Published on December 24th, 2019 | by Jerry Doby0
WWE NXT Proves That Tastes Are Changing
A short while ago on this website, we talked about the fact that WWE’s big-money move to the FOX network isn’t really paying off the way that both WWE and Fox were hoping it might do. Ratings started well, dropped quickly, and are now around half the number that FOX would expect to see in such a prominent Friday night slot. The ‘WWE Backstage’ show on FS1 is struggling to draw more than 100,000 viewers even with wrestling legend CM Punk making a surprise comeback to wrestling in the show, and there’s no sign of anything happening with the product that’s going to draw eyeballs back to the ‘sports entertainment’ show any time soon.
The picture isn’t much better for WWE Monday Night RAW on USA. Although USA lost out on the battle to keep hold of the rights to SmackDown, it still paid big money to ensure that RAW stayed on the network. RAW has been WWE’s flagship show for years – all the way back to the days of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock – and for many people is still the first show that people think of when they think ‘WWE.’ Recently, ratings have been dwindling to the point where they’re dangerously close to slipping below two million per week. Outside of the holiday season, figures that low are almost unheard of for the show.
If you took these two facts in isolation, you could be forgiven for thinking that wrestling in general is on a downward trajectory, but nothing could be further from the truth. Wrestling still makes huge money all over the world. WrestleMania still sells out every year, and draws millions of dollars in revenue for the city that wins the rights to host it. At online slots websites such as Rose Slots, slots like Lucha Legends attract huge numbers in bets from players eager to play games with a wrestling theme. The Lucha Legends online slots game doesn’t even have an official license with WWE or any other major wrestling promotion, but the idea of wrestling alone is big enough to work as an attraction. If wrestling-themed online slots games can draw money and attention, why aren’t people watching the shows?
The answer may lie in the fact that the shows have new competition, and we don’t just mean from the billionaire Tony Khan-backed TNT show AEW Dynamite, which airs on Wednesdays. We mean another WWE show which airs directly against it on USA, and that’s WWE NXT. It may only attract one million viewers on a good week, but make no mistake – those one million viewers probably aren’t watching RAW or SmackDown as well. They’re watching NXT instead. Factor in the fact that around 750,000 – 1,000,000 viewers are also watching AEW’s show, and suddenly it becomes a lot easier to see where all those missing RAW and SmackDown viewers have gone.
To the untrained eye, a wrestling show is a wrestling show. It’s a simulated combat sport where people enter a ring, fight each other, and then someone wins at the end of it. Historically that’s also meant over-the-top characters like the Undertaker and ridiculous storylines like WWE’s owner Vince McMahon appearing to kill himself in a limousine explosion. Large-scale stories and characters like that still happen on the ‘big’ pro wrestling shows, but NXT goes for a more athletically-focused product with less showbiz spectacle, but more action. To put it another way, WWE NXT is the punk rock antithesis to what its bigger siblings are doing in the prime time slots.
If you want an example of this, just look at what’s being broadcast (or ‘pushed’ to use a pro wrestling term, recently). On RAW, the biggest story is that Bulgarian wrestler Rusev’s wife Lana is cheating on him with Bobby Lashley, and the resultant divorce papers were signed in a special ceremony in the middle of the ring. That story alone has been blamed in some quarters for insulting the intelligence of viewers and driving them away in droves. On SmackDown, Bray Wyatt has turned into a seemingly-indestructible masked horror movie character called ‘The Fiend,’ who is apparently invulnerable to pain and is currently tormenting Daniel Bryan and the Miz by using a special red light when he wrestles.
The contrast couldn’t be starker. On NXT, the main storyline for the men is that Finn Balor, the Irish-born first-ever WWE Universal Champion, has returned to NXT to do battle with Adam Cole, the leader of the dominant ‘Undisputed Era’ faction. For the women, upstart heavy-metal loving Australian wrestler Rhea Ripley has just ended the year-long championship reign of legitimate MMA fighter Shayna Bazler. The stakes are the same, but the presentation is more ‘real.’ There are fewer theatrics and a bigger focus on what the wrestlers can actually do inside the ring.
Everybody who watches wrestling – other than very young children – knows that the outcome is fixed. They know that the performers are simulating most of the combat. Just like when we’re watching a Hollywood movie, though, we like to be able to suspend our disbelief. A legitimate performer like Finn Balor coming back to face a bonafide champion like Adam Cole allows us to do so. Bray Wyatt putting on a mask and doing smoke and mirrors tricks doesn’t. A couple who everyone knows is happily married in real life pretending to divorce for the sake of the cameras doesn’t either. Wrestling fans still love wrestling – it just seems that they don’t enjoy the sideshow that comes with the WWE main roster version of it anymore, and so they’re turning their attention elsewhere.
If you’re a lapsed wrestling fan and you haven’t given RAW or SmackDown a watch recently, try checking in on NXT on Wednesday nights to see what you think. You won’t find larger-than-life characters. You won’t find undead villains, exploding scenery, or romantic storylines. You will, however, find plausible athletes, compelling in-ring competition, and gritty, true to life presentation. NXT probably isn’t the wrestling you remember if you grew up watching it in the 1990s, but it might be the template for the wrestling of the future.