Somebody cue up Wade Barrett: More bad news for WWE

wweThis week’s WWE Monday Night Raw posted its lowest rating since 2012, drawing 3.6 million viewers and a 2.54 rating. This on top of the news that the WWE Network, ballyhooed for months leading to its February debut, is still struggling to get to its first million in subscribers. Pay-per-view is about to be a thing of the past with the Network offering the big events as part of its $9.99 a month asking price.

That WWE went and reupped with NBCUniversal for barely more than it had been getting under its current contract was sort of the straw that broke the back of investors, who have been fleeing the fleeting hot WWE stock, which has lost nearly two-thirds of its value since March, when it was trading at $31 a share, and now is having to rebound to get to $11 a share.

Several law firms are announcing investigations on behalf of shareholders to look into allegations that WWE made overhyped claims about the Network and its TV negotiations that pushed the stock price to artificially high levels.

Then away from the front office, and into the product, CM Punk, arguably the company’s most marketable superstar, is either retired or on an extended sabbatical, but either way, his absence has been noticed in a weakening-by-the-day talent base that has forced creative to extend the John Cena-Bray Wyatt and Shield-Evolution feuds longer than would otherwise make storyline sense mainly because what else do they have?

Daniel Bryan is out indefinitely after a months-long program that ended with him winning the WWE title at WrestleMania saw him on the shelf weeks later with a neck injury that required surgery. Even before he went on the shelf, Bryan had been reduced to a program with Kane, a sign that creative had no idea what to do with Bryan after his chase for gold was fulfilled.

Vince McMahon, substantially less personally wealthy with the erosion of stock value in the past two months, has his back more firmly planted against the wall than he has at any point since the ebb of the Monday Night Wars in the midst of the long run of ratings wins by WCW Monday Nitro.

McMahon was able to fight out of the corner by focusing on the product, ushering in the Attitude Era that turned lesser lights and WCW rejects into bankable stars who eventually won the battle with Atlanta and allowed McMahon to literally buy out the competition for pennies on the dollar.

But that was more than a decade ago. Does McMahon, now into the second half of his sixties, have it in him to get up off the mat like he did in the 1990s, or the early 1980s, when he rolled the dice on the first WrestleMania and hit craps?

The conventional wisdom has always been, Don’t bet against Vince McMahon. But the conventional wisdom may need to be updated. The new WWE some days doesn’t seem proud of its roots as a wrestling company, with as much focus on other projects, most notably movies. If you remember the rise and fall of WCW, that was pretty much what led to the fall part of that story, when executives at Turner and later Time Warner who didn’t share Ted Turner’s vision for building programming that could draw in ad dollars around wrestling turned their noses in the air at the product and let it founder.

It’s been years now, but critics of WWE have seized on the company’s move to turn over its wrestling product to Hollywood writers who don’t get the nuances of the genre, and the resulting product’s increasing inability to connect with its core fans.

Linda McMahon’s political ambitions can also be looked at as a source of WWE’s slow descent. It was in advance of her first failed run for the U.S. Senate that WWE decided to tone down the content of its wrestling product, pushing a PG format that has alienated the fan core.

WWE needs to heed the old adage about dancing with the one that brung you. It’s a wrestling company, not a movie company, not an entertainment conglomerate. The Hollywood writers can stay if they want to write storylines that make sense in the context of pro wrestling, but if not, they need to go. The PG Era needs to go with it, Linda McMahon’s political dreams be damned.

This is not a short-term problem for WWE. The issues being faced by the company emanate from the very foundation and threaten its continued existence.

– Column by Chris Graham

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