The Past and the Future for WWE Pay-Per-ViewsWWE
In the beginning, Vince created the WWF.
And Vince said, “Let there be babyface,” and there was babyface. And Vince saw that the babyface was good. And Vince separated the babyface from the heel. Vince called the babyface Hogan, and the heel he called Piper. And there was Bob Orton and there was Mr. T, the first WrestleMania.
And Vince blessed them. And Vince said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the television programming schedule and subdue it, and have dominion over Monday nights and over monthly Sundays and over every single moment your fans have in their lives.” And Vince saw that it was good.
Late last year, rumors began circulating that WWE was, er, eliminating the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view from the calendar. It seemed an odd show to cut, seeing as how WWE has labored over the past decade to brand each monthly PPV with a special match or series of stipulations to goose fans into plunking down $50 for the show. Not that it wasn’t a welcome departure — Elimination Chamber had always been a weird fit between Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, and the formation of WWE Network freed the company of constraints imposed by cable companies. WWE wasn’t necessarily looking to get out of the money-plunking market, but its business has always been less about revenue and more about expansion.
In the early ’80s, when Vince McMahon sought to take over the wrestling business in North America, he did it by swallowing up other promotions’ wrestlers, territories, and TV time. When that wasn’t enough, he staked a claim on Sunday PPVs. Saturday morning pretaped shows evolved into live Monday-night broadcasts, WrestleMania begat “WrestleMania season,” and, suddenly, a weekly hour of wrestling became a lifelong endeavor, with hours spent trawling the Internet and deep-diving into WWE Network. If you thought 12 PPVs a year was the maximum, you were wrong — Elimination Chamber is back this Sunday as a bonus for WWE Network subscribers. How did we get to the point where tossing Elimination Chamber in between two other major events makes sense? Let’s look back at the history of WWE PPVs to figure it out.
WrestleMania 1 was in March 1985. It was a huge gamble; McMahon legendarily leveraged all of his assets to produce the show, and the WWF likely would have gone under had it failed. November 1985 saw the first in a line of quickly forgotten events, a one-off PPV1 called The Wrestling Classic. It had wrestling, nominally, but the only category in which it produced something “classic” was unintentional comedy. There was a Hulk Hogan–Roddy Piper title match, but a 16-man tournament — for bragging rights, presumably, because there was no gold on the line — was the real draw. However, strict 10-minute time limits (all of those tourney matches is a lot for a single show) and the need to protect every competitor from embarrassing losses (with the notable exceptions of sad sacks Corporal Kirchner and Nikolai Volkoff) meant every match had a screwy finish. Despite the time constraints, a huge portion of the show was spent on backstage commentary and other non-wrestling segments like McMahon, Lord Alfred Hayes, and a never-before-seen woman named Susan Waitkis explaining the rules with the help of a giant bulletin board.
The most memorable parts of the night, sadly, were the backstage segments that featured Hayes sexually harassing Waitkis — pawing her in one segment, kissing her cheek lasciviously in another. At the end of the night, when questioned by McMahon, Hayes said, “It was the best night I’ve ever had. The best by far.” There was one sublime moment during Gene Okerlund’s postmatch interview when Hogan warned the cameraman to “keep the shots above the waist, because there are guys getting out of the shower.” It was the perfect metaphor for the evening: We really don’t know what we’re doing, and it might get awkward fast.
Suffice it to say, The Wrestling Classic never returned. In 1986, there was only one PPV on the calendar. If WWF had learned a lesson, it was that putting all of your second-tier stars on a show couldn’t carry a PPV. What you needed was a big match. It found that the next year when it set Hogan across from a newly villainous Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III. McMahon & Co. parlayed that success into a new show, the Survivor Series, in November 1987, and then in 1988 into a third major event, SummerSlam. Post-Andre, Hogan beefed with another friend turned foe, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and 1989 saw the first Royal Rumble. WWF then tried to find room for a fifth PPV on the calendar in 1989 (with No Holds Barred: The Match-The Movie) and 1991 (with This Tuesday in Texas).
