Tonight is the first night on the WWE’s noted “Road to Wrestlemania.” As one of the world’s premiere entertainment events, Wrestlemania is a spectacle drawing millions of viewers across the globe, including upward of over 100,000 fans into a single arena. With the Road to Wrestlemania beginning with the Royal Rumble every year for the last 28 years, the Royal Rumble ensures that its champion will face whomever is the WWE Champion walking into Wrestlemania in the headlining Main Event.
Throughout the storied history of the Royal Rumble both “face” wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan and “heel” competitors including WWE CEO Vince McMahon have walked away with their shot at the WWE World Title. Royal Rumble winners, and more importantly the reaction from the WWE audience through the last two years might change the way the WWE feels about automatic entry into wrestling’s top card. With increased focus on social media in the involvement of these fans through podcasts, Reddit, the WWE’s official app and Twitter, WWE fans don’t watch wrestling as the “realistic” event it may have been viewed in the 90’s, but almost as an interactive experience. The WWE and its fans have a symbiotic in 2015, where the ebbs and flows of wrestling can happen not by the whims of Vince McMahon, but by your voice. In tonight’s event the WWE Universe, as the fans are so called, were loud and clear about how they felt all night long in the Royal Rumble – whether things were going very well or very poorly.
Let’s step back to just one year ago at the start of the same road. Facing a moderate rivalry with “The Authority”, the WWE’s Daniel Bryan was undergoing a fully fan-based push to the WWE’s face roll. Residing in the prime of a “YES!” chant that shook WWE arenas, wrestling was experiencing pop-cheers for a contender not seen since the likes of The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin. With such a pop in the crowd each time Daniel Bryan hit the floor, the McMahon family and WWE Chief Operating Officer “HHH” took notice with a rivalry between Bryan and The Authority. Much like Stone Cold did in his day, Bryan had been staged as an every-man against his corporate overlords, oppressed and consistently berated as a “B+ player.” Fighting against the odds, Bryan was peaking heavily entering the Royal Rumble and being widely considered a favorite for World Title contention. WWE fans were fully behind him during the Royal Rumble event, loving their favorite wrestlers and enjoying the turns of the match as it took place for over an hour. With so much incorporation between the WWE brand, the fans, and social media, the WWE was poised to enjoy its most intense Royal Rumble in its 27th year.
The Royal Rumble, if you’re not familiar is a 30 person event in which each wrestler attempts to toss every other competitor out of the arena over the top rope. With a new wrestler dropping into the event every 90 seconds, a minimum 45 minute-long match culminates with the biggest payoff in the industry, but something else happened in the Rumble’s 27th year. Raw with emotion, WWE fans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania watched each contender come down the ring – contender 25, 26, 27…then something happened that hasn’t happened in known Rumble history. Contender 30 approached the ring and it was not Daniel Bryan, and the crowd went wild; Wild with boos. As former WWE Champion Rey Mysterio approached the ring, maybe for the first time ever absolutely no one cared. Continuing with chants of “Danial Bryan” and “This is Bullsh–“, fans broke out in anger over the lack of their perceived champion-in-wait. Throughout the Rumble’s finish boos continued when then winner Dave Bautista took home the prize of contention and the WWE Universe showed no mercy.
Leading up to Wrestlemania, McMahon and The Authority staged continued struggle for Bryan and built a window of hope for the fans that culminated in Wrestlemania itself. Bryan would defy the odds in that night, pitting him against the most authentic excitement the WWE may have ever seen. Bryan took on a multi-match story arch in which he would defeat The Authority itself just for a SHOT at the World Title. Limping through with a medically taped arm, Bryan not only defeated HHH, but fought with momentum-based fury against two opponents simultaneously as his top card earnings couldn’t change Bautista’s ability to contest for the title. Walking away with the title on that night sent Bryan into the stratosphere in the WWE Universe, only to come to a screeching halt with a real-world injury to his neck that would require 9 months on the shelf with surgery.
