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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, January 11, 2002

Return of Triple H not enough for the WWF

Eric Benner
Special to SLAM! Sports

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With Triple H's big return this past Monday and leading up to one of their biggest pay-per-views of the year, the WWF has at least some momentum going for them. It's easy to generate momentum in the short-run, though. WCW proved that five years ago by shocking audiences with debuts and heel turns week by week. It wasn't the debuts or the turns that resulted in WCW's long-term success, though, it was the compelling nWo angle that wove it all together. Equally, the WWF can't ultimately expect Triple H's return to boost business any more than the debut of the WCW wrestlers. It takes time and persistence to build an angle that will really keep audiences coming.

Let's start with the obvious example of Triple H's return. As of the writing of this column, I have yet to see Monday Night Raw's ratings, but I am going to assume that since Triple H's return was so well hyped, they were above the show's recent average. So more viewers tuned in this week because they wanted to see Triple H again. After all, it's been a long time since we've seen him, as he was out recovering and rehabbing from his gruesome injury.

That said, the curiousity factor won't be on Triple H's side for long. I imagine fans will tune in for one, perhaps two more weeks (plus maybe the pay-per-view) before he seems to be a regular part of the show again. If any of you remember when Steve Austin was out with an injury most recently, he seemed to be gone forever. His act was considered stale before he left, but after about two months of absence, people were really missing him. When he returned, it was to much fanfare, but that didn't last long. The exact same thing can be said about The Rock's recent movie-filming departure.

More important in all of these cases than the return itself is what is done with the character upon returning. If audiences are temporarily elevated after a wrestler comes back from injury, then that's the time to strike while the iron is hot, offering a compelling story that will keep those viewers coming back once their curiousity dies down. Steve Austin's first storyline after his return was the awkward 'Who Ran Over Steve Austin?' angle, which ran on forever with a fairly lame payoff. The Rock, meanwhile, enjoyed a new and interesting feud with Chris Jericho, and I believe ratings actually stayed up after the initial upward shock of Rock's return.

Triple H's first show back was essentially one segment against Kurt Angle on Raw. That was a wise move in that it may have left WWF fans wanting more, effectively extending that short-term buzz effect. Ultimately, it's not enough. We've seen Triple H and Kurt Angle feud at length, so a strong feud between them probably isn't enough, either. If the WWF is to take advantage of the return of Triple H, they have to capitalize on the extra viewers his return provides. Hyping the Ric Flair-Vince McMahon match at the Royal Rumble isn't good enough. Triple H's role at the Royal Rumble must be played up. Connect Hunter to the Rumble as much as possible, and hope that these new viewers will want to see his first pay-per-view match back enough to buy the show. To accomplish this, some attention may have to be diverted from the Rumble's current line-up (like the McMahon match) toward Triple H and the Royal Rumble match.

Assuming they do that, and fans buy the show, then all efforts should be geared toward making this pay-per-view quality-laden from top to bottom, especially Triple H's participation. Make the viewers glad they bought the show, but also establish the overall level of quality throughout the federation. It's easier to do that at the Royal Rumble than at other pay-per-views, since you only really need a handful of matches other than the 30-man rumble.

More than that, though, a big angle has to be established at the Royal Rumble. A water-cooler angle, something that will get people talking. This way, fans will get hooked again, as they once did.

All of this may seem obvious, but I am worried that the WWF will get too caught up in Triple H's return itself and mistake it for a long-run plan. Any returning wrestler is a short-term fix at best, but the WWF's writers and bookers are human beings, and they may be so elated at any brief ratings push that they may mistake it for more than it is. They,ve certainly done it in the past, to their own detriment and to ours. Hopefully, the WWF has sat down and has some plans for 2002, likely centering on their freshest main eventer, Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Welcome back, Triple H.

