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Wrestlevision: What the Time Between ‘Survivor Series’ and the ‘Royal Rumble’ Could Mean for the Future of WWE PLEs

In the midst of the first WWE pay-per-view drought in some time, we look back at the history of WWE PPVs to gain insight on what could change in the future

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Sixty-three days isn’t a whole lot of time, at least in the cosmic scale of things. It’s a week or two shorter than it takes, on average, to bring most varieties of potatoes to harvest, and almost exactly the same amount of time it takes for Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke to have a torrid and abusive love affair.

It’s also the distance between Survivor Series WarGames from November 26 of this year and the Royal Rumble happening on January 28 of 2023, and in the Kayfabemetrics sense, that is a historically long time. One that feels—between this nearly two-month hiatus and Triple H’s comments regarding the future of WWE premium live events at the WarGames post-show press conferencelike the end of a very weird (and lengthy) era of sports entertainment.

In that time, the company has gone from offering two PPVs a year all the way up to 16, changed distribution from monthly purchases made through a cable company to an over-the-top on-demand streaming service and, now, undergone a transition at the top that has reshaped the entire industry in just four months.

Those 63 days represent the longest gap between “premium” shows (PLEs or pay-per-views, depending on the year/your regional dialect) since 1995, when the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania XI were held 67 days apart. Before that, the average gap between shows in the period between 1989 and then was a bit longer at roughly two and a half to three months.

After WrestleMania XI, the In Your House brand of PPVs were introduced at two-thirds the length and half as expensive as their major counterparts—these two-hour In Your House PPVs were $14.95 per show while the three-hour-long Big Five each cost $29.95—and represented an evolution for the company. Although this was a marketing strategy Vince McMahon had been experimenting with since he started putting random-ass events on the WWF calendar as early as 1985 with The Wrestling Classic (which ran under the banner of Wrestlevision), there would be a significant number of noteworthy stumbles (including one evening in particular) before he’d find success.

The Classic was a one-off, single-night tournament that included a raffle (like the kind you have at a potluck) for a Rolls-Royce. It ended up with 47,000 buys (which is probably the reason Wrestlevision never became a “series of special events” as was foretold) and the low-rent feeling, especially of the raffle, make the fact that they were giving away one of the more expensive cars in the world feel like a work. In both concept and execution, it could not have been farther removed from the WrestleMania put out earlier that year and it makes a great deal of sense that it’s been essentially wiped from the collective memory of WWE.

But because of the strength of the Mania brand, while this echo of it was actively happening, the people paying to be there didn’t seem to hate it. WWF was able to play the hits without necessarily having to make you sit through the rest of the songs that almost nobody knows, or worse, shit from the new album. It was a tournament, so the matches didn’t need reasons to be happening beyond the bracket and the relatively low stakes (the winner just got a trophy and the admiration of their peers and the fans, they didn’t even get a Rolls) meant that no one had to win it to advance a story line or establish themselves as a new star.

This allowed WWF to include a World Championship match between Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper—a quasi-rematch of their WrestleMania I main event, as well as their only singles title match on WWF/E PPV ever, which lasted less than seven-and-a-half minutes and ended in DQ—with a schmozz finish two bouts before its traditional spot as last match (this, despite the title match being explicitly billed as the main event in the show’s intro). This also meant that the tournament final between Junkyard Dog and “Macho Man” Randy Savage was there to send the fans home mostly happy with a JYD count-out victory, all achieved without anyone breaking a serious sweat or being made to look bad. While that part of the plan was, at least nominally, a success, the final product was decidedly not.

Over the next few years, though, WWE would have better luck re-creating success with the supercard model, as well as finding non-tournament gimmicks that worked as centerpieces around which it could structure shows, building its PPV lineup with Survivor Series in 1987, SummerSlam in ’88, and eventually the Royal Rumble in ’89 to round out the Big Four with WrestleMania. The success of Hulkamania, WrestleMania, and even Macho Madness had at that point perhaps surpassed even the value of the WWF name, and WWE rode that wave of success with either Savage or Hogan headlining 12 of the first 13 PPVs ever through 1989 and doing so with or against one another on seven of those cards.

Savage’s and Hogan’s fates would also be intertwined with these one-off shows; they combined to headline 1989’s No Holds Barred: The Movie/The Match (which, yup, does exactly what it says on the tin) with Savage reprising his recurring role as Zeus’s tag team partner in the latter’s continued attempts to get retribution on Hogan for receiving top billing in their movie. As both an attempt to “cash in” a third time on the hottest feud in the history of WWE-produced B-movies and a way to goose the numbers for No Holds Barred, it was a miserable failure. Pulling just a 1.6 buyrate—for context, that was less than half of every other show put on that year and even nearly a full point lower than the Classic—it seemed like the one-two punch failure in Hollywood and even his domain of PPV could prevent Vince from sticking his hand in the snake pit once again.

