Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Issues of the Year: WWE Network

The failure was way over the top
Graphics Credit: WWE.com
New Japan Pro Wrestling launched an over-the-top streaming service late in 2014 called NJPW World, one that included vast swaths of its video library on demand. The service was mainly launched for its fans at home in Asia, as referenced by all the logins and signup information being in Japanese. However, the people behind the service knew the promotion was popular enough in America that people would attempt to sign up regardless of language barriers, so advertisement space was purchased on ESPN dot com and banner ads were prominently featured on the major parts of the site of the biggest sporting website in the country, if not the world. Despite being behind a language barrier with a product more unfamiliar to Americans than WWE, NJPW did more right in launching its over-the-top service than WWE has seemingly done all year with its own.

The moment the service was announced was full of so much hope and promise. In all actuality, the Network is the most important innovation in wrestling distribution since WWE launched Monday Night RAW, and it will continue to be until the next innovation in distribution is announced, regardless of the mistakes made. But man, all those mistakes that were made really made this tremendous idea turn into a disaster thanks to shitty execution on it. Even before the launch date, Vince McMahon doomed the Network to financial failure due to unrealistic subscriber projections. No one could access a single archived pay-per-view on the first day. The first crown jewel event, NXT ArRIVAL, was plagued with spotty providence on the feed to the point where only a fraction of the audience was able to see the entire main event.

And of course, Vince McMahon and his braintrust responded with the same glib dismissal that he's famous for treating everything after the WCW purchase. He turned the price point, $9.99 a month, into a meme. He fucking sold shirts with the price on it. It's one thing to make mistakes in a venture, but when one makes it worse by making a joke out of it, it gets embarrassing. The debacle surrounding The Network should not have been all too surprising, however. It is what happens when a soulless corporate hivemind gets a hold of technological innovation, especially one as prone to bungling things as the post-corporate WWE. Yet, another corporate wrestling entity had the foresight enough to do the one thing that WWE should have done from the start, advertise with a body like ESPN.

All the hand-wringing about how The Network was handled speaks more to the institutional disorganization within WWE than any creative failures in the on-screen production. When a company is in possession of a game-changer and it doesn't change the game, everything about how dysfunctional the organization is on display. As fate turned out, I really didn't need to write all those essays about how terrible WWE booking reflected a muddled front office, because the tangible results from how The Network was promoted and offered said it all.

Still, even with all the mistakes that were made, WWE Network still stands as the future of the industry. The question is whether WWE will be the company to reap the best benefits from it. Other promotions are rising up and becoming players in the second tier. Global Force Wrestling could very well be where WCW was in 1992 within a year or so. If Jeff Jarrett goes over-the-top and actually promotes his version of it smartly, another promotional war would be likely to happen, and who knows. Maybe it would be a war that WWE wouldn't actually win this time.

Regardless, WWE Network's first year stands as perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of all-time, let alone the year. The product itself is great, don't get me wrong. I've been a subscriber from day one. But WWE had me without question. I'm not the fan the company needed to worry about. The ones that WWE had to worry about aren't subscribing, and the fault doesn't rest with a lack of appetite for wrestling or on the current roster "not grabbing brass rings." It's all Vince McMahon's fault and the faults of all his shitty corporate underlings.