The highest point inside what was formerly known as Titan Towers in 2019 was not the widespread acclaim, reception and adulation Kofi Kingston received when he finally won the WWE Championship in the main event at WrestleMania 35. It also was not when Becky Lynch—a generational talent through a groundswell of acclaim, will, and charisma—became the most popular ambassador for WWE programming. Instead, the best moment of 2019 came actually a year prior, in the summer of 2018. That’s the moment Vince McMahon and executives at Fox agreed to a deal that would pay the WWE $1 billion over five years to air Friday Night Smackdown. The move further legitimized the WWE, a hub of pop culture for well over four decades, into the modern mainstream.
However, it is that deal and countless others, namely the WWE’s position and desire to create in-roads in Saudi Arabia that has given the company more than a few hits below the belt. The weekly television product, once a staple in the halcyon days of the “Attitude Era” now feels shorted. The holding pattern for feuds and ideas has grown to such a large malaise that somewhat resembles the in-ring work of the late Giant Gonzales: slow, methodical and outright repetitive. Entertainment has never been a deficiency for the company. However, modern fans only have one desire: tell compelling stories. And the summer’s most compelling one, Kingston’s reign as champion, was snatched from the sky and thrown to the Earth in a matter of seconds.
In a motive to serve both pro wrestling diehards who love the in-ring product (and believe good wrestling cures all) and casuals who come around for crossover moments, the E has alienated a large chunk of fans in the same step. It helps none that All Elite Wrestling, a company with its own billionaire backing, is nestled in at an old McMahon cable TV rival (TNT) with AEW Dynamite. The Tony and Shad Khan outfit - which was built through former WWE talent Cody Rhodes and a few of his closest friends - runs opposite of WWE's "third" and arguably most consistent brand, NXT (which itself recently went through a transition from WWE Network exclusive to a timeshare with the USA network). There’s competition and in numerous ways, McMahon and company have struggled to find the perfect blend that suits all.
If the USA-aired RAW is set to serve one form of advertisers as a casual, exciting wrestling show and Smackdown is supposed to make good on a massive new TV deal, then the constant desire to dip into the past has created more harm than good. The Saudi shows, which WWE actually stopped mentioning were in Saudi Arabia last year due to public backlash, are nostalgia points to a past where Triple H, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, and Kane - combined age of well over 200 - can main event and also risk injury.
The market value for the WWE may not be any higher than it is right now. They’re public in ways not seen since the late 90s and early 2000s, yet are caught in flux. In a way, they’ve become a league similar to that of the NFL and NBA, a television behemoth too impossible to ignore but also with its own sores and well-documented issues. And like those leagues, WWE’s own desire for expansion has placed them in a situation where they cannot retreat backward. Even when the latest mountain they face seems too stubborn to want to be conquered.
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