Lutz's Blog: McMahon's conference-call appearances may impress shareholders, but they show a disconnect between WWE and its fans
By Jeffrey Lutz
In researching this column, I came across a 2002 thesis from a University of Maine graduate student titled "Corporate Apologia and the Discourse of Vince McMahon" that covered more than 140 pages. I'm not going to write that long on the topic, even though the last 11 years have offered plenty additional material on the topic. I'll instead focus on the last four, during which McMahon has seemed to lose touch with the strengths and weaknesses of his own company, and with the fans who helped it go public in the first place.
In 2009, McMahon begin addressing WWE shareholders on quarterly conference calls to update those invested in his company on what happened over the prior three months and what they should look forward to in the future. These calls have served McMahon's ability to explore new territory in the world of corporate apologia as he as attempted to placate a group of investors in which a majority probably aren't fans and don't keep up with the television products that truly offers an idea of WWE's business success.
Still, McMahon has seemingly had an answer for all of WWE's troubles over the last four years. He managed to get through the first year without saying anything truly ridiculous or offensive on a conference call, though in his debut on the line he stressed the need for WWE to create new stars. That has been a common and sporadic theme of McMahon's appearances before investors in the four years since, an indication the the company hasn't succeeded in that endeavor, if it is even trying to give John Cena company in a headlining position.
The latest example of McMahon's attempts to cover the company's backside came last week when he said SummerSlam was a "swing and a miss" because fans didn't buy the attraction, presumably the main-event matches featuring John Cena versus Daniel Bryan and Brock Lesnar facing C.M. Punk. I took this as McMahon doing his best to avoid taking responsibility for the relatively low buy rate, even though it's almost all his fault as the person who signs off on angles and story lines. Lesnar, as a UFC heavyweight, was one of the strongest pay-per-view draws at least in recent memory, but WWE has robbed him of that distinction in order to prove that professional wrestlers are tougher than those who fight for real.
Bryan seemed set to become perhaps WWE's biggest star with an organic rise to the top that included overwhelming fan reactions that were just as natural. It's not clear exactly when WWE decided to derail Bryan, but SummerSlam may have been a turning point.
The problem with WWE placing at least some blame on fans for the minimal acclaim for the event is that WWE, which claims to always cater to fans, didn't have another plan. Bryan remained in the WWE Championship pictures for multiple months, as the company devalued him weekly, apparently to serve its own agenda. That agenda, it seems, was to absolve fears that Cena was actually the reason for the low buy rate, even if it really wasn't. WWE had to know that ratings and interest when slip as Bryan's push dampened, and it had to know that Cena's return would represent at least a slight improvement. That's exactly what happened, so WWE, again, has convinced itself that everything is OK and that it learned its lesson.
The comments on SummerSlam is far from McMahon's only transgression in this area, though. In fact, 2010 was a banner year for McMahon's off-the-wall statements about the success or failure of business. That was the year McMahon blamed low PPV buys on "communal viewing habits" that were costing him money as fans gathered to watch events rather than purchasing them individually. The reality is that communal viewing habits likely raise buy rates -- I've had friends over to watch PPVs before, and the alternative to a group is that none of us order the show at all. So communal viewing habits often add to, rather than subtract from, the profit. It was probably the same back in the day, when only a few of our friends was willing to get that enormous black cable box installed in their home for a single night.
Also in 2010, McMahon brought up the possibility of the WWE network for the first time. Four years later not much progress has been made even though the company is still optimistic for a launch in the near future. McMahon made another 2010 blunder when he told conference callers that Survivor Series had become "obsolete" and that WWE would soon discontinue the event. Later that year, Survivor Series emanated from Madison Square Garden, and it has taken place in November every year since. Instead of abolishing the big-four event, WWE has instead taken the luster off of it.
In 2011, McMahon set a new standard for hilarity when he told shareholders that "story lines are connection better than at any time in history." You know, the magical year of 2011, when The Miz headlined WrestleMania and WWE had to bring in The Rock to save a sinking WrestleMania ship. That was far from the end of McMahon's hyperbole, though. In 2012, he said the WWE cellphone application would "teach the TV audience how to watch television all over again." That has clearly happened, because none of the millions of people who have downloaded the app are willing to miss the commercial-break action between Kofi Kingston and Curtis Axel.
McMahon has the perfect audience for these statements in Wall Street traders, who don't let emotion into their decisions and likely don't follow the company on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately for McMahon, his remarks find their way to fans who can see through his corporate-ese and recognize the absurdity of his progress reports. To be fair, McMahon has been more realistic at times regarding the outlook of WWE, and he often owns poor performance. But too many times McMahon gives flimsy excuses for a downturn in business. Fans don't buy it and, as we've seen in stock prices in recent months, shareholders are becoming just as suspecting.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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