DANIEL BRYAN/CM PUNK/MEDIA: Storytelling lessons from World Wrestling Entertainment (Harvard Business Review)
Posted on 2/05/114 by Bob Magee
Storytelling lessons from World Wrestling Entertainmentby Sam Ford | 1:00 PM February 4, 2014
2014 is a crucial year for Stamford, Conn.-based World Wrestling Entertainment. It could arguably be the biggest year in the company’s history, in which the organization makes a major play to negotiate major new TV rights for its first-run cable and network TV programming and changes its core model from the pay-per-view live event to a monthly digital network subscription that will (or should) have the whole media industry watching.
But, in this crucial month leading up to the official launch of the digital WWE Network and in the middle of negotiations with NBCU and other conglomerates regarding WWE’s flagship TV shows, the company finds itself in the midst of a revolt from fans and talent alike. One of its top wrestlers, C.M. Punk, reportedly left the company last Monday and flew home for undisclosed reasons. WWE legend and company ambassador Mick Foley went on a Twitter and Facebook rant about his frustration with the direction of the company. And its fans are protesting that one of their favorite characters is being pushed from the top of the card.
In true WWE fashion, it could be brilliant storytelling that drives dedicated and lapsed fans alike to the millions of subscribers WWE is hoping for with the new digital service, or it could be a stubborn standoff between the will of the family that runs the organization and the core of its fan base. And, like any well-written wrestling match, I have no idea what the outcome is going to be.
The storyline on and behind the stage, which will play out over the next few weeks, is one that we should all be watching closely—the WWE will either demonstrate what happens when it plays off the passions of its fan base to give them “a big swerve” or else reveals there is no swerve at all and rolls into its biggest business year with a significant portion of its most passionate and dedicated audience disappointed.
For anyone in entertainment, marketing, or storytelling trying to understand the way a company should (or should not) interact with its fan base, this is the bout for you.
For those unfamiliar with WWE, let me give you some background. Pro wrestling is perhaps the only 24/7, 365-day-a-year fictional storytelling machine alive. The “story world” of the WWE is the real world. Some of the wrestlers compete under their real names, or—even if they don’t—often incorporate various aspects of their real lives into their characters. Because their TV episodes play out on live television—and the full-time WWE wrestlers tour several days out of each week—they are “in character” all the time. The wrestlers run their own Twitter accounts, which become a fascinating blend of their “real lives” and their fictional ones. In short, pro wrestling is the world’s largest “alternate reality game.”
To further set that immersive story world apart from other fictional properties, the WWE makes the fans part of the fictional universe as well, not only through online interaction but especially through the fans’ own performance in the arena. Despite the classic stereotype, this is a fan base who knows that pro wrestling isn’t legitimate sport but show up to the arena to play their part in the role of “sports fans.” And any wrestler can tell you that the reaction of the crowd can make or break any show.
WWE writers, when they are at the top of the craft, can put themselves in the shoes of the fan base, know how fans are going to respond to something, and write the show accordingly. But the fan base is the one character that the WWE writers can’t completely script. Fans can do unpredictable things.
And that’s where the WWE finds itself today. The WWE created a storyline where character Daniel Bryan, overwhelmingly a favorite of the dedicated wrestling fans who provide the base of support to its business, was deemed unsuited to be the heavyweight champion by Vince McMahon, his daughter Stephanie, and her husband, famed semi-retired wrestler “Triple H.” This storyline, that “The Authority” (as they have come to be called) don’t want Bryan as champion, played off real-life rumors and fan frustration that the WWE was keeping Bryan out of the main event, despite his popularity, because of a feeling that the performer portraying him doesn’t have what it takes to be champ.
As the months went by, fans were hopeful because Bryan found himself in the main event of several big WWE shows, in the role of “rebelling” against The Authority. In one event, he won the title, only to have it taken from him minutes later. In the next, he won the title, only to have the decision reversed because of a controversy with the referee the next night. In the next big show, he was cheated out of the title. Soon, he was out of the championship matches altogether, and fans who thought the “Daniel Bryan is underserving of the championship” line was just a story started to believe once again that this was “real.”
