In 2009 Vince McMahon decided to alter the WWE pay-per-view calendar. Gone were the days when shows would feature gimmick matches as and when they were called for, to be replaced by shows that were built around such matches, regardless of whether they were needed or could be written into a feud logically. It was an unpopular decision amongst fans, and over the course of the last two years the situation has only become worse.
I imagine the reason behind the change to themed PPVs came about as a combination of the success of previous shows that were headlined by gimmick bouts, the solid buy rates the Royal Rumble (a card built around one gimmick match that has been a staple for the company for over twenty years) draws each year, and the big match feel adding a stipulation bout can create. There’s logic there, but it’s not been properly thought through.
Unsurprisingly, the new approach to pay-per-views hasn’t helped increase the buys they get, with WWE PPV business having fallen since the switch. Vince McMahon, having being a promoter for several decades, should have realised it wouldn’t work. People order these shows because they want to see two people that don’t like each other face off in a match, or a popular wrestler finally beat the dastardly heel for a championship. They don’t order them to see three cage matches in one night.
It’s been suggested that the economic climate has impacted negatively on WWE’s PPV business. That’s an argument that can only be considered partly true at best. Ring of Honor has steadily increased its average number of pay-per-view buys over the last two years. It may be working on a smaller scale, but an increase is an increase, and they’ve managed it by giving people what they want to see. More indicative of there still being a market for Vince to tap into without resorting to these measures is the continued success of Dana White’s UFC, which regularly promotes cards that attract buys in the upper reaches of the hundred thousands with no irregular rules in sight.
UFC may not be wrestling, but it’s a comparable product that competes for the same audience. UFC achieves the results it does in the same way RoH does: by promoting matches fans want to see and charging them money to see them. The majority of WWE’s gimmick shows do not do this. The writing of WWE’s television shows is so rushed and sporadic that feuds quickly become overexposed, meaning that fans are not willing to pay to see PPV matches in the numbers WWE needs. If two men are going to face each other in any sort of speciality bout it needs to be after months of feuding and there needs to be a logical storyline reason for the stipulation to be added. The rushed approach does not achieve this.
The Hell in a Cell match has been the worst casualty of the last few years. That’s a match that should be used once every year or two, for big money feuds that need something special to end on. It’s not the sort of match that should be wheeled out three times in one night because of what the show is called.
When used sparingly gimmick matches can enhance shows and feuds, helping to end months-long disputes on a high and earn the promotion a lot of money. But theming an event around one type of match isn’t going to have the same effect. All it will do is numb the audience to future matches of that type.
Luckily, it looks as if WWE may be planning an experiment with a non-themed pay-per-view event in June. Emanating from Washington DC the puntastically named Capitol Punishment (let’s hope that name sticks – I love it) looks as though it’s going to feature stipulation matches only if they’re called for.
While July, September, October and December are currently set to have five gimmick events between them we can hope that the June show will be enough of a creative and commercial success to see a return to regular non-themed pay-per-views in 2012. It’s just possible that some of those shows planned for later in the year will be canned in place of regular shows too. Don’t hold your breath though.