WrestleMania isn’t designed for you anymore. It’s made to entertain your friends who stopped watching years ago. Vince McMahon knows what the real fans want – it’s just a shame that it won’t make him any money.
It’s been a long time since an upcoming match induced as much fear in a large part of the fan base as Kevin Owens vs. Goldberg for the Universal Championship at Fastlane. The reason behind this is that it’s becoming increasingly, and terrifyingly, clear that Owens will be dropping the belt so Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania can be made even bigger. The downside is that the match doesn’t need to have a championship stipulation. Kevin Owens vs. Chris Jericho, on the other hand, has been a 6-month friendship gone wrong built almost exclusively around championship belts. It’s a match that many fans cannot wait to see, and one that now looks like it could be buried in a mess of marquee matches only to be forgotten. This is a perfect summary of the current state of what was once the pinnacle of the wrestling calendar – WrestleMania.
Let’s be honest – when was the last time a WrestleMania card was genuinely exciting on paper, with a balance of history, young talent, long builds and marquee matches? Last year generally fell flat. 31 looked an absolute dud on paper before the talent, and some sensational booking, pulled it back. 30 was going to be abysmal until Daniel Bryan could no longer be denied. 29 went much the same way as 32, topped by a main event very few wanted to see (Rock/Cena II). 28 is a 4-hour show with three matches worth watching. 27 is genuinely one of the worst WrestleMania cards of all time. 26 (back in 2010) with Batista vs. Cena, Edge vs. Jericho, Vince vs. Bret (awful in actuality, interesting in advance), Punk vs. Mysterio, a Money in the Bank Ladder match and Undertaker/Shawn Michaels II felt like WrestleMania. That was 7 years ago. Okay, some of it fell flat and several matches were much shorter than they deserved, but going into the show it felt big, exciting and like Mania. Those days are long gone.
It all began literally the next year. With an underwhelming card outside of an intriguing Undertaker/Triple H encounter, WWE scrambled. Steve Austin was brought in to referee Michael Cole vs. Jerry Lawler (a match that, no matter how much you want to pretend otherwise, actually happened at WrestleMania) and The Rock was back at Mania for the first time since 2004 to “host” the evening. The result was a surprisingly strong buy rate – 1,042,000 against the 885,000 from the much more exciting year before, and things have never been the same. People came out in droves for The Rock and not to see Cena vs. Miz in the main event. People were more excited to see who Austin would stun rather than Edge vs. Alberto Del Rio. From then on, a very vocal part of the online fan base has felt hard done by in some aspect come WrestleMania season – and this year looks to be no exception.
There are weeks to go yet but, as it looks, the card for WrestleMania is shaping up to be something like this: Goldberg vs. Lesnar for the Universal title, Wyatt vs. Orton for the WWE title (potentially with Harper to make it a triple threat), Reigns vs. Undertaker, Triple H vs. whoever isn’t injured come April, Owens vs. Jericho, Cena and Nikki vs. Miz and Maryse, multi-person clusters for the Women’s titles and a Battle Royal that has never been properly built.
Rumoured matches are also Big Show vs. Shaq and AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon. This, to quote the great Jim Ross, looks bowling shoe ugly. Until you stop to think – how does it look to a casual or lapsed fan? Goldberg and Lesnar in the main event probably sounds like a dream match come back to life. Orton is a familiar name back in the title scene. The Undertaker match sells itself. Owens has never been built well enough so, to someone who only tunes in once a year for Mania, that match never needed a belt in the first place. Big Show and Shaq is a special attraction that will get people talking and get eyes watching. The sad fact is that the card will probably get a lot of views even if it doesn’t succeed artistically, and until people stop watching, this is how it will continue.
Why would Vince McMahon bother to build Owens properly when a Rock or Goldberg can be pulled out at this time of year to spike the buy rate (or these days, Network subscriptions)? Why should AJ Styles, having the greatest debut year in WWE history, be rewarded with a WrestleMania title defence when Cena had records to tie at the Royal Rumble? This time of year used to be for dream matches for the fans – now it’s for “dream matches” for your mate who stopped watching in 2007 but will watch this one show a year with a crate of beer beside him and several bets placed online to make it more interesting. WWE’s year sinks or swims on the success of WrestleMania, so why take a chance on new talent when it seems to be name value that sells a show rather than talent? Ironically it’s this line of thinking that stops WWE from fully turning new talents into the exact level of “name value” that brings in the audience each year.
Then there’s the one major upside – the card will, somehow, more than likely manage to deliver. Last year was an exception, however both WrestleMania 30 and 31 turned fan backlash into critical acclaim on the night. If this year does the same, and if there are enough eyes on the product come April 2nd, then the cycle will continue. In January 2018 there will be complaints online about a lacklustre Royal Rumble match and the “wrong” winner, by February great workers will look directionless and by March part-timers, old-timers, athletes and authority figures from days gone by will have invaded Raw and Smackdown. By early April the card will have been dissected, discussed and disregarded. Then, come show time, we’ll have our WrestleMania moments, our surprise classics and our shock twists followed by an incredible Raw the next night with NXT callups and a new direction for the year to come.
The simple fact is that WrestleMania isn’t for the fans anymore – until the opening video package sends goosebumps up your arms, America the Beautiful is belted out as jets fly above, the pyro hits and the opening bell rings. For those next four hours it’s WrestleMania and it can’t be denied. And then the build starts all over again.
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