WWE’s largest and most-watched program of the year, WrestleMania XXX, is only a few days away, and a lot has changed since AiPT’s own Patrick Ross took a look at the event’s lead-up. At that point Daniel Bryan, WWE’s most popular superstar (judging by live crowd reactions; more on that later) was inexplicably left without a definite dance partner for the “Showcase of the Immortals,” with a rumor of a WrestleMania rematch versus the recently returned Sheamus causing many fans and industry watchers to scratch their heads.


Most would have perceived avenging the infamous 18-second loss at WrestleMania 28 to be a step back.

Then Bryan began to demand he get the opportunity to face the man who’s tormented him since he won the WWE Championship at SummerSlam in August of last year: on-screen company COO and semi-retired wrestler Triple H. “Give the people what they want!” he’d exclaim, and the crowd would erupt. “They want to see Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H at WrestleMania!” The crowd quieted. What they really wanted was Daniel Bryan in the WWE world heavyweight championship match at WrestleMania.

They may have gotten their wish on the March 10th edisode of Monday Night Raw, less than a month before WrestleMania itself, when Bryan and legions of his “fans” – some of whom have since been identified as backstage workers – “occupied” the ring and ground the show to a halt until Triple H agreed to fight Bryan, with the promise Bryan would be inserted into the Randy Orton/Batista championship main event should he get past the “Cerebral Assassin.” Under the assumption that outcome is merely a formality, the live crowed breathed a sigh of relief. But what did the viewing audience at home think?


Was “Occupy Raw” Daniel Bryan’s “beer truck” moment? Can he resonate the same way “Stone Cold” Steve Austin did with the entirety of WWE’s audience?

Us vs. Them

In “Kayfabe 2.0,” Pat asserted that the difference between “internet fans” and the general audience has eroded in the 21st century. Wrestling company insiders might not agree. Steven Godfrey of sports website SB Nation relates a story of when he worked for a wrestling organization – left unnamed but obviously identified through context as TNA – and suggested a particular athlete should be spotlighted because “this guy is HUGE on the internet.” The response from the creative team was not what he expected.

“Great,” they answered. “Then we don’t have to do shit with him ever.”


An article on SB Nation heavily implied that Chris Sabin wasn’t elevated because he could be buoyed by his enthusiastic internet audience, though TNA’s creative team apparently changed their minds somewhere along the way. Is Daniel Bryan on the same trajectory?

Despite Bryan’s overwhelming popularity with live audiences, the highest-rated TV segments usually revolve around throwbacks from the wildly successful Attitude Era like Batista and even Triple H himself. The publicly-traded WWE of 2014 is beholden to a lot of masters, including merchandise companies, advertisers and television executives. Bryan was actually fired because of such concerns in 2010 after an especially violent on-screen attack of ring announcer Justin Roberts. With his major motion picture Guardians of the Galaxy hitting theaters in August, putting Batista in the main event of WrestleMania seemed like a no-brainer to satisfy those parties, but it is clearly not what the people lining the stadium seats on Monday Night Raw wanted to see.


While Drax the Destroyer’s effect on box office receipts is yet to be determined, his presence is a boon to Raw‘s quarter-hour ratings.

We’re then left to conclude that the folks showing up to live events must be a minority of the audience, hardcore internet fans like the obsessive denizens of message boards such as the one on the Comic Book Resources website. A recent poll of that forum’s users asking them to name the top 100 characters of Marvel Comics put mainstream darling Iron Man at only #20, behind more obscure creations like Magik and Psylocke. The difference is that the contrarian opinions of online comic fans don’t register to the core audience that never visits those places. When the most knowledgeable and passionate wrestling fans – the ones more likely to attend shows in person – are pumped weekly into everyone’s living rooms, they become impossible to ignore.


The face of Marvel Comics? Maybe if the general readership ever heard what the hardcore fans have to say. It’s a lot easier for outspoken wrestling fans to make their opinions known.

So WWE hasn’t been booking to actively antagonize their most ardent supporters, as it might frustratingly seem, but instead is just trying to appease the casual audience, the larger group that keeps the cash flowing. Continuing to do so, however, could cost them in the long run.

A New Era?

Arguing that a Bryan/Orton/Batista three-way to main event WrestleMania was WWE’s ultimate plan from the beginning would be a tough case to make, given Bryan’s inconsistent portrayal and his complete absence from January’s Royal Rumble match. It’s much more likely they considered the monumental negative reaction the New Orleans crowd would have to a straight-up Orton/Batista contest and adjusted accordingly. Eventually even the most casual of fan would notice the thundering approval Bryan gets and wonder why he never seems to make it up the card, and at WrestleMania, where only the smarkiest of marks plunk down the scratch for high ticket prices and airfare, that sentiment will be more evident than ever. Batista at the top might pop the buyrate, but an absence of Bryan would create an embarrassing moment the WWE would surely like to avoid.


When Bill Goldberg met Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XX exactly 10 years ago, the “smart” fans at Madison Square Garden turned on both, leading to what some call a “disaster.” Someone must have finally remembered.

And maybe pay-per-view buyrates aren’t much of a concern anymore, with the emphasis shifting to WWE Network subscriptions that provide all such events as part of the standard programming. The introduction of the network itself – originally conceived as a standard cable channel but altered to an online a la carte service at the eleventh hour – should show that WWE recognizes they need to change with the times. That might even extend to who they push to the top.


The launch of the WWE Network was seen as a breakthrough, game-changing event by some financial analysts. Can they be just as forward-thinking with their television programming?

Before the Attitude Era there was the New Generation, a grudging transition of focus to younger superstars necessitated by many of WWE’s established athletes jumping ship to rival WCW for fatter contracts. They may now have to once again unexpectedly change course due to outside pressure, but this time it won’t be from a cornfed, Georgia billionaire. The pressure is coming from WWE’s own changing demographics.

  • Patrick Ross

    As much as we Internet fans constantly jump the gun and clamor for something new, I really think we’re on the verge of ‘the Reality Era’ as HHH dubbed it (well, CM Punk called the beginning of his reign that three years ago, but who’s counting). Between stars like Bryan getting their due, the blurring of kayfabe being ever increasing and the launch of the Network, it’s definitely a great time to be a wrestling fan.

    • Russ Dobler

      If Vince is the one who brought wrestling into arenas, will Bryan bring it to comic cons? Not that it’s not there already, but are we seeing a shift where wrestling becomes firmly entrenched with the rest of nerd culture?

      • Patrick Ross

        Hope so. Wrestling gets a bum deal where it’s shunned by both sports enthusiasts and uber nerds, but I think a paradigm shift would make a lot of geek culture appreciate it a lot more.

        Mike Quackenbush, head of Chikara wrestling, put it best (I’m paraphrasing): They aren’t dudes in their underwear pretending to punch each other, they’re real life superheroes, and you can go see their epic battles live and in person. What nerd doesn’t want that?