The Waning Popularity of Professional Wrestling

Growing up in the late ’90s meant wrestling was everywhere. Then WWF’s Monday Night Raw and WCW’s Monday Nitro competed head-to-head every week for five-and-a-half years, with both shows drawing massive ratings. ECW was the leading figure of the smaller independent promotions and a legitimate alternative to the WWF and WCW. However, the red hot television ratings the WWF were pulling in throughout 1999 began slowly cooling off even before they had rebranded as WWE in 2002. If you don’t believe me, you can see for yourself in my editor’s notes below1. It’s jolting to see Raw pull in ratings anywhere from the mid 5’s to an 8.1 rating, and then suddenly normalize to a range from high 3’s to high 4’s around late autumn 2001.

Of course, finally bringing in some of the biggest names from WCW who had been sitting at home collecting a check from Time Warner bolstered the ratings a bit during the initial months of 2002. However, by the time WWF rebranded2 as WWE on May 6th, 2002, the television audience had gone away as well. The ratings consistently ranged in the high 3’s to low 4’s until 2009, when the audience leveled off to ratings in the 3’s. By 2011, this audience whittled down even further to consistently ranking in high 2’s to low 3’s, which is where it stayed until 2015 when the audience contracted to a range in the low to mid 2’s. The ratings continued to trend downward to the tune of high 1’s to low 2’s by spring 2016; nowadays, if the media even announces a rating, the show is peaking in the low to mid 1’s. We started getting more accurate numbers of absolute viewers by 2012, so the old Nielsen ratings are little more than a tool to contrast a quick visual difference in popularity in just twenty years. WWE is still hurting3 when looking at more relevant viewership statistics like absolute viewers, slowly reduced from a peak of around 3.8 million just six years ago to maybe 2 million today.

Naturally, viewership numbers across all television programming are down due to the streaming society we live in, but this presents a bigger problem for professional wrestling in particular. Professional wrestling’s integrity to believability was compromised long ago, with “smart” fans seemingly outnumbering the casual audience now. You can’t talk to wrestling fans anymore without the subject of booking coming up, hearing terms like kayfabe or anything to do with the backstage element of the business, or they accuse you of being a “mark” when you prefer one wrestler over the internet’s darlings. Despite the death of the mark, it’s not unreasonable to expect WWE to have better ratings than they currently do; I mean, they launched their streaming service back in 2014, they should be the one wrestling company ahead of the curve, if anything. Television is integral to professional wrestling; cable television is what allowed Vince McMahon to overtake all the regional territories in the ’80s after all, but as of yet, they still haven’t quite figured out streaming.

They have done well on YouTube, often uploading older, classic matches, excluding entrances, and inserting a brief promotional blurb reminding you to subscribe to the network in anticipation of whatever the upcoming PPV event is. Wrestling segments and promos are practically tailor-made for YouTube, and TNA Wrestling, now IMPACT! Wrestling took advantage of that in 2006 by uploading clips of their shows to their YouTube account, with fans of WWE or wrestling fans overall uploading their favorite moments more regularly by 2007 on the site. WWE was, and continues to be at times, highly protective of their content, taking down videos featuring any of their footage in any capacity for a long time, which allowed space for a rival promotion to step in and garner a fanbase. While TNA didn’t last and continues to hang on as a shell of itself, a new competitor in AEW has recently entered the scene and regularly earns around 650,000 to 1,000,000 viewers4 on their show AEW Dynamite. Still, these numbers aren’t particularly awe-inspiring; despite the stigma surrounding streaming-only shows through YouTube or the WWE Network, these shows will inevitably lose network television support if they continue petering around the numbers they currently have.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to say now since wrestling has long been a staple of television programming, and WWE SmackDown can still generate around 2.5 million viewers, but that’s with both companies doing everything they can to attract audiences during a stressful time in the industry. NXT was moved up from streaming-only to Wednesday nights only to get demolished by AEW Dynamite until NXT moved to Tuesday nights5 earlier this year, allowing both shows to generate better ratings. However, all this does is better illustrate a divide between WWE loyalists and the independent/internet fans. Wrestling’s popularity always ebbed and flowed along with the public consciousness, losing popularity during World War II only to come back in a big way during the late ’40s and ’50s under NWA leadership before dipping in favor slightly in the ’70s, which the WWF changed with cable television in the ’80s. However, with a fractured and dwindling fanbase viewing only brands and promotions they prefer with little cross-over nowadays, it makes me wonder how long this niche market can sustain itself on network television.

