This one is going to get me some heat with the Internet wrestling community, or “IWC” as Vince Russo says but – I am in favor of WWE bringing back enhancement matches on television.
In the 1980s which is when I grew up a wrestling fan, WWE mainly ran television via syndication and the vast majority of the matches were enhancement meaning “top guy” vs. “jobber”. It was done in an effort to build up the top guy so that they could then match him up against another top guy on the live event circuit which is where WWE made their money in the days before PPV and rights fees. And it worked as fans would line up in droves to buy tickets for non-televised events to watch Hulk Hogan take out The Magnificent Muraco or Killer Khan or Sika or whichever performer those fans had watched destroy some poor sap on TV. It was Vince McMahon’s formula for years, and it was effective.
Another strategy that the company used that I’m also in favor of, is hiring certain performers full-time to be enhancement wrestlers so that the TV audience would become familiar with them, thus giving their opponents a shred of credibility after annihilating them. Many of those wrestlers had received decent pushes in the 70’s before the company went national, and so a victory over them added to a wrestler’s credibility. You had “Iron” Mike Sharpe and Steve “Brooklyn Brawler” Lombardi and Tiger Chung Lee and Rene Goulet and Mario Mancini and Salvatore Bellomo and Barry O and “Leaping” Lanny Poffo. These guys would always get in a little bit of offense against the superstar but inevitably did what they were paid to do and got destroyed. And again, it was effective.
In 1993 when WWE debuted Monday Night Raw, they started booking competitive mid-card matches but for the most part stuck with the previous formula. Everything changed in 1995 when Eric Bischoff headed up the launch of WCW Monday Nitro and in an effort to beat Raw in the ratings, he decided to present PPV quality matches regularly up and down the card. This forced Vince McMahon to follow suit in order to compete, and for the better part of 20 years now wrestling fans have become accustomed to seeing top matches on television every week. The landscape has also changed in that today television ratings and rights fees are of the utmost importance to WWE while live event revenue is secondary, and PPV revenue which was crucial 10 years ago is almost non-existent now, replaced with WWE Network subscriber revenue instead.
So with ratings so important now, why on earth would I suggest booking more enhancement matches which theoretically turn people off? Because it will pay off in the long run. In 2012 WWE introduced a new character by the name of Ryback and pushed him by having him pummel not just one but sometimes two enhancement guys simultaneously on television. The live crowd would often jeer or chant “Goldberg” but the numbers don’t lie – at Hell in a Cell 2012 after months of being presented that way, Ryback was booked in a WWE Title match against CM Punk and to the surprise of many the show did over 200,000 PPV buys including over 150,000 domestically. That represented a 40% increase in domestic buys from the same show a year earlier, and a 12% increase overall. Regardless of his treatment by the live crowd, Ryback had been built up to the point that the television audience was interested in seeing him challenge for the title. WWE had been successful in creating a new top guy, but then of course things came off the rails due to poor creative combined with the fact that Ryback just wasn’t a great talent (which makes that HIAC buyrate even more impressive).
After WWE announced this latest brand split and word came out that they were offering contracts to guys like Jinder Mahal and Curt Hawkins, the Internet wrestling community was quick to let their displeasure be known, especially since this news came shortly after the release of Damien Sandow. But I think what most fans didn’t realize is that Mahal and Hawkins were signed to essentially be this generation’s Mario Mancini or Steve Lombardi. They were signed to perform as “known” enhancement wrestlers in order to give a rub to the talent that beats them.
I wrote previously about how WWE’s new willingness to sign well known wrestlers from the indys and Japan was a throwback to the territorial days in the 80’s. With those performers you don’t need to do much in the way of enhancement matches because the television audience is already familiar with them and their past accolades. But in the case of a relatively new performer like a Ryback or a Nia Jax or a Braun Strowman, I think enhancement matches are the perfect way for these people to not just get experience in front of big crowds on the main roster, but to also build them up into “somebody” so that once they’re booked against an established talent, the fans will be more interested and more invested in the outcome. And if a performer is fortunate enough to be able to get over with the fans, you then have yourself a new top guy to generate television ratings and network subscriptions.
Of course booking the match is one thing, but booking a smart finish is another and so I’m baffled by WWE’s decision to have Strowman only beat Sin Cara by countout on Raw this week; if that is their idea of how an enhancement match is supposed to work, Strowman will be “future endeavored” inside six months. And if that finish was done because they actually want to waste Strowman’s time by putting him into a program with a low-level guy like Sin Cara, well… I’ll leave my gripes with WWE creative for another day.