The Top 5 Biggest Mistakes Wrestling Bookers Make

Vince McMahon pissed away tens of millions of dollars last year by turning Austin heel, blowing the WCW/ECW invasion angle, and rendering the split useless.  Could that all have been prevented?  Of course.  We can learn a lot from history, but no one in WWE chooses to do so.  So here is my best effort at listing the top 5 mistakes bookers make that they can, hopefully, learn from.

#5- Leggo my Ego

Ego.  People in charge, by law, love the camera.  With the exception of Jim Crockett Jr, I can’t think of any single person in charge who never put himself/herself in front of the camera. 

The McMahons are the most blatant violators, but we’re stuck with that for generations to come.  At least Vince’s heel character was an important part of what made Austin hot and turned the company around, but I don’t ever remember Shane or Stephanie having the amount of success that would justify their airtime.  At least Linda sticks to what she does best: quarterly investor press conferences.  There is no reason Mick Foley or Ric Flair couldn’t have played Stephanie’s current babyface commissioner role.

Of course there was Dusty Rhodes, who pushed himself to the top while he was over 40, overweight, stale, out of shape, and seriously lacking in-ring skills.  What did that serve to do, other than kill the chances of having the good matches that the NWA crowd demanded?  Dusty was hugely successful in the 70s and no one denies that, but he should not have been a main eventer in the mid and late 80s by anyone’s judgment.  He probably reasoned that his teaming with Sting & Road Warriors gave them a good rub, but the truth is he tried to seem cool by latching on to acts that were more him than he.  The result?  They ALL looked uncool, and people stopped buying tickets.

Eric Bischoff is another booker/promoter who was none too camera shy.  He was below average as a TV announcer, both on the early WCW segments on TBS, and later on Nitro.  The nWo heel turn did make him a better performer, and he has progressed to the point where he is currently very strong in his role.  But there was a period in ’98 when it was overkill, and he started to believe his own hype.  The peak of his ego was when he had taken over the Tonight Show, with his legs propped up on the table and Hogan by his side.  His own talk show on Nitro was a ratings disaster, and by serving his ego, he helped destroy his business and his reputation (there were other reasons for WCW’s demise, keep reading). 

On the indie scene, promoters always try to put themselves in front of the crowd somehow.  When Ron Hed put on the Father’s Day Bash here in San Jose (Spike Dudley’s pro debut), who did the ring announcing?  Mr. Hed.  When Todd Gordon was a financial backer of ECW, who feuded with Bill Alfonso?  Mr. Gordon.  Who did the color commentating for WWA?  Jeremy Borash.  Bookers and promoters love that camera, boy.

The biggest abuser was Vince Russo.  While Dusty and the McMahons have an ego just as big, at least they drew huge money at some point in their on-camera careers.  Russo got himself over at the expense of his talent, to the point of booking himself against Ric Flair and making himself world champion.  But what cinches this award for Russo is that no wrestling promotion lost as much money in as little time as WCW did with Russo at the helm.  So much for the Jarretts being students of the business.

On the other end of the stick, booker Paul Heyman didn’t book himself ENOUGH!  He was an effective manager for Sabu in the early ECW days, but sort of disappeared from the camera after that.  I can’t understand why?  He’s a Hell of a promo and never sacrificed his talents’ airtime.  In SMW, Jim Cornette got lots of mic time, but it was his baby, and he’s one of the top 5 interviews this business ever saw.  Ric Flair was also a good booker from a TV ratings standpoint, but inevitably the long hours affected his ring work.

The best example of an unselfish booker will always be Hiroshi Hase.  He was probably more unselfish than he should’ve been, but he did the one thing all bookers get paid to do: get the talent over.  Not only that, but he did so while remaining one of the top workers on the planet.  All aspiring and current bookers should study this man.

HOW TO AVOID THIS MISTAKE: Keep yourself off camera and spend time getting over the talents who take the bumps, are trained on the mic, and will draw you money.  If you’re dying to be on camera, then at least take yourself off the booking committee (oops, that’s a bad word, I meant “writing staff”).

#4- Booking for the Inside Fans

I can best sum up this point with one line: “What’s a matter Sid, no scissors?”

