Performance Anxiety: WWE's Center & What It Means
Before I get started this week, I'd like to take a minute to recognize and thank everyone involved in the conversation over last week's column. It's rare that I've had an opportunity to discuss the future of the business with so many people in such a short time span, and it's what makes writing about this wacky business so rewarding.
When the WWE Performance Center opened just about four months ago, it caused several extremely positive things to happen pretty much right off the bat. The first, and perhaps most important in this struggling economy, is that it created a lot of jobs in the Orlando area. The second is that it allowed the WWE to give their wrestlers in the developmental system of NXT a high-tech, world-class facility in which to ply their trade. Lastly, it took the concept of the WCW's Power Plant and brought it into the new century, with a complete focus on not just the nuts and bolts of wrestling but also conditioning, medicine, promos, and announcing. It was intended as a one-stop shop for all things professional wrestling, and it allows the WWE to breed their next generation of stars in a way that must have seemed nearly impossible just ten years ago.
While all of these factors are great in their own right and deserving of the acclaim they have received, as a longtime wrestling fan I can't help but wonder if, even in ushering in this new era of branded development, we've been remiss not to shed a tear for the "old school" way of getting to the big leagues. WWE has always cultivated a specific look, and while I certainly feel this tenet of their culture is progressing a bit in the last couple of years, it's interesting to note that many of those gentlemen cut their teeth out in the independents prior to signing up with WWE. While both company brass and superstar have to give equal effort to truly get someone over (or attempt to), it's a fair statement to suggest that some of their reputations preceded them quite greatly.
From the carny days to the Gotch/Hackenschmidt glory days to the ushering in of territories and television, a big part of wrestling has always been the movement of talent. In the past, it was a truly necessary evil, as a fan favorite in one area could portray a heel somewhere else with little worry of backlash or confusion. In reality, it was the strong bookers of the day that drove the talent to transition, as many champions were heavily invested in the company they appeared for and therefore were unable to take too many side trips to other parts of the country. It was precisely this competition that proved the biggest friend and foe simultaneously to the era of territorial wrestling: while bookers battled over the rights to allow the biggest names of the day to appear in their ring or on their television show, those same gentlemen played every card in the deck against each other to stack the odds up for themselves in an attempt to become number one.
As modern fans know, Vince McMahon put an end to that by singlehandedly eliminating the territorial players one by one, finalizing the saga by dramatically purchasing WCW out from under Ted Turner in 2001. At the time, it was seen rightly as the fitting end to a string of successes for McMahon that at many times along the way might have seemed impossible. Vince has always been a shrewd businessman (and had his way with every big name in the game, from the aforementioned Turner to Jim Crockett and everywhere in between) and this was seen as the proverbial and literal coup de gras of a job well done. The ink had no sooner dried on that deal than the first catcalls arrived regarding competition. Where would it come from? Who would be the next major challenger to the McMahon empire? How would it affect the quality of the product? These questions, unfortunately, remain.
With the future of TNA in doubt, many fans are asking those same questions again. Whether TNA was ever a viable alternative is debatable, but either way you look at that issue, there's little debate that competition is a good thing. It's a fundamental rule of business: when competition occurs, it is the consumer that wins. One of the hardest things for the WWE to consistently do since that fateful day in 2001 is find a way to up their game while truly competing only with themselves. The talent on the roster plays a big part, to be sure, but the ill-fated brand separation was a direct result of this idea: Creating competition internally due to no competition externally. The result, unfortunately, is less than enthralling. It's no coincidence that some of the best product put out by either of the Big Two promotions was during those Monday Night Wars. You're more likely to blow us away when looking over your shoulder.
Historically, major promotions have always had feeder federations that could provide talent at a reasonable cost in very short order. Unlike professional sports leagues, however, these minor leagues don't compete against each other, and therein may lie the rub. There can be no doubt that the days of traveling the country (or the globe) to wrestle anywhere and everywhere to make one better is starting to look like a dinosaur. With that ease of convenience and access, though, comes the potential loss of something equally important: that is to say, the talent fails to make the fundamental connections to the business that served their ancestors so well simply through trial and error with opponents (and audiences) of all different backgrounds.
It remains to be seen if the Performance Center will allow the WWE to realize their dream of landing talented youngsters and grooming them into the next set of superstars all under their own roof. As mentioned before, these type of plans have not tended to have wholly favorable results. Much of the outcry regarding WCW's well-publicized Power Plant was a reliance on look over wrestling ability; no less a historic figure than Bret "Hitman" Hart has suggested that the work may have been dangerously questionable. While there's no doubt that a wrestling school of some type is a natural extension of any promotion, it harkens back to the promoter's ideal of cornering the market by raising the dogs from pups. I don't claim to have any insider information regarding WWE's rumored downplay of outside talent, but I think the record speaks for itself in that area. They clearly have a far better track record pushing their own names than figuring out what to do with talent (and characters) created elsewhere. It used to be a name change and a slight gimmick tweak was all that was required, but now we're attempting to mold them in utero.
Clearly, some of the success or failure of this enterprise will fall on the shoulders of the people doing the teaching. As the number one wrestling company in the world, the WWE has a wealth of experience to draw from, both in front of and behind the camera. Having people of many different experience levels and backgrounds walk new talent through what awaits was one of the more captivating aspects of the too-brief Tough Enough revival. There can be no doubt that when Steve Austin, Booker T, Trish Stratus and Hugh Morris are speaking, it behooves young wrestlers (and fans in their own right) to listen. There is no one road to success, but there is a very definite code on how you get there. Hard work and perseverance, naturally, rule the day. But as we recently heard from someone brought up through the old school style, Chris Jericho, one key ingredient is not giving up on yourself and knowing that you will get the opportunity to carry the torch someday. Despite these words of wisdom, too few hear the call. Perhaps even less now.
