How old do you imagine the average WWE fan to be?
Given the prominence of John Cena and has record for having done the most Make-A-Wish fulfillment ever, the PG rating of the show, all the toys for sale and so on, you’d probably guess young, and I don’t mean Mae Young.
You’d be wrong.
The average WWE viewer is 41 years old. And a whopping 37 per cent of the audience is over 50. And you wonder why segments featuring the likes of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair get the biggest cheers.
WWE is facing the same issue that printed comics and action figures are – kids aren’t getting into that stuff any more. Is it just that prices have risen so much in everything that a kid’s allowance doesn’t go very far? For perspective – when I was 14, I had a $5 allowance. In one week, I could buy a couple of comic books or a wrestling action figure; in two, I could buy a bigger figure. In three, a vehicle or a T-shirt. Nowadays, $10 will get you a download of a pretty good video game that came out a year ago, and it won’t even buy you a decent action figure. WWE T-shirts run around $25, but some WWE action figures (the Defining Moments series) also run that high.
The funny thing is that it’s adults who bemoan “the PG era” the most, even though, if they’re in their early 40s, they grew up with an even more PG era. You’d never have heard Hulk Hogan or King Kong Bundy say “Kick your ass” in the ’80s, but now everyone can. Yes, the NWA was violent and sometimes got bloody…until Ted Turner took it over and instituted a “no blood on TV” rule. Meanwhile, the Attitude era that fans like me love and idolize arguably had some of the dumbest shit ever to appear in wrestling (Pregnant Mae Young, any angle involving the Big Boss Man, Katie Vick, Vince McMahon vs. God, Jon Heidenreich, Road Warrior Hawk’s alcoholism played for laughs, Super Hero In Training, Gene Snitsky miscarriage angle, Vince finding Jim Ross’ head inside in his ass, Pat Patterson in skidmarked underwear…). It also had some of the best week-to-week storylines, usually involving the Rock or Steve Austin, or both.
While the TV-PG push is seen as proof that the company is targeting kids, it seems to me more pragmatic than that. Reportedly, Mattel insisted on the rating in order to do a toy deal after the WWE-Jakks relationship fell apart. At the same time, Linda McMahon was running for office, and opponents tried to smear her as being part of a company that promoted violence and misogyny. I’m happy we got the great toys – Mattel’s Elites are the best wrestling figures ever, bar none – but they run about $20, and I’m sure most kids would rather buy a video game than a miniature Road Dogg Jesse James with removable shirt. Besides, even back in 2000 I interviewed a Toys R Us manager who told me the majority of action figure buyers in his store were single men in their twenties. I don’t think that has changed much.
So how do you draw kids in? I don’t have a magic answer, but I do have a theory based upon what I once valued.
Kayfabe matters. Yes, we all know it’s just a story, and we’re fine with wrestlers going on talk shows out of character. But calling it “just a story” doesn’t mean “treat the story like shit.” I used to memorize every title holder, every title change, every former gimmick, and rattle off those statistics. Kids like to do that, be it with baseball cards, Pokemon, or train serial numbers. So don’t treat that like it doesn’t matter.
If a gimmick isn’t working, don’t just flush it down the memory hole – explain it in-story. WWE likes to hire writers of soap operas, but their own show is way more narratively inconsistent than any soap could get away with. Something like the “G-TV” storyline, featuring hidden GOTCHA camera moments, lasting for weeks, should never fizzle out without revealing its purpose. If you’re running vignettes for a character like the Boogeyman, and he injures himself a week before debuting, find a reason to explain why the vignettes aren’t running.
I realize those are classic examples rather than recent ones, but I hammer on current ones regularly – a big one being the Bray Wyatt-John Cena feud. If your angle is that John Cena might give into his rage, play that up at some point before their FINAL match. And explain to me why that was the final match – wouldn’t a character like Bray be more tenacious than that?
The Hulkamania era had its share of weirdness, but the only angle I ever remember being outright dropped was one involving a mysterious masked man attacking Earthquake, never to be revealed. In part, this may have been because most TV matches were stars versus jobbers; by the time a star got put in an angle, they were good and ready, and sure it would work, having tested it at house shows only. We never saw Mike Shaw as Friar Ferguson on Raw, because it was nixed in the live show phase, so we got Bastion Booger instead. I saw Tugboat at my first live WWF show, months before he was on TV, and he got a good reaction. I think the last time anything like that happened was when I saw Sheamus do an early dark match, and he got on the mic and said something about how real Irishmen don’t dance around with leprechauns.
I don’t know if improved consistency would bring in more kids. My youngest brother Adam was always a huge fan of Suicide just because of the skull mask – maybe more comic-booky characters need to return. What I do know is that without new fans, we’re in trouble. Even if, in the short term, it means Cena’s popularity drops.
Now, let’s see if Raw furthers the actual storylines tonight. Oh wait, Grumpy Cat. Shit.