"Smarks"—smart marks, the hipsters of wrestling-fans—have been complaining that Vince McMahon ruined wrestling ever since the 1980s Rock 'n' Wrestling boom. It’s a well-worn narrative: Vince turned wrestling into a circus populated with gimmicky cartoon characters who make it impossible to take their simulated matches seriously. Sometimes this is true, and sometimes it’s not. At best, it’s an exaggeration. But the McMahon family might have completely destroyed wrestling last night, when they launched their new subscription-based online streaming network.
With the WWE Network, you not only get the WWE archive of past pay-per-view events (along with a variety of other materials), but you also get every new pay-per-view. At $9.99 a month, with a six-month minimum commitment, this means that you get six pay-per-views (and all the other stuff) for the price of one. For lifelong marks who have been buying pay-per-views since their paper-route days, this is an unbelievable dream. Ten bucks wouldn’t have even been enough to order the first Survivor Series back in 1987; now it can buy you a month of access to essentially every wrestling pay-per-view ever. It’s hard to fathom how this is even worth it for WWE.
And that is where they get you. Yes, you’re getting pay-per-views at a much lower price. But because each pay-per-view now comes as part of the package, they no longer have to sell themselves on their own merits. In other words, I’ve committed to ordering every disappointing pay-per-view event that WWE puts out this year at a reduced rate because I want to watch their old shows.
By all accounts, April’s WrestleMania XXX is going to be a dump. The top matches have either been announced or are rapidly establishing themselves: Randy Orton versus Batista for the championship, Undertaker versus Brock Lesnar, John Cena versus Bray Wyatt, and Daniel Bryan versus Triple H. Each match is a disappointment when compared to other choices that WWE could have made. There’s no way that I’d pony up the old pay-per-view charge of $60 to watch this parade of flawed visions and missed opportunities, but I would happily pay $60 for six months of unlimited access to the more compelling WrestleManias of past years. The frustrating current product can therefore sustain itself on our nostalgia for the archive.
This actually fits WWE’s self-image. For years, WWE has been moving away from the concept of a “top draw.” This is partly why they’ve been content with their top guy, John Cena, getting rejected by at least half the audience for much of the past decade. Cena’s not supposed to be the draw, at least not in the singular, absolute sense that Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin were. In Cena’s era, you pay to see an ensemble of stars—some elevated above others and some appearing as special guest stars—but the real draw is the WWE brand. The WWE Network continues in this direction. By subscribing to the network, you’re buying every future pay-per-view, based not on your interest in specific wrestlers or matches, but your loyalty to WWE. It doesn’t matter who’s in the main event of this coming SummerSlam; you already paid for the show a half a year in advance. Maybe it’s an amazing bargain, because you get that $60 show for $9.99, but perhaps you’re paying $9.99 for a show that you wouldn’t have watched for free.
In addition to the “Vince turned serious pro-wrestling into a circus” narrative, another major theme of smark discourse insists that the wrestling business is cyclical. This cyclical theory rests on the fact that many fans can remember two periods in the last 30 years that wrestling suddenly penetrated pop culture. Some smarks are even aware that wrestling enjoyed peaks of popularity in previous generations, such as the Golden Age of television. At times when wrestling is less popular, smarks rest on this supposed cyclical history to predict that, at some point, wrestling will inevitably find its next transcendent star and hit another boom. I’m not convinced that Hulkamania and the Attitude Era gave us evidence for a reliable cyclical model of wrestling history. At any rate, cyclical doesn’t mean eternal, and wrestling booms of the past don’t make future booms an undeniable fact. But now that the brand itself represents the virtual entirety of American pro-wrestling, WWE doesn’t actually need another boom. WWE is confident in its place. This new WWE Network is not a move to reach out to pop culture at large. Instead, it's an appeal to the consumer community that it calls the “WWE Universe.” WWE Network will not be supported by the casual viewers who show up in boom periods, but the hardcore smarks who constantly complain about how awful WWE’s storylines are and how the wrong guys always get pushed. Like the NFL, the WWE is presenting brand loyalty as a lifestyle. They want you to watch the WWE because it’s the WWE.
Vince has said that his father, also a wrestling promoter, tried to discourage him from getting into the family business, insisting that wrestling was too speculative. With WWE Network, the business might be less speculative than ever, because the names of the people in the ring will matter less and less.