He needed to do something big, to grab our attention. And he didn’t disappoint. He split the roster-what a rabbit out of the hat that was. The thought of Raw versus Smackdown was golden. And he showed how serious he was when he unveiled Raw’s new CEO. Hands up if you thought it would be Eric Bischoff…liars! We never expected it-Vince’s nemesis, the man who caused him such a pain in the wallet, running one of his programmes? Vince realised Eric was the best at what he does and he swallowed his ego because it was the best thing for the company.
Now the stage was set-Eric v Shane/Vince. This would bring the fans back, this would get business moving again, this would pep the product up.
And twelve months later, what do we find? Buy rates are down, fans are turning away, the product is…you know the rest.
So where did it all go wrong? The idea was sound, but Vince has a blind spot. A family-sized blind spot. In fact, a daughter-sized blind spot. He gave the plum Smackdown role to Stephanie, a woman who has a proven record of not being up to the job (see Invasion), and then compounded the problem by handing her the pencil too. Bischoff, in some of the best form of his life, had nothing to play off, and so the Raw v Smackdown rivalry was forgotten-and with it the reason for the roster split. We know which family member should have been heading up Smackdown-Shane; rumour has it that he doesn’t like the limelight, but for the good of the company he should have been gently coaxed. Shane is a natural, he draws crowd heat effortlessly, is excellent behind the stick and takes bumps that he shouldn’t (anyone who saw his 30ft backward fall from scaffolding at Summerslam a few years ago will never forget it)-he’s the one to exploit a winning angle. If Steph wants acting experience, there are classes daddy can send her too, rather than letting her stink up the airwaves.
So although the vitally important Roster Split storyline was mismanaged from day one, it was doomed to fail. There are fundamental problems within the WWE, which will prevent any positive moves. And to look at those, we need a little economics lesson.
Now don’t worry, you won’t have to do sums, or even work a calculator, so stop sweating. Vince’s main problem is competition. Vinnie is a businessman. He believes in market economics, survival of the fittest, and it must have been the fulfilment of his business career when he bought WCW. He had won. He was the only game in town. Yet Vince also knows that in any market economy there must be competition-it provides checks on rampant profiteering and forces companies to constantly develop their product. Vince has no competition.
For as long as fans can remember, there has always been a two-Federation rivalry. WWF/E V NWA/WCW was a fight to the death. The two brands had their own distinctive styles, they even stood for different things. WWF had the edge financially, but NWA seemed purer-pizzazz against wrestling (through the 80’s the NWA/WCW champ was Ric Flair, the WWF/E had Hogan-Je reste ma valise (and no, I won’t translate it)). Fans loved either one or the other-but seldom both. The feud ran and ran, and why? Because the feud was about more than just wrestling-it was about money. Crockett/Turner and McMahon stood to lose more than just face if they made a mistake. They could be potentially penniless, and fans love to see proud men humbled, even destroyed. Humiliation sells, and if you don’t agree, just take a look at Survivor, or Jackass…I could go on.
Fans aren’t stupid (although I’m willing to have a second look at that one), they know how much Vince is earning, and they don’t need to be reminded each week by his boorish soliloquy. Uncle Vince wins whatever happens, and when you grasp that nasty little fact, wrestling matches become meaningless-winners and losers are all the same, they all belong to Vince, every match adds to his swollen bank balance. Fans have turned away because the WWE has no edge any more; it’s the world according to Vince, it has no danger or EXCITEMENT.
Raw and Smackdown can reinvigorate the WWE. They need to reinvent themselves-move away from Vinnie and the corporate WWE. And here’s where the bad medicine starts-it’s necessary, but painful. The WWE needs to look to Ohio.
What do hot young talents John Cena, Chris Nowinski and Randy Orton have in common with the Big Slow and Val Venis? They’ve all had a stint in Ohio Valley Wrestling, either as a proving ground or in an attempt to rekindle their enthusiasm. OVW is a great feeder promotion for WWE, and produces excitement that it’s parent could do with. So how does OVW do it? By letting Jim Cornette run the Federation as he sees fit; Vinnie provides the money and support, but Jimbo makes the choices.
Both Raw and Smackdown need to distance themselves from daddy Vince, and get some independence at the same time. There are no half-measures here, the remedy has to be drastic. Both brands must move from Stamford and re-establish themselves in different parts of the country. Remember the wrestling territories? It’s an old idea, but it worked, and can again. From their new bases, both brands should run their own operations in their own areas, for example Raw taking the South and Smackdown relocating to the Midwest-promoting house shows around those territories but running nationally syndicated weekly TV shows. Vinnie should give them a budget, but then leave them to manage it themselves, with their own management teams writing, spending, hiring and firing. Both brands would stand or fall on their decisions, and fans should be made aware which of the Federations are doing better-if one of the brands is doing badly, they would have to cope, with no bail outs.
It would be fascinating to see which style they choose; a CZW trash approach or a super-stiff ROH technique, for instance? Whether they would blood new talent or continue with the well-paid star names? (Any wrestlers surplus to requirements could have a one-way ticket to the loving arms of James E).
This would go some way to reinstituting the most successful wrestling feud ever; two seemingly independent Federations in a battle to the death but hardly acknowledging each other. Fans will watch because there is something at stake-one of the Federations could fail and fold if they make mistakes. And I’ve already explained how interesting that is. Each Federation has it’s own potential; it all depends where the management chooses to take them. And with Vince showing just a benign, passive interest, he can count the money that fans will be able to believe is no longer going to him.
And as I wrote the last sentence, I realised why this great, potentially life saving idea, will never happen. Vinnie Mac will never give up his weekly spotlight. In the past, the WWE was about wrestling; now, the WWE is about the McMahon family-it’s like the Osbournes with grappling interludes. Vince clearly loves his weekly rants, but the audience only boo him because he attacks a wrestler they like or because they know they’re supposed to in the call-response of the show-they don’t wait with bated breath for Big V’s next appearance. His shtick is played out, but he’s stuck in the glory days with Austin, unable to move on.
Vince has always been great with difficult business decisions, and this is the hardest one he’ll ever have to make. He has to take a long look at himself and admit that the WWE is suffering through association with him. To recognise that the company you built will do better without you is a terrible moment. McMahon has always placed himself at the forefront of the WWE, either as a play-by-play man (yes, you may wince now), or as its larger-than-life boss-to remove himself now would mean a sizable reduction in ego, and perhaps the end of him as a player. But if Vince has the grapefruits, he will do it. For the WWE to grow, his appearances must shrink.
Doctor Cynic can save the patient, but the surgery is drastic and the wounds deep. I prescribe regular doses of new thinking, with complete Vince rest for at least a year and 40mgs of Christopher Daniels and Lo Ki every week. Oh, and a Big Show enema once a month, just to remind you how bad things were.
Next! Ah yes, Mr Jarrett, what seems to be the trouble?