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Sports Wrestling

The Undertaker, Charlotte Flair and What WWE Ticket Prices Teach Us About Professional Wrestling's Stars

November 16, 2017 by Stephen


WWE Ticket Prices

The sound of a gong cuts through the air at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.

The referee has just signaled the end of the match. The Undertaker releases his hold on Brock Lesnar, a hulking modern day gladiator who has spent time in both the NFL and the UFC.

Victorious but exasperated after a 20-minute long showdown, the then-50-year-old Undertaker, whose real name is Mark Calaway, rises to his feet. It’s a dose of revenge for The Undertaker; his loss to Lesnar at the previous year’s WrestleMania ended his streak of victories at WrestleMania, which dated back to 1991, at 21 matches.

Even in his depleted state, he seems to soak in the roar from the crowd of more than 15,000 fans, who know the evening’s outcomes are scripted but still cheer furiously for one of the sport’s most timeless legends.

With the main event in the books, the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) SummerSlam 2015 has come to an end, wrapping up a raucous four-hour, 12-match extravaganza that represents a blend of theatre, concerts and sports.

On average, fans paid $296 per ticket to attend—more than twice the price of the average NFL ticket this season.

How ticket prices vary by headliner and event

In an attempt to understand how wrestler popularity relates to ticket prices, Vivid Seats examined the average price of sold tickets for every WWE Pay Per View (PPV) event since 2013 as well as which wrestlers were headlining those events (i.e., fighting in the main event).

We excluded any wrestlers with only one main event fight, as well as any PPVs which featured a main event consisting of more than three wrestlers.

Here are the results:

WWE pay-per-view ticket prices

What do the Top 3 wrestlers on the list have in common?

They all ascended into WWE stardom two decades ago.

WrestleMania, SummerSlam and everything else

One can’t explore WWE ticket prices without acknowledging that not all WWE PPVs are created equal. WrestleMania exists in its own stratosphere in pro wrestling’s pantheon of events; it’s the company’s marquee event annually and typically commands the highest ticket prices. The WWE starts promoting the buildup to SummerSlam after January’s Royal Rumble.

With its recent move to New York after a six-year stint in Los Angeles, SummerSlam, the second most significant WWE event each year, has actually exceeded WrestleMania in ticket prices. Both typically take place in impressive venues in big markets. Both occur on Sundays outside of the NFL season:

WWE pay-per-view ticket prices

Events as popular and highly anticipated as WrestleMania and SummerSlam (and to a lesser extent, the two other Big 4 PPVs, Royal Rumble and Survivor Series) naturally command higher ticket prices than less established PPV brands, such as Extreme Rules and Payback. So wrestlers featured in those events would, by extension, be near the top the list of wrestlers associated with highest ticket prices.

“You could put me in SummerSlam [and tickets would still sell,]” said Adam Silverstein, an assistant managing editor at CBSSports.com, where he also hosts the “In This Corner” podcast on professional wrestling and MMA. “Sure, people wouldn’t want to see me, but they’d want to see that event.”

Additionally, it’s not always clear before a PPV which match is the main event. Leading into WrestleMania 33, the showdown between Goldberg and Brock Lesnar generated buzz, while the title fight between The Undertaker and Roman Reigns ended up being the main event, or last match, something that at least some wrestling media members lobbied for.

The same is true of SummerSlam 2016, when a match between John Cena and A.J. Styles was on par with the main event between Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton.

It’s a reminder that there are many factors that contribute to ticket prices. However, especially if the WWE promotional posters are any indication, the main event is a big part of the equation:

Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker, SummerSlam 2015

(via Wikipedia)

It’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma. For its biggest events, it behooves the WWE to tap into the most star power it possibly can.

Why, then, is a 50-year-old two decades past his physical prime headlining SummerSlam 2015?

The Undertaker mystique and a dearth of new stars

Ryan Glasspiegel, who covers professional wrestling (among other things) at The Big Lead, believes that there’s something unique about the lure of The Undertaker that provides insight into wrestling fans.

“I have theory that a lot of wrestling fans are a lot more interested in the stuff that builds up to the fighting in the ring, rather than the fighting in and of itself,” Glasspiegel said. “And you know when The Undertaker is on the card, you're going to get a spectacle.”

Glasspiegel pointed to The Undertaker’s gimmick—the supernatural aura, the ominous gong, the other-worldly persona—as one that is both compelling and hard to replicate.

Additionally, The Undertaker, along with Brock Lesnar, headlined the most expensive non-“Big 4” PPV event, with a 2015 Hell in a Cell battle that was a rematch of 2015 Summer Slam. At $160, that ticket was more expensive than the Royal Rumble ($156) which followed three months later.

The two names immediately behind The Undertaker on the list of most expensive headliners are less mystical but also uber popular: Triple H and The Rock. The former, Triple H, got his start in the WWE in 1995 and has since assumed an executive position in the company, rarely fighting in the ring.

The latter, The Rock, got his WWE start around the same time as Triple H; he curtailed regular WWE appearances in 2004 as his movie career blossomed.

“He became culturally ubiquitous in a way most wrestlers don’t get to be outside the ring,” wrote Buzzfeed’s Scaachi Koul, in a profile earlier this year on Dwayne Johnson, The Rock’s real name.

via GIPHY

The Undertaker, Triple H and The Rock are the only wrestlers to average more than $200 per ticket for PPV events they’ve headlined since 2013.