I am a bit too cynical to believe that the WWE is being completely altruistic in this endeavor. From a business standpoint, I can't blame them. From the standpoint of somebody who loves wrestling and is concerned about its direction, however, I admit to having some concerns. To think that decades of building the business through blood, sweat and tears can be boiled down to one training school in Florida is questionable in the extreme. To have a legend like Rey Mysterio discuss his history overtake the need to see Mexican wrestling through one's own eyes is even more of a fallacy. It's a similar experience for us all as wrestling fans: There is a time when we thought WWE was everything in the business (maybe some still do), and then we popped in our first AAA or IWGP or NJPW or ECW tape/DVD/what-have-you and said "Wow." Imagine if you're replicating that experience but actually performing in the ring. How could it not fundamentally impact your ability to deliver the goods to the fans on a nightly basis?
The same can be said of the wrestling promo. I am genuinely excited to learn that promo work is getting such a big focus in the Performance Center, because it's never been more important. You can't just show up and look scary anymore; there's got to be reasoning and personality in order to connect with hip, modern fans. Because both accessible and inaccessible simultaneously is a tall order for anyone; for a green rookie, it's brutally hard. The recent hubbub over leaked promos overlooks the fact that, regardless of content, the farm system has to be free to express themselves in whatever way necessary BEFORE they hit the big dance. Anyone in a fury over that promo must be the same individuals who thought Fritz Von Erich was really a Nazi or Sgt. Slaughter really hated America. Even in front of a live audience, however, this will only tell part of the story. The far bigger challenge is taking that same act into every bingo hall, gymnasium, or farmer's market across the country and making it work in front of your diehard fan. That type of experience simply can't be replicated in any other fashion, certainly not in the sanitized, corporate environment of the only game in town.
Being prepared to be different is something that the Performance Center should preach if it truly wants to be successful. I admire their intent, and obviously am not on the inside enough to know if that is the case. Even with a lack of top-level competition, WWE needs to take a lesson from wrestling's storied history and continue to find ways to alter without changing the core. The average wrestling fan today is too savvy and too busy to sit still for long without having that "Wow!" moment for themselves. There simply is no substitute for experience. There never has been. Confining that experience to the land of Disney is a dangerous game indeed.
*Speaking of TNA, news of their sale has overtaken the wrestling world of late and brought a much-needed shot in the arm of excitement to a dormant franchise. Whether Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan's interest is genuine or trumped-up (I would assume the former, as he's partnered with them in the past and done many wrestling-related things) I think it's a big positive for the wrestling community. Having a celebrity part-owner is clearly not a cure-all for TNA: they got into this mess with a series of bad decisions. That said, a fresh and outside perspective can cure a lot of ills indeed. While I ultimately would be surprised if Jeff Jarrett didn't continue to have a major stake in things (assuming it is sold), I would not be averse to a complete 180 on this thing. TNA must find a way to avoid WWE-lite claims while still staying relevant and keeping the lights on, all at the same time. I don't know that there's ever been a better time to introduce a viable alternative to the mainstream. Let's hope they figure out a way to do it, regardless of who may be buying.
*Confusing turn of events with The Big Show being thrust back into the main event limelight as the next opponent of Randy Orton. While the idea being tossed around of Daniel Bryan reclaiming his title shot through the Royal Rumble and cementing it at WrestleMania seems likely, I can't imagine there's a great deal of sense supplanting that feud with this old, recycled one. It's likely not worth the column space to get into the ridiculous twists and turns of this lawsuit angle, and Show has stepped up to the plate and delivered some excellent matches in the past. It just reeks of more of the same to me. As to the rumors of potentially unifying the WWE and World titles, I think it's intriguing. The WWE has too many championships (especially considering they can't find a way to defend half of them per PPV it seems) and it makes sense to have one really big title only. The big issue? They already seem to have difficulty juggling the top-tier guys not currently competing for one or the other of those belts. How will only having one impact that situation?
*I've been a fan of Goldust's return from the start, but he should be named comeback wrestler for the year 2013 right about now and call it a day. For the third Raw in a row, he put on a spirited effort and at times looked like the best talent in a ring filled with them. Dustin Rhodes has been a mercurial figure in the sport to put it mildly, and his offscreen travails are well known. Isn't in inspiring when someone takes that motivation and gets it right? He's been the emotional center of this feud with The Shield, and more importantly he has brought his A-game and looks absolutely tremendous. It's not easy to go from the sidelines at that point in your career and perform to the level that the WWE gives you mega-screen time on a weekly basis. Give credit where it's due: Goldust deserves as much praise as anyone for making that feud so red-hot and keeping it there.
*I find the three-man wrestling announcing team to be a bit onerous at times, and not just due to the people making up that team. I confess that I truly did enjoy the contributions of Zeb Colter and Alberto Del Rio last night, however. Heels acting heelish towards the announce team, the talent in the ring, and each other generally makes for entertaining television. ADR was much better in that role than he's been when given the chance on his own in the center of the ring with a microphone. WWE should explore this as a way to keep things fresh. Too many voices can definitely be a problem on any live show, but using these opportunities to push plot points and move storylines along gradually is a very good idea. The WWE has plenty of loud, colorful characters who could be matched up in this regard. It's an excellent use of talent that otherwise might not appear on the show.
That is all I have for this week. I'd like to thank you for reading and, as always, encourage you to share your thoughts in the space below. I can also be reached 24/7 on Twitter @DharmanRockwell and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you want to see from the WWE's use of the Performance Center? Will it take the business to a new plateau, or set us down a side road that detours into difficulty? Let me know! I will see you back here on Friday with the Headlines. Have a great week!