Why We’ll Never See the Attitude Era in the WWE Again

I hear a lot of wrestling fans clamoring for the return of the Attitude Era in the WWE, when Stone Cold Steve Austin’s beer-swilling and middle-finger-flashing mayhem reigned supreme, bra-and-panties matches seemed to happen on a titillatingly regular basis, you had porn stars and sex addicts as actual character gimmicks, and not a week would go by without DeGeneration-X finding some douchey new way to shock us.

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Bring back the Attitude Era, they say. Get rid of today’s PG-approved storylines and content!

I recently came across the actual 2014 investor report for the WWE here. I’m still digesting it, to be honest, but some things just jumped out at me, and made me believe that for everything the WWE is doing right these days in being socially-savvy and attentive to its audience, we will probably never see the Attitude Era again.

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1.
Content will have to be smart, not shocking.

The WWE’s core audience today are the 50+ year-old baby boomers and flower children. They’re the single largest age segment, at almost 4 in 10 viewers. Despite the recent thrust for PG-friendly content, less than 1 in 5 are kids or young teens.

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Surprisingly, almost 40% of viewers are female. So we probably shouldn’t expect too much blood, lewdness, or foul language – yes, it has to be intelligent and mature content, but not shocking and titillating.

Especially since today’s millennial market – despite having lower purchasing power than ever before, at least for the US ones – will be the cornerstone of growth, at just over 1 in 5 viewers. They have a very idealistic, ambitious set of values and world view, and will likely not appreciate content as degrading or as shock-core as before.

Are we going to see the return of crotch chops and Jerry Lawler squealing over jello lingerie matches? Most likely not. Sorry D-X fanboys. The age of puppies ain’t coming back.

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2.
Big growth ambitions means they can’t slice small

They’re calling 2011-2014 as “Investing in the Future” years, investing in content and infrastructure, particularly in their movie-production arm and the WWE Network.

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But they’re being very specific in declaring 2015 onwards as a return to growth levels comparable to the Attitude years.

The WWE is smart; they know that they grew back in the late 90s by stealing the young adult male demographic away through more mature content, storylines, and characters that were a huge departure from the traditionally cartoony pre-Attitude Era WWE, where wrestling plumbers and garbagemen were actually a thing.

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They can’t re-achieve that same ambition in today’s pop culture environment simply by catering to their existing loyal audience to increase their consumption value per capita. I don’t see today’s 50 year old daddy spending on eight more “Viper” t-shirts just because they look cool. The whole TapouT aesthetic just doesn’t work for that segment.

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A growth vision this large can only be fueled by aggressive acquisition of a new mass audience – and that means we probably won’t see too much insider, meta programming epics in the coming year.

WWE doesn’t have the luxury of an HBO or Netflix, who know they’re creating content for mostly well-to-do, well-educated viewers, letting them go as intelligent as they want. So if we’re hoping for complex Sopranos-style storylines, we’re probably not going to get them.

3.
Content will have to carry across cultural barriers

The biggest key to this aggressive growth ambition? WWE Network roll-out to the rest of the world, particularly calling out Malaysia and Thailand in SEA as key growth markets.

It’s absolutely critical, since US TV rights revenues are pretty much a fixed source of revenue. International revenues are now a bigger part of their business than domestic live events.

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Of course there’s a higher operating cost involved to stage these, but given that their critical KPI’s seem to be revenue growth rather than profitability, that shouldn’t be a deterrent.

That means content will have to be meaningful and comprehensible across multiple cultures; the WWE will be making sure that they build storylines and characters around universally-relatable, broadly-relevant themes and tensions. They can’t write for the traditional US audience alone.

This matters especially since social is such a key part of WWE’s forward plan.

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Content has to be shareable, and by default that pretty much means it will have to be relatively safe. You’re not going to get a lot of conversations happening across platforms if its stuff that’s generally best hidden in brown paper bags or behind incognito browser windows.

