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The future of World Wrestling Entertainment: The dawn of a new era?

So, it’s finally happened. It’s a surreal feeling to realize that Vince McMahon, the top dog of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) for so many years, has decided to sell the company he held so dear to his heart. For decades McMahon has been the most powerful person in the wrestling business, calling the shots as the CEO, chairman and majority shareholder. In 1999 the WWE, then the World Wrestling Federation, went public, selling 11.5 million shares at $17 a share, causing McMahon to proudly boast to a raucous crowd that he was a corporate billionaire! His power, it seemed, couldn’t be challenged… until now.

On 3rd April 2023, Endeavor Group Holdings, a global sports and entertainment company and the parent company of the UFC, announced the formation of a new publicly-listed company that merges the UFC with the WWE into a $21 billion “live sports and entertainment powerhouse”. Endeavor will hold a 51% controlling interest in the company and WWE shareholders will control 49%. The CEO will be Ariel Emanuel, the current CEO of Endeavor, and Vince McMahon will be Executive Chairman of the Board.

Perhaps it’s an understatement to say WWE fans have been unhappy with the direction the company has been going in recent years. Feeling let down, they’ve switched allegiance to competitors such as New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Elite Wrestling. A lot of fan discontent has been targeted towards Vince McMahon. He doesn’t have it anymore. He’s lost his touch. It isn’t the 1990s anymore and he no longer gets the business like he used to. This, of course, is arguable since McMahon has been at the helm when WWE recorded its highest revenue in its history of $1.3 billion in 2022.

But it’s also a point to note that Vince McMahon stepped down as chairman and CEO of WWE on 17th June 2022; half way during the year of WWE’s most successful revenue generation. As he subsequently announced his resignation and retirement a few days later, Stephanie McMahon and Nick Kahn took on the roles of Co-CEOs and Triple H assumed the role of WWE Head of Creative. Fans felt a new era was at hand, the Triple H Era. With Vince out of the way, perhaps the WWE could be what it once was – edgy, entertaining, innovative and something that could keep you guessing.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that not everyone was unhappy with the WWE. A company certainly doesn’t earn over a billion dollars in revenue if fans hate your business. But things can appear different on the internet. There’s often an underlying understanding that the WWE online community can be, for lack of a better word, toxic. A regular fan is a ‘mark’. Many in the online community label themselves as ‘smarks’, smart marks, that purport to understand the business better than regular fans. This self identification as a smark leads people to portray themselves as insiders with unique, insider knowledge, and to be critical of the business.

Even during the Attitude Era of the late 90s and early 2000s, what is widely recognised as the golden age of the WWE, the online community was highly critical of the WWE product. Browsing the preeminent forums at the time, notably the RajahWWF forums, a reader would be bombarded with scathing attacks of how the WWE was doing anything and everything wrong. This sentiment and recognition of the online community as ‘toxic’ hasn’t abated over the years, as internet access has grown considerably and social media has become a major vehicle for information dissemination.

But perhaps the online community had a point. The Attitude Era was a revolutionary change to the business. It brought innovation and creativity into an industry that had been feeling flat for quite some time. The babyface-heel dynamic of the 1980s and 1990s needed shaking up, and by the time the Attitude Era arrived, people loved the idea you could be a jerk and a badass and still be a fan favourite. The Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince McMahon feud is stuff of legend and still would be brilliant viewing today. But then the Attitude Era ended and the WWE slumped.

Kayfabe was well and truly shattered as the Tough Enough series exposed matches for what they were; a scripted work. Dwayne Johnson pointed out in his book The Rock Says that he didn’t want to insult the fans and pull the wool over anybody’s eyes (The Rock Says, Chapter 1). And Steve Austin once appeared on the early 2000s WWE webcast Byte This, deriding the script writing as “piss poor“. The product was declining in quality. The online community had a point.

But when Vince McMahon resigned in mid 2022, there was a ray of hope. Things could get better and some fans who had once deserted the company said they’d be willing to give it another chance. However the hopes of a new era, the Triple H Era, were dashed on 10th January 2023 when Vince McMahon returned to the WWE as Executive Chairman of the Board. When you’ve been in power for so long, it can be hard to let go. Stephanie McMahon abruptly resigned as Co-CEO and fans were quick to post about their worries of the direction of the company. They were so close to a new direction, a new era. But now he was back. Would the WWE fail to reinvent itself, particularly when someone who has been in charge for 40 years was coming back?

But then, another twist. The WWE has been sold to Endeavor. Not a controlling shareholder anymore, Vince McMahon is no longer the most powerful person in the wrestling business. His decisions can be vetoed. While he is still incredibly influential, that aura of invincibility has gone. Vince McMahon can be fired, something he’s done to others on screen many times over the years. Now, more than ever, we expect a new era for the WWE.

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