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By Mike Johnson on 2021-06-09 11:53:00

With the next round of WWE live events slated to officially go on sale this Friday and the announcement that their home arena, Madison Square Garden in New York City will return to capacity crowds this month, one question that has yet to be answered is what exactly will the return of WWE live events look like and what that experience might be for the audience.  

We know what WWE TV tapings will entail when they return as of Money in the Bank weekend in July, but when WWE returns to running live events, initially as “Supershows” featuring talents from Raw and Smackdown, there’s no word on exactly what the format, presentation and experience will be like.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, WWE had been struggling in different ways with their touring.  It wasn’t all that long ago that Vince McMahon stated during an investor’s call that the company knew what the issue was with their live events and had a strategy to address that.  It never truly, actually was.

However, with the long break between live events, WWE has an opportunity to return with a streamlined, new presentation, if they choose, so that a few weeks into touring, it’s not just talents doing the same old matches before audiences that are watching events that have zero effect on the weekly WWE TV series.

If I am WWE, there are lots of things that can be done to tweak the old system.  I would actually dive back into the old WWE house show formula and emulate as much of that as possible.  In fact, in order to explain why, I pulled out an old VHS tape and popped in a worn-down copy of the very first WWF live event I ever attended in December 1986, bringing back some of the magic I felt as a 12-year old kid.

After watching the show, several things really stood out to me, foremost being that the WWE house show experience of the current WWE shows are really lacking in comparison.  While the in-ring work may be a bit better and obviously all things have to evolve, there are so many tiny little things that added a unique aura that you were attending something special on this dusty old videotape that you rarely see today.

One was the attempt, on a simple house show (now, it was Madison Square Garden and it did air on the MSG Network, but it was still just a house show) to build a relatively unknown commodity in the Honkytonk Man into a heel for the future.  HTM, originally brought in as a babyface, was an immediate failure, so he was turned heel with the idea that the fans didn't respect him, so he was out for himself.  At this show, HTM booked to wrestle enhancement babyface Sivi Afi.   

Today, we'd likely see HTM go over in some sort of back and forth competitive bout, but that would just be another match and honestly, what would just another match do for the character?  Instead, in 1986, WWE booked Honky to attack Afi before the bell, to the point that he couldn't "compete.”   It got under the skin of the fans, who were cheated out of a match they might not have paid to see necessarily, but still expected to watch.  Later in the card, it was announced that Afi had recovered and demanded his match right then and now.  They then had their bout, with Afi cleaning house on Honky before finally losing to the Shake, Rattle & Roll neckbreaker.  Now triumphant, Honky refused to leave and danced and danced for the fans.  

As HTM continued to get booed out of the building, he finally left the ring.  Tito Santana, at this point a former WWF Intercontinental and Tag Team champion who still had a decent fan following and was booked as if he could return to championship form at any point, was making his way down the aisle.  He and Honky passed each other and teased a moment where something might happen.  Honky backed off and Santana continued towards the ring.  Honky sneered and attacked him from behind, laying out Santana in the aisle before leaving.  

Over the course of one show, fans now had three reasons to want to hate the Honkytonk Man.  Within six months, the cowardly heel would go on to have one of the most celebrated Intercontinental championship reigns ever - at a point where the belt meant you were booked into a position to main event and carry some house shows, because it was one of the most important parts of the company.  

By the same token, Tito Santana, was left a sympathetic babyface because after the attack, he still entered the ring to wrestle Hercules Hernandez, who fans bought as a legitimate tough guy.  Santana came from behind and even had the match won with his dreaded figure four leglock.  In 1986, you could still believe that was a real submission.  However, in another great moment, Bobby Heenan jumped up from commentating to ring the timekeeper's bell.  Since everyone was watching Santana (at least I was), no one initially realized what happened and believed Tito had won.  Of course, that wasn't the case and Hernandez ended up winning.  Twice in one night, Tito had been ripped off, but still wrestled his heart out.  He left as big a babyface as he entered and now had potential grudge matches against two heels.

Character development like that, on a house show, is something we never, ever see anymore.  It’s about having one match, then the next and onward and upward until the main event hits.  If WWE is planning to push, say, Cedric Alexander into a more prominent position, imagine if they plugged him into the scenario that was used to get heat on The HonkyTonk Man back in the day.  It gives Alexander a chance to knock the audience, getting himself over without taking bumps, it gives him issues with babyfaces that can play out on future return events or even TV (by showing footage from one of these events where the scenario plays out) and it gives the audience a reason to want to boo him and more importantly, pay to see him get his ass kicked down the line.

Another house show factor that has been eliminated in the pursuit of evolution are the preliminary matches.  On this show, Paul Roma (then an undercard babyface just cutting his teeth in the company) defeated veteran Canadian heel Terry Gibbs while the first match after intermission saw Jose Luis Rivera, who was super over in the building defeating Brooklyn's own Steve Lombardi.     Neither match today would be considered a classic but they both accomplished their goals.  The first match was designed to whet the appetite of the audience as they got into the show (or arrived late) while the second was to get everyone back from the concession stands and into the show again before the cavalcade of stars continued.    None of these competitors were treated as useless characters designed to fill space, they were treated as young or old wrestlers vying to get a win and move up the roster.  That feel for competition, even in what were meaningless bouts in hindsight, is something you never fully realize the way the house shows were presented before the pandemic break.  WWE could even easily take four NXT talents that need more seasoning and send them out to work preliminary bouts, giving them a chance to gather experience in larger venues, having to figure out ways to win over cold audiences and allowing them to take up two matches so you don’t have to run every Raw and Smackdown star out on the road every loop, allowing some rest and family time as you cycle TV talents on and off the loops.