4.
Casual fans are king; the smark audience won’t matter.

Only about 1 in 10 US fans are hard-core passionate fans – these are probably the smarks like me who surf the dirt sheets and Internet message boards for the latest news and gossip.

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The rest aren’t as involved, and it seems that their strategic value consumers are the casual ones.

Unlike a typical Game of Thrones fan drooling over every detail and nuance in each episode, they may miss episodes here and there, and won’t be as fastidious about catching up with developments on the WWE’s other platforms on what they missed.

Will we see more smarky “breaking the fourth wall” moments like CM Punk’s infamous pipebomb segment, or the 3-year-long chase and reconciliation between “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Elizabeth?

I doubt it.

Content will have to be bite-sized and punchy, more appetite-whetting than deeply-involving. Sadly, it will most likely have to cater to the lowest common denominator; more Friends than Breaking Bad.

Content can’t be TOO clever, since a large bulk of the market aren’t as hard-core invested as the smark crowd, so don’t expect storylines to be too long, complex, or drawn-out. Expect a lot of snappy resolutions and pocket storytelling.

5.
The next big star of the WWE has to be a conventionally-acceptable face – and that’s good for Roman Reigns and Dolph Ziggler.

A common thread among today’s internet wrestling crowd is that John Cena is tired, over-exposed, and stale. Elevate new faces! Down with Cena! Feature our internet darling instead!

But one thing I noticed about the investor report – they use Cena a hell of a lot throughout the deck. You wanna know why? Because’s he’s presentable.

John Cena is damn handsome.

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Seems like if you want to be the face of the WWE across all its forums, you need to look broadly acceptable, relatively clean-cut, and well-put-together by mainstream standards – not too rebellious, not too non-conformist. That didn’t bode well for CM Punk, and probably not for guys like Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt, or even internet-darling Daniel Bryan either.

To be honest? They look weird.

I love Daniel Bryan, but he looks like a hippie activist .

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No wonder Roman Reigns has the rocket strapped to his ass. He’s a good face to insert into corporate decks, and is an incredibly presentable face for public relations.

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So you know who stands to benefit the most from this thinking? WWE may be over-pushing the hell out of Roman Reigns to eventually be the face of the company, but they are not going to overlook their greatest existing asset, presentation-wise: The Show-Off, Dolph Ziggler.

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I mean seriously, we all have a little bit of a man-crush on him, right??

More importantly, they’re both good guys. They seem affable, approachable, and benign. They may not necessarily be as complex as Dean Ambrose’s “Lunatic Fringe” persona, or as intriguing as Bray Wyatt’s cult leader “Eater of Worlds” schtick, but that’s a good thing for them.

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So in summary, the big theme for WWE in 2015 will be intelligent content to fuel global growth and get casual fans more invested in the product. That doesn’t sound like Attitude Era programming to me.

1. Content will have to be smart, not shocking.
2. Big growth ambitions mean they can’t slice too small.
3. Content will have to transcend cultural barriers.
4. Casual fans are king; smarks don’t matter.
5. The next big faces will have to be conventional, popularly-conventional faces, and that’s a good thing for good guys like Roman Reigns and Dolph Ziggler.

A majority of viewers are relatively more intelligent and mature, but will have sensitivities towards extreme content, so expect a moderate sophistication of content moving forward. Lapsed fans are one of the greatest opportunities for growth, so expect a healthy mix of throwback/nostalgia-driven content to balance off investments in newer, younger rising stars, the most important of which will be Roman Reigns and Dolph Ziggler.

They will invest in strongly building up the international markets, both through more live events and Network roll-out, Southeast Asia included. So expect content that translates better and less problematically across cultures; edgy and controversial doesn’t seem like it will work.

Sorry, folks. No “Rated R Superstar” live sex celebrations in the offing.

We’re not going to see the Attitude Era again.

And honestly? That’s a good thing.

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