How the WWE Won and Lost its Dominance
A victim of its own success, WWE has seemed to stale even as it triumphed.
For decades, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., and its chairman Vince McMahon have dominated professional wrestling. For most casual fans, their business is the business. The company and the pursuit can seem inextricable.
It was not always like this. Even in the 1980s, various wrestling “territories” guarded their flags in different regions: World Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas, Jim Crockett Promotions in Charlotte, and the American Wrestling Association in Minneapolis among them. Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, which he had acquired from his father, was one of many.
McMahon drove these regional promotions out of business with hearty enthusiasm. “In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge,” he said later, “I, of course, had no allegiance to those little lords.” McMahon poached their best talent, including his first megastar Hulk Hogan, and had his programming syndicated across the United States. Regional promotions collapsed faster than video rental stores in the 2000s.
There was one man he could not outspend. Ted Turner, the genteel tycoon who had founded CNN, had decided to back World Championship Wrestling, which had risen from the ashes of Jim Crockett Promotions. Led by its young, ambitious executive producer, Eric Bischoff, and starring McMahon’s one-time golden boys Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash, WCW rivalled and surpassed the WWF in popularity. The two promotions competed throughout what became known as the “Attitude Era.”
But the boundless charisma of WWF stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and McMahon himself as his villainous alter-ego “Vince McMahon” helped to drown their rivals in the choppy waters of the AOL Time Warner Merger (Time Warner having previously merged with Turner Broadcasting System). With the collapse of WCW, and the smaller, edgier promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling, WWE, as it was renamed after legal disputes with the World Wildlife Fund, stood astride the world of professional wrestling and McMahon became the king he had always dreamed of being. There it has remained, towering above far smaller companies, whose most talented, popular performers it has swept away to fill the ranks of their developmental brands, as well as NXT and NXT UK.
This is a triumph of a kind. But it has also been a weakness. Competition had powered McMahon’s creativity and ambition. As the years have passed, however, market dominance has blunted them. WWE has had successes: Its streaming service was a far-sighted move as the pay-per-view market slid towards oblivion; fans have appreciated the athletic development of its women’s roster, which once featured little more than “bra and panties” matches.
Still, most fans have also noticed a creative slump. I’m not ventriloquizing here. The audience for WWE’s flagship programs hit record lows last year, with Monday Night Rawplumbing its deepest depths since the show began. Moreover, the WWE audience is aging, experiencing especially severe declines among its younger viewers.
Some of this is natural. The wrestling craze of the ’90s was bound to peak and fall, and television is bleeding viewers as a whole. But a lot of it is due to poor decision making, much of it stemming from McMahon’s desire to promote WWE less on the back of stars and storylines than on the back of brand recognition. Without a significant competitor, the WWE has had a chance to define pro wrestling by itself. As top stars disappeared for Hollywood, like the Rock, or due to injuries, like Steve Austin, McMahon was only more determined to make the WWE name the real draw.
This has resulted in a stifling professional and creative environment. Wrestlers’ performances are micro-managed, with their “promos” shorn of any spontaneity and reduced to dry, often absurd scripts. “We’re all just in self-preservation mode trying to not look like idiots,” said John “Dean Ambrose” Moxley after departing from the company, “instead of creating good things.”
“It’s a very creatively stifling…environment,” said Phil “CM Punk” Brooks after he left, and it is hard to disagree when last year WWE wrestlers, all of whom are treated as independent contractors, were ordered to close down the streaming platforms they had been using for extra income and interaction with their fans.
Any wrestlers who achieve unanticipated success are liable to have their legs swept out from underneath them. CM Punk soared to fame thanks to his raw, venomous speaking skills and uncompromising matches. But he was pointlessly booked to lose to McMahon’s son-in-law Paul “Triple H” Levesque. The effortlessly likable and immensely talented Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson made a startling return from what had seemed like career-ending brain damage and was treated very like a cog in a machine. The WWE was so short of star power earlier in 2021 that it was forced to recall the former WCW star Bill Goldberg, a 54-year-old man, to face its world champion.
But things have changed in the broader world of professional wrestling. Tony Khan, son of the multi-millionaire Flex-N-Gate owner Shahid Khan, has established the young promotion All Elite Wrestling (AEW). From their swollen coffers, they have launched AEW into mainstream contention, signing former WWE stars like Chris Jericho and independent wrestling mainstays like the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega. Its flagship program Dynamite, airing on TNT, has beatenRAW in some demographics, and trounced NXT when the third-tier WWE promotion was mischievously moved into the same time slot.
AEW might sputter out in time. It has only existed for two years and has various opportunities to fail. Tony Khan is not the first rich man to enter pro wrestling with big ideas and may not be the last to find himself using the industry as a sink down which to pour his millions. WWE certainly remains a wealthier, more powerful corporate machine. Still, this is the most serious competition Vince McMahon has had in decades, and the case provides some insights into the nature of economic concentration.
A dominant institution in a market, such as WWE, is liable to become lifeless and monotonal in its products or services as it attempts to appeal to everyone and no one, and to grow complacently adrift from its core audience as it loses the impetus of competition. Corporate hubris or somnolence creates room for alternatives to thrive.
How to build an alternative? Wrestling provides ample case studies in how not to do so. Promotions which have struggled to compete with WWE have made severe tactical errors which have stunted their growth. Total Nonstop Action (TNA) was especially infamous for crude, high-profile stunts with no potential for encouraging long-term progress. Hiring the disgraced NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones, a man with no experience or aptitude for professional wrestling, was an especially tasteless and pointless example. Hiring the all-but-immobile and increasingly irrelevant Hulk Hogan was less vulgar but far more expensive.
An essential factor, of course, is investment, but as wealth is so exclusively proportioned it is also the least helpful to mention. It is sometimes worth remembering that one has to spend to succeed, but one cannot kid oneself that there are many billionaires, or even millionaires, floating around.
Still, there are lessons to be taken. Vital to succeeding outside of dominant institutions are creativity and reliability. Even as the WWE has reigned and ruled, smaller promotions such as Ring of Honor and Chikara, and foreign ones like New Japan Pro Wrestling and AAA, have kept young talent working outside the WWE system. Wrestlers who now hold top positions in AEW, like the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, and Adam “Hangman” Page, built and sustained followings in smaller promotions by maximizing the individuality that WWE wrestlers are often denied, and by vigorously but sustainably promoting themselves with consistent schedules and creative merchandise.
By wrestling across the U.S. and the world and building social media platforms like the “Being the Elite” YouTube series, these wrestlers created a significant brand identity without as much as 1 percent of the marketing budget of the WWE. In doing so, they kept alternatives alive before there were the means for competition. When those means appeared, they were well-placed to leap upon the chance. Some dislike their wrestling style, but that is not the point: You need not admire their work, or professional wrestling in general, to admire professional success against the odds.
As for the WWE, perhaps this challenge will spur Vince McMahon into action. He is older now, at 75, and perhaps struggles to understand how to appeal to younger viewers. But one can never deny the ferocious competitiveness and unwavering dedication of a multi-millionaire who has been willing to be tossed about the ring and cracked over the head with a garbage can in order to advance his product. If any septuagenarian can launch a shocking comeback, it is him.
Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.
This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.