What Kind of Fan Should Wrestling Cater To?

Bandido ROH World Champion

This week presented an interesting conundrum that created a split in opinions for wrestling fans. Following this past Friday night, SmackDown recorded one of the biggest ratings in the program’s recent history. When examining the quarter hours, one can see it wasn’t exactly the “Head Of The Table” that moved those numbers. It was, in fact, Otis versus Braun Strowman that clocked in at over 2.8 million viewers at the time of the match. But why? Is the “Monster Among Men” turned “Monster Among Monsters” responsible? Well, no. The match took place close to the 9:23 pm mark which, on top of being the air date of the program, was also the hinted numbers from last week’s White Rabbit tease. In short, it was effective. Extremely effective.

What Kind of Fan Should Wrestling Cater Towards?

The Divide

An audience peaking so effectively for what is effectively an ongoing easter egg hunt is big for the WWE, but it – oddly enough – runs against everything that is alleged to draw in viewers. Just look at this week on AEW Dynamite, where the two main matches of the program saw the ROH and AEW World Champions facing off against talent from outside the company. AEW World Champion Jon Moxley took on NJPW‘s Juice Robinson, while Chris Jericho faced former ROH and PWG World Champion, Big Lucha‘s first Champion (read about that here), Bandido. How’s that an issue? It really isn’t. But it did spark the usual debate of, “but casual fans don’t know who Bandido is!” You can interchange this comment between Bandido and Juice Robinson, too. Fans and many former wrestling executives love to bend over backwards about wrestling’s (or in most cases AEW’s) inability to “capture the casual fan”. To hook viewers that normally don’t watch wrestling too often. The argument tends to reach the point of wondering if these elusive ‘casual fans’ will end up dividing by zero and exploding if you don’t hand-hold them over the course of a program.

We see AEW and WWE try to reach out with celebrity use. Logan Paul and Bad Bunny for WWE; Bad Bunny, in particular, being a big success in at least putting WWE in the minds of many Latinos. Meanwhile, AEW brings in several rappers, best evidenced at Grand Slam.

Yet, that mentality runs in the opposite direction of what was SmackDown’s success this past Friday; the biggest rating of 2022. A rating not achieved by hand-holding the viewer, nor done by some star-studded match. It wasn’t a year-long story paying off but what is effectively an MCU-esque Easter egg hunt mixed with a bit of viral marketing. Are you saying “casual fans” can’t compute who this “Bandido” dude is, but can scan a QR Code and sit to watch SmackDown at 9:23pm?

Suspension of Belief? It’s in Wrestling’s Blood

In this day and age, we are surrounded by modern mythology that grasps us so easily. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Breaking Bad/El Camino/Better Call Saul series, Star Wars. Even smaller properties grasp us with ease. Just look at Squid Game, or any seasonal anime like Netflix’ recent Cyberpunk adaptation, Arcane, or so many other anime. These are not products that sit around catering to people who would short-circuit if they didn’t know who was on-screen, like our previous Bandido example. These shows expect you to follow along or fall behind. They hook you precisely because they make you pay attention. And it’s probably the reason why our 9:23 phenomenon took place last Friday. Because for the first time in so many years, WWE fans were actually challenged to pay attention and that is exactly what they did.

Wrestling in general has always been renowned, since its early days as a carny act, for reaching out to the lowest common denominator. It was the easiest audience to scam and convince; it’s ingrained into its DNA. But as WWE’s TV has morphed out of the live event market and into being primarily a TV contract driven product, that has seeped into all of professional wrestling. Raw and SmackDown are TV programs worth millions per year because of their consistent TV ratings and that permeated into AEW due to Dynamite’s own consistency (**looks at Rampage in disappointment**).

AEW built itself by the belief that all wrestling is connected. So, stories from other companies and shows are referenced there. Wrestlers from other companies appear frequently. Henceforth the two matches on Dynamite that would seem to fry a casual viewer’s circuit board. The TV world is no longer about your peak rating. Sure, you can criticize AEW for expecting too much of you when Will Ospreay appears, billed as IWGP US Champion, but only holding Rev-Pro‘s British Heavyweight title because of a New Japan story with no mention of it. Regardless, AEW’s core fanbase is at least expected to know that there is wrestling outside of AEW. As Dynamite celebrates it’s fourth year, it’s clearly not been an issue for them.

Consistency

But it’s about the consistency of your weekly ratings. WWE has seen peaks, such as the most recent SmackDown rating. It has also had many rating valleys. While AEW, for the most part, has been consistent. Sure, its growth is slow but its retention is strong. Because, much like our White Rabbit bit on SmackDown, the program expects fans to be paying attention. Last summer, AEW Dynamite averaged 750,000 weekly viewers. It grew to 900,000 post-All Out 2021. Nowadays, post-All Out 2022, we’ve seen a 5 week streak of over a million viewers.

Does it attract casual viewers? Lets be honest. If “Who is Bandido” is enough to make you question your viewing choices, especially when the other guy in the match is Chris Jericho, you were more than likely not going to stick around anyway. Not enough hand-holding on AEW or wrestling in general to explain “it’s a wrestling match”. It runs counter to wrestling’s love for trying to shock you with surprises, doesn’t it? After all, Raw is a 3 hour show and even now, when we get about five or six segments announced beforehand, that still doesn’t cover the full runtime of the show. Is Omos taking on two jobbers going to short-circuit you because you don’t know the jobbers? Of course not. The idea is seeing the action.

Let’s stop pretending like pandering to “the casuals” is the great key to success in wrestling. Because we have decades worth of data, trial and error to tell us that it is not.

More From LWOS Pro Wrestling

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