Ask any avid WWE fan nowadays how to improve the company’s on-screen product and you will hear hundreds of different answers.
“Sign (insert wrestler here)!”
“Cut back RAW to two hours!”
“Give (insert wrestler here) the world title!”
Any of these options are viable in some respect. But given WWE’s recent economic activity, the sports-entertainment giant seems to believe the improvements lay in saving dollars and cents rather than implementing any new and exciting action in front of a high-definition camera.
WWE’s recent financial reports list 2017 as one of the most profitable years in the company’s history. While releasing new merchandise and content alongside hosting rare events in international territories like the United Kingdom and India, WWE has enacted several cost-cutting measures in order to pump up funds. One notable (and loud) omission from recent WWE shows has been the non-use of pyrotechnic fireworks, which the company has discontinued using as part of its show openings and wrestler entrances as confirmed by Dave Meltzer.
Smackdown producer and head writer Brian “Road Dogg” James has debated with fans that the removal of fireworks from WWE television is simply “economics” and, along with custom pay-per view sets, aren’t ultimately “necessary” for the modern WWE television show.
To his credit, I agree with James that WWE doesn’t NEED fireworks during their shows. Stadiums and arenas aren’t filled for three hours just to watch roughly a minute of fire and noise. Wrestling fans buy tickets to watch men and women portraying fantastic and outrageous characters play out drama and competition in a marriage of simulated action and off-Broadway entertainment. People buy tickets to watch people beat each other up while telling a compelling story inside and outside the ring. To watch a hero triumphantly conquer; to watch a villain get shut up; ultimately, to be entertained.
However, I disagree with James with his larger point and believe that firework displays at the beginning of a show, during a wrestler’s entrance or after a major victory can make an audience more excited for a show to begin, add an extra layer of showmanship to a wrestler and solidify a memorable night into a legendary experience.
Opening the show with fireworks on a weekly basis wakes up the crowd to get them white-hot for the opening segment more than a cold open before a show-starting promo or match. Screaming fireworks lead to screaming fans as they get ready to take-in a show they’ve been looking forward to for days. An excited crowd adds to the show and indicates to the audience watching at home that Raw or Smackdown is the most exhilarating thing you’ll see on television tonight. While the show’s value isn’t broken without fireworks, it can certainly be argued it’s been diminished. Without the jump, crash and light of a pyrotechnic display, there leaves something to be desired when the stage lights go up at 8 p.m. Eastern on Monday and Tuesday nights.
During the height of the Monday Night Wars, nearly episode of RAW or Nitro would start with a fireworks display before the lights would turn to the audience, screaming in euphoric unison holding what seemed like hundreds of signs and posters. Pumped up from the opening title video, the heavy rock theme song and the screaming loud fireworks display, they were ready for any and all carnage, mayhem and excitement that was planned for the night. Granted, having a well-written television show surrounded by arguably the deepest roster in the history of mainstream American professional wrestling plays a large factor into the excitement of the crowd. But much like how an opening band at a concert doesn’t take away from the magnitude and buzz around a once-in-a-lifetime headliner, a good opening band can warm up the crowd to be all the more receptive for when the men and women they paid their hard earned money to see walk through the curtain.
Once a wrestler walks through that curtain, fireworks can add another layer to a character’s entrance to make them into grander, pardon the pun, superstars. Kurt Angle points to the sky in front of patriotic-themed rockets worthy of the 4th of July, adding an extra star-spangled display to his on-screen character of the Olympic Hero. Kane, a character marred in physical and psychological burns, nearly walks through a wall of fire during his entrance to show-off his tough, unhinged psyche. Even something as simple as Kofi Kingston adding an extra “boom” during his pre-New Day entrances gave fans a cool interaction they could perform with Kingston before his match is underway.
That being said, having a must-see entrance doesn’t need to include fireworks. 30 years ago, during WWE’s mainstream golden era, Hulk Hogan never regularly came out to red, white and blue explosions to get the crowd to collectively go insane once they heard Rick Derringer’s voice in his theme song. Going back even further, Bruno Sammartino’s name alone was enough to sell out a WWWF main event at Madison Square Garden during the 1960’s and ‘70’s to raving mad wrestling fans. The mystique and “mania” of past larger-than-life characters was strong enough where fireworks weren’t needed as part of the display.
But as WWE expanded and grew larger in the late 80’s and early 90’s, investing more money into the company and its presentation, the company needed to adapt to other rival promotions and territories. Entrance videos were created to give wrestlers a backdrop of their highlights and signature moves as they walked to the ring. More lights and bigger stages were built to add to the grandeur and importance of the event. And yes, firework displays were created to show the toughness and celebrity of the competitors.
Today, wrestlers benefit from new and specialized props and effects to wow the crowd beyond the use of pyrotechnics. Bayley throws her hands to the ceiling as she stands tall with her “Wacky Inflatable Arm-Flailing Bayley Buddies.” Shinsuke Nakamura dances and poses within his white strobe light like something out of an Andy Warhol exhibit. Bobby Roode stands on a rotating platform as a Queen disciple band proclaims him to be “oh, so glorious.”
But when numbers indicate RAW’s average rating over the course of a year has slowly declined over the last 15 years, the company should be in a mindset to use any and all gimmicks and presentations (pyrotechnics included) to inspire more people to come out to shows, and eventually, more people watching on television.
Fireworks can signal an imposing doom is coming or release tension built into a theme song’s climax. The burst of light that beams onto Sheamus (and now The Bar) was previously forewarned by a loud sound clip sample of an explosion the company had used for superstars like Ryback. But what if the light was coupled with a flash of fireworks on the stage a la the Big Show’s entrance? Brock Lesnar walking down to the ring looks imposing enough, but what if you can make the arena thunder and rattle with an in-ring or a stage area fireworks display like his first and second stints in WWE, respectively. These displays add an extra punch to already imposing gladiators.
It is yet to be seen if WWE will continue this pyrotechnic-holdout at major shows like the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania 34, the latter being famous for annually having technical and grandiose fireworks displays before, during and after the show. While saving up funds to use these displays on the company’s biggest show of the year, the rest of the calendar year suffers without that kind of firepower on a scaled-down weekly scale.
Ultimately, WWE is a business. WWE’s ultimate goal as a company is to remain profitable and culturally relevant. Even among concerns of dwindling ratings and arenas having large sections draped off to spectators, the company is still turning a profit and their shows like RAW remain in the top 10 most watched shows on primetime television on Monday nights.
With hundreds of employees and dozens of projects in the works and currently being worked on, it puzzles me why an aspect of the presentation of wrestlers was sacrificed in an effort to save money.
Fireworks and other pyrotechnics won’t make a million more homes tune into RAW, nor will they earn the company millions of more dollars overnight. But with the state of the company looking toward the future, adding any dimension of excitement proven to rile up a raucous crowd should be embraced, not cut. More creativity should be strived for, not less.