Damp Squib: why WWE really killed the pyro
If there's one word that sums up the WWE, it's SPECTACLE! The world's top pro-wrestling entertainment show has always been at the cutting edge of TV/Sports presentation.
The 80s saw the advent of ring music for the wrestlers and those cute but short-lived carts that carried them to the ring. In the 90s, we saw more elaborate staging set ups and the ubiquitous Titan-Tron, while more recently HD cameras, electronic ring aprons and turnbuckles have helped bring the show into the 21st century.
However, one constant since the beginning of the Attitude Era has recently disappeared from RAW and Smackdown, and it's proving to be an explosive issue amongst fans.
Pyro is no more in WWE!
Can you imagine Goldberg's recent return without his trademark "walking through sparks" entrance? Or Kane appearing without his trademark ring post flames? Pretty hard to see either of them working, right?
So why is WWE taking the fire out of its shows? In short, money but not in the way or for the reason you might think, and the root of this came a few years ago.
Here comes the money
Let's move back a few years to 2014 when WWE last negotiated its TV deals with NBC Universal in the US and with Sky in the UK. Vince McMahon was initially bullish about the numbers they would be commanding for their content, even with the launch of the WWE Network being fresh and in some ways providing competition for those networks.
There was talk from the WWE camp of numbers rivalling those commanded for MLS Soccer and other big name sports, particularly in the UK where WWE has been a cornerstone of Sky Sports since the very early 90s and McMahon had publically predicted the value of the deal would at least double.
A disappointing outcome
When said offers were finally agreed, they were significantly below what was hoped for, around a 50% increase which at the time caused no small amount of consternation among WWE shareholders. While embarrassing for Mr McMahon and the WWE, it was not a terminal situation as the steady, if not spectacular, growth of the WWE Network since then has somewhat offset the damage and vindicated his decision to launch it.
In the UK, WWE faced a unique problem with their new deal. Sky previously had exclusive PPV rights to their special events, and while they sold at a price point beneath the US, the WWE Network would be "undercutting" them. This led to lower amounts from Sky, and at one point, there was talk of them pulling RAW and Smackdown from their schedules all together until a compromise was agreed.
Ratings have since declined for WWE's flagship shows, and while big events like Wrestlemania continue to do strong business, they would be hard pushed to say RAW and Smackdown are "on the up" at the present time. The difficulties in getting Roman Reigns to the "promised land" of superstardom they hoped for, Brock Lesnar's frequent absences and the new Brand Extension haven't stopped the slide.
This means realistically when the rights are next up for negotiation, WWE is undoubtedly in a weaker position than in 2014 and may well be faced with a potentially lower amount deal if market conditions don't go their way.
Why does this mean less pyro? In short, cost cutting is a smart move on WWE's part at this time. By taking non-essential aspects of the show like pyro away, they reduce their cost to produce each show which in the event of a low offer from NBC Universal or their rivals will help cushion that blow.
It is also a great negotiation tactic. It is easy to imagine NBC bringing up the "reduced quality" of the show with things like pyro being removed, giving Vince and his team the chance to counter that they need a bigger deal to provide the original level of presentation. This could tip an unfavourable deal into a better one, as NBC would not want to appear "cheap", even if wrestling is considered somewhat cheap programming.
There are other methods WWE can use to reduce costs in tandem with the loss of pyro, some talents will begin to disappear. Someone like Dolph Ziggler, who is strongly rumoured to be leaving, has arguably already been replaced with cheaper indy talent from ROH. Over the coming months, several older talents will start to disappear, and they will be replaced by these cheaper and younger alternatives.
While the spectacle may be reduced for a while, this is actually very smart business on the part of Vince and the WWE board. If the fans and viewers notice and miss it, they will demand it...and gives them great ammunition come negotiation time. If the worst happens and the deal is less than they hope, one of the most visible and obvious cost cutting measures will already have been made.
Rob Taylor is a 30-year wrestling fan and former Wrestlezone.com columnist.
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