Here's the mailbag:

Ward Gibson, from, writes:

What are your predictions for 2002? More specifically, what would YOU envision being the best angles, turns, pushes, signings, etc for the WWF to raise the level of their product. I do remember the "Must See" days, particularly back in WCW during the height of the nWo angles. To me that was the finest modern era of wrestling when you literally could not miss a Monday night show, because if you did, everyone you saw the next day would be talking about it. What are your opinions as to the best courses of action for Vince and the rest to return WWF television to that high standard. Play head writer for a change, what would you do? I look forward to hearing your great ideas.

Keep up the great work
Ward G
Charlotte, NC

Ward: That's a really tough question, Ward. As much as I may sit here, week after week, voicing my opinions about the world of pro wrestling, I'm not a booker, nor will I likely ever be. It's one thing to look at someone's vision and say 'hmmm, not so good' (that's easy), but it's quite another to come up with a vision that everyone will like by yourself (thats harder).

I can say that I think the WWF will have to pursue a big angle this year, but I'm worried that it will essentially be their planned promotion splitting. That's an interesting business move, but I'm not convinced that it alone will draw viewers.

Either way, unless they come with something really creative soon, I imagine they will see their best option as going after Kevin Nash, then re-forming some kind of Clique-DX-nWo hybrid. I think that will probably be a big success, too, but they have to add their own creative element.

You're right, WCW proved that you can make compelling television that forces viewers to tune in week after week. But they also arguably proved that you can't do that indefinitely. They needed outside sources of talent to do that. When they ran out, the momentum subsided. I'm not convinced that they had a long-term business model, and I'm not sure whether what passed for storylines in 1997-2000 in the WWF will continue to work in the future.

I look forward to the development of Chris Jericho and hopefully of Chris Benoit, and perhaps to seeing some new faces vie for important titles this year. I hope Booker T really makes something of himself, and that the tag team division returns to its former glory. Ultimately, though, I think that 2002 will be defined by individual, 1-on-1 feuds between the main eventers we see before us today. Just adding Triple H into the mix and having a healthy Hunter, Austin, Rock, Undertaker, Angle, Booker, and Jericho offers many combinations.

Doug Carlson, from, writes:

I know I'll probably sound old fashioned, but I had to respond to your comments about storylines in the WWF and the problems the WWF seems to be having.

I basically quit watching when there was no consistency to story lines, which started, at least in my opinion, when monthly pay-per-views came along. Suddenly, story lines were for a month only, and it was probably very hard for the WWF (or anyone else) to have consistent story lines, because who would want to watch what would basically be the same PPV every month (even if they did let the storylines build)?

I grew up on long term feuds, sometimes the faces getting the crap beat out of them for months, then finally winning, or the heels always losing, but inflicting great "punishment" on the faces while they lost. Every so often, there would be a turn, but the story line basically stayed the same. Now, in order to have supposed fresh angles at each PPV, 30-day storylines are in effect, and then things change again. I have thought for a number of years that the solution to this problem would be to have fewer PPV's (maybe four per year?), and given the noticeable downturn in the ratings for PPV and regular TV, maybe this is a possibility. I did recently purchase a WWF PPV, and was not only disappointed in the program, but was very upset when basically the same matches were shown the next night on RAW, for free, and were done better. I decided then that I would probably only order Wrestlemania every year, and forget about the rest. However, if there were less PPVs, maybe I could change my mind, especially if long term feuds could be built on. I know this is long, but hope you consider my thoughts.

Doug Carlson

Doug: I do not believe that in the world of professional wrestling, being called 'old fashioned' is an offensive term. To many, it's a term of endearment.

I've always complained when I perceived the WWF as lacking consistency. In fact, that's one of the big reasons why I'm not so hot on the product today. But you know as well as I do that it's not an option to revert back to the lengthy feuds of the good old days, because in many ways that doesn't address the problem either. What was called wrestling twenty or thirty years ago would bore current wrestling fans, whether that's a good thing or not.

I think the WWF has to continue working with its short term framework, since it does have to sell so many pay-per-views, but it would be wise for them to weave their many short terms into one long-term tapestry. That would be my ideal solution: use lots of good, brief feuds to fire up PPVs, but make them a part of larger, more engaging stories.

That's all for this week. Have a great weekend, as always.

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