Fast-forward to last week and one of the WWE’s biggest events of the year: the Royal Rumble. Daniel Bryan is put in the opener of the show and loses the match. The vocal, dedicated WWE fans in Pittsburgh then hijack the rest of the show. They chant Bryan’s name during other matches. And, when they came to realize that Bryan was not going to return to even be part of the 30-man main event “battle royal” in which the winner would get a championship match at the WWE’s biggest event of the year, Wrestlemania, the fans started booing the event as a whole and chanting Bryan’s name.
It remains to be seen what WWE will do. We don’t yet know how the WWE will respond. Fans were shocked when retired wrestler Mick Foley, a longtime face of the company, wrote about his disgust with the WWE’s creative direction and his plans to throw a brick through his TV after watching the way the WWE was actively defying its dedicated fans after the Royal Rumble.
And, when word circulated last week that the performer who plays C.M. Punk—a character also fighting against “The Authority” of the McMahon family and whose popularity with dedicated WWE fans rivals Bryan—walked out on the company and flew home before WWE’s live Monday Night RAW program, fans were even more shocked … or curious whether this could all be part of the story.
After all, wrestling fans are still talking about a 2011 storyline in which Punk—who legitimately was planning to leave the company—turned that departure into a storyline in which he won the WWE championship on his last night with the company and “took the belt with him” out of the company. He returned a few weeks later and cemented his place in the process as one of the company’s top stars.
Now, fans are scouring the internet for backstage rumors, seeking news on whether the McMahons are pulling a storyline “swerve” — if WWE impresario Vince McMahon will, as fans often feel he does, “dig in his heels” and stick with the status quo; or if an all-fronts press from WWE fans can help change the course of storylines. After all, it’s Vince himself who has said that the fans in his arena are his focus groups.
If this all culminates in some big storyline payoff, with Punk back in WWE rings and Daniel Bryan in the main event of WWE Wrestlemania 30, fans may remember this as a stroke of creative genius. If this all turns out to be all “for real,” WWE may find itself with a public relations headache on its head and its most ardent fans threatening to boycott its new network.
Until then, though, WWE most ardent and vocal fans might well be hijacking some upcoming WWE live events by chanting Daniel Bryan’s characteristic “YES!,” and booing much else. A WhiteHouse.gov petition to get President Obama to intervene in putting Daniel Bryan in the main event of Wrestlemania was taken down after nearing 100,000 signatures. Even the fans at last night’s Monday Night RAW in Omaha (whose arena was not nearly as rowdy as the Pittsburgh crowd) reached the television audience at home loud and clear with momentary chants various times throughout the night for C.M. Punk and likewise called for Daniel Bryan at times when the performer was not on stage.
At least up to this point, the WWE hasn’t discouraged publicity about Bryan’s being “held back.” (See, for instance, last week’s BBC story, “Royal Rumble: Daniel Bryan Blames WWE for Exclusion.”) And they regularly encourage their fans to speak up at events and tweet what they think. (Coincidentally, “C.M. Punk” was “trending worldwide!” on Twitter last week, as WWE commentator Michael Cole might brag on the air.) And that raises the question: is this very piece here in HBR playing into “the ruse” to a degree?
After the fan response , Stephanie McMahon and HHH teased the fans at the beginning of last night’s Monday Night RAW TV show by asking whether Bryan should be “the face of the WWE,” and HHH led the arena in a “YES!” chant…only to have a corporate henchman beat Bryan down after beating the WWE champion in a non-title match by the night’s end. Once again, the main event storyline appears to be “The Authority” not wanting Bryan to be champion. At the last pay-per-view event (later this month) before the WWE Network launches, Bryan is one of five people challenging for the WWE title inside a cage. Is this a sign that the company does indeed plan to finally give dedicated WWE fans their payoff and see Bryan defy “The Authority” and main event Wrestlemania? Or will Bryan’s attempt to be champion once again fail, which has been the storyline for the past several months?
Elsewhere here at HBR, I’ve written about how organizations need to truly listen to their audiences, to put the company in the audience’s shoes, and to focus on managing long-term relationships with customers. The most fascinating part of this situation is that it’s unclear whether WWE is doing this especially well or especially poorly.
In part, that’s because the story’s still being written…which is what, for now, makes this so powerful for fans.