The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
The wrestling audience is getting older. A 2019 study showed that the average age of a person watching wrestling was 54, older than fans of football (50), boxing (49), basketball (42) and soccer (39). Wrestling has always been considered something popular with children and teenagers, but the reality is that the audience is quite old.
The main reason for this is that wrestling hasn't experienced a boom period in two decades, and the industry has failed to create new wrestling fans. During the Attitude Era, when wrestling was adding fans left and right, the average age of the WWE viewer from 1997 to 2001 was just 23 years old, more than 30 years younger than it is today. The fans who are watching in 2020 are mostly the leftover fans from that booming period.
Since the money in wrestling now comes from television deals, and television deals are driven by a program's ability to attract a fanbase in the key 18-49 demographic. As more of wrestling's fanbase ages out of that demographic, the programming will become inherently less valuable. The solution is to create more young fans.
How do you do that? The simplest answer is to create a massive individual star that can draw fans of all ages. That of course is incredibly difficult and if it could be easily done, it would have by now.
Another solution, something that I think could be easily improved upon in WWE is promoting younger talents. And when I say younger talents, I mean YOUNGER talents, specifically talent aged 28 and younger. If you watch WWE's programming, the product is largely devoid of young talents that would be relatable to children and teenagers.
It is no secret in pop culture that teenagers are drawn to fellow teens and people close to their teenage years (ie; their early 20s) that are in the entertainment industry. The teen idol is a thing for a reason, teenagers enjoy seeing people they can easily relate too, which is why the most popular entertainers with that demographic tend to be teenagers or close to it, whether they be musicians, actors, athletes or YouTube personalities.
Wrestling has a long history of developing young wrestlers and turning them into stars. Perhaps the most famous example is the Von Erich boys in World Class Championship Wrestling during the early 1980s, all of whom were in their 20s when they became major stars in that promotion. While it was a regional territory, the Von Erich boys were legitimate celebrities in Dallas, had significant mainstream popularity, especially with teenagers. Personal problems derailed their careers, but the Beatlemania-esque shrieks of young girls when the Von Erich's hit the ring are timeless, and something you would never see in wrestling today.
In more recent years there have been more telling examples. In 1998, Dwayne Johnson was just 26 years old when he became one of the biggest stars in wrestling history. In 2005, John Cena was just 27 when he won the WWE Championship for the first time, and a big reason Cena got over at first was because his Doctor of Thuganomics character was relatable to kids and teenagers at the time. Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton also became major stars before they turned 25. Part of what got Paige over in NXT was that the college crowd found the college-aged Paige relatable, like a girl on campus.
However, promotions don't have to rush someone because they are young and marketable into the main event slot. The key is to just make sure they are present on the programming and to also market them as being young, either through their character or by selling it frequently on commentary. There isn't any value in a wrestler being youthful if they are not marketed as such. The Authors of Pain, Akam and Rezar, are 26 and 25 respectively, but nothing about them is really highlighting their youth.
Examine the rise of The Hardy Boyz and Edge and Christian. When they first started to break out in 1999, Matt Hardy was 25, Jeff Hardy was 22, Edge was 26 and Christian was 26. More importantly, they came across as cool, young guys that were doing daredevil stunts and had an appealing alternative culture around them that gave them a youthful energy. Those guys were not main event stars during the Attitude Era, but they were a part of bringing in a certain young segment of the fanbase and to this day, many fans will say that those four guys were their favorite wrestlers growing up.
Looking at the current WWE male roster, not as many wrestlers as you would think are aged 28 or younger. They are: Akam, Angel Garza, Austin Theory, Humberto Carrillo and Rezar on RAW, and on SmackDown only one wrestler, Otis, who is 28, falls into that guideline.
On the women's side the story is similar, which is surprising considering how the women's wrestling industry usually trends significantly younger than the men's side. Alexa Bliss, Sasha Banks, Sonya Deville, Liv Morgan and Peyton Royce are under 28.
Out of all of those names, I'd argue that only Garza, Theory, Carrillo and perhaps Morgan are pushed as being "young" in some way, whether that is on commentary or through their personalities.
Something that AEW has done well since it first started was to promote legitimately young wrestlers and giving them a significant push, while also highlighting their age or personality on commentary. Jim Ross in particular, is great at mentioning the ages of the young talents as a way to sell them to the audience that these men and women are only going to get better.. This has been reflected in AEW's success in gaining a younger audience. The May 6 edition of AEW Dynamite actually drew slightly more male viewers aged 18-34, than that week's edition of RAW, despite RAW having approximately one million more total viewers than Dynamite.
I think that part of the appeal of Dynamite is that talent like Jungle Boy (22), Darby Allin (27), Sammy Guevara (26), MJF (24), Isiah Kassidy (22), Marq Quen (26), Kip Sabian (28), Penelope Ford (27), Riho (22) and Adam Page (28) are not only young, but for the most part are presented as being interesting young prospects, with only Page and Riho being pushed as top talents.
Part of the charm of being a wrestling fan comes from watching young talent make their debut and develop over the years into more complete performers with interesting characters. When the new people on the block are already 15 year veterans, like Aleister Black (34), it is a different feeling. That isn't a knock on Black who is super talented, but the room for improvement and development in his career is smaller than for a less experienced wrestler with more years ahead of them.
A lot of this does come down to Vince McMahon who is in charge of all creative decisions in WWE, and the fact is that a man in his 70s isn't going to have the same kind of grasp on what is popular with teenagers as a younger mind. Perhaps if WWE allowed talent to have a little bit more control over their own characters, some of their young talent would resonate with younger viewers, because it is something the company really needs.
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