The first half of 2016 has been a fairly surreal time to be a fan of WWE. With the company reeling from an ever-increasing injury list, and watching their plans for WrestleMania fall apart time and time again, WWE changed course.
2016 wasn’t even a week old when the company was pulling off one of the biggest talent raids since the Monday Night Wars. The signings of Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and Doc/Luke Gallows instantly created a buzz around WWE as everyone rushed to fantasy book how the quartet would be used in WWE.
Of course, only Styles made his debut on the main roster quickly, entering as a surprise in the Royal Rumble, before being thrown headlong into a program with Chris Jericho. Nakamura’s debut came the day before WrestleMania, stealing the show against Sami Zayn at Takeover: Dallas… whilst the remnants of the Bullet Club had to wait until after WrestleMania before they made their television debut. By that time, the company’s injury woes were tailing off, but it was certainly a scary start to the year.
Yes, whilst also preparing for his day in court against Colt Cabana and CM Punk, WWE’s Dr. Amann (and his colleagues) had their hands full, whilst the creative team had to make do without these guys for various parts of 2016: John Cena, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan (who ended up having to retire), Sting (ditto), Randy Orton, Cesaro, Nikki Bella, Neville, Bray Wyatt, Erick Rowan, Luke Harper, Tyson Kidd (who’s still on the shelf with a broken neck), Rusev, Paige, Wade Barrett (who ended up leaving WWE), Sasha Banks, Mark Henry… that was quite the list of top line guys, and even performers whom WWE would ordinarily have used to fill in the gaps.
WWE’s title pictures have been shockingly stable considering the injury scene. After dropping the WWE title to Triple H at the Royal Rumble, Roman Reigns won it back at the end of an insufferably-long WrestleMania. Reigns held that title until Money in the Bank, before dropping it to Seth Rollins, who then lost it to Dean Ambrose moments later.
The United States title had a similar hot-potato spell, as Kalisto dethroned Alberto Del Rio on an episode of Raw in January, but lost it back on the next night’s SmackDown taping. Kalisto regained it at the Royal Rumble, and held on past the challenge of Ryback, only to drop it to Rusev at Extreme Rules, as the Bulgarian’s post-League of Nations career started with a reacquaintance with the gold. Meanwhile, the Intercontinental championship has had it’s fair share of owners – with Dean Ambrose starting the year as champion, before losing it to Kevin Owens on an episode of Raw in February. Zack Ryder had a day as champion, winning the Intercontinental championship ladder match at WrestleMania, before Miz took the title the very next day.
The tag team scene can be summed up in two words: New Day. Having won the belts at SummerSlam 2015, the entertaining trio have seen off all comers, and it’s a similar story for Charlotte, who held the Divas’ title through to WrestleMania, when it was renamed the Womens’ title – but having won it at last September’s Night of Champions, it’s looking as if Charlotte and the New Day will more likely than not go to the one-year mark before they’re separated from their belts.
In NXT it’s a slightly different scene – Finn Balor lost his NXT title to Samoa Joe on a house show in Lowell, MA in April, having held the title for almost 300 days (since beating Kevin Owens in Japan last July). Bayley too lost her title in April, albeit on WrestleMania weekend, as a submission loss to Asuka meant that the Japanese star ended a seven-month run with the title, whilst the developmental brand’s tag team straps have stayed with the rebranded Revival – Dash Wilder & Scott Dawson – save for a two month run between Takeover events, as Chad Gable and Jason Jordan won them before WrestleMania, only to relinquish the titles at Takeover: The End in June.
Away from the title scene, there’s been one common thread throughout WWE this year: falling ratings. Going into WrestleMania, Raw’s ratings had been erratic, dropping for the four weeks going into the biggest show of the year, before seeing rises the week before and after WrestleMania. Since then, Raw flirted dangerously close to a 2.0 rating, with only Dean Ambrose’s win at Money in the Bank sparking interest as Raw went above the 2.4 mark for the first time in two months. Attendances at live events have followed a similar path, albeit not as drastically, whilst subscriptions to the WWE Network continue to rise – which sums up WWE’s current direction: making as much money as possible from the fans who remain engaged with the product.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing WWE of gouging fans; far from it. But in an era where 3-hours of Raw every week acts as a barrier to entry to new fans, it’s one of the few directions WWE can go, by making the most of what they have. Shows like Total Divas certainly help expose the company to people who normally wouldn’t be interested, but the question remains: how effective is a show on E! at drawing new fans? Particularly when the majority of the cast of Total Divas aren’t regular characters on Raw (or SmackDown)?
Ultimately, the biggest problem WWE faces is what has long been its Achilles heel: creating new stars. The first half of the year saw them import ready-made stars in the form of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, whilst struggling to do much with homegrown talent as the company stuck firm to it’s “even-steven” booking methods.
After their introduction last year, the “Diva’s Revolution” well and truly petered out, to the shock of almost nobody. Although we did get to see the women of WWE steal the show at WrestleMania, with Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks’ three-way, the latter has spent more time on the injured list than she perhaps would have wanted, which has seen plans for a long-term Charlotte/Sasha Banks feud repeatedly fall to delays. In the meantime, a feud which worked well in NXT – Charlotte vs. Natalya – was rehashed, with the usual main roster tendency of slashing time for women’s wrestling matches. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
As we enter the second half of 2016, we’ll see WWE revisit familiar territory, in the form of another brand split. With the first one having been put to bed in 2011, WWE is again going to have specific rosters for Raw and SmackDown, starting from late July. Designed as a way to make SmackDown a must-see show, rather than the eminently-skippable two-hours that we’ve had for years, the brand split puts the onus back on WWE to create stars and write compulsive television all-year-round. Given their recent track record, we may be a while before they find something!