This Sunday’s WrestleMania is not your father’s, which is both the sort of thing World Wrestling Entertainment would say to promote it and true—if not quite in the way they would like you to think.
The needs of WWE’s business model have dictated that everything fans used to expect out of WrestleMania isn’t really there anymore. Rather than expertly crafted long-term storylines peaking at the biggest show of the year, we get a haphazardly thrown-together card that carries the aura of being a bigger deal than everything else you’ve been watching for the past year mainly due to WrestleMania’s more than 30 years of history. To make matters worse? It’s by design.
In 2017, WWE no longer operates the way wrestling promotions used to work. Vince McMahon doesn’t want to be part of a cyclical business that rises and falls based on the whims of the public. Wall Street hates that shit. Instead, slowly but surely, WWE has been built into a turnkey operation that will go on just fine whenever the 72-year-old chairman and CEO exits this mortal coil. In the long run, it’s the right move, especially for a public company, which WWE has been since 1999, even if a consequence of this is that the shows can end up sucking for long periods of time.
One of the ways WWE keeps everything nice and level is to avoid pushing individuals as true stars, so as to not risk rocking the boat too much if a given wrestler leaves the company. This leads to a big problem every year for WrestleMania: How do you convince the masses to buy WrestleMania without any standout stars? The answer has been a steady stream of older legends coming back for the top matches, with this year’s slate including Bill Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, The Undertaker, Triple H, Shane McMahon, and Chris Jericho, with Jericho being the only one who is anything resembling a full-time pro wrestler. The day-to-day stars end up locked out of the biggest matches (and the biggest paydays) and shunted down the card. Eventually, this won’t be sustainable, since there won’t be any older legends left; for now, it works, kind of.
In today’s WWE, booking is the means to an end of supporting one of the company’s two main revenue streams: Subscriptions to WWE Network, their streaming platform, which costs $9.99/month (or, more, realistically, $0.00/month if you use disposable emails to register additional accounts). It’s a long-term play, and, three years in, clearly the right one. While there are a number of specific things about the network that disappoint, the broad strokes (it’s priced fairly and, thanks to MLB Advanced Media, it’s reliable as you get) hit the mark. That side of WWE’s business is now built around trying to get as many subscribers to jump on for WrestleMania as possible while trying to find a way to make sure they don’t cancel, often by giving away a free 90-day subscription instead of the traditional 30. This is, arguably, where the older stars come in handy: They make it easier to attract lapsed fans.
The other half of WWE business today is pretty simple: TV rights fees, an area where they have tried to glom onto the rights-fee explosion in traditional, non-predetermined sports. Their strength here is that they tend to draw ratings above the prime-time averages of even some of the top cable networks. Where this plan falters is that pro wrestling generally gets far inferior advertising rates to most other programming with similar ratings. A 2015 civil complaint from shareholders alleged that WWE only gets $15,000 per 30 second spot, though WWE disputed the figure. That’s 25% of what USA Network would have needed at the time to directly make a profit on WWE programming.
Since there will likely always be a ceiling to what WWE can get from a network for an hour of programming, they have attempted to diversify their offerings in the last several years, experimenting with a few different reality shows. More hours = more money, even if they can’t raise the rights fees for each hour. While some shows, like the attempts at reviving early aughts MTV hit Tough Enough, have fizzled, and one show was shopped around, shelved when there were no takers and eventually dumped on WWE Network (Legends House), Total Divas on E! has been a legitimate hit. It’s also helped boost WWE’s female audience, which the company did not try to cultivate until recently.
And in this new era, the most expertly crafted storyline leading into WrestleMania 33 is, amazingly enough, the one that spins off from Total Divas.
When the news first broke that WrestleMania would feature The Miz and wife Maryse against John Cena and girlfriend Nikki Bella, wrestling fans were ... confused. While it made sense in that it may be Nikki’s last match (her neck is a mess) and gives her a really nice moment in a featured spot, the expectations for the storyline were not exactly high. Yes, Miz (best known to non-fans as Mike the accidental racist from the Back to New York season of The Real World) had finally found himself as a performer in the last year as part of a duo with his wife, and sure, Nikki, has become a very good wrestler, too, but this is John Cena. Everyone expected him to be wrestling The Undertaker (a match that has not happened since Cena became the company’s top star in 2005) or someone else with similar gravitas. This match looked like it would be cute, and probably even good, but not exactly worthy of WrestleMania.
Instead, Miz and Maryse, with chips on their shoulders and Miz in particular clearly having a blast, rose to the occasion. They honed in on something that fans had noticed for years and was sometimes the subject of chatter backstage: Cena and Nikki don’t come off like a real couple. At all. All of their Total Divas castmates have real, palpable chemistry with their significant others, but Cena and Nikki come off like co-workers forced into a sham relationship of convenience that exists solely for career advancement. The Mizanins cut deeply personal promos about what awful, plastic, shallow, fake human beings Cena and Nikki were, eventually culminating in their magnum opus: Total Bullshit, a multi-part “lost episode” brutally skewering Total Bellas, the spinoff to Total Divas.
The skits were biting and brutal in a way that the homogenized modern WWE rarely is, taking glee in pointing out what an emotionless husk Cena is for refusing to marry Nikki and making her sign a contract to even move in. It’s a far cry from the more protected Cena of years past. Once, during Cena’s feud with The Rock, Hollywood’s most bankable star cut a promo on his rival that included lines suggesting he was a suburbanite poser; those were edited off of replays. Meanwhile, in 2017 Miz exclaims that “Real people in actual relationships that aren’t just for TV get married!” while in the guise of Daniel Bryan, his longtime rival turned Nikki’s brother-in-law. That comes in between snipes about Nikki having a separate bedroom when not filming the show and thinking that wearing a hat gives her a personality. If you’re an adult watching to enjoy wrestling, it’s the best entertainment in WWE right now. If you’re a kid who adores Cena, you want him to destroy the villains, propose to Nikki, and carry her off into the sunset like Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth at WrestleMania VII.
That is what WrestleMania is supposed to be.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.