Key one year later, as this year’s Royal Rumble starts up the Road to Wrestlemania yet again. Bryan is back from injury and the chemistry of the WWE is even more focused on the fans. With the inclusion of the WWE Network, a subscription-based service with a bulk history of WWE’s archives, people can pay just $9.99/month to enjoy all there is to offer from the top wrestling provider the world over. Included in this package, the WWE Network offers each month’s Pay-Per-View event as its most compelling reason to hook its fans. At release, this Network served as the most amazing tool for a WWE fan, as well as the largest financial risk to the WWE since the “Monday Night Wars” in which Ted Turner’s WCW nearly took McMahon’s company off the map. With notable volatility and a huge investment in this network, stockholders fled from the WWE, dropping McMahon out of his noted billionaire status with a hard decline in stock value.
The Royal Rumble match isn’t the only event to enjoy during the Pay-Per-View of course, and this year’s side matches left fans not only happy, but begging for more. Featuring prominently, the WWE World Title was up for grabs tonight in a fantastic show between mainstay headliner John Cena, former UFC champion Brock Lesnar, and face of The Authority Seth Rollins. While Cena has always been a face for the company with fan backing, and Brock Lesnar stood as an immovable object coming into the match, it was Seth Rollins who would be put on showcase in the Royal Rumble. Despite his existence as the face of the widely opposed Authority, Rollins’ ability in the ring has earned him the respect of many WWE fans, and the show put on in the Rumble this year put him in the main card not only this year, but clearly for many years to come. With these three giants of the ring putting their bodies on the line in a fantastic match, stepping into the main event of the evening fans were hyped and ready for Bryan’s return to his first Pay-Per-View after his injury.
Entering at number 10, Bryan fought in the ring for over 27 minutes to the excitement of fans before something happened in the celebrated event. Bryan was tossed aside without much regard against mid-card talent. While the crowd relived the same high intensity pop of his World Title victory as he entered, the same energy hit the stadium when he was disqualified – this time negative. Just as had hit the year prior, Daniel Bryan’s disqualification caused discontent in the crowd, a discontent that didn’t hold up for over ten minutes and never truly ended. In the 2015 Royal Rumble Bryan’s elimination was a foreshadowing of something that WWE fans both saw coming and openly contested. A word in the wind would suggest that WWE Superstar Roman Reigns could walk away with a victory in the Royal Rumble. Having fallen just short to Bautista in 2014, Reigns eliminated a record 12 entrants in the year prior, and despite a lack of proficiency on the microphone and Reigns being tagged as a “five moves of doom” face character, he was tagged as a favorite to win this year. The term “favorite” should be used loosely however.
During the following 30-40 minutes of the Royal Rumble, under a hostile crowd, Reigns and the other competitors in the ring would duke it out for a chance at Wrestlemania. Having very few characters that the WWE Universe puts on a pedestal as high as Bryan, WWE fans clamored for anyone but the rumored victor to take home the win. Entering after Bryan’s elimination, almost no one would stop the constant BOO from the crowd, but those who would change the flow couldn’t contest The Authority’s will – and by extension the company itself. Entering at just two spots behind Reigns, only Damien Mizdow could bring a neutral sound to the crowd’s overwhelming disappointment. Truth be told, the feeling in my small house party was much the same of the crowd, and the sight of one of the most entertaining wrestlers in the WWE today helped lift the spirits. With creative at the helm, fans would enjoy 18 seconds of Damien Sandow in the Rumble before his elimination came entirely too soon, pushing the fans’ interests straight to the back of the bus yet again. With the crowd now firmly behind them, those contenders which remained in the ring fought as well as any Rumble before, but with a resoundingly upset crowd that was living the high life just 40 minutes earlier.
It was at this point that the fans felt as though the whispers in the wind were shouts, and none of those came from the fans themselves. Watching intently as top-tier superstars, former champions and fan favorites hit the floor in elimination, fans grew increasingly discontented with Reigns reaching further into the match. Top 10, top 5, then top 3. Reigns survived through the elimination of former Intercontinental Champion and Heavyweight Champion Dolph Ziggler simply by waiting in the wings as traditional heel characters Kane and The Big Show tossed him over. Poised as a two-on-two, Reigns saw Kane and Big Show heads-up with his former partner Dean Ambrose in the final four situation. After cloning each of Ambrose’ wrestling moves for all of 30 seconds, it appeared that the last hope for the fans to not see Reigns in the title match would be his Ambrose, then Reigns stood by idly as Ambrose was tossed from the ring. With any semblance of illusion and hope gone, the people knew the result in wait as Reigns turned over almost 900 pounds of man over the top rope to become the Royal Rumble winner.