It’s worth dwelling for a moment on This Tuesday in Texas, if only for its modern-day parallels. WWF scheduled the show a mere week after Survivor Series, and it featured a rematch from the main event: Undertaker had defeated Hogan for the title with Ric Flair’s illicit help, and Hogan regained the belt at This Tuesday in Texas, but only after blinding Undertaker with a handful of ashes. So it had its big-money match, but not much else to speak of.2 The roster was too thin to accommodate so many big shows in such short order, and the fan reaction — 8,000 tickets sold and a disappointing 1.0 PPV buy rate — seemed to confirm the limits of the WWF audience’s PPV appetite.
Never to be deterred, WWF debuted King of the Ring in 1993, and the floodgates opened after that success. In 1995, the number of PPVs shot up from five to 10 with the advent of the In Your House model — rather than coining new names or gimmicks, it just called all the events In Your House and saved wrestling fans time wondering if the shows were second-rate efforts. (They were.) The matches were, at worst, standard Monday Night Raw fare — Bob “Spark Plug” Holly vs. Jean-Pierre Lafitte, anybody? — but WWF upped the ante by giving a new house to a fan on the first broadcast. Despite the growing pains, the 10-event schedule was in many ways the modern ideal. There was a biggish near-monthly show with extra time built in to hype the really big one: WrestleMania. But that wouldn’t be enough for WWF, which bumped it to 12 shows for 1996.3
Since then, the monthly PPV has been a pro wrestling staple. Starting in 1997, WCW — WWF’s chief competition — began running similar events on a monthly basis. Sure, wrestling was adapting to a more modern production schedule, with weekly live shows to stem the growing pestilence of Internet spoilers and keep the story lines fresh, culminating with the monthly PPVs. But the presence of so much wrestling on the airwaves meant that the big matches that had always buoyed the PPV model were devalued. Within the Monday Night Wars hype machine, big moments replaced big matches, and those existed largely independent of the PPV calendar. No more would feuds like Hogan-Andre span years at a time, and so even though fans were constantly titillated by the weekly twists and turns, we found ourselves less invested in specific rivalries. Once in the thrall of the profits monthly PPVs generated — and once in hock to the cable providers that lopped 50 percent of the proceeds off the top — the WWE production schedule became less about giving fans big shows on a regular basis and more about squeezing every dollar out of the audience.
What emerged from the new PPV era — even in the absence of the In Your House moniker — was an informal delineation between big shows (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam, and Survivor Series) and the rest. WrestleMania kept its mantle as the wrestling year’s biggest moment, but its singularity went somewhat by the wayside. Royal Rumble became the beginning of “WrestleMania season,” and the intervening show was little more than an opening act for ’Mania. Once WCW went out of business, the need to shock the audience into watching WWF disappeared, and monotony set in. After 2003, the audience became inundated with branded PPVs, when what had become WWE separated its Raw and Smackdown shows into mostly separate divisions that conducted mostly separate big events, only to be brought together at the biggest ones. It was a noble effort, overwhelmed by WWE’s logical desire to have its biggest stars cross over between Raw and Smackdown and appear on every PPV. Once the brand split ended, the schedule settled down; if anything, the only notable change was that WWE no longer needed a deep bench, and along with that came an institutional tedium. WrestleMania was still the high point of the year, but the latter half of the calendar started leeching onto it like Rumble had. Once separated from its original concept of multi-man tag-team matches, Survivor Series became the unofficial staging ground for Rumble, and WrestleMania season was inflated to five months of the year.
That is where we found ourselves, more or less, in February 2014, when WWE launched WWE Network. It was a monumental achievement, even considering the depths and opportunities it still hasn’t explored. The most significant shift that came with the launch of WWE Network, though, was the divorce from the cable-based PPV model. It was a somewhat unexpected change, though it probably shouldn’t have been; once confronted with losing a chunk of their monthly revenue, several irritated satellite providers decided to stop showing WWE PPVs altogether. WWE Network also didn’t meet WWE’s break-even number of 1 million subscribers until January of this year, and only after several free-subscription promotions helped drive customers to the network.
