How Wrestling Fans Are Trying To Ruin Wrestling
With the upcoming NXT Takeover event (8/22/15 9PM WWE Network) hailing outside of the cozy confines of Full Sail University for the first time, the Full Sail Faithful have had a hard time accepting that their once personal club has been opened to outsiders. Due to the NXT taping schedule, they’ve been able to voice their anger with the decision for over a month’s worth of shows. They feel entitled to keep NXT as their secret society. This entitlement of wrestling fans is nothing new, but with each generation, it comes closer to ruining pro wrestling for good.
When Fans Become Part Of The Show
Philadelphia has always been known as a hotbed for “smark” crowds. Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, Philly fans would often boo the good guys and cheer the bad guys just to be contrary. Armed with their subscriptions to Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer, they felt they were in the know, and as such, were a better breed of fans than the average family coming for a few hours of fun. It should then come as no surprise that when the original underground promotion, ECW, started in Philly in 1993, the fans quickly took over the show. In cultivating an identity for his fledgling promotion, Paul Heyman used the fans as a selling point. If you came to an ECW show, not only could you see the show, but you could be a part of the show. Never before had the fans been given so much power.
The company’s home building was a converted bingo hall in downtown Philadelphia. Every week, the same group of fans came, often sitting in the same seats. The fans began forming personal relationships with the wrestlers and each other, and as the bonds became deeper, the ECW Arena crowd grew more and more invested in the company. In catering to his audience, Heyman ended up with a genuinely misogynistic and violent product, where women were exclusively referred to as "bitches" and "whores", and frequently attacked by the top good guys to thunderous approval. ECW continued to raise the bar of how bloody and violent matches would get, with the fans believing their $20 was worth more than the safety and bodies of the wrestlers. When someone wasn't set on fire or cut with barbed wire, the fans would call the wrestlers "pussies". If a woman didn't get hit, they'd boo and call her a "crackwhore". Unknowingly, Paul Heyman had given birth to a new genre of fan. A fan who not only expected to be part of the show, but also expected the wrestlers to sacrifice themselves in increasingly dangerous stunts.
As fate would have it, ECW began to outgrow the ECW Arena. When the decision was announced to begin running shows in New York, the Arena fans felt betrayed. They let their anger be heard. Frequent, “FUCK NEW YORK” chants would break out. The New York crowds, in response, would chant “FUCK PHILLY” when given the chance. The ECW Arena crowd had become entitled to sole ownership of ECW. With the prospect of less local shows, many of the once die hard ECW fans moved on out of spite. By the time ECW had made it to national television in 1999, its fan base had dwindled, feeling ECW had betrayed them by diluting the product to be more palatable to mainstream audiences.
The New Generation
After ECW folded in 2001, many small independent promotions rushed to fill the void it left. The most prominent and successful was Ring of Honor. ROH played to the smart Philly crowd even more than ECW. It was built on a base of “real” wrestling (not that sports entertainment crap), with cards full of indie stars and Japanese talent that only the hardcore fans of the growing online smark community would know. Booker Gabe Sapolsky had worked under Paul Heyman in ECW, and even though ROH was built to be a "pure" wrestling company, the first show opened with a stereotypical gay tag team being destroyed and their female manager being slammed through a table. Sapolsky doubled as a play by play man, frequently using the same techniques Heyman had utilized to build the ECW audience. Being an ROH fan meant you were a real fan. Being an ROH fan meant you were smart. The ROH audience expectations grew in a similar manner to the ECW crowd, although the intense and bloody violence was replaced with a more athletic and punishing in ring style consisting of dangerously hard strikes and head drops. Despite the chants of "please don't die", ROH fans encouraged Paul London to continue to do increasingly dangerous stunts until he was hired by WWE. Wrestlers making little money were encouraged to continue matches with injuries and concussions, because the fans demanded it. This demand has led to careers being cut short, like those of Nigel McGuinness and Daniel Bryan.
