If the current state of the WWE can be summed up in one word, it would have to be stagnant.
The shows and pay-per-views are drifting along, largely with the same names in the main events. The promotion doesn’t seem to be shedding or adding fans, and while the product is far from its most embarrassing lows — think early to mid ’90s – the gaudy highs of a decade ago seem equally out of reach.
Given those conditions, any move to shake up the status quo is a welcome one. At least that’s what I thought until this week’s episode of Raw, when the WWE made Donald Trump the new on-screen (literally, since he wasn’t even in Charlotte in person) owner of the company’s flagship show.
On its own, reaching out to a celebrity outside the world of wrestling isn’t a bad idea. It’s certainly worked for the company in the past, and has almost been a staple of WrestleMania over the years. Seeing a new face in the mix of the revolving door of “general managers” is actually refreshing.
It’s the specific decision to work with the Donald that is a bit of a head-scratcher. He has money and a recognizable name, and has worked with the promotion before. But what WWE programming desperately needs is a sense that it’s relevant, and on that score, Trump just doesn’t cut it.
It wasn’t that long ago that Trump was in the midst of a relevancy crisis of his own. With his casinos in bankruptcy (as they currently are again) and the pace of his real estate deals slowing, the Trump name was starting to lose some of its cachet.
Reality show mastermind Mark Burnett and NBC helped put a stop to that in the fall of 2003 thanks to The Apprentice. Trump was a perfect fit as host of the show, and his career resurgence was watched by millions more people each week than were tuning in to Raw.
The entertainment world rarely stays still for long, though, and while The Apprentice gained some new life by switching to a celebrity format, its audience has shrunk quite a bit over the last five years. Trump’s “You’re fired!” catchphrase barely registers on the current pop culture landscape.
It would be a big surprise if Vince McMahon and the people around him didn’t realize all of this already. While Vince likes to think of himself as an innovator, his real gift is in making the WWE a reflection of current cultural trends. When everything is firing on all cylinders, you can bet that whatever is hot in other forms of entertainment can be seen in everything from the company’s programming to its merchandise.
That’s why the WWE seems a bit out of step this time. To gain some new viewers, or even just keep the attention of the faithful fans who keep tuning in week after week, there surely must be a better choice than Trump.
Who exactly would that be? Maybe someone like Chuck Liddell or Randy Couture, if their fighting days with the UFC are really coming to an end. Or if you were determined to go the reality TV route, American Idol’s Simon Cowell seems like he’d make an appropriately devious GM.
Those are just a couple of names off the top of this writer’s head, and there’s no guarantee any of them would be available or interested in working with the WWE. But they’re good examples of the types of personalities who, if you’ll excuse the use of a somewhat cringe-worthy phrase, are more now than Trump.
The potential wrestling audience has many more options competing for its time and money than it did even at the beginning of this decade. Luring them in is a job for people smarter than me, but it just doesn’t seem like a 63-year old tycoon whose star isn’t even shining its brightest right now is going to do the trick — especially in that all important young male demographic.
Maybe I’m underestimating the drawing power of The Donald. His presence on the show is bound to garner some attention from the mainstream media, at least in the early going, and that’s something that the WWE always eats up.
For my part, I can say that I’ll definitely be watching Raw this coming Monday. But I’m less interested in seeing Trump than to see how the show goes down without commercials.
That’s something that the DVR and Hulu crowd can appreciate. That’s something relevant.