What Is WWE’s Programming Strategy for Its Women’s Division?

Some ideas for the future for wrestling’s fastest-growing category

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With barely detectable social media promotion and almost no advertisement whatsoever, an all-women’s wrestling episode suddenly appeared on the WWE Network under the banner of their “Worlds Collide” special event designation on April 24. Despite featuring unique and fresh matchups from WWE’s main roster undercard and their NXT and NXT UK brands, it would have been easy for this masterful showcase to get lost in the shuffle. WWE’s women’s division is by far the strongest it’s ever been in the history of the company, but a more casual fan might not know it considering the limited amount of talent regularly featured on the main roster programs, RAW and Smackdown Live. This begs the question: what, if anything, does WWE have planned for the women’s division in the future?

What seems obvious is that by and large, WWE has followed through on its promise of elevating the women’s division from its degraded status as softcore porn in the late '90s and early '00s into a legitimate sort of sub-brand with a bevy of lovable personalities and international prestige. With the immense star power of Ronda Rousey catalyzing further investment into the women’s division and the relative success of this year’s Wrestlemania main event, the question simply isn’t whether or not women’s wrestling will be taken seriously anymore.

With that in mind, the “Worlds Collide” episode provides an interesting case study for what’s happening in the company. In this single hour-long episode, performers representing a handful of nations (including China, Japan, Australia, and the UK) were given a relatively small platform to shine in front of a bizarrely unenthusiastic audience. The show also featured women of various sizes and the company’s only out LGBTQ performer—meaning that even if the crowd wasn’t into the excellent show, this single episode is statistically more diverse than most programs on mainstream television.

Much has been said about the WWE “testing the waters” with new programming, especially with regards to women. But why wasn’t more work put into showing off these athletes? Why were announcements about this episode almost undetectable on other programs or on social media? Why do women who aren’t white, thin, and usually blonde mostly only appear in the undercard?

Anecdotally, I’ve frequently noticed that friends who are not into wrestling at all are surprised to learn that women’s wrestling exists—most people aren’t even aware that the company has moved on from the bra-and-panties matches of yore. If WWE wanted to, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to court new media in the realms of women’s fashion, culture, and style magazines by touting their immensely empowering lineup of talent. But the company’s vision of crossover success seems quite limited, if not totally myopic. 

While more hardcore fans have bemoaned the ways that Stephanie McMahon has publicized almost every recent success as a “historic” moment from within the wrestling industry, perhaps WWE would do better to look outside their own world for bigger collaborations—with young designers, influential fashion outlets, emerging artists, edgy makeup brands, social media influencers and LGBTQ content creators. It’s quite obvious at this point that diversity sells and those female protagonists are both profitable and well-received by American audiences and critics alike, so it seems like a glaring missed opportunity for the WWE to continually limit the success of their women through their small-minded vision of what success even is. Similarly, their reluctance to feature intergender wrestling—despite this being a feature of notable indie shows and several much smaller-scale competing programs like Lucha Underground—seems increasingly short-sighted, even amidst rumored threats from sponsors who allegedly find the matter distasteful.

Could the low-profile of this recent women-only episode be yet another example of internal sabotaging or the glass cliff? Perhaps. But what seems patently evident is that WWE needs to pull the trigger on some kind women-only weekly show before the goodwill they created with their progressive push of women’s wrestling turns sour. They’ve certainly got the talent to do it. And although rumors suggest that the corporate higher-ups are more wary of women's only programming with Rousey’s status in the company uncertain, it seems foolish of them to abandon a potentially invigorating market out of an abundance of caution.

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