By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Co-Senior Staffer (@itswilltime)
Ah, Spring. It’s getting warmer outside, the sun sets at the ungodly hour of 7:00pm, and it’s time for WWE’s annual show of shows, WrestleMania. What could be better? This year, many of us are thankful for the little things. Having been (or about to be) vaccinated after a year inside and away from loved ones, crowds, and collective experience. We’re right around the corner from something truly special and the return of fans to WrestleMania feels like another small step towards ridding ourselves of this virus and finding a new normal. It’s beautiful.
This slightly delayed WrestleMania feels different from any before it. It’s a two night show emanating from Tampa, Florida. It features a pirate ship I have waited over a year to see someone jump off of. It’s a show more about the return of collective experience and joy than it is about any one wrestling match. It is also set to be WWE’s least important wrestling show of all time.
While WrestleMania 37, held over two nights, and available on NBC’s new streaming service, Peacock, could be the most watched WrestleMania of all time, it will also be the least important. WWE has made strategic business deals to shield themselves from over 20 years of declining cultural relevance. Instead of asking fans to pay a $70 one time cost to watch their biggest show, WWE is now hoping you enjoy the live wrestling bonus you receive when you sign up to watch commercial free reruns of Parks and Recreation and The Office (two virtually perfect sitcoms we should all love forever).
WWE has insulated themselves from any effect their fans could have on their wrestling product over the last decade. It began, harmlessly, with WWE Network. WWE saw themselves as pioneers in the digital direct to consumer space. They started a niche streaming network, grew it to over 1,000,000 subscribers, and kept it there. The WWE Network, while it was technically surpassed by almost every streaming service, was an impressive feat. The major miscalculation of WWE Network was how pay-per-views would work. We now know people are willing to pay a little extra for big events. I just dropped $30 to watch Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+ (totes worth it, by the way). People are frequently buying UFC shows on ESPN+ for some reason (staged fighting > real fighting). WWE could have started their own direct to consumer product and retained the pay-per-view revenue they used to depend on.
As the WWE Network slowly grew, based on the $9.99 price for anything and everything WWE produced, the value of the product overwhelmed the quality of WWE’s actual shows. Did you hate SummerSlam 2018? Well, watch this amazing documentary about Dennis Rodman in WCW and shut up. Not into what WWE did over the five hours of Survivor Series? It’s not important because you fall asleep to old ECW pay-per-views like the weirdo you are. WWE Network, at just under $10, was an amazing value. You didn’t need to follow the modern wrestling world to get joy from it.
At the same time WWE was bolstering their stagnant but valuable network, they also signed massive long term TV deals. Over $1,000,000,000 dollars from Fox and NBC over the length of the deal means WWE is bringing more money in than ever. They were also the only wrestling company to make massive cuts during the pandemic, so, combined with not touring, their expenses are lower than they have been in years. WWE was set up to make massive amounts of money, simply by existing, for the next five years before the Peacock deal.
Enter Peacock; a poorly named streaming service from NBC dreamed up by Comcast executives a decade too late to hold the cultural power of Netflix. They’re desperate for more subscribers and, lacking the original programming of Netflix or the insane intellectual property of Disney+, they hedged their bets by buying up WWE’s content library and hoping their core of 1,000,000-ish subscribers would come over to Peacock at something between $5 and $10 per month.
Even before the WWE licensing deal, rumors of Peacock eventually being bought by and assumed into HBO Max existed. They continue to exist. Those rumors, or the eventual combination of streaming libraries, could be the entire reason for Peacock existing. Maybe Comcast executives saw more value in combining their programming into one giant package than they did in individual licensing.
So, does WrestleMania 37 matter? It may be the return of fans to WWE, but only for two nights. The continued existence of the WWE ThunderDome after WrestleMania shows this will be a short lived burst of energy. It’s the easiest and cheapest WrestleMania to watch of all time. It may also be the most unintentionally viewed WrestleMania of all time. It is also of no consequence to WWE business-wise. They’ll be paid by Comcast for the content no matter what. Much like their deals with Fox and Comcast for Smackdown and Raw, on Peacock WWE is locked into guaranteed profits without having to try for the next few years.
Nothing WWE does to attract or drive away fans matters anymore. Gone are the days when even cancelling WWE Network could send them a message. If you don’t like the story around the latest incarnation of Bray Wyatt, you will probably still enjoy Leslie Knope’s ever-hopeful attitude. If you’re not enthusiastic about WWE needing Daniel Bryan to rescue another WrestleMania main event because they can’t keep their piped-in crowd noise from turning on Edge, you’ll find plenty of solace in Jim and Pam’s relationship and may endlessly watch season two of The Office for the painful romantic longing it contains.
WWE, at this moment, is a wrestling company removed from consequence. Whether you watch or not does not matter to them and has no effect on their bottom line. Much like removing fans from their shows this year actually lead to record profits, removing accountability from their storytelling has lead to a steep decline. With the pressure to make money via storytelling removed, WWE has found themselves directionless and depressing.
On Monday morning, April 12, I anticipate a press release from WWE calling this the most watched WrestleMania of all time and discussing their successful partnership with Peacock. Just remember, as WWE revels in this low bar of success, that is has never been less important. WWE may get more people than ever to pick them over a Saturday Night Live re-run, but WrestleMania 37 is the least important show they will ever produce.
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To see his video content subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.