There is a growing disparity among WWE viewers. Once upon a time this disparity was between WWE’s creative team (primarily Vince McMahon himself) and the fans, but now it is a fight between the fans themselves.
There are many wrestling fans who discuss the goings-on of WWE programming on various internet sites. These sites include message boards (many of which aren’t focused on pro wrestling, but who have a thread devoted to it), specific sites such as this one that allow for comments and “talk backs” on various articles and news stories, and dedicated pro wrestling fansites, not affiliated with WWE, but with WWE as its primary target of discussion.
These sites used to comprise a specific segment of the WWE Universe. The fans who frequented these sites were called “the IWC” or “Internet Wrestling Community.” The term was coined as an epithet; a way to marginalize a segment of the audience (often the most vocal, stubborn and opinionated segment) and to belittle them as “jobless, overweight “neckbeards” who live in the basements of their parents.”
You know this guy?
That’s the picture Vince McMahon probably still has in his head when he thinks about fans on the internet.
It’s a totally antiquated idea, on par with the idea that comic book fans are “nerds” (despite movies like Guardians of the Galaxy being the biggest box office hit of 2014, and the upcoming Avengers movie poised to rake in 2 billion dollars), or the idea that video games are for “losers” (despite the record-setting sales of games like Call of Duty, Madden, FIFA and others). Both video games and comic books have gone from being a niche market in the 90’s to being a booming mainstream business one half-generation later. Yet, the antiquated stereotype still lingers, usually employed by a fading generation of older people who have seen the world pass them by, marginalize them and find their talents and skills are no longer as cutting edge or as effective in a more modern world as they were in the 80’s and 90’s…
Speaking of Vince…
Listening to McMahon’s interview with Steve Austin from late last year it’s clear that Vince hasn’t–as some fans like to joke–flat out lost his freaking mind. He’s still just as “sane” as he ever was (as ever much as he ever was, at least), but his viewpoint and methods feel woefully regressive. He says that he listens to the fans and gives them what they want, but the truth is he has rarely ever done that (and when he does it was only as a short-term change, not a shift in his approach to booking). And quite frankly, he doesn’t need to do that. He needs too tell stories the fans don’t know that they want, and in so doing, if he finds that the fans aren’t buying what he’s selling he needs to tweak the story until it works, while still giving the fans something they didn’t know that they wanted.
Wrestling fans by and large don’t like to be surprised; we like to predict and be right in our predictions, but really when things go as predicted we are only so happy. On rare occasions, when we are expecting one thing and we get something that is better than what we were expecting, those are the times we go crazy with happiness. The problem is, Vince isn’t as good at doing that as he used to be, so fans end up predicting one thing and getting something that is far worse than we were expecting. The reason this is happening more and more in WWE is because Vince’s fan base has evolved into a generation (the hated “Millennials” as he calls us) whose viewpoints and outlooks on life are entirely different than his.
Vince is a baby boomer. He became a promoter in the 80’s with a product that appealed to the last of the baby boomers. As his fanbase came to be taken over by Gen-Xers in the early-mid 90’s, his product became stale. Fortunately, Vince was still savvy enough to adjust his programming to reflect a change in his viewers’ preferences. He did this quite out of necessity; WCW’s more mature storylines (largely focusing on the invading nWo) gave viewers a clear alternative to his cartoonish WWF and its “New Generation.” The Attitude Era was launched, first incrementally in 1997 and then as a full-on campaign with Steve Austin as it’s spokesman in 1998.
Now, the world is slowly being taken over by Millennials, and being now two generations removed, Vince McMahon is struggling to understand what we want.
So what does this have to do with the IWC?
This generation is the internet generation. Vince understands this to an extent; his company’s overblown twitter pimping is proof of that, not to mention the entire concept behind the high speed internet-required WWE Network. Yet, there seems to be a cognitive dissonance going on in the mind of McMahon, where he sees the value of twitter and those who subscribe to the Network, while simultaneously dismissing the viewpoints and criticisms of the fans who use those services.
The fact is everyone uses the internet nowadays. You’re reading this on the internet. You check your email on the internet. You post half-hearted birthday greetings on facebook on the internet. The vast majority of your social interaction in the 21st century takes place on the internet. This is the way life is today.
So how backward and regressive do you have to be to mock fans who talk about your product “on the internet”?
There once was a time, in the early days of the internet, when only a small portion of fans would chat and discuss the goings-on of pro wrestling. In those days, it was the internet fans who knew about contract disputes and which wrestlers were jumping promotions long before they made their TV debut. It was the internet fans who first got together to consolidate their frustrations with this booking decision or that, and found a unified force for their discontent. Back in those days, it was right to say there was an Internet Wrestling “Community.” And that IWC really was a small sliver of the fanbase.
Now everyone is online. The internet is not a novelty. It is as much a part of our society as an automobile. With the rise of smartphones, people carry the internet with them 24/7. In that regard, every fan of every medium is an “internet fan” of that medium. There are no “Walking Dead fans” and “Walking Dead internet fans.” There are just “Walking Dead fans.” There are no “Game of Thrones fans” and Game of Thrones internet fans.” If you’re a fan of the show, you will naturally find others who are fans of the show too. The internet is where to find them. If everyone is a wrestling fan on the internet, there are no “internet wrestling fans.” The title becomes defunct. It is dead. The IWC is dead. Long live the (memory of) the IWC.
In its place is a whole new divide among WWE fans.
