Kofi Kingston and Seth Rollins are two of the most beloved stars in WWE, but they haven’t drawn well as world champions.
Wrestling statistician and Twitter user @nWoWolfpacTV recently compiled and analyzed data regarding average domestic live event attendance during the Universal title reign of Rollins and the ongoing WWE Championship reign of Kingston.
He found that domestic house shows headlined by Rollins averaged just 3,334 fans, lower than Jinder Mahal’s universally panned 2017 WWE title reign. Similarly, Kingston-headlined events had, as of July 18, averaged just 2,940 fans per show, which would make him “the fourth worst drawing in company history in this regard” behind Kurt Angle, Booker T and Eddie Guerrero.
So, what’s this mean? Well, it’s hard to tell.
However, Kingston and Rollins are probably not the actual problem as both stars rank among WWE’s most popular acts and its biggest merchandise sellers. The issue with the decreased attendance during their world title reigns stems from larger problems with WWE’s creative process and its live event event strategy, which is something that needs to change.
According to WWE’s Q1 Key Performance Indicators, domestic live event attendance dropped 11% between Q1 2018 and Q1 2019, averaging just 4,800 fans in the first quarter of 2019, a massive drop of 25% from the 6,400 per show it averaged in the second quarter of 2017. Attendance was down yet again in Q2, as were TV ratings for both Raw and SmackDown.
Vince McMahon raised some eyebrows when he blamed WWE’s disappointing Q1 2019 results—which included significant drops in Raw ratings, SmackDown ratings and the WWE Network subscriber count as well—on “superstar absences” because stars coming and going has always been and will continue to be a reality.
In response to the underwhelming live event attendance, McMahon added a slew of new hires to WWE’s creative and live event teams and had the following to say about revamping its live event strategies (from The Motley Fool via Wrestling Inc)
“We’ve hired new people in writing team that are really going to help us out in terms of television ratings and digital, social, all that sort of stuff, we’ve got a new team in terms of live events that have just started now. So we’ll see the live events going to continue on an upward trend.”
That upward trend just hasn’t happened, though.
During that same one-year span in which live event attendance plummeted, so too did Raw viewership (down 25% between WrestleMania 34 and 35) and SmackDown viewership (down about the same). By the end of Q2, Raw ratings were down 14% over the previous year while SmackDown’s were down by 11% as live event attendance dropped by 2%.
Those dips in TV viewership and live event attendance were less indicative of the drawing power of WWE’s world champions, including Brock Lesnar, AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, Kingston and Rollins and more indicative of WWE’s lackluster programming, which had struggled to consistently put on entertaining feuds and storylines.
As a result of those sizable dips, WWE will reportedly reduce the number of live events in 2020 amidst reports that Roman Reigns even suggested WWE have an off-season. Though that is unlikely to happen, the substantial decreases in live event attendance do speak to a bigger problem.
It’s not a star power issue—WWE has more talent than ever before currently under contract. It’s not an issue directly caused by Rollins or Kingston either, though they’re easy scapegoats.
The bottom line is that when the WWE Network was launched in 2014, it effectively put an end to the days of champions being individual draws. Unless your name is John Cena and you’re a massive star who is able to make huge differences in live event attendance, it’s largely going to be up to WWE’s creative team to make fans want to go to non-televised house shows. How does that happen?
By booking a quality product, with great matches and feuds on TV, that make fans want to go see live events that really don’t impact the TV product in any way. The better WWE’s TV product is and the more major stars it has based on how they are presented on TV, the more fans will want to pay to go see them wrestle at a non-televised event.
It’s no secret that WWE’s TV product has, for the most part, been quite lackluster in 2019, which is probably a better explanation as to why Rollins and Kingston have floundered as champions in terms of their drawing ability. Rollins’ entire title reign was spent battling Baron Corbin in a feud that was downright awful at times on a Raw brand that didn’t really build up any other exciting rivalries, either.
Kingston, meanwhile, has actually been booked well as WWE Champion but is on WWE’s clear No. 2 brand, has spent the past 11 years as a tag team and midcard performer and also just so happens to be the WWE Champion at a time when SmackDown has been plagued by bad storylines, like the never-ending push of Shane McMahon.
Blaming WWE’s lackluster attendance on Rollins and Kingston is the easy way out, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture. A wide variety of factors, ranging from poor creative choices to WWE’s failures to create truly mainstream stars, are the real culprits here.
I’m a contributor for the SportsMoney team at Forbes, where I’ll examine the interesting effect that sports have on business…and vice versa. I graduated from Louisiana State University in 2010 with a degree in journalism and a minor in English, and during my time in Baton Rouge, I worked for Tiger Weekly, a newspaper focusing on LSU athletics. Upon graduation, I spent more than three years as a columnist for a well-known national sports Web site. Name a sport, and I’ve probably written about it at some point in my life. My goal at Forbes is to analyze the shrinking space between sports and business, and of course, to stir up the discussion. After all, what fun would sports be if no one ever talked about them?