Several other wrestlers among the Top 10 are not exactly nascent wrestling celebrities. John Cena and Randy Orton broke into the WWE a decade ago, while Daniel Bryan emerged in 2010. Bill Goldberg is another pentagenarian who made his professional wrestling debut 20 years ago.

Then there is Sting, who wrestled Seth Rollins in 2015’s Night of Champions PPV. It was the only time Sting, who spent most of his career wrestling outside of the WWE, headlined a WWE PPV.

At the time of the match, he was 56.

Cena, and more recently, Roman Reigns, are considered the closest things to proverbial heavyweights that the WWE has come up with lately.

Glasspiegel believes that it’s possible that this is part of the WWE’s strategy.  

“In general though, their model has come a little away from the big stars over the last five years. More people are going to WWE shows than going to see any specific performer,” he said. “Part of that could be, they haven’t developed the huge star—a new Undertaker or Triple H or The Rock—in recent years. Part of it could be, they don't want to. They don't want any individual performer to be bigger than the brand.”

Generational appeal

Silverstein believes there are other factors buoying the company’s older stars into the limelight of its preeminent PPVs and to its most expensive tickets.

Wrestling fans growing up during The Attitude Era are now 20 years older and have greater financial freedom. But their fascination with the stars of the childhood is unceasing.

“You now have people who are in their 30s, have disposable income and have kids. They’re more likely to want to go to these events if the names they grew up with are involved,” he said.

By continuing to thrust an older generation of performers into its most visible matches, the WWE is, on one hand, playing it safe; on the other hand, however, it’s limiting the opportunity for a new star to truly blossom.

What’s more, the older generation of stars are part-timers at best. Someone like The Rock, The Undertaker or Goldberg will appear to headline a core PPV event and then be a non-factor week-in, week-out in WWE in storylines.

Even John Cena, one of the WWE’s brightest stars from the mid-2000s, is eschewing time in the wrestling ring in favor of broader pursuits.

“There's no dipping around the fact that I haven't been on the program in a while because I've been doing other stuff. I haven't danced around it," Cena said in July. "I explained that the reason I cannot be on the program is because the movie folks, their insurance doesn't allow you to. That's a deal-breaker, it's not negotiable."

Names like Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels are among those that experts believe the WWE would welcome back for a high-profile match. The Rock, who appears more focused on his acting career, would be another.

"It's a conflict the WWE has. Do you put big names in a show who are proven assets or do you spend time building up a (newer) wrestler in hopes they one day reach that point?” Silverstein said. “In big events, they do the best they can not to leave money on the table."

The Roman Reigns ascent?

With Cena moving to movies, Roman Reigns, 32, appears positioned to be the WWE’s next titan. His main events command high ticket prices, and he’s fought in WrestleMania’s main event for the last three years—a rare achievement. The average price for tickets sold to PPV events Reigns has headlined since 2013 is $199, highest among non-Attitude Era carryovers.

"Cena has been the biggest star in the company of the new era, and they're trying to make Reigns into his successor,” Silverstein said.

However, he’s exceptionally polarizing, and fans have not embraced him as the WWE’s top “babyface”— a term used to describe “good guy” character gimmick.

Despite Reigns’ achievements, wrestling pundits have wondered if he’s the biggest failure in professional wrestling history.

The next big thing?

One commonality that Reigns and all the wrestlers responsible for headlining the PPVs that generate WWE’s most expensive tickets on the secondary market is gender.

Which is why it’s ironic that professional wrestling’s best hope for possibly a new transcendent talent is a woman, Charlotte Flair.

Women’s role in wrestling has evolved from being ring escorts to male fighters to wrestling under the “Diva” brand. Flair’s emergence has coincided with the WWE shedding the “Diva” label and promoting its women’s divisions as more than just secondary role players.

Now, their performances are on par—if not superior—to that of their male counterparts.

“For a long time, the women in WWE were frustrated that they were told that they shouldn’t wrestle like the men, in good, athletic, heated matches,” wrote David Bixenspan, a wrestling writer and podcaster. “Instead, their job was to be a sideshow. Now? They’re not just ‘wrestling like the men.’ They’re doing pro wrestling better than the men.”

The progeny of proverbial wrestling heavyweight Ric Flair, one of professional wrestling’s most iconic figures, the 31-year-old Charlotte has both the bravado and physical prowess of her father.

She matriculated from the WWE’s development roster to its main stable in 2015 and quickly proved to be a talent on which the WWE could build its future.

In 2016, Flair (along with opponent Sasha Banks) became the first woman to headline a PPV, when she fought Banks in Hell in a Cell, one of the WWE’s second-tier PPVs.

The price for that event averaged $111, not anywhere near the cost of a Big 4 PPV but still a more expensive ticket than five other PPVs that year:

Like Hogan, The Rock, Cena and other wrestling stars before her, Flair’s already branching out into movies: She’s slated to appear in “Psych: The Movie” later this year.

Still, with her pedigree and her rapid rise, Flair seems positioned for a long run in the WWE. Silverstein thinks it’s a matter of time until she’s in the main event of a WrestleMania or SummerSlam-caliber event.

“I think you’ll see Charlotte Flair headlining a major PPV in the next 1-2 years,” he said. “She’s everything her father was in terms of talent and ability.”

Where might the WWE turn to find a worth foil?

To yet another part timer, Ronda Rousey, who made a one-off appearance at Wrestlemania 31.

"There's talk of having Ronda Rousey fight in WrestleMania 34. If they (Flair-Rousey) fought 1-on-1, it could headline a major PPV,” Silverstein said.

And if Rousey is busy or uninterested, the WWE can always see if The Undertaker is free for the night.

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