On Thursday, Sports Illustrated broke an “exclusive” story about a shift in WWE’s upper management. Effective immediately, the storied wrestling figures Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff will take on the roles of Executive Directors for Raw and SmackDown Live, respectively. Though the report notably does not state that CEO Vince McMahon will take a step back from his day-to-day role as the final decision maker for all WWE programming, the addition of two legendary wrestling minds to the promotion’s creative roster feels seismic, particularly as the company has been struggling with ratings and live attendance in recent months.
For wrestling fans, those two names carry literal decades of weight. Heyman was the mastermind of Extreme Championship Wrestling in the late 1990s, which was the third party in the Monday Night Wars between the then-WWF and World Championship Wrestling. Bischoff was the creative force behind WCW during the Attitude Era, and the architect of one of the most successful gimmicks of all time: the New World Order.
McMahon, Heyman, and Bischoff were the most important non-wrestlers of the late 1990s, but even that statement might understate the impact they made on that period. That said, the two men have another noteworthy thing in common: Heyman and Bischoff both ran their companies into the ground. Heyman’s struggles with paying his wrestlers—all while he was personally collecting checks from purported competitor WWE—are well-documented, and while Bischoff did help drive the biggest boom period in North American wrestling history, he was also ousted from WCW in 1999 after a variety of poor business and creative decisions.
Both have joined WWE in the years since the collapse of their respective companies. Bischoff was an on-screen character in WWE starting in 2002 and stayed in that role until 2007; he also pitched creative ideas behind the scenes. Heyman has come and gone over the years, most recently serving as the mouthpiece for Brock Lesnar.
Their return to the fold in these high profile roles screams of desperation in a distinctly WWE way. Their presence reflects what has been McMahon’s default approach for years, despite mixed success: When nothing is working, just run the ’90s back and hope for the best. That’s the logic behind continuing to trot out the Undertaker’s broken body—the Deadman has a match at the next pay-per-view, teaming with Roman Reigns to take on Drew McIntyre and another Attitude Era character, Shane McMahon—or the repeated attempts to get The Rock back into the ring for one more match.
It’s a bit unfair to use that same standard for Heyman and Bischoff, though, if only because neither was exactly plucked out of retirement. Heyman especially has been a very active part of WWE’s character development behind the scenes for years; during his 2011 Pipe Bomb promo, CM Punk famously described himself as a Paul Heyman guy:
Bischoff, for his part, has stayed in the game through podcasting; the title of his podcast, 83 Weeks, references the amount of consecutive weeks WCW beat WWF in the ratings battle. One of Bischoff’s main complaints about WWE on his podcast is one that he would also do well to address as the SmackDown Live boss: he believes—rightfully in my eyes—that WWE is poor at developing long-term storylines of the kind that both excite fans and urge them to tune in for the latest chapter in the story. He knows what he’s talking about, here, as Bischoff was at the helm for one of the better-remembered long-term storylines: Sting’s stalking of the nWo, which saw the face-painted avenger stay away from the ring for 18 months except for the moments when he would attack the evil faction as part of his quest for justice.
(The less said about the payoff to that story, the better, but needless to say, there’s a reason WCW is remembered both for its innovation and its terrible execution.)
Could this work? That depends upon whether McMahon actually listens to both Heyman and Bischoff. Having them in charge of their own shows, separate from each other, could indeed help rescue the promotion’s flagging ratings and monochromatic creative direction. Given that WWE has that huge FOX television deal coming this fall, ensuring that both shows are under the control of great wrestling minds should help make them feel like unique, and uniquely entertaining, entities. This might be a desperation move, but it’s not a foolish one on its face.
But it’s still a risk. Bischoff hasn’t held a position of power in wrestling since he was the executive producer for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling in the early 2010s. Heyman has found steady work as Lesnar’s so-called advocate, and there have been reports over the years stating that he enjoyed popping up on TV here and there and helping along some passion projects backstage. Whether he will find that same enjoyment in the weekly creative grind of WWE’s flagship Monday night show is harder to know.
The bigger question, here, has to do with what wrestling even is these days. As more competitors pop up and thrive with a modern-style of storytelling, WWE has stayed stuck doing what it thought worked for years, to steadily diminishing returns. Considering that the biggest problem facing WWE creative is that they do not try new things, is bringing in two men who peaked nearly twenty years ago really the answer? It’s possible that their time away from the spotlight has helped attune them to modern pro wrestling; Bischoff’s comments at least hint at that possibility, and Heyman has always been renowned as a student of the sport, and has been generous in his praise for independent wrestling and its idiosyncrasies.
So color me skeptical, but hopeful. I’ve written about the tropes that WWE re-uses ad infinitum, and how they have created a product that’s more of a slog than a television show. Even if the ideas brought forward by Heyman and Bischoff err closer to the ’90s-style of booking—more semi-scripted promos, more “edgy” content, more outlandish situations—it couldn’t be worse than running back three straight title matches featuring Baron Corbin.
If you’re WWE, you probably don’t want a move this big to be met with such a restrained optimism. But after the year that WWE has endured on television and in the stands, trying something new seems like the right move, even when that attempt at novelty is old at heart.