There are a lot of very happy people this week within the walls of World Wrestling Entertainment. They are coming off a pretty successful tour of Europe. Jerry Lawler is returning to his role as announcer tonight after what could have been a terrible tragedy. Most importantly, sources indicate the company, with their inflated prices for Wrestlemania and 50,000 tickets sold, have already broken their gate record for Wrestlemania. Even if they don't sell another ticket and there are 30,000 empty seats out there for all to see, WWE has once again stepped up with a hell of an accomplishment.
Great job, WWE.
But, let's call a spade a spade. Wrestlemania 29 is a mountain being held up by toothpicks.
Sure, Wrestlemania will be a massive night for the company. It will be fireworks and ballyhoo, celebrities appearing and grudges settled. It will be the most important night in the industry and all eyes are looking to that date.
But let me everyone reading this in on a little secret. WWE has no idea what they are doing this year. There are no set plans beyond the Royal Rumble PPV. Sure, everything from HHH vs. Lesnar to Lesnar vs. Rock to Rock vs. Cena to Cena vs. Undertaker to Undertaker vs. Punk has been mentioned for the show, but nothing is 100%. Not one thing. There's nothing set in stone, no matter what people may be saying privately. In some ways, that's not really a bad thing, because you want to gauge the trends, see what the audience is reacting to and plot your course accordingly.
But, in an era where the only stars who seem to mean anything are the ones who are never around, where there is more TV packed onto an ever-thin roster of talent and no sign of replenishment, at least not in terms of names who are going to carry the banner of this company into the next few years, much less the next decade - it's a recipe for long-term disaster. It's been scary for a few years, but the idea of following that path for the next few months is even scarier.
It's time for WWE to break with tradition. They cannot continue to service names that aren't going to be full-time players on the biggest show of the year. Not if they want their company to last the next decade.
If you look at the marketing thus far for Wrestlemania 29, the three faces in the advertising are Brock Lesnar, John Cena and The Rock. No one is going to argue their worth to the average person looking into the Wrestlemania window, but once again, WWE looks down upon their most important performers. Looking at that poster, you see two guys who are never around and the one guy who's been around forever.
Now compare that with this week's WWE TV. The difference between that poster and the actual landscape of the week to week of the company is staggering. Two-thirds are never around. The third is around for sure, but it's not a one man operation. There is a roster of names who are in the trenches and on the road every weekend and unfortunately for them, the way WWE currently markets the company, it's like its a roster of Hardcore Hollys.
Hey, I love Bob Holly much more than the average fan, but no one is going to argue he ever drew money for the company. So, he was never a big part of any promotional mix. Well, right now, the upstarts like Ziggler? The current title holders like Kingston, Cesaro and Punk? Well, they apparently are meaningless in the big picture and that's the absolute worst thing for any of them short-term and WWE long term.
What sort of message does it send to Dolph Ziggler, who's working his ass off to try and steal the show every night on the house shows when there's no chance of him getting to the top of the card because it's cluttered with Rock, Lesnar, Cena, perhaps Undertaker, Triple H, etc.
If you are WWE, are you going to put your marketing behind Ziggler or behind Triple H? Well, the easy answer is HHH, but the problem is that, HHH won't be here forever, hell, perhaps not even next year. Neither could Undertaker, who wrecked his hip replacement (again) last year. Rock could be off making a movie or perhaps he has a falling out with Vince McMahon. Brock Lesnar could have additional health issues. John Cena, who is hurting much worse privately than he lets on to anyone, could be one bad injury away from saying the hell with it. Now, none of this could happen, but it COULD happen. Just like the Secret Service having an exit strategy for the President in case of the worst, what strategy does WWE have?
Well, um, nothing.
Sure, WWE can throw seven figures at Shawn Michaels or Batista to return, but again, what does that do for the long term? What message does that send to the guys killing themselves weekly in the ring?
Perhaps it's time to take the road less traveled and actually make a concerted effort to make the younger names mean something. I don't mean a haphazard push or a title win followed by 15 non-title losses. I mean truly elevating a select group of names and making them the nucleus of the company going forward. If WWE doesn't do this, they are doomed.
A year ago, I noted the ridiculousness of the Wrestlemania 28 media tour as the then and still WWE champion CM Punk and then-World champion Sheamus were pretty much nowhere to be found anywhere on the talk shows. They were not the focus of anything, even when Dwayne Johnson returning to wrestle in a Wrestlemania ring would bring additional interest to the company.
It was WWE's responsibility to their bottom line to use that attention to try and get some of that rub onto the players who are needed to carry things forward and they failed. Could you imagine WWF in 1985 using Mr. T as a vehicle to promote the first Wrestlemania and not use him as a way to get Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper over to the greatest concentration of potential fans? Well, that's what WWE did last year in a way with Dwayne Johnson. Sure, John Cena received some degree of additional fame from the match and the connection, but he already had both. The rest of the roster could have used the same potential opportunity.
I'm not even saying Rock vs. Cena shouldn't have been the match, because it should have been but there was more than enough spotlight for others to share in its glow. Instead of focusing on the names that were required to carry the company for the next year, week in and week out, the majority of the remainder went on Triple H, Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, and one of them had been retired for a year and the other hadn't wrestled for a year.
WWE can only rinse and repeat that Wrestlemania strategy so many times before they miss their window to allow someone like Sheamus to have "his" Wrestlemania moment. To allow Daniel Bryan or Kofi Kingston or even Miz to have theirs. With each passing year, not only does Undertaker gracefuly age, but so do all the younger talents sitting there waiting to break out.
Hell, CM Punk has been THE WWE CHAMPION FOR A YEAR and he's still not treated like "the guy". What more does a wrestler HAVE TO DO to get treated like the guy? He's holding the belt that Hogan, Savage, Undertaker, HHH, etc. all headlined with, yet, look at that Wrestlemania poster...nowhere to be found. It's madness.
Are they going to wait until CM Punk is 45 before they allow him to work a "real" Wrestlemania main event? Does Daniel Bryan need to have patches of grey showing? Why are they good enough to headline everything BUT the biggest shows of the year? Why is the company so insecure that they constantly need to parade the cavalcade of greatest hits before their largest audience of the year? Is nostalgia the only future WWE has?
That's the message WWE continues to send...and that message will send the company off a cliff one day, unless they change their trajectory. Undertaker can only come back from the dead so many times...and WWE can only turn to the past so many times as well.
So, when do they really, truly, look to the future?
Well, as a great songwriter once wrote, "No day but today."
Mike Johnson can be reached at Mike@PWInsider.com.