For years, fans of the WWE have been cheekily bringing signs to arenas threatening to riot if their favorite wrestler doesn't win. Last Sunday, for wrestling fans attending the 28th annual Royal Rumble in Philadelphia, it felt like one might actually happen.
When organic fan favorite Daniel Bryan was unceremoniously tossed mid-way through the Rumble itself, the fans in attendance reacted with the same crazed horror they might have felt if Vince McMahon himself had ritually sacrificed a Make-A-Wish child in the center of the ring. In a sea of unprecedented discontent with the product, fans proceeded to torpedo the remaining 40 minutes of the show by booing vociferously—piling on during signature spots and vocally chanting for refunds.
The show only got worse after WWE’s anointed franchise-star-in-waiting Roman Reigns triumphed in the Rumble as his victory was met with a staggering amount of boos from the angry crowd. Not even the surprise return of The Rock was able to win the fans back over to Reigns' side as those in attendance booed the Hollywood megastar when he came in to save his real-life cousin. Movie stardom didn't matter. Rocky was visibly annoyed. It was a scene so ugly that fans reportedly blocked the wrestlers' cars from exiting the arena for nearly twelve hours after the event concluded, all while the hashtag #CancelWWENetwork was the top trend on Twitter. If the Royal Rumble was a grand experiment to see just how much the WWE could alienate their core fans, it was by all means a rousing success.
What’s striking is how quickly the entire event soured. Up until the moment that Daniel Bryan was dumped from the Rumble match, the evening’s show had been overwhelmingly positive. The preliminary matches were solidly entertaining, culminating in an instant classic triple threat match that saw WWE World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar retain his title against stalwart hero John Cena and the conniving upstart Seth Rollins. The show was going swimmingly...so why did the fans turn on the product so fast?
“There is no fandom in entertainment that is comparable to the universe inhabited by the modern WWE." That’s a cliché that the promotion’s business-types endlessly parrot but it is ostensibly true. WWE has famously branded their product since the 1980s as “sports-entertainment,” as a fourth wall-breaking acknowledgment of professional wrestling’s roots in both competitive sport and dramatic theater. Outside of the young children in the audience who believe in John Cena’s ability to triumph in the face of hilariously implausible odds in the same way they believe Santa can deliver toys globally in a single night, most WWE fans are in on the sport’s great lie—nothing is real. Instead, they choose to suspend disbelief and implicitly root for their favorite wrestler to win the fictional competition, much like a traditional sports fan roots for their favorite team. The big difference here is that the professional wrestling matches are dramatized and serialized for entertainment purposes. At it’s core, being a wrestling fan is not any fundamentally different than watching a sports movie and hoping the underdog 1989 Cleveland Indians can triumph over Clu Haywood and the New York Yankees.
What makes following the WWE different than mainstream sports or your average telenovela is the fans' obsession with the real-life backstage politics that shape the show. Dirt sheets and online rumors are a veritable cottage industry driving interest in the product. WWE is fond of touting the interactivity of their fans with their performers; often who fans cheer and boo the most are given higher spots on the card due to crowd’s very vocal response to them. Every match is like an election with fans offering their immediate vote.
Every match is like an election with fans offering their immediate vote.
The corporate politics of WWE matters to fans in a way that is unlike any other form of entertainment in the world. While who wins or loses the matches doesn't matter in the sense that it determines the genuine toughness or athletic ability of the wrestler, wins and losses do matter relative to the wrestler's importance to the company. The biggest stars of the company tend to win more matches than they lose and the champion is often a reflection of who’s the biggest star of them all. WWE’s flagship performer John Cena is a 15-time World Champion in large part because of his stature within the company. Fans are rooting for their favorite wrestler to win a match because its an acknowledgment of their talent as performers and validation of their value within the company.
While show business gossip and locker room talk have always been part of the fan experience of other forms of entertainment, they are generally not necessary for the basic enjoyment of the product. Backstage drama between Chevy Chase and Dan Harmon might make for entertaining blog fodder but it doesn’t affect one's enjoyment of Community as long as the show remains funny. That’s not true for WWE. A wrestler that has personal heat with management often manifests in both losses in a ring and loss of airtime for a performer. WWE fans tend to take it personally when their favorite wrestler is losing frequently because simulated competition is the entire gig. Even though the outcome is predetermined, fans still care who wins as much as they would if it were a "real" sport.
The events of Sunday’s Rumble were a microcosm of all the problems between the fans and WWE management. Relative newcomer (and Vince McMahon favorite) Roman Reigns won and beloved fan underdog Daniel Bryan lost. Whether its political reality or not, the decided perception amongst fans is that the imposing and handsome Roman Reigns is unfairly leaping the corporate ladder and being handed a top spot in the main event of Wrestlemania before he has really earned or deserved it. The perception is that he’s getting the spot because he has the desired look of a top superstar and it doesn’t matter if he has the in-ring chops to back it up or not. This rankles many of WWE’s hardcore fans who feel that the company is unwilling to acknowledge the massive grass roots popularity of workhouse Daniel Bryan within the fan base due to his diminutive size and unkempt look. The reception he receives from the crowd is massive and sustained and many see him as not only the company’s best pure in-ring performer, but the most popular as well. The fact that Bryan was dumped early and without much fanfare in the match didn’t help as it seemed to suggest that despite his popularity he’s still relatively unimportant to the company itself.
The fans were booing WWE’s preference for Reigns to be a corporate star over Bryan’s organic popularity. To many, Reigns is getting a spot he doesn’t deserve to the detriment of a man who does.
From a logical storytelling perspective either man would be a fine choice to square off against defending champion Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania. Reigns has been the dominant upstart competitor pinning nearly all comers since debuting two and a half years ago and Bryan was stripped of the WWE Title after a devastating real-life neck injury seriously threatened his career while putting him on the shelf for nearly eight months. The fictional logic of the situation doesn’t matter to fans nearly as much as the politics of the actual situation. The chorus of boos echoing from the stands after Reigns won the Rumble suggests fans are upset about the backstage politics that led to Reigns' anointment over Bryan. The fans were booing WWE’s preference for Reigns to be a corporate star over Bryan’s organic popularity. To many, Reigns is getting a spot he doesn’t deserve to the detriment of a man who does.
How does WWE handle the Rumble crowd’s wholesale rejection of Roman Reigns going forward while a collision between he and Brock Lesnar at ‘Mania seems fairly set in stone? There is a hope within the company that Reigns’ rejection was the product of the largely "insider" hardcore fans that attend shows in Philadelphia and who generally prefer workhorse wrestlers like Daniel Bryan to beefcakes like Roman Reigns. In fact, early prognostications might suggest that revolt against Reigns is more subdued than the attending crowd might suggest. The following night’s Monday Night Raw enjoyed the highest ratings the show has had since July as the show was headlined between an genuinely electrifying confrontation between Roman and Brock. Granted, this could also be contributed to the unique novelty of this particular Raw, the events of the Winter Storm Juno forcing WWE to cancel the arena live show in Hartford, and the company airing parts of Sunday’s Royal Rumble in its entirety for free instead. But if the backlash is real and WWE doesn’t figure out a way to sell Reigns to the WWE audience before Wrestlemania, the main event could be submarined by unprecedented ferocity from the crowd.
WWE Executive Vice President Triple H is fond of saying that the WWE has a “nightly focus group” each time they step into an arena to perform. Here’s hoping that they can read a straw poll.