McMahon would, unsurprisingly, not be deterred by this misstep as Hulkamania reached its peak. Explicit gimmickry like “Watch this movie and we’ll let you explode the Mega Powers again!” would, in fact, next give us the nadir of Vince’s PPV hucksterism just two years later with as bait-and-switch a concept as he ever came up with: 1991’s This Tuesday in Texas.

The show took place just six days post–Survivor Series and was put on the schedule before that event even started, as after Randy Savage was unable to compete at Survivor Series following an envenomization the previous weekend (but would magically be cleared for action less than a week later) then-WWF president Jack Tunney announced that there would be an immediate show in the aftermath of one of its flagship events to accommodate the feud between Savage and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Which, albeit kind of shitty, at least didn’t make any promises that could sincerely be construed as breaking the covenant between fans and their PPV providers regarding the show they were about to pay for (the Survivor Series).

That wouldn’t happen until the actual Survivor Series itself started and, midway through it, Hulk Hogan lost his WWF World Heavyweight Championship to the Undertaker in “controversial” fashion—Ric Flair would interfere in the match, sliding into the ring the chair upon which ’Taker would Tombstone Hogan (allegedly in a way that would shoot injure him, though this claim is in no way supported by the visual evidence and Hogan is a notorious liar)—leading to a rematch, not later that evening, but (yep, you guessed it) that Tuesday in Texas.

If it had just been kept as a “one-match show” (from a metaphorical and promotional standpoint) it’s possible that Tuesday in Texas could have been a success that helped spread the love around for feuds that are hot enough to main-event big shows without the symbolic stakes (titles, the honor of your loved ones) that traditionally accompany matches placed at that point on the card. Instead, by shoehorning the title match into the PPV at the expense of Survivor Series—easily the most consistent complaint made by reviewers about the 1991 Survivor Series is that it essentially functioned as an advert for the PPV next week—it devalued both the show fans had agreed to pay for and made them resent the idea of having to pay for another show the next week, to the point where less than half as many did so (300,000 in buys for Survivor Series and just 140,000 for This Tuesday in Texas).

Between the backlash regarding the bait-and-switch feeling of the proceedings and the total cratering of the PPV numbers, the thrill of continuing to produce one-off shows like this (meaning those shows tied to specific events like a movie screening or functioning as, essentially, spinoffs of existing IP in a way that diminishes the original) finally seemed to wear off for McMahon. He instead went back to focusing on his Big Four while trying to secure a more permanent fifth show, which he’d establish two years later with the King of the Ring tournament that managed to toe the line between significant (they sincerely made it feel prestigious) and inessential (nothing was earned by becoming King of the Ring except a new gimmick or feud) in a way that other attempts simply had not been able to balance.

For the next few years, McMahon was largely “complacent” (inasmuch as he is capable of feeling, well, anything) with his PPV calendar, but after WCW began to make major shots across the bow of the good ship WWF, McMahon became desperate for new business and looked to build a new and better mousetrap. This, coupled with the price structure that he’d established over the years in selling these shows and as part of a desperate attempt to increase revenue following the departure of his two biggest PPV stars to his biggest rival (and the inevitable bottoming out of his PPV business as a result), would lead to the aforementioned In Your House shows.

In the beginning, the In Your House shows, with their over-the-top sets (it was just, like, a whole-ass house) and, at least for the first edition, an over-the-top spectacle of giving away a house (echoing the Rolls-Royce giveaway, but not in a “sadly living beyond your means to keep up appearances” kind of way) to someone felt like a genuine revelation and over time, they’d become something like a revolution. By splitting the difference between stakes and spectacle—creating a “theme” for the PPV with the set, the branding, and the pricing, without saddling it with the outsize importance of something like the Showcase of the Immortals simply because it’s a PPV event—it instead made the selling point getting to watch a preponderance of actual wrestling, which was exceedingly rare on “free” weekly TV at the time in a way it simply is not now.

As we’ve discussed previously, the In Your House shows also fundamentally changed the flow of heat/promotional energy in the WWE calendar: Feuds no longer had to find specific times to turn things up, but could organically build up enough to get a major spot at one of these now-nearly-monthly shows (interspersed in the gaps between the now–Big Five throughout the year). After an extremely consolidated list of true main-eventers—though Survivor Series matches ending shows make the actual list a bit longer—these shows offered up-and-coming performers the opportunity to get main event matches under their belt.

Following years of having the main event scene dominated by Hogan, Savage, and (very briefly) the Ultimate Warrior, 1995 saw Diesel, Sid, and Shawn Michaels join Bret Hart and ’Taker as viable long-term attractions alongside short-lived megastar pushes like Yokozuna and high-profile heel runs like the one British Bulldog had in the post-Hogan era. These shows not only helped elevate the performers and their performances, but their characters and story lines became much more significant (if convoluted) by virtue of being constantly built toward specific tasks and goals.

This would become even more explicit as In Your House shows started to develop secondary branding following the fifth edition. With Good Friends, Better Enemies, In Your House shows would begin to build out a platform and permission structure that would eventually develop into a series of branded shows that increasingly become their own shows with their own legacies, though not necessarily great ones.