I suspected that the WWE Network model would actually free WWE from the shackles of the monthly PPV grind. Minus the demands of the cable providers, it could go back to those halcyon days of 1995 when WrestleMania got a proper two-month build and the other big cards got similar time to breathe. Instead, the opposite has happened. The monthly drive for new subscribers and renewals has railroaded WWE into the existing schedule. WrestleMania season leads directly into SummerSlam season, and the cycle repeats without end. It’s not dissimilar to what the NFL has done in recent years, expanding into a year-round endeavor through the draft and free agency and fantasy football. That comparison, though, is WWE’s dream scenario. A more realistic one would be the (still respectable) Grateful Dead model: touring ceaselessly, releasing a new boxed set every year, prying every available dollar from the wallets of its most ardent fans and not particularly trying to attract new ones.
On the April 27 episode of Raw, WWE brought back King of the Ring, which had been absent from the calendar for several years; the PPV was retired in 2002, although there was a KotR tourney as part of the 2006 Judgment Day PPV and within episodes of Raw in 2008 and 2010. This year’s tournament began on Raw and carried over onto a WWE Network–only broadcast, marking it as the first continuity-necessary event WWE had programmed onto the WWE Network. (Before that, there had been special live podcasts and other prominent supplemental features, as well as PPV-style events for WWE’s developmental program, NXT, which are appointment viewing for much of WWE’s zealous fan base, but nothing of the magnitude of King of the Ring.) It followed in short order with Sunday’s Elimination Chamber show, which was announced about two weeks ago at Payback.
The unexpected show was seen in some circles as a craven move to retain subscribers on the last day of the month, and it adds a 13th PPV to an already bloated schedule. But even so, it feels like a breath of fresh air. The card itself is intriguing in a way few PPVs these days are. The main Elimination Chamber match is for the vacant Intercontinental title rather than for the World Heavyweight Championship. It features an intriguing six-pack of second-tier stars: Dolph Ziggler, Rusev, Sheamus, Ryback, Wade Barrett, and R-Truth. There’s a tag-team Chamber for the first time ever, filled with a tag-team division that’s interesting for the first time in years, thanks largely to the champs (the New Day), the Tyson Kidd–Cesaro tandem, and the kinetic charisma of the Lucha Dragons. The title match (Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose), the Divas title match (Nikki Bella vs. Naomi vs. Paige), and even the curtain jerker (Bo Dallas vs. Neville) are history-laden, interesting confrontations that make you wonder if WWE has brought back the position of matchmaker.
But more than anything, it’s the deviation from the ironclad PPV datebook that has me excited — WWE may not be editing itself down, but it’s shaking itself out of its monotony. The worst part about the monthly PPV grind is the mechanical way it backs into these theme PPVs, along with the cookie-cutter storytelling that attends every month’s build. The night after every PPV, feuds are reignited or reshuffled with a rote motorization that makes you feel stupid for having watched it.
But that’s the way the WWE has worked since the beginning. WrestleMania wasn’t preordained — it was a massive gamble by a young promoter fighting his way out of his dad’s shadow. It took the competition of WCW to shake the WWF out of its early-’90s doldrums. As much fun as I have reliving failures like The Wrestling Classic or This Tuesday in Texas or In Your House: Beware of Dog, well, at least I have fun reliving them. It’s the odd moments in life that you remember, and it’s the unique moments in wrestling history that stand out. When WWE is hungry, when it’s thrown off-kilter, when it has to innovate — that’s when the really spectacular things happen. The status quo is intriguing, simply because there is no status quo. It’s unremitting — Raw, Smackdown, NXT, Total Divas, WWE Network documentaries, and PPVs galore — but the intrigue is most often found in the margins.
WWE may never be the NFL, but it’ll certainly never be as comfortable as the Grateful Dead. It’ll keep steamrolling ahead until it has made WWE Network viable, just like it did with the first WrestleMania. It’s fitting that WWE pulled Elimination Chamber from the calendar to use it as a wild card — it’s named for a cage match where two men start off and another is released from a pod every five minutes. It’s an event built upon chaos and uncertainty. Even though the title bout is a matchup we’ve seen before, don’t be shocked if we get a big swerve at the end. It’s the new WWE business model — relentlessness and surprise. It’s not a bad idea.
This article has been updated to clarify the WWE Network’s break-even number of 1 million subscribers.