Much has changed in the world of wrestling since WWE’s last controversial visit to Saudi Arabia. For the first time in two decades, WWE seems on the verge of facing serious competition, as All Elite Wrestling announced its existence in January, signed some of the hottest free agents in wrestling throughout the winter and spring, revealed a weekly TV deal on TNT in May, and then officially debuted with one of the best wrestling shows in recent memory. Meanwhile WWE’s TV ratings have consistently dropped throughout 2019, with Raw posting its lowest ratings ever outside of football season this spring, and Smackdown setting new lows for the USA Network version of the show. The terrible ratings are well-deserved, as WWE’s main shows have grown increasingly unwatchable this year, with incoherent storylines, glaring stop-and-start pushes, and wrestlers that just disappear for weeks at a time, even with five hours of prime time TV to fill every week. Morale has apparently taking a significant hit, with one of WWE’s top stars, Dean Ambrose, willingly leaving the company for a chance at a new start with New Japan and All Elite, and rumors continuing to swirl about a number of others who have asked for their releases or are patiently waiting for their contracts to expire. The company’s stock price has dropped accordingly, from a high of just over $99 a couple of weeks after WrestleMania in April, to a price that currently hovers around $73 a share. It’s hard to look at these facts and not conclude that WWE is in legitimate trouble right now.
But then there are the TV deals. Smackdown jumps to Fox’s primetime lineup this Fall, and between that deal and its most recent Raw contract with USA, WWE is guaranteed over $2 billion over the next five years. WWE is poised to make more money than it’s ever made before, despite renewed competition and an eroding fan base.
In addition to those TV deals, the company is in the second year of a massive long-term deal to promote events in Saudi Arabia for tens of millions of dollars per show. The next such show, WWE Super ShowDown, will be held in Jeddah tomorrow, airing on the WWE Network at 2 p.m. ET on June 7. As with the company’s last Saudi Arabian show, the card is built around old legends and part-time talent, with Bill Goldberg wrestling his first match in over two years when he faces the Undertaker, and WWE executive Triple H returning to the ring to face Randy Orton. It’s a card that WWE announcers have robotically reminded viewers over and over is as good as (or better than) WrestleMania, which is either another example of Vince McMahon’s dictatorial fixation on controlling how his employees talk, or some kind of weird language that’s contractually mandated by Saudi Arabia. Despite those constant claims, it’s hard to imagine any wrestling fan looking at this line-up and thinking it’s anywhere near as compelling as even the least impressive WrestleMania.
Saudi Arabia and those massive TV rights fees might keep WWE propped up financially, but the creative rot will be impossible to deny if ratings continue to creep downward. It’ll especially be notable if AEW’s upcoming weekly show is as good as its first event. (That’s a tall order, of course—it’s much easier to make sure a stand-alone event is fun and well-booked than producing a consistent weekly program.) And it’s not like WWE is struggling to understand what its fans want—for years it has actively fought against its fans, continuing to focus on wrestlers who fit Vince McMahon’s limited view of stardom while presenting almost everybody else as interchangeable fodder who constantly trade meaningless wins and losses with each other. Throw in scripted promos that prevent wrestlers from establishing their own personalities, and a weird tendency to effectively punish wrestlers who get over with the audience more than WWE wants, and you have a recipe for bad TV that disappoints both the fans watching at home and many of the wrestlers performing on that show.
There’s no way for WWE to return to Saudi Arabia without drawing more attention to all the reasons it shouldn’t be doing business with that country. (A quick recap: Saudi Arabia has a brutal record of human rights abuses, especially against women and LGBT residents, including corporal and capital punishment. Last year, shortly before WWE’s last show there, Saudi Arabian operatives kidnapped, tortured and murdered a Saudi refugee who was living in America and working for the Washington Post. Also the Kingdom won’t let WWE include women’s matches on its shows, which flies in the face of WWE’s self-congratulatory promotion of its women’s division.) Its recent ratings woes started to accelerate around the time of the first Saudi show, in April 2018; there’s no conclusive proof that the two are related, but the company has received a great deal of negative publicity for these shows, especially the one last fall. With the plethora of serious problems that WWE needs to be addressing right now, you have to wonder if the money the company receives from Saudi Arabia is worth the distraction. It might hit the stock price even more to back out of this deal, but in the long run if could help the company, both by avoiding the bad press and by letting them focus on the deeper problems of bad creative and poor morale. (And that second one would probably be helped by not running Saudi Arabia, anyway—at least three wrestlers are known to refuse to go to these shows, including John Cena, Daniel Bryan and Kevin Owens, with a fourth, Sami Zayn, either refusing to go due to his Syrian heritage or being prevented from coming by the Saudi government.)
All of these issues—the terrible TV, the misuse (and sometimes outright abuse) of talent, the laughable scripts, the robotic announcers, the willingness to accept money from a country that will bring the company nothing but negative attention—are symptoms of the same fundamental problem, of course. That problem’s name, if you haven’t guessed, is Vince McMahon. McMahon owns a majority of WWE stock and thus is free to do whatever he wants without challenge, which has created a show and company subject to the whims of a 73-year-old man who is thoroughly divorced from what today’s audience wants to see. The stories of McMahon rewriting Raw and Smackdown mere hours before show time are legendary within wrestling circles—one recent episode of Raw had its third-hour rewritten after the first hour had already begun. Ambrose’s recent interviews with Chris Jericho and Wade Keller reinforced McMahon’s image as a dictatorial showrunner who’s out of touch with his viewers, who has a terrible sense of humor, and who has no faith in his employees to do their jobs without constant micromanagement. Every one of the major problems that could undermine WWE as it enters what should be its most profitable era ever comes down to the man in charge. It’ll be hard to have any confidence in WWE as long as McMahon retains total control over the company, given how poorly it’s been managed.
Maybe Fox will insist on changes to how Smackdown is presented, improving the product as a result. Maybe the potential challenge of AEW’s upcoming weekly show will inspire McMahon to consistently produce good TV for the first time since 2000. (Although reports are that Raw has been even worse than usual since AEW’s big debut two weeks ago.) Perhaps, as performers like Ambrose continue to reveal the restrictive nature of WWE’s creative process, McMahon will loosen the reins and let wrestlers be wrestlers again. When WCW started beating the then-WWF in the ratings in the mid ‘90s, McMahon proved himself willing to adapt, and the result was the most popular his company has ever been. He’s 22 years older now, though, and deeply set in his ways, and has shown absolutely no willingness to change, or even awareness that he’s the problem. As long as that’s the case, it’s hard to see how WWE will improve.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.