It’s the reason why streaming is the answer to all this. Despite record-low viewership, WWE signed a lucrative deal6 with NBC to fold their WWE Network into NBC’s Peacock streaming service7. NBC was willing to make this deal to boost the numbers for their streaming service, but what made the WWE Network worth the investment was the diehard number of fans already subscribed to the WWE Network, about half of their current audience. Media conglomerates have looked at Netflix’s business model and Disney’s success with the MCU and decided to absorb all their IPs and release them onto their streaming services for people to binge at their pleasure. It’s difficult to admit this is the way for wrestling programming to go, especially with the rise of WWE stock prices in the last few years and the importance of highly-merchandisable IPs, but once again, compare WWE’s YouTube numbers to their cable television numbers. However, as stated earlier, they haven’t quite figured out the streaming side of the equation, as WWE uploads recent episodes of Raw the next day on Hulu or YouTube in countries that do not have WWE television programming in their country but in 90-minute abridged versions. Aside from an implication of three hours being too long of a show, it also doesn’t fully display the entire episode, something that rightly annoys archivists. It doesn’t help that Peacock is censoring past episodes of Raw that are deemed too “controversial” for modern-day programming8, something that should annoy everyone, not just wrestling fans.

The WWE Network addresses that concern by uploading full episodes, but only 30 days after the show has already aired. If Peacock is going to host WWE content and advertise PPVs on their service, then not only should AEW be doing the same with HBO Max, these two companies need to take it a step further and start airing episodes on their services. I’ve been watching NFL games on the Yahoo! Sports app for two years now, and that company generates billions in revenue yearly; why can’t the two biggest wrestling promotions in the United States do the same?

Wrestling was always athletic theater, gathering crowds worldwide from millions of fans who wanted to view entertaining and spectacular feats. While that’s still the spirit that carries the industry today, it’s also further devolved into a niche market divided amongst sub-sections of fans desiring different things. This situation sounds like the old territory system; unfortunately, wrestling promotions today do not market their streaming rights to consistently gather large crowds or audiences as the territories did with word-of-mouth promotion in their time. The WWE library is a lifetime of entertainment for people to go back and experience; it could be a hub on Peacock if it already isn’t, and while AEW doesn’t have the long history that WWE does, other wrestling promotions like NWA and IMPACT! Wrestling does have a marketable library they could use to bolster a streaming service’s content. If a handful of independent promotions secure streaming deals when WWE and AEW begin effectively utilizing streaming services to become part of the corporate “streaming wars,” then we may be in a better place several years from now than we are currently.

Editor’s Notes

  1. – WWE Monday Night Raw Ratings
  2. WebArchive/WWE – 5/6/2002 – World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Drops The “F” To Emphasize the “E” for Entertainment
  3. Wrestling Inc. – 7/7/2021 – WWE RAW Draws Lowest Viewership In Show History
  4. – AEW Dynamite Ratings
  5. Sports Illustrated – 3/30/2021 – WWE NXT Moves to Tuesdays After USA Network Extension
  6. Variety – 3/8/2021 – Despite Falling Ratings, Pro Wrestling Is in a Rights Boom
  7. In the United States only. The WWE Network is still available in other countries as a stand-alone service, as of this writing.
  8. Forbes – 5/29/2021 – WWE Network Content Continues To Be Censored Ahead Of Move To Peacock

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