The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Always something that has been viewed as a young man's game, or even downright childish, it would seem impossible for wrestling to have to worry about its audience being too old. For as long as most people remember, wrestling has always catered at least somewhat to children, and for some fans, the product can appear as too family friendly.
The reality is wrestling fans are old. A study published last year showed that the average age of people who watched wrestling on television was 54 years old, older than nearly every form of sport on television, trailing only horse racing (63) and baseball (57), and ahead of football (50), boxing (49), basketball (42) and soccer (39). So the average age of wrestling fans is quite old, older than the fans for most sports.
If the Wednesday Night Night Wars have taught the public anything, it is that attracting a young audience is critical to advertisers and therefore the most important audience for a program to target. Wrestling, when compared to other programs on television such as cable news, does still draw a younger audience and even though RAW and SmackDown have viewerships that would be considered poor in other years, they still maintain a strong position when it comes to demographics.
However, the fact that the average age of the wrestling fan is getting older shows that that key demographic is only going to continue to decline. Hannity does big viewership, but most of that viewership is over 50, since it appears that only people older than 50 really care about what Sean Hannity has to say. Well, at this rate, in a few years wrestling will be looking at a similar situation where only people over 50 really care about pro wrestling.
The average age of the viewership of wrestling can be shocking to some people. Wrestling has always been considered something for young people, and people who talk about wrestling on social media may have a skewered idea of who wrestling fans are, because social media is something that naturally caters towards a younger audience. The numbers suggest otherwise and that is the cold hard truth.
So why is the average wrestling fan so old? For WWE, the main issue for the company is that they have failed greatly to create new fans over the last two decades. Chances are if you are a WWE fan right now, you have probably been watching WWE for over 20 years. Older fans like routine and they like tradition, and WWE is as much a tradition for some as rooting for their favorite football team. You can find wrestling fans here and there that have become huge WWE fans during the past 15-20 years, but a large majority of them are long-time fans.
The Attitude Era was a golden age for WWE when it came to making new fans. From 1997 to 2001, the average age of a WWE viewer was just 23 years old, more than 30 years younger than the current viewer today. The promotion was hot and creating new fans on a weekly basis, with a lot of young people that were getting into wrestling for the first time. However, those days are long gone and WWE has struggled to create new fans since. The teenagers who started watching in 1998 are now graying adults.
This is all reflected in WWE's consistent decline in popularity over that time span. Viewership has continued to decline as fans who became fans during that Attitude Era have stopped watching for a variety of reasons; maybe they stopped when the top stars of that era retired, or they had kids, or they just got burned out by the product. Those fans left and they have not been replaced, which is why two million people watch RAW every week instead of five million.
On Monday, Matt Hardy came out and cut an impassioned promo about his relationship with Edge. The live audience loved the promo, which was a very good, impassioned speech that touched on a real life issue. However, the promo hung on the idea that fans would know an insider story that took place 15 years ago (Edge dating Lita after Matt Hardy). Of course, the fans did know the story because they have all been fans for decades. Some people may look at that and say that WWE has terrific fan loyalty (which they do) but the reality is that fans from generations ago are the only fans WWE has left.
WWE's inability to create new fans is also partially reflected in how the company seems dependent on older, part-time stars like Brock Lesnar, Bill Goldberg, The Undertaker, or even people who are no longer wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Steve Austin, etc. to boost business. Fans like the older wrestlers because they all remember the older wrestlers, and you can always get some lapsed fans to tune in if they find out their old favorite is appearing. Since most of the younger wrestlers have not been able to create new fans that are all their own, the current generation is always going to be overshadowed by the older stars who were the reason the fans became wrestling fans in the first place.
In some ways it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the old stars drive business, WWE leans heavily on the old stars for major matches. When young people tune in, they really don't want to see people who look like their parents' age performing, they want to see younger wrestlers. If you have no attachment to The Undertaker, he is just this creaky guy in his 50s who takes forever to do three moves. So if those people are sampling the product during the big shows, a lot of the time they are not sticking around.
Something that I don't think has really been discussed before is the role that professional wrestling has had in the lives of people currently in their 20s. I am 25 years old, and when I was in my formative ages, wrestling was not popular. When I was between 8 and 10 years old, WWE was in significant decline and had some truly terrible business years, crashing after the highs of the Attitude Era wore off. When I was a teenager, wrestling was unpopular with my classmates, having been replaced largely by UFC. A lot of people were into Chuck Liddell, Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva--not a lot of people wanted to talk about John Cena and Randy Orton. Trust me, I know.
Unlike the young adults during the Attitude Era, who were young children during the Hulkamania Era, the young adults today do not have fond memories of wrestling, and many have not been exposed to the industry at all. There was never a time in their lives when wrestling was cool or trendy, so they have no connection to it.
The shame here is that late-millennials like myself still LOVE things that were popular when we were young kids. The internet has made nostalgia completely different since the things we loved never really went away. Spongebob still dominates social media through memes; Pokemon is more popular with adults than children, because everyone who was 8 years old in 2000 has fond memories of the games. Earlier this week, Dragon Tales, an obscure PBS kids-show that ran from 1999 to 2005 was trending #1 on Twitter only because a bunch of people in their 20s wanted to talk about it and show that they too remembered the show. I have no doubt that if wrestling was popular when we were kids, it would have a similar kind of popularity with that generation, but it wasn't popular so it does not.
If that is a problem today, think about how massive of a problem it is going to be in 15 years. If WWE has a problem with young viewers because wrestling wasn't popular in the mid-to-late 2000s, think about how big of a problem it is going to be with WWE significantly less popular today than it was 15 years ago. The viewership is only going to get older and older, and wrestling will become less significant to advertisers.
What is the solution? I think the root of the problem comes from Vince McMahon, who is really in charge of all things WWE, being 74 years old and being very far removed from understanding young adults today. Every time I hear the commentators talk about Ricochet ("He is a real-life superhero! He does things you could only see in video games!") it reeks of a senior citizen trying to get in touch with what they think kids are into. It is a simple fact that senior citizens are not going to have the greatest understanding how to relate and connect with younger people.
AEW, which has had more success connecting with a younger audience on a percentage basis than WWE, seems to be on the right track, even if their operation is on a smaller scale than WWE. I don't think it is a coincidence that a promotion that is led almost exclusively by people in their 30s is finding more success catering towards a younger audience than one being led by a man in his 70s.
Perhaps one day, when Vince steps down from WWE and the creative side of the company goes into the hands of Triple H, WWE will be better off. But Triple H has been the brain behind NXT, and NXT is also attracting an older demographic (although not quite as old as WWE's main roster) and if Vince manages WWE for another ten years, Triple H will be 60 years old when he finally takes over the creative reigns.
Moving forward, the wrestling audience is going to have to get younger at some point or the industry is going to greatly shrink in size as the older fans are whittled away. Attracting kids and young people to wrestling at one time may have been taken for granted, but right now it is a massive obstacle for the industry to overcome.
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