Then it happened. Almost 15 minutes earlier, United States Champion Russev came out from hiding. Russev spent nearly the duration of the Rumble on the floor, but he was never tossed over the top rope – an integral part of the rules for his elimination. When Russev came out from the floor ready to take on Reigns he may have received the biggest pop of his career. The people of Philadelphia were on their feet in excitement for a Russian who openly hates America. With a proven track record of wrestling and fighting ability, Russev represents a complete package, but is typically shone in the light of a heel. This was a clear representation of how much the Universe did not want to see Reigns in the title picture and it represented a huge opportunity for Russev to reach the top-tier in the WWE. Within another 15 seconds of the biggest positive swing of the night Roman Reigns tossed the undefeated United States Champion over the top rope, winning the Royal Rumble.
The noise was deafening, the discontent was avid, and Roman Reigns now clearly knows that the WWE Universe does not like him. Just one minute later, in the midst of a hostile crowd ready to tear apart the stadium, WWE legend “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson came waltzing down the ring. Clearing out the remains of Kane and The Big Show, The Rock had the crowd on their feet up until the very moment that he raised the hand of Roman Reigns.
With the company’s most prominent legends in the ring and the most heavily pushed and ill-prepared superstar on the roster in his hand, what was once a full cheer died into a neutrality of boos that baffled even The Rock. Not having stood in a ring without cheers in over 15 years, The Rock couldn’t swing the hearts of WWE fans who consider themselves as the most true fans in the business and the WWE creative team should be ashamed of itself in this reality.
As the WWE reaches out into this world of social media, continuously citing itself as “trending on Twitter” and asking you to participate on its apps, they should be aware of what the fans want more acutely because it matters more now than ever. Sure, we cheer for you and celebrate your brand in the WWE Universe, but the brand is now built on trending, and trending negatively hurts the company more today than the same time one year ago. As McMahon has built the WWE Network as the premiere way to access his brand, subscribers are acting on the impulses of Twitter and the Network’s “Cancel Anytime” solicitations to build and break the brand. With a major miss out there in the Royal Rumble, and the clear ignorance of the Universe which they so herald, it’s no wonder now why McMahon lost a large sum of his shareholders just months ago.
Today built up exactly what his shareholders were concerned with as the Twitter trending went hard against the company in a #CancelWWENetwork hashtag. In the wake of one the most disappointing Pay-Per-View events to date, subscribers are flowing out of the WWE at an alarming rate. In fact, WWE subscribers looking to get out of the wrestling scene after the Rumble hit unsubscribe so quickly that the official WWE website crashed under the load early on after the match. While this is obviously a major problem in the McMahon family, this could also pose a significant shift in the WWE brand through the foreseeable future.
As the WWE Network is the financial litmus, subscribers flooding away from the brand can finally speak with something more than a subjective television rating. McMahon now rests his empire firmly on not only sponsorship from big brands, but your hard earned cash and that may for the first time change the scene we’re so familiar with. Fans know that the WWE hears their voices when polls result in a live events’ outcome. Fans know that the WWE hears their voices when a Reddit subject sends HHH a fruit basket after a great NXT event. What the WWE needs now as their brand lives in the fast world of social media and a direct paycheck is a quick reaction to the fans. Check in an NFL style audible when things aren’t flying your way. Sure, Bryan set off an avalanche tonight, but the fans would have clearly been happy with just about ANYONE aside from Reigns in the title match. The fans want a wrestler, not a hot tag. They want someone who can work the microphone, not a scripted fool. After tonight, after watching the birthplace of America explode for a Russian heel, it’s clear that they won’t tolerate a failure in both of these areas and if McMahon doesn’t work with the fans rather than trying to force a re-enactment of his glory days, his stock and company could fall in on itself to make way for another high-level competition on network TV – and this time he might not walk out.