Making McIntyre Special

The 2020 Royal Rumble was widely received as one of the best of the genre. It also signaled Drew McIntyre’s opportunity to become the next big WWE star.

Drew McIntyre won the 2020 Royal Rumble last night. In the Worldwide Reader’s eyes — and seemingly in the eyes of Wrestling Twitter — the match was one of the format’s best. The dominance of Brock Lesnar (and his eventual discarding), the return of Edge and, of course, McIntyre’s squeaky-clean elimination of Roman Reigns to win the match all multiplied to create an elevated product (in the math sense of the word). As it should be.

McIntyre’s win and presumed ascension is notable because of two WWE business factors (keeping with the mathematics motif): the company makes more money than ever, but its passionate fanbase appears to be eroding.

Witness television ratings. Smackdown tops most Friday nights in the important 18-49 age demographic (“demo”). Raw routinely lands at or near the top of Monday night cable demo ratings and viewership. Still, Raw’s viewership is on a decades-long decline, and Smackdown’s demo ratings have been below Fox’s pre-season projections.

Witness ticket numbers. The Rumble is WWE’s second-biggest show of the year, and resale prices were tepid at best. Pairs of seats in the first level of permanent risers, straight on the ring were available for under $100 per ticket, plus StubHub fees. Get-in prices were $40+. In a major league baseball stadium, those prices are akin to a high profile Sunday Night game televised by ESPN. Big event ticket prices for WWE have rivaled high leverage MLB Playoff game prices in the past.

Witness WWE Network. While the direct-to-consumer (DTC) service was ahead of its time and has been an unqualified success for the company overall, interest has faded. WWE’s most recent financial report showed flat Network subscriber numbers overall, and a steep year-over-year decline stateside, leaving US subs barely over one million.

As has been the case for some time, WWE’s excellence in strategy, marketing and public relations has been papering over weakness in the company’s core mission: to promote great wrestling. It’s great that fans face less derision from non-fans and the media. It’s great that advertisers are willing to group WWE in with Fox Sports’s other properties. It stinks that the company is less relevant than it once was.

On the flip side of the shoot-work line sits UFC, which has had no trouble finding stars. A seemingly endless string that started with Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell seems to perpetually renew itself. Conor McGregor is king, of course, but look at who sits adjacent to his throne: a Daegestani wrestler and a South Florida street tough with thirteen losses, among others. Take a step back and that last sentence sounds ridiculous. Yet, Khabib and Masvidal have become one-word, household names; the fighting equivalent of LeBron or Brady.

UFC and WWE are very different things. Still, as WWE and Drew McIntyre consider next steps, they may be wise to take a page from UFC’s structure. Be it Conor, Khabib, Chuck or anyone else, the methods for ascension have been similar: face the toughest competition and win, be themselves on interviews and — here comes the tough part — keep public interactions special. Not necessarily rare; though rarity can help (witness the handling of Brock Lesnar), but special. That will be McIntyre’s task as WWE straps the proverbial rocket to his back: to make every move feel special.

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