Reinvigorating the Sports in Sports Entertainment – Part I

The phrase “sports entertainment” has become a loaded term anymore to wrestling fans.  Many see it as code for less in-ring action and more segments and spectacle, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.  There have always been the “entertainment” aspects to professional wrestling.  The problem for many, at least anymore, is that the “sports” aspect is often overshadowed by the “entertainment” aspects.  Wrestlemania 33, notably, had less segments this year than last.  There were no returning, aged legends coming out to beat up current stars for a cheap pop.  The Rock didn’t come out rocking a flamethrower.  Instead, the focus was on the stories and the matches.  While nothing is perfect, especially the length of the show, this Wrestlemania was a higher quality overall than in previous years.  It was refreshing to see honest attempts at builds and payoffs to those builds, so the focus on in-ring action is a positive step.  However, WWE could make a few more relatively simple changes to increase the “sports” element of their product and give more variety to the “entertainment” aspects of the show.

Give multiple venues for wrestlers to talk

The first aspect of the show that needs to change is that too many promos are being done inside the ring.  Everyone knows that RAW will start with a long promo four times out of five.  Then almost every major promo segment over five minutes takes place in the ring as well.  Having each promo in the same location, especially considering their length, becomes stale.  Even if the content of the promo is effective, it could potentially feel less effective because it’s the same setup: two stars standing in the ring, each with a microphone in their hand, exchanging verbal jabs until one leaves the ring or the two start brawling.  These instances should feel special instead of the norm, and WWE should limit these segments to one per week.

Moreover, there needs to be more variety in how and where wrestlers deliver their promos, and WWE needs to look no further than NXT and their own history.  They should establish one specific but simple set for interviews backstage much like they did in WWF and every regional promotion during the 1980s.  The set does not have to be overdone.  It can simply be a backdrop or screen with an interviewer standing in front.  Considering their penchant for advertising as much as possible, WWE could even place an advertisement on the screen or curtain that changes each week to promote their most recent partner.  NXT has an area like this, minus the ad space, that allows the wrestlers to cut promos in isolation without the other competitor standing around.  This is beneficial because this allows them to tell their narrative, whether it is true or not. Back-and-forth exchanges aren’t necessary for every interaction as they almost always make one competitor look stronger verbally than the other, and by keeping the competitors apart, more of a mystique is created.  The best promos in wrestling history have been done in this manner, and there is no reason not to reintroduce this type of promo segment on the main shows.  Another benefit is that these segments could be pre-taped.  Since many of the modern competitors in WWE right now are rather weak in cutting promos, this would give them multiple chances to try different approaches and get better takes.

The video above shows the NXT promo area from a few years ago

Another possible place for interviews is outside, or even inside, the locker room.  Showing wrestlers in the locker rooms gives viewers the impression these are real athletes just like football or basketball players.  In the NWA and WCW, when wrestlers won big matches or championships, an interviewer would question them in the locker room.  When Ricky Steamboat won the World Title from Ric Flair in 1989, he was interviewed in the “face” locker room.  The other faces on the roster were gathered around celebrating with champagne and congratulating the new champion.  This establishes a clear alliance between the faces, which could help another problem the WWE is currently having – faces aren’t being seen as faces and heels aren’t being seen as heels.  Having interviews in the locker room would not solve that complex problem, but it wouldn’t hurt.

Finally, the WWE needs to reintroduce a set for a non-wrestler to interview a wrestler each week – think The Brother Love Show, The Barbershop, Piper’s Pit, etc.  Pick one of your current or former personalities to run the segment, preferably as a heel host, which seems to work best. Hell, have Michael Hayes host The Freebird Lounge or Jim Ross host The BBQ Shack.  In some ways, the segment and host doesn’t matter as long as it’s not entirely absurd. These type of segments have created some of the most memorable moments in wrestling history: Andre challenging Hogan on Piper’s Pit; Piper smashing a coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head; Shawn Michaels throwing Marty Jannetty through the barbershop window.  Make this segment where the most important promo of the week takes place so that fans can start to look forward to it.  The segment could even flip flop from RAW to Smackdown each week, and it could be advertised each week on social media or the television shows themselves.  You can place the set on on side of the entrance ramp so more ticket holders can see.  Ninety percent of the time, they should make sure the segment is only a single wrestler or tag team being interviewed, but in those other instances, their rival could come out to challenge or antagonize them.

Right now, WWE is doing the in-ring verbal promo, in-ring verbal battle, and occasionally the Michael Cole sit-down interviews – which are usually interesting and should appear on the main show more often rather than on the website.  But that’s not enough variety.  Introducing a few more simple but consistent places that interviews or promos take place by one wrestler at a time will allow them to practice their craft without being outshone by another and will make in-ring segments or when a wrestler interrupts the sanctity of the locker room or set segments more important.

Limit the amount of authority figures and the screen time given to them

The authority figures need less exposure on television as well.  Most fans’ idea of a good time is not watching a corporate soap opera, which is what much of the “entertainment” aspect has become.  Performance evaluations, cutting budgets, and vindictive bosses are what fans try to escape from, not what they care to tune into weekly, especially when these figures receive little to no comeuppance.  Stephanie McMahon needs to be removed from television for quite a long time, no matter how much she likes playing a “bad guy” on television; she’s become more of a pariah.  HHH needs to do the same as his “babyface” role as the creator of NXT makes him an ineffective heel despite the strength of his recent promos in the build to Wrestlemania.

