WWE WrestleMania 33 will feature part-time stars Goldberg, Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker all in main event matches, with Triple H and Shane McMahon likely to follow suit.
That continues the recent trend of WWE’s flagship pay-per-view being dominated by special attraction superstars.
At WrestleMania 32 in 2016, four of the six superstars featured in the show’s top three matches were part-timers, three of which (Triple H, Undertaker and Lesnar) ranked among WWE’s 10 highest paid superstars. In 2015 at WrestleMania 31, that pattern continued, with Triple H, Sting, Undertaker and Lesnar all working in one of the show’s three biggest matches. Likewise, WrestleMania 30 featured Triple H, Undertaker, Lesnar, Batista and even The New Age Outlaws in high-profile bouts.
The major pro of focusing on these part-timers? Well, from a short-term business perspective, it’s worked.
While it’s hard to gauge exactly how many fans are going to or watching WrestleMania because of the overall show itself rather than one specific match, WrestleMania has thrived during the era of part-time attractions. WrestleMania 29, headlined by The Rock vs. John Cena, became WWE’s highest grossing live event ever and set the company’s live gate record with $12.3 million, a record that would be broken by WrestleMania 31 ($12.6 million) and then again by WrestleMania 32 ($17.3 million).
Highlights of other records broken since WrestleMania 29: WWE’s all-time attendance record (WrestleMania 32), highest WWE Network subscriber count (1.8 million the day of WrestleMania 32), economic impact records (WrestleMania 30 and WrestleMania 32), total viewership (WrestleMania 31), as well as social media use and merchandise sales (WrestleMania 32), just to name a few
In terms of generating viewers, interest and money, WWE has been most successful during “The Part-Time Era.”
Even one of WWE’s most underutilized full-timers, Sami Zayn, recently said that WWE’s use of part-timers is good for the company:
But at the same time, Brock Lesnar or Bill Goldberg coming in… the fans like it, it’s good for business, and if it’s good for business, it’s good for me in a roundabout way.
Do I wish I was main eventing WrestleMania and not Bill Goldberg? Yes, absolutely. But you know, might it be better in some way to bring these guys in to help business. If it’s helping business, it’s helping me.
Thanks to rare in-ring performances from guys like The Rock, Triple H, Undertaker and now Cena, WWE and, in particular, WrestleMania has reaped the financial benefits of bringing in a guy for a short-term boost to business. But that begs the question: What happens when that well dries up? Because that’s exactly what is about to happen.
The average age of four of the last five WrestleMania main events is well over 35, and that will ring true this year when the main event is widely expected to be the 39-year-old Lesnar taking on the 50-year-old Goldberg.
In fact, many of WWE’s part-time attractions are seemingly close to being, well, retired.
The Undertaker reportedly said he’d be done last year. Goldberg is 50 and hasn’t wrestled for more than two minutes since his return. Triple H wrestled just one major match last year and is also approaching 50. No one knows what will happen with Cena’s acting career or if Lesnar, who’s bolted from WWE before, will decide to do it again.
Thus, focusing so much on these part-timers has become a risky philosophy because WWE is failing to create bona fide special attractions right now, limiting the possibility of using them in such a role in the future. In other words, is there someone on the main roster who, in five years, would be a part-time special attraction of the same caliber as Undertaker, Goldberg or Lesnar?
WWE’s most pushed full-time stars, like Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins are all still in their early 30s and figure to wrestle for another decade, if not more, as full-time stars. With the expectation being that they’ll still be the company’s top full-time priorities well down the road, there isn’t any star who stands out as a future Lesnar or Goldberg that can sustain WWE’s method of frequently bringing back part-timers to right the ship.
In four or five years, the part-time stars who, at times, carry the WWE on their backs could be gone for good. Then what?
Will WWE have someone who can create a buzz like Goldberg did at Survivor Series? Will there be another Lesnar or Cena, who are WWE’s two biggest draws? Will there be someone like The Undertaker who can work one match a year but still bring in viewers when he does?
If not, then WWE’s current use of part-time stars is nothing more than a Band-Aid that, ultimately, makes its failure to truly develop its legitimate full-time stars even worse.