What Will WWE Do When It Runs Out of Ideas?

Nostalgia was the theme at SummerSlam. But what happens next?

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Statistical analysis of cinema releases from the 1980s until now shows a staggering downturn in the success of original content: Remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and adaptations are taking over our visual and aesthetic landscape. Indeed, nostalgia has become a major driving force in entertainment—and with these numbers in mind, it’s easy to see why executives would rather place bets on established intellectual property than on risky, fresh ideas. It’s ultimately impossible to parse out the difference between creative bankruptcy and conservative risk assessment.

In the pro-wrestling world, this dilemma is more pronounced than ever.

At WWE’s SummerSlam this past weekend, a pay-per-view event considered one of the brand’s four biggest events each year, it was nostalgia that once again reigned supreme. By booking semi-retired pro-wrestling icons Goldberg and Trish Stratus as some of the evenings more important attractions, WWE CEO Vince McMahon has once again demonstrated his inability to create breakout stars by choosing instead to rely on the drawing power of an older generation who had at one point been far more ubiquitous in the cultural zeitgeist. 

Many of the other bouts that didn’t rely on these aging athletes (who, despite their undeniable charms, were quite obviously not physically on par with their younger challengers) were also callbacks to older stories. Kofi vs. Orton was a rehashing of a 10-year-old feud, Styles’ reunion with Gallows and Anderson relies entirely on fond memories from NJPW’s past, Shane McMahon’s incomprehensible 2019 run continues to bank on Attitude Era remembrances, Becky and Natalya faced off without much fanfare in back in 2016 and the Balor vs Wyatt feud barely worked the first time around in 2017.

Of the very few fresh matchups on the card, Gulak vs Lorcan and Bayley vs Ember Moon, the former was put on the pre-show and the latter hampered by incoherent characterization which bafflingly turned two beloved faces into middling, unoriginal tweeners. Meanwhile, Lesnar’s fights have become so tedious that their place in the card moves around so as to avoid mass audience exodus—and the previous enthusiasm for his opponent, Seth Rollins, has quite obviously waned. (Although NXT is consistently fresher, the main event of this weekend’s Takeover pay-per-view was a also a rematch of a rematch, putting the fans’ goodwill towards the brasher brand on thin ice.)

SummerSlam’s booking problems are a microcosm of the widely reported creative failures of the WWE in 2019, and an example of a bigger cultural trend: Why invest in anything new when nostalgia makes so much money?

As with Disney’s reliance on live-action remakes of classics which are consistently critically panned but immensely profitable, it seems investors don’t particularly care if the quality of the entertainment is novel in any way at all. Indeed, WWE remains incredibly lucrative—despite widespread critiques of the actual product and a dire ratings crisis—thanks in no small part to their politically repugnant dealings in Saudi Arabia. But the difference is that WWE will soon have new higher-ups to answer to, thanks to the acquisition of Smackdown Live by FOX—meaning that they can’t keep pulling the same tricks without both fans and TV bigwigs taking notice. Relatedly: It’s been widely reported that McMahon himself is mostly to blame for the bulk of WWE’s problems, which have been at least theoretically, slightly alleviated with his handing off of some powers to new Executive Directors Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff. But both Bischoff and Heyman are representatives of the wrestling of yesteryear—it's almost as if hiring younger or more diverse figureheads is completely out of the question.

Wrestling is facing an immense paradigm shift as 2020 approaches, as seen in the growing popularity of Japanese brands in the West, the burgeoning and seemingly progressive All Elite Wrestling brand, and a bevy of courageous indie leagues breaking ground through experimental storytelling that frequently features characters that look starkly different from the grapplers of bygone eras. Wrestling remains a niche hobby in pop-culture writ large, but Netflix’s GLOW has made fans of casual audiences by showing the more tender side of the business. As the world moves on from the outdated aesthetics and ethos that once made WWE such a cultural force in the late '90s and early '00s, the company’s chief executive simply can’t keep up the pace. No wonder it’s been reported that he’s ripping up scripts only hours before showtime.

Currently, WWE has perhaps the most talented roster in the industry’s history, meaning there’s no excuse for the repetitiveness and unoriginality of their booking. At this point, a literal randomized wheel of fortune (as had cleverly been used on Lucha Underground) would create more interesting programming. Instead, the company repeatedly flubs stories, enrages its employees through bureaucratic or incoherent decision making, and backs away from envelope-pushing content. Patently averse to imagination, the only thing they have left is nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing when deployed expertly, as can be seen with sensational pop-culture remixes and revisitations like Stranger Things, The Get Down, and POSE. But if nostalgia is the only card WWE can play anymore, it’s only a matter of time before audiences and executives alike wise up and move on.

Related: AEW on TNT, ‘Hell in a Cell’ and Other Fall Wrestling Events You Can’t Miss

Related: The Best Matches of the 2019 G1 Climax So Far

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