I’ll never say WWE has ever lived up to the ideal I’ve imagined for it, but that’s because my ideal WWE is entirely impractical and in no way properly engrained within the realities of business and the hurdles of wrestling promotion. Though of course, isn’t that the fun of ideals? To have something to run toward?
While the WWE will always be in a losing race with my pipedream-fueled Usain Bolt, I can still stop and appreciate the proactive efforts WWE has made toward improving their company.
Over the past couple of years, WWE has broadened their programming lineup, offering more viewing choices and opportunities for wrestling fans. And as WWE’s begun touting this week, they’ve finally opened their much-anticipated WWE Performance Center, wherein future WWE Superstars can hone their craft with the assistance of a state-of-the-art, specialized facility. Lastly and perhaps most importantly of all, WWE has been finally investing in new characters to offset the gradual exodus of company veterans.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at each of these efforts to glean what these changes mean for the company, its talents and the futures of both.
WWE’s lineup is longer than my grocery list and more varied than “ramen, ramen, ramen, stea—too expensive, more ramen.”
In the early 2000s, we had four hours of weekly WWE programming – more if you were able to catch Heat and Velocity, which I never could because I was 10 and TV guides were confusing. Silly archaic booklets.
Today, between Monday Night Raw, Friday Night SmackDown, Main Event, Superstars, NXT and Saturday Morning Slam, there’s nearly ten hours (assuming you watch commercials like a weirdo) of WWE-produced wrestling each and every week, not to mention the hours of content they produce for WWE.com and YouTube. Between all the wrestling and videos of Doritos product placement and Daniel Bryan screaming at hapless fans, true WWE diehards could spend all their days consumed by WWE programming.
Although in other cases quantity might sometimes facilitate redundancy, WWE’s wrestling shows are seasoned with unique formats and wrestlers. While it’s not uncommon to see Justin Gabriel or Darren Young on Raw or SmackDown, they don’t get nearly as much time to hone their craft in front of a larger audience than your typical house show than they do on Superstars or Main Event.
Then NXT may be as big of a stretch from traditional WWE TV as you can get, taking place in a venue that looks more appropriate for an indie event than a branch of the biggest wrestling company in the world, and featuring diverse and talented prospects for whom the WWE’s Internet-savvy fans regularly beg to see called up to the main roster. This is a place where we get to witness experimentation as wrestlers and promoters play around with ideas they’d never test first on WWE television. And those experiments we see that work may be glimpses into the future of WWE programming, perhaps even glimpses into future Hall of Famers.
As for Saturday Morning Slam, way back in April, our own Brandon Lasher wrote his second-ever TJR Wrestling article confessing his fandom for WWE’s youth-oriented program: “It isn’t that little kids cannot watch Raw and Smackdown, but the hours it is on or their access to cable limits them…. The WWE has ignored this age for too long and this is a smart way to ‘get them while they are young.’” A cynic might put a negative spin on this with phrases like “childhood indoctrination,” but I know at least for my generation this sort of programming has been the cornerstone of our fandoms. I doubt I’d still be playing Pokemon Silver on my GS3’s Gameboy Color emulator were it not for watching the original series every Saturday morning on Kids’ WB. Perhaps the nine-year-olds of today cheering for Kofi Kingston will be the status quo-hating rabble-rousers of tomorrow.
Suddenly WWE developmental doesn’t look like a rinky-dink operation.
“This building really is the future of the WWE,” says the suited-up and short-haired Triple H, who himself embodies the new direction of WWE’s administration.
If you’ve been following the news lately, WWE recently opened the doors to their new Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. NXT developmental talents reported to the new center on Monday, where they’ll be able to take advantage of state-of-the-art and industry-specific technology such as a self-operated studio for character development, a full greenscreen room, a decked-out rehab facility, and a gym geared specifically toward athletic performance (as opposed to pure bodybuilding and other exercise antithetical to the conditioning and durability necessary for a professional wrestler).
In these facilities, we see the culmination of WWE’s understanding of pro wrestling development. From the seven 20-foot wrestling rings to the rehab center, the WWE Performance Center shows that the WWE understands what tools can be used to groom the attributes of a professional wrestler. This is easily the largest investment WWE has ever made in its developmental program and it shows that they’re committed to providing a secure and flexible environment for wrestlers.
While I assume many fans and wrestlers alike will prefer the grit and grime of traditional wrestling development in high school gyms and army barracks, this Performance Center enlarges the gap between WWE and its competition. Not only does it have one of the most amazing rosters in the country, even the best roster they’ve had since the Attitude Era, but now they possess a facility dedicated to homebrewing their future talents. It’s a new entry point for athletes where they don’t go to just learn how to take bumps and run the ropes, but to learn the industry from A-Z, to fully immerse themselves in the culture. This furthers the WWE’s status as the most self-sufficient professional wrestling company in the world and that’ll make it all the harder for competing promotions like TNA and Ring of Honor to level the playing field.
From Michael Cole’s least favorite vegan to the WWE Champion’s SummerSlam opponent.
While TV/Internet shows and high-tech facilities are neat and all, to me the most important aspect of a successful pro wrestling company is the characters. In previous years, fans complained WWE wasn’t pushing enough young talent, instead relying on guys like John Cena while most their veterans and legends departed gradually from the WWE. Eventually the roster was left with a few established Superstars and a slew of underdeveloped and half-chewed prospects WWE had either barely played with or never even taken out of their packages.
More recently however, we’ve seen talents like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan grow from Internet darlings to household names. Daniel Bryan in particular embodies the many changes WWE has made in its developmental methodology. Despite the inaugural season of NXT’s shoddy wrestling and awful competitions, those months of losses and battles with The Miz put down the groundwork for what’s developed into one of the most endearing underdog characters in WWE history. This week, John Cena announced he’d be facing Daniel Bryan at SummerSlam for the WWE Championship, giving Bryan the best opportunity he’s had yet in WWE. Win or lose, the fact WWE would book Daniel Bryan into a WWE Championship with their most renowned Superstar at one of the Big Four pay-per-views proves they’re willing to support those young talents who show they can connect with the fans.
Similarly, Bray Wyatt, a more recent developmental graduate, made his long-awaited main roster debut to much fanfare. Like Heather Hickey wrote back in June, thanks to his days in WWE’s developmental program he got to be Bray Wyatt for months before debuting the character on RAW. That time allowed him to refine everything from the mannerisms, the accent, the stable and the in-ring style, so that when he finally arrived on RAW he was more ready to be Bray Wyatt than he would earlier into the development of his character.
While WWE’s still huffing and puffing behind my ideal company, it still brings a smile to my face when I see them clear higher and higher hurdles. They may never satisfy every fan all of the time, but the very fact they’re willing to invest so many resources into producing television programs, building training facilities and developing younger talents gives me hope that they’re more conscious of their methodologies than ever before and more willing to see how far they can take them. And that’s something to run toward.
Nicholas LeVack is a junior English creative writing major whose interests include writing, wrestling, video games and occasional outdoorsy things. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.