Of course, the December 1986 event had the big main event and WWE would still have that today when fans attend a live event show, but the difference today, by design, is that you are paying for the brand name letters of WWE.  In 1986, you were paying to see Hulk Hogan or whatever babyface was on top in his absence.  On this night, it was Hogan defending the WWF championship against Kamala, who had been developed for months as the undefeated monster.  While today we might see top babyfaces "on the ropes" (in longer, more athletic matches, for sure), for most fans, there is never that sense of doom for their heroes at any point.  Even watching the Hogan match today, I could see why, at 12 years old, I totally bought into the idea that Hogan could lose and his underrated work selling was a HUGE reason why.  As much as pro wrestling has turned into “you do this, I do this”, reverting back to simpler stories could be a key, especially if the big comeback builds to a big pop for the audience.  

Even more amazing was that the main event was not designed for Hogan to stand victorious, but to build to a return the following month against Kamala.  After a DQ caused Kamala's loss, an intermission interview (that aired on TV but oddly enough, not live in the Garden) where Bobby Heenan claimed he was interviewing the true winner of the bout - Kamala - degenerated into a huge brawl that saw everyone - EVERYONE - on the card pulling apart Hogan and Kamala, complete with Vince McMahon in the middle trying to restore order, led to a later announcement of the main event the following month.   Compare that to live events before the pandemic break, where you watched a series of matches that had no ripple effect (sans the rare title change) on anything, not even when the company returned down the line to the same venue.  

With a little bit of record-keeping, the company could easily keep the flow of rematches and stipulations for some of the matches, even if they were undercard bouts.  The days of complete continuity between live events in a market is long gone obviously, but WWE should want fans to look forward to something more than just the brand name returning.  Emotional connection to the battle of good vs. evil is key to what makes this genre work and without it, it’s just Ice Capades, and well, Ice Capades went out of business for a reason.

There are also ways to change up the experience for fans.  Let the experience begin before the company even opens up the doors.  Perhaps there can be a traveling Hall of Fame exhibit that fans can visit before the shows, a free walk-through attraction designed to show off artifacts and drive fans to the merchandise stands set up right next door.  Every sports team has a mascot.  Perhaps it’s time for WWE to have some version of the old WCW mascot, WildCat Willie, roaming the building and surprising fans as they enter.    Perhaps local legends can appear for a quick interview and wave to the crowd as the company comes out of intermissions.    Get local sports and news personalities to appear as guest timekeepers or local FOX anchors to come and interview WWE stars at ringside to bring that footage back for their broadcasts, so WWE gets some free publicity coming out of the shows, “and of course, don’t forget WWE airs every Friday right here on FOX…”

Before the pandemic took hold, WWE had great success in doing trivia contests with kids at ringside in between matches as well as interactive polls and I certainly would continue that, but perhaps accentuate that.  They can have fans voting as they enter as to who should challenge for the WWE United States title or another secondary title and then hold the match that evening after closing the polls before intermission.  It could lead to some unique matches for that evening and not just the old feeling of “the same show every night” that any fan with Google could find out.  There’s nothing wrong with creating unique identities and experiences for different cities.  Plus, imagine if fans voted for Kevin Owens to wrestle for the title that night and then - WHAT!  - he won the title!  That creates a situation where fans got to “make something happen” and creates an indelible memory for those who were there, even if Owens drops the belt on another show down the line.  Then, WWE can show clips or have the talents make reference to it on TV in a quick bit, maybe even having the heel blame the fans for having it out for him.

The company already produces specific t-shirts for specific markets (SUPLEX CITY MINNEAPOLIS, etc.) so why not dive a little deeper and make sure each live event feels like the “home team” has come home for the fans.  When I was a kid, when WWF came to the Garden, to me, it was no different than The New York Mets playing at Shea Stadium.  There’s no reason every venue doesn’t feel that way.  You can have a NYC Street Fight in Madison Square Garden, a Broad Street Brawl in Philadelphia, a Steel City Steel Cage match in Pittsburgh, etc.  Back in the 1980s, there were different, unique challengers gunning for Hulk Hogan depending on the market vs. WWE touring the same show every weekend with small changes.  

Digging in a little deeper can yield greater results.  If you make fans believe every event they will attend is special and unique, they will spend their money.  Fans today don’t want to see the same show everyone else gets.  When fans go see a band touring, they certainly want to hear all the hits, but when Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen pulls something special out of the quiver and plays a song that is unique for that night of the tour, the audience knows they are getting something more than they expected.  WWE needs to bring that sense of fun and spontaneity back to their live events.

If WWE returns to live events with the idea that this is just another evening to get through and be done, then move on, then they will have taken the opportunity the horrible last year afforded them - to evolve and provide something different for their audience - and let it pass by.  

After the last year or so everyone has gone through, fans want to return to normal and they want to go back, but they always want a special experience that’s going to make them feel like their money was earned and that they got more than what they paid for.  The last thing they are going to do is come to a show and feel like it’s a watered down version of something they can watch on TV for free. 

It’s on WWE to not just welcome fans back to the buildings, but to give them something memorable they remember, to take fans on that ride that is pro wrestling and to make them want to come back for more of that experience.

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