then they do the Mexican wave during his match minutes later, not caring about him one bit.
They chant “TEN!” in every match that spills to the floor to amuse themselves, undermining the hard work and stories being told in the ring to the viewers at home. They pop for the debut of the Revival, then go silent for their match.
It’s a weird dynamic. They’re die-hard fans in a sense, but in another, they embody the traits of the casual fan, in that they’re seemingly waiting for the talking point, the quick, superficial event that happens, giving them something to tweet about. The big debut. The surprise heel turn. The shocking highspot. In between, their passion dwindles waiting for the next big moment. Their reactions over WrestleMania week tell that story clearly. But despite the casual fan tendencies, they project the “smart” perspective, for lack of a better term. And they wear their fandom and attitude proudly.
There is an old saying – “the easiest person to con is a conman”. You know, the guy that has enough knowledge to feel like they know the whole score, but really don’t. That was never more evident on Raw when Roman Reigns stood mid-ring for ten straight minutes of vociferous booing. It displayed the most beautiful, grand irony of all. For the fans desire, pride and self-importance about being opinionated, their reactions are actually the most predictable of all. Quite possibly, they’re also the most oblivious. How so?
If you’re Vince McMahon, who do you see more money in – the guy the fans say they want, react big for at first, then do the mexican wave when they get him? Or the guy they say they don’t want, but evokes genuine, incredible emotion for 10 straight minutes without saying a single word?
People have complained about the booking of Roman for a long time, and fairly so. But to people who complained about him beating Braun Strowman at Fast Lane, or have grumbled every time Reigns is featured above everybody else, there is one lesson you must understand. Vince McMahon isn’t booking Roman Reigns to be a Finn Balor. Balor fits the category of guys like Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins – people that are identifiable as WWE TV stars and perceived as a big deal by the existing audience. The number of Balor, Owens, Rollins and Enzo and Cass shirts spotted around Orlando was incredible. To that segment of the crowd, the most impassioned fans, they are big stars. But the stats show that Roman sells more shirts than all of them – you just didn’t see anybody in Orlando wearing them.
Vince McMahon is booking Roman Reigns to be a superstar. He wants Roman to be somebody whose reach extends beyond than the current audience. He already has you for life. It may work. It may not. But cast your mind back, as I am, to the passion surrounding Daniel Bryan. The hardcore fans backed him all the way and through force of will, got him to the main event of WrestleMania 30, convinced he was a genuine superstar. By the reactions, you could easily believe it. But make no mistake, Bryan didn’t move the numbers beyond the level they were already at. A star to one segment of the audience, who think they are the entire audience. But the cold hard facts said otherwise. Further back, when CM Punk did his famous pipebomb promo, you heard all the talk about how the angle had more “mainstream buzz” than anything in years. In reality, it was just engaging the existing, die-hard fans a little more. Money In The Bank only did about 15,000 more buys on Pay-Per-View than it did the year before, a marginal improvement. Catering to the vocal minority didn’t pay off either time.
Roman isn’t there yet either in terms of paying off. The natural comparison is, of course, John Cena. While the comparison is tough, Vince ended up being justified in his stubbornness in never turning John. Economically, Cena meant more a babyface than he would have as a heel, and nobody was close to his numbers. The first chant that started in the Citrus Bowl before the WrestleMania 33 pre-show hit the air, by the way? “Let’s go Cena! Cena sucks!” Cena is a superstar, and sometimes it’s the indirect message that tells the story more than the direct one.
Regardless of the content of the actual chants, Roman Reigns looked like a red-hot money player standing amongst that type of response. Was it the exact reaction Vince wants Roman to have in a perfect world? Of course not. But as Arn Anderson once said, “We don’t take your cheers to the bank.”
The fans are entitled to enjoy pro wrestling however they see fit. But part of wrestling gravitating to the niche audience is the proliferation of vocal opinions denigrating WWE’s direction, and in some ways stunting their potential growth. As stated earlier, plenty of criticisms are valid. But if WrestleMania 33 taught anybody any lesson, it was that if the fans looked at their own positions with the same critical eye as they view WWE’s, they’d be chanting “Go Away!” at themselves quicker than you could say “Yes! Yes! Yes!”.