I’ve got a slightly different take on Daniel Bryan’s return and just how WWE might view him in the plans moving forward. I say “might” simply because I believe WWE will make the best business call based on the data they have, which they don’t share with us. I just don’t put any stock in the reactions of the TV arena crowds because if they were truly indicative of WWE’s larger business there’s no way Cena is the runaway money generator he’s been the last decade and surely others with better responses from these crowds would have long since surpassed him if the Raw/PPV crowd translated to money.
That being said I do think they were a factor in the road to Mania last year, just not for the same reasons as many express. I don’t think WWE was worried about their booing, I think WWE was counting on them to be the subscriber base of the WWE network and wanted to make sure to grab them up in hopes they’d be a big enough number all on their own to take the network into the black. Call it the “low hanging fruit” strategy. When you pick apples from a tree, you grab everything on the low branches (hardcore fans) before you start climbing higher to get the more difficult to reach apples (casual fans). Just look how reliant WWE was on their library during the roll out, rather than original programming, tailor-made for the older hardcore fan who longs for the “good old” days and still sticks around hoping for a return. WWE network going hard with the library, then the Monday Night Wars series in the fall was designed for them to sigh up so they could go back and watch again…not the casuals who live in the now and aren’t watching out of nostalgia.
Which brings us to Batista. I imagine WWE thought they had found a perfect scenario. The old star Batista triumphantly returns to WWE, bringing with him the memories and nostalgia a network subscriber could now revisit. But possibly even bigger than that, Batista had the big summer blockbuster on deck, which meant he would be taking the WWE title everywhere and likely garnering enough free advertising/product placement that he could justify his money on that alone, while reaching even more lapsed fans, all of which would build to the SummerSlam blockbuster versus the other WWE “mainstream” star Brock Lesnar.
I’m sure WWE was also cognizant that their hardcore fanbase might also be concerned with what Batista’s return would mean for their favorites, which is why I think they booked so much heat for that audience’s current darling, Daniel Bryan. I imagine they hoped that Bryan getting revenge would be a big enough story to satiate the audience demand. So you put Sheamus in the spot Rollins would get later and pair him with Bryan, Punk would come to Bryan’s aid and pair off with HHH. After Mania you could add Batista/Orton for 6-man, then transition The Authority to The Shield, which is where WWE sees future money. But then the hardcore fans revolted and depending on your viewpoint if you’re in WWE’s inner circle, Vince either smartly changed plans on the fly…or he panicked and blew a potentially big deal on a plan with a much lower probability for huge success…all with the goal of getting every hardcore fan signed up for the network by the day after Mania.
So let’s play devil’s advocate and say I was one of the anti-Bryan/pro-Batista voices who said hardcore fans had already decided whether they would subscribe and those who planned to were just like the audience at the average Raw. They might not like much of what they see or the wrestlers we push, but they’re going to show up as long as WWE is on the marquee. Let’s say I argued that I wasn’t even confident that the PAYING hardcore audience was big enough to get the network to a million subscribers, but either way WWE already had the low hanging fruit, and they needed to be focused on the success of the larger task, growing the casual audience. I was firm the network would be carried by WWE’s success in getting new/lapsed customers. Now here we are at the start of 2015, Bryan is back, and the pro-Bryan voices are arguing that Bryan should win the Rumble and headline Mania. Here’s what I would argue:
1) We capitulated completely to the demand of our devoted fans…and the result was the network limping out of the gate, which means that audience is not enough to make the network profitable…so we’ve given them NXT along with the still growing library, while we focus on casuals…and we can’t go back to that well again because it failed last year.
2) The free media and attention WWE and the network would have received from Batista as champ this summer would have more than paid his salary…and who knows how much bigger a Guardians Batista versus Brock for the title would have been for the network. Had we gone with Batista, WWE still would have gotten every single one of our current subscribers because they’re WWE fans first and foremost…and maybe even more subscribers from the lapsed fan made aware of WWE again and all the kids who find out Drax was a wrestler and they can see him and all his old stuff on the network, not too mention the shirts and toys we lost out on.
3) Bryan as underdog was popular…and when we had him beat 3 top stars at the same time, we killed that underdog and as proof I’d cite the tepid response Bryan received afterward because if he was still hot, he should have been able to carry anything we gave him or at least have the insight to demand a change that he wanted, but he’s too laid back and not a business partner we can trust.
4) We built Bryan up starting in the summer of 2013 (if not sooner) as a top guy, then fed him 3 top stars along with the title…a massive investment…and then he got hurt and was out for the rest of the year with an injury we have no reason to think won’t recur with more pounding in the ring. How on earth can we be thinking about giving him Brock- who we’ve invested HUGE in for the last year- the title, and the focal point of Mania, when it’s just as likely we get to May and the nerve compression is back, but this time he needs the fusion surgery that will end his WWE career.
If I’m Vince these are some very compelling arguments and unless the data overwhelmingly supports Bryan’s popularity is widespread and translates to big money, significantly bigger than any other candidate to beat Brock, there’s absolutely no way I can invest in him with a Rumble win/Mania headliner/WWE champ. I’d still want to use in in a high profile spot, but he’s not sniffing the top spot until he shows me at least a year of great health.
Now as a fan, WWE can book anybody they want in any role and if it’s good I’m entertained. I don’t fantasy book who should be champ or pretend to know which stars are box office or pretend to know best because I have ZERO hard facts, so whether WWE puts Bryan or Reigns or Cena or anybody versus Brock, I really don’t care…but as somebody in business who tries to appreciate and understand WWE’s business, I would be stunned if Bryan win the Rumble if for no other reason than that I can’t imagine WWE looks at 2014’s business and hopes for a repeat in 2015 and going all in on Bryan would increase the likelihood of that by at least 50%…in other words, a very bad bet.
What do you think?
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