Events like Judgment Day, No Way Out, Unforgiven, and Fully Loaded would eventually become recurring shows after starting out as editions of In Your House. This, however, caused many of the same issues that had occurred with the one-offs they had previously attempted, as the shadow cast by these shows—unmoored by either significant gimmick matches around which to center themselves or even the legacies of the much more specific and personalized nature of the feuds that helped build the In Your House brand—largely dissipated the second each of them ended.

That’s because these shows, unlike The Wrestling Classic, No Holds Barred, and This Tuesday in Texas, largely existed out of inertia. Instead of deliberately tying into story lines the way something like, say, Beware of Dog (or Beware of Dog 2, which happened after the first show had a power outage), International Incident, Mind Games, D-Generation X, or even something as silly as St. Valentine’s Day Massacre had. By branding these specifically based on what was happening on them, these shows felt special enough to watch, as opposed to yet another meaningless version of a largely meaningless series of events.

Meaningless not because the things that they produced didn’t have value, but because the rate at which they were made had completely saturated the market. Without a reason to care about every show, even things that had been advantages—like the ability to organically grow feuds and keep the heat going month to month instead of trying to turn the burner up to “crackling flesh” a few weeks before the quarterly show—these shows soon became difficult to differentiate, which cannibalized each other’s business. In establishing completely useless branding (who in the hell is going to get over as a part of some kind of Judgment Day anyways) instead of just using the totally great platform they successfully developed with In Your House shows to build out the ideas found there, they made it so that the legacy of these brands had to stand on their own and, well, can you name a single Fully Loaded main event?

And it’s McMahon’s answer to that question which Triple H now finds himself confronting. As McMahon attempted to dig himself out of the hole he’d established the previous two decades through an obsession with end-of-days-themed PPVs, he then began taking gimmicks that had previously shown up on other shows—Hell in a Cells, Money in the Bank contract matches, Elimination Chambers, etc.—and turning them into shows of their own.

In 2009, FIVE shows—Extreme Rules, Breaking Point (a submissions-themed PPV), Hell in a Cell, Bragging Rights (a brand competition show), and the TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs—came online officially, with Elimination Chamber joining this “truth in advertising” campaign the following February and Money in the Bank joining the slate that July. All of these shows inverted the In Your House formula—focusing, obviously, far less on their aesthetic themes than their gimmicked structures—and found success as the company entered into something like another boom period before culminating in the 2014 WWE Network/YestleMania combination that the company rode until, essentially, two years ago.

The reason the new PPV regime lasted as long as it did, however, was because of the ways in which its distribution model made it so that PPV revenue was almost entirely meaningless. No longer needing to pop a monthly number for a cable provider with whom WWE has partnered, they could run an old episode of Superstars in the time slot and as long as that show had the same relevancy on social media, it could be considered a success. With strong, simple to understand (and disseminate) ideas about what the shows should be, although there were significant alternative revenue models, the ease of access meant that as long as the streaming and live rights booms kept going, WWE could live in “ain’t broke, don’t fix” mode into perpetuity because it’d always be able to get paid based on aggregate every couple of years by larger media organizations as opposed to in a direct-to-consumer, monthly-show-by-monthly-show model.

All good things must come to an end, however, and as streaming services need to find new ways to build in hooks to catch customers, Triple H seems to be taking the opportunity to streamline the supershow offerings from WWE. In his Survivor Series Wargames press conference, he mentioned some of the primary issues we’ve addressed in previous surveys of these topics, which is certainly reassuring but also mildly disconcerting that they weren’t picked up by the previous regime.

By shoehorning these matches into specific shows (in the same way that he did with the WWF World Heavyweight title bout at This Tuesday in Texas, for example), McMahon decided to trade long-term growth and flexibility for the short-term advantage of guaranteed revenue. But, as H made abundantly clear, this was not a sustainable business or storytelling model, one that, instead of allowing new gimmicks to be cycled out or developed, locks in a certain menu of options for performers on all other shows. Thus, in almost exactly the same way that Hogan and Savage dominated the first era of the PPV era, the whole thing starts to cannibalize current revenue and hurt your future prospects.

Now, with plans to stop shoehorning gimmick matches into certain sections of the calendar and, presumably, reducing the number of shows overall (this year had 13 nights across 12 events, with WrestleMania running two nights again) the possibilities can be almost infinite. WWE could even go so far as to drop down to just five or six “major” events, with “Super Showdown” events like the show in Puerto Rico mentioned by Triple H playing an inverted version of the role originally filled by the In Your House brand, symbolizing massive international shows that couldn’t be farther outside of your home.

All of that, we suppose, will be up to H and his team (presuming that McMahon doesn’t find his way back into the company) over the next year. Given his track record over the past few months with the WWE, and in the last few years with NXT (where the TakeOver series of shows helped launch the brand into the stratosphere), we are probably not going to see any more Rolls-Royces given away, but if we are lucky, maybe one of us will end up with a new house.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.