The division used to be between marks (fans who thought the product was real) and smarks (a.k.a. “smart marks” who could enjoy the product while understanding it was a performance). Marks were kids (and, I suppose, a few very ignorant older fans), and smarks were everyone else. It didn’t really matter, since being a smark (as opposed to a “smart” who doesn’t watch as a fan, but instead looks at everything through a critical/journalistic eye), means having a good time and enjoying the show. Marks and Smarks could (theoretically) both cheer for the babyface over the heel, and both live in harmony.
But being a smark means being jaded. It means understanding that the guy who is the top wrestler may not be the best guy for the job. It means understanding some guy marks don’t care anything about would if only he would get a push befitting his abilities. That different level of understanding sometimes meant that marks and smarks would be on opposite sides of the spectrum, such as at the 1996 Survivor Series, with smarks in Madison Square Garden cheering for Psycho Sid, while the marks kept on cheering for the hero HBK. Many fans on that occasion let it be known that they were sick of HBK’s goody good image, and liked the intensity of Sid. The marks, meanwhile, didn’t understand why the evil Sid would or could be cheered (that’s why they were marks).
Don’t misunderstand, there were smart marks who cheered for HBK against Sid at Survivor Series, but no mark cheered for Sid: He was the heel, and marks are marks because they always cheer the babyface and boo the heel.
Today, “kayfabe” (the insistence by the pro wrestling market that “it’s all real”) is just as dead as the IWC. It’s death happened in lockstep with the death of the IWC, in fact. Though WWE TV doesn’t come out and say that the punches are pulled and the finishes are predetermined (though they occasionally wink and nod at the latter), WWE’s own website treats the product entirely like a scripted form of entertainment. Even the WWE Network shows interviews and documentaries that never hide the fact that this is all a scripted pseudo sport. Vince’s aforementioned interview with Steve Austin, and Triple’s similar sit down both openly discussed guys being pushed, storylines being changed, etc. The expansion of the internet-savvy audience coincided with an understanding by all parties that the whole thing is a glorified TV show.
And yet there is still a division. It’s not a division between Vince and a vocal minority of smarks: It’s a division among the fans.
The division is between so-called “casual fans” and “hardcore fans.” The casual fans watch Raw, go to live events in their area, and cheer for the babyfaces. Other than a few, these fans know it’s not “real.” Just like they know Power Rangers and Superman isn’t “real” but they still cheer on their favorite hero. They know John Cena is a TV character (at least based on the reactions of my 5 and 8 year old boys when he appears) but they still cheer him anyway. Why? Because he’s the good guy. It may be a TV show, but they’re not mature enough to look beyond what they are told on the show. When I cheered for Bray Wyatt against Cena last year, they acted like I was stabbing them in the back. I couldn’t explain that I appreciated the work Rotunda had done with the character and how I wanted to see him “get the rub” from beating the top guy. They may have understood it was a TV show but they weren’t ready to understand all of that complexity. They will when they’re older.
I’m a hardcore fan, so I think about those sorts of things; things my kids would not.
But with the death of the IWC, there has arisen a new group of fans who seem to get angry when a hardcore fan boos the good guy. It’s a kind of self-aware commitment to kayfabe. Fans who will tell off other fans because they chant “you can’t wrestle” at Roman Reigns; fans who will say “Bryan had his turn, Roman beat him at Fast Lane so we need to let it go.” These are the fans who talk on the message boards, who comment on the websites, who know the inner-workings, but they are so committed to the show as it is given to them, they argue with those who complain and seek a different direction.
Don’t get me wrong: Fans can cheer for Roman Reigns all they want, for whatever reason they want. But those who boo and complain about his very fast push, his limited in-ring ability and his stilted promos, should not be regarded as less than fans. In fact, many of the fans who lap up whatever Vince McMahon feeds them, are so casual in their fandom they only cheer for Roman Reigns (and before him, John Cena). They come to the shows, sit on their hands, and when The Shield’s music plays (or when Cena’s trumpet blares), they will hop up and scream. Then when the match starts they will switch to their cell phones or will talk with their friends next to them. They will cheer, but in the case of Roman Reigns, it will be to respond to the “you can’t wrestle” chant with a “yes he can” chant, like good little sheep. Or, in the case of Cena, they will start a “Let’s go Cena” chant more out of tradition than love and loyalty.
And that’s fine. If you want to cheer for just one guy, or even if you want to cheer for just the guys that you are told to cheer for: More power to you. But when I boo and complain at what I’m seeing, don’t say (as some have) “if you don’t like it, stop watching it.” Because there are few things more infuriating than a soccer mom on her phone–completely unaware of what’s going on in the ring–pausing her scroll through facebook to tell me to stop watching wrestling.
Vince may be more than happy to cater to the fans who will cheer whatever he tells them to, but ratings are dropping. The IWC may have once been a marginalized portion of the audience, but hardcore viewers are an increasingly large segment of the fans. Alienating us is unwise. Who is more likely to to buy a t-shirt, or a house show ticket or the WWE Network that is so crucial to the company’s future success? Not a casual fan. When WrestleMania is over and the annual springtime lull kicks in, who is more likely to stick with the show? Invested fans. When John Cena finally retires, and should Roman Reigns bomb as a main-eventer, who will still be around to watch every PPV and every Raw while Vince searches for his next Next Big Thing? Not the casual fan.
The internet wrestling fan, as it once existed, is dead. The division in the fanbase between oblivious marks and knowledgeable smarks is dead. In its place is a fanbase split between hardcore fans unafraid to complain and casual fans who just want to cheer for the good guys, even if the product in front of them, as the Rock would say, “absolutely SUCKS!” Instead of encouraging that divide, WWE needs to put out a product that both hardcore fans and casuals can enjoy together. That may get harder and harder, however, as the fans’ sensibilities align less and less to the whims of a 70 year old, sleep deprived egomaniac.