Somewhere along the way, as the Millennial Generation became more involved with wrestling, the ECW fan mindset morphed. Irony became a defining feature of wrestling. Instead of being a live action stunt show show, wrestling became more of an inside joke between fans and wrestlers. The fans want the wrestlers to know they are in on the joke, and the wrestlers react accordingly, with all parties trading ironic winks while performing fourth wall breaking moves and meta comedy. Instead of a show where the in ring action is portrayed as a competition, the shows take on a tone more similar to a UCB comedy show, full of 20-somethings smugly smirking over their shrewd ability to discern that pro wrestling is, in fact, not real. Heels will get cheered for being good heels. Comedy spots get “this is awesome” and “holy shit” chants. A headlock will garner a “match of the year” chant. Instead of being part of the crowd, indie fans suddenly find themselves playing the role of the crowd. They’re putting on as much of a performance as the wrestlers in the ring.
But don’t think this behavior is relegated to rec-centers and armories across the nation. TNA began operations in 2002. Running out of The Tennessee State Fairground Sports Arena (also known as The Asylum), a dedicated group of fans near the entrance ramp named themselves the “Heel Section”. Their expressed purpose was to cheer for the heels and give as much grief to the faces as possible. They believed that, due to their presence and online promotion of TNA, they were part of the show. TNA producers eventually had to call a meeting and request that the Heel Section stop ruining the shows. When they refused, TNA would move their seating arrangements until the group stopped coming to shows all together.
In 2004, TNA would move their base to Florida, moving into a sound stage at Universal Studios. Having taped every TV and PPV show in the Impact Zone for two years, TNA finally announced that they would have their first PPV outside of Orlando. Fans reacted exactly as the ECW Arena fans had reacted a decade earlier to New York getting show. TNA management once again were forced to call a pre-show meeting with the most vocal of these fans, pleading for them to stop ruining the shows. The same fans that wanted TNA to grow and be successful were now being confronted by the reality of what that would mean for them.
For the past decade at WWE shows, you can hear the spirit of those fans. While deemed, “controversial”, WWE and the internet have failed to directly acknowledge what the ever present “Let’s Go Cena, Cena Sucks” chants really are: Grown adults screaming at children because they feel the children’s show is not catering to them. This type of narcissism has become perhaps the defining characteristic of WWE television. Fans have been trained that their individual voices are more important than the enjoyment of everyone else. When they revolted over perceived mistreatment of Daniel Bryan, their egotistical attitudes were given validation by WWE putting Daniel Bryan in the main event of Wrestlemania, completely changing the months of already planned storylines to placate his fans. WWE, in fact, turned this into an angle, staging a “Yes Movement” sit in, where Bryan and his fans filled the ring and refused to leave until they got what they wanted. The next year, WWE would again give into fan reactions and change plans to have Roman Reigns defeat Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 31.
This brings us back to NXT. By using the "fans are part of the show" routine used by ROH and ECW, along with the wink-wink irony of playing to the smart fans (frequent "real" photo-ops with internet favorites, mentioning insider terms and inside jokes on air), Triple H has been able to build what was essentially a local indie in Florida into a full fledged touring promotion able to sell out the same arena as Summerslam. How did the Full Sail crowd react to the news of their baby being a success? Furious, show-ruining anger. “We deserve it” chants rang out anytime the Brooklyn show was mentioned. They’ve had NXT to themselves for nearly three years, and now that they have to share, they’re poised to ruin it for everyone. Just like ECW and TNA fans before them.
The Full Sail Faithful have become the distillation of ECW, indie, and TNA fans, all with a thick layer of Millennial entitlement and irony. With the rest of the nation embracing something they loved, they have begun to hate the idea of others enjoying what they believe is theirs alone. The only logical step for NXT is to move out of Full Sail University for good and stop placating to the smart fans. The same fans that claim to want a Divas Revolution, yet still call the Bellas "talentless reality star sluts" who are only in their positions due to their sexual partners. The same fans who pay money each week to scream at children on national television. The same fans who were angry over a group of black men being happy and friendly instead of militant. The same fans who look at everything with behind the scenes sub-text so they can convince themselves what they're watching is more than a kid's show inline with Power Rangers or TMNT. This, in turn, forces WWE to write stories that can work for the smart and common fan, ultimately failing to please either. The only way to be successful is to pick one or the other. History has shown what happens when companies focuses on the smart fan.
Perhaps Kevin Owens said it best: