The road to WrestleMania has officially started following the annual end-of-January Royal Rumble pay per view event, and most fans are happy with what they got from the event. Some exciting-looking storylines are getting underway, and the biggest matches for WrestleMania 37 are beginning to come into focus. There has been an overwhelmingly negative response to Royal Rumble winners in the recent past, which has included Roman Reigns being booed out of the building despite an attempt to put him over by using Dwayne “The Rock Johnson and Batista receiving an even worse reception. Edge’s victory in the men’s Royal Rumble event has gone down well, which has to be seen as a positive, but it belies a problem with the company’s roster.
Statistically speaking, this was the oldest Royal Rumble event in history. Edge, the winner, is 47. Only two of the entrants, Otis and Dominik Mysterio, were under 30. Sixteen entrants were over 40. That’s more than half of the field. Elsewhere on the card, Drew McIntyre defended his WWE Championship against 54-year-old Bill Goldberg. Asuka, the RAW women’s champion, is 39. Shayna Baszler, who regained the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship with Nia Jax, is 40. Christian made a surprise return to the active roster during the Royal Rumble match at the age of 47. The other significant surprise entrant was Carlito, who is returning to the company at 41. WWE used to mock WCW for running with middle-aged wrestlers at the top of the card. Now the company is doing it far more than WCW ever did.
In 2019, Paul Heyman was appointed as the “Executive Director” of flagship WWE show Monday Night RAW with the promise that he would revamp the company’s programming. Putting more focus on youth was one of his objectives. He tried to do that by introducing new stories featuring, among others, Ricochet, Cedric Alexander, Aleister Black, Humberto Carillo, and Andrade Almas. A year later, Heyman was dismissed from his role, and WWE went straight back to pushing older stars at younger performers’ expense. It worked in the short term as ratings improved, but continuing to feature wrestlers at the tail end of the careers isn’t a sustainable business model when nobody is being groomed to replace them. WWE has an age problem, and it isn’t easy to see how they’re going to solve it.
The decision to go back on promoting youth isn’t the first commitment WWE has changed direction on recently. When the WWE Network was launched in 2014, it was supposed to become the way that all WWE content would be consumed in the future. Last month they sold the entire Network to NBCU. Even seemingly profitable business opportunities are being skipped. A brand new range of WWE-themed online slots was supposed to be launched at the end of last year. A quick look at a popular online casino website like roseslots.com will tell you that they haven’t materialized. It isn’t like WWE to leave money on the table, which leads to questions about the decisions being taken at the top of the command structure. This isn’t about online slots or network deals – it’s about whether Vince McMahon, at 75 years old, is still focused on the future of the company that he built. There are rumors that he’s building up the company’s value intending to sell it rather than pass it on to his children. The current short-term direction of the shows his company tells suggests there might be something to those rumors.
WrestleMania is the company’s biggest show of the year. We already have an idea of some of the matches we’re likely to see, and the age issue is also reflected there. Edge is almost certainly going head to head with Roman Reigns. Drew McIntyre’s opponent at the ‘show of shows’ will probably be Sheamus, who’s 43. With it being WrestleMania, we can also expect to see John Cena and Brock Lesnar on the card, both of whom are well into their 40s. “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt, who’s been a hot act for much of the past eighteen months, seems to be destined for a showdown with Randy Orton, who’ll be 41 by then. This isn’t to say that these wrestlers aren’t fit, able athletes who are in better shape than the majority of us ever will be, but their time at the top is extremely limited. WWE should be using its older stars to ‘put over’ the people who will eventually rise up to replace them. There’s no indication of that happening at any level in the company. Even if we drop down to NXT, which is allegedly the company’s “developmental” wing, reigning champion Finn Balor is 39. There doesn’t appear to be a ready-make stack of performers in their 20s anywhere in sight.
Perhaps wrestling itself is aging out. There are far more viewers over the age of 40 than there are below it. Even AEW, which promotes itself as an alternative to WWE, recently brought WCW legend Sting aboard as an active wrestler. He’ll be 62 at the end of March this year. Chris Jericho, who held the world championship there as recently as one year ago, is 50. Wrestling isn’t as ‘hot’ as it was in the late 1990s, so perhaps it’s become impossible to build new break out stars to the same level that The Rock or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin became, or Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior before them. All of those men became pop-culture sensations. It’s been years since anyone from WWE has broken out and entered the mainstream consciousness the same way. The only person it might be possible to say it of is John Cena, and he had to almost totally walk away from the ring in order to do it.
WWE’s company motto is “then, now, forever.” It’s certainly been a big deal in the past, so “then” is covered. The company is in excellent financial shape at the moment, so “now” isn’t a concern either. The “forever” part is looking far less certain. WWE needs to create breakout stars if it’s going to survive into the 2030s and beyond. At the moment, it’s very hard to see where they’re going to come from or whether they’d even be given a prominent spot on the card when it matters the most.