The role Shane McMahon is playing in the episodes of Smackdown is much better, although not perfect, for two key reasons: he’s a face authority figure and he’s not on every episode.  Still, the amount of time that Daniel Bryan occupies on the show each week undercuts the limited time Shane appears as two authority figures for each brand was simply doubling down on a concept that was already running its course. Having even lovable authority figures such as Mick Foley bumbling through setting up some narrative each week is boring at best and grating at worst.  These figures are taking away screen time and heat that the younger, more active performers deserve.  Therefore, the role of these figures needs to be minimized even further.

To correct this harmful pattern, WWE can once again look to their own past.  Through the 1980s and early ’90s, WWF had an authority figure in the form of President Jack Tunney.  Tunney was a neutral figure that followed a set of rules and simply interpreted them or made decisions if they were unable to be interpreted.  In essence, he served the role of a judge.  The wrestlers, especially heels, would reference him occasionally as a “corrupt” or “unfair” figure to generate heat, but he was rarely seen on television.  He was seen only when the situation truly mattered, such as the controversy surrounding “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s attempt to buy the World Heavyweight Championship.  Even then, many of his appearances were pre-taped and short; it was simply Tunney sitting behind a desk and explaining a decision.  The effects of his decisions could be felt certainly, but the character stayed off television mostly.

The role that William Regal is playing on NXT is another good model to use, a middle ground between what is and what was.  He shows up on television more than Tunney did, but he is still only appearing when the situation necessitates it.  For instance, last year when both Sami Zayn and Samoa Joe forced Baron Corbin to tap out at the same time, he appeared to make a decision on who won the match and how it would be resolved.  He appeared last weekend at Takeover to introduce the new title belts.  Sometimes, he will announce major matches for Takeover.   Occasionally, wrestlers might approach him in his office and make pleas for a specific match or a title shot.  While he appears on television more than Tunney did, all of these job duties make sense for him to appear.  And when he does appear, he is concise and doesn’t waste screen time.  That’s allotted for current talent as it should be.  This is exactly what the WWE main roster shows need: one neutral authority figure that merely makes judgments on rules and guidelines when the situation arises and performs honorary functions.  This gives the wrestlers more spotlight and also increases the sports-like atmosphere of the show.  The use of the authority shouldn’t dictate the plot, it should be dictated by the plot.

Develop a social media policy for the performers

Kayfabe in the old-fashioned sense is dead, and it’s not coming back.  However, that doesn’t mean that the company and the performers must stomp all over its remains.  To the company’s credit, they have attempted to push some stories with more “realism” in the past year, most notably the Talking Smack confrontation between The Miz and Daniel Bryan and the recent program with John Cena and Nikki Bella and The Miz and Maryse.  However, it’s impossible to do this for every single storyline, so other tweaks need to be made to reestablish some veneer of kayfabe.

One of the more problematic aspects of wrestling, just as it is with society, is social media.  Specifically, wrestlers break the consistency of their characters all the time.  Charlotte used the same Twitter account to wish Bayley a happy birthday outside of the storyline and then, a few months later, tell her she needs to relinquish her title in the storyline. Bray Wyatt has posted pictures with Stephanie McMahon on his social media accounts, which is the exact opposite his character would do.  Nia Jax is discussing positive body image issues on Twitter as if she’s a babyface.  Even one of the highest executives in the company, Stephanie McMahon, has on her Twitter profile that she plays “a bad guy on TV.”  WWE is constantly pushing their social media presence, which a majority of the time is keeping with kayfabe.  The feuds between superstars are real in terms of WWE’s website and Twitter page, but the private social media accounts of the superstars tells a different story.  This type of incongruous behavior undermines the narrative and restricts fans’ ability to fully suspend disbelief.

In response, the WWE needs to simply create a social media policy for the stars.  Stars should have two accounts – a private account using their real name and a character account.  The two should never reference or interact with one another.  Using the private account, the employee can do as they wish – wish a fellow performer happy birthday, talk about their past, talk about the shows outside of character, and so on.  The character account, however, should be used to strictly keep in line with the narrative of the television shows.  It should be used to build heat, intensify feuds, and strengthen character traits.  This is not much different than being an employer in any other company.  An instructor or a office clerk, for instance, have a private email account for their personal life and work email where a semblance of professionalism is required.  It should be no different with employees of the WWE; the only difference is that to remain “professional” they should stick within the narrative of the story and stay in character.  The WWE would need to enforce this through fines or decreasing screen time even if they decide to leave social media up to the performers, or perhaps they could establish a protocol for how the post is made with a writer or producer who approves the in-character message.  This would help keep the shows consistent with social media for fans who wish it to be that way, and for fans that desire the “behind-the-scenes” tweets and Instagram photos, they can still access those.  It’s a win-win.

This week focused on ways to improve the variety and quality of the entertainment side of wrestling – the promos and characters.  The suggestions above merely take some consideration and effort to implement, and they can be implemented without breaking the bank or causing undue logistical problems.  In return, fans would receive different locations, a greater sense of sport and authenticity, and more consistent and believable characters.  The second and final part next week will focus more on improving the presentation of in-ring aspects.

 

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