Personally, I LOVE inside jokes, and write lots of them myself on my site.  I thought Bischoff’s “scissors” line was hilarious, and I thoroughly enjoyed Bischoff’s debut interview in WWE this year. 

However, you and I represent about 2% of the wrestling audience.  Yes it’s a shame, but 98% of the fans at WWE shows don’t read the Observer, don’t read the Ross Report, and just show up to have a good time.  Going over the heads of your audience is a HUGE mistake that I encounter in the office place, and that I see in general conversation on the street.  Just because YOU know the inside lingo doesn’t mean anyone ELSE does.

I remember when Mick Foley did the Howard Stern show, and I was really entertained by a lot of his inside references.  But then reality set in when Baba Booey walked in the studio and said, “Do you get the impression that Mick and all these callers are talking in some foreign language that none of us understand?”  Point proven.

How about when Bill Watts booked that NWA tag title tournament in 1992?  The WCW Magazine had printed the winners before the match had taken place, and word got out to about, oh, maybe 5 people.  Watts was so paranoid that he changed the result of the match, so that those 5 people would think the magazine was “wrong” and that the outcome wasn’t “fixed.”  Can you imagine if even 5,000 people knew that Savage was going to turn on Hogan on NBC in 1989?  Vince could’ve changed the finish, and flushed a $20 million payday at WrestleMania 5 down the toilet.  But hey Watts, at least you proved to those 5 fans that the outcome was unpredictable.

HOW TO AVOID THIS MISTAKE: Book in a way that makes sense and that appeals to the mass audience.  Don’t EVER use insider terms when the cameras are rolling, because you’re going over the head of your entire audience, who have already changed the channel to Monday Night Football.

#3- Stale Talent

No matter how awesome the talent or intelligent the booker, things gets stale.

This is probably the hardest obstacle bookers face, because they exhibit the least control over it.  All Japan had match-of-the-year candidates all throughout the 90s and that cannot be denied, but it was still the same guys against the same guys, and eventually business tumbled as Kenta Kobashi’s knees deteriorated beyond the point of reparation.  And as much as I love the SmackDown main events with Paul Heyman at the booking helm, I’m not sure how long you can match Edge & Mysterio against Benoit & Guerrero before that gets stale, too.

In the old days, this problem was resolved by guys who left territories for other territories.  With this revolving door, things remained fresh on top for the most part.  In the 80s and 90s, staleness was partly alleviated by talent raids and jumps.  Hogan was finished as a draw in WWF in 1992/1993, as were Randy Savage and Ric Flair.  But in Hogan’s 1st year in WCW, he made a big impact on their buyrates.  Savage and Flair turned around WCW house show business with their feud.  In 1996 after Hogan turned heel, all 3 were in a hot new environment and helped draw record TV ratings and buy rates for 2 more years. 

It wasn’t Hogan and Savage who were stale, it was their environment.

These days, it’s a little harder.  The only way talent goes away and becomes fresh again is when they suffer major injuries.  It’s a familiar pattern: X gets over, X gets stale, X gets injured, X comes back to a big pop, but X never fully recovers and is a shell of his former self.

Austin’s neck, HHH’s quad, Benoit’s neck, Undertaker’s ankle, Shawn Michaels’ back, Rhyno’s neck, Lita’s neck, Nash’s knee, Kanyon’s shoulder, etc etc etc.  It’s the same story every month with another superstar.  Yes, it keeps things fresh, but injuries aren’t the answer.

WWE has helped freshen things up with the OVW graduates, and Jim Cornette deserves all the credit in the world for developing those guys.  But with HWA gone and all the cutbacks in the farm system, it boggles my mind that WWE would do anything to hinder the future of its company.  This is the time to expand the farm system, not cut back on it.

Splitting WWE in 2 was an excellent idea, but both its versions have been botched.  With 2 groups, you can do jumps.  But when those 2 groups aren’t seen as 2 different groups, then jumps mean nothing.  A stronger effort to distinguish the 2 groups can still be made, but that’s a short-term solution.


Keep doing Tough Enough, but duplicate what you did with OVW in AT LEAST 6 new territories around the country.  I believe the OVW operation costs about $1 million per year to fund, which is peanuts considering that Brock’s proper buildup probably brought in that much extra revenue for SummerSlam.  If WWE can’t find ways to cut the $6 million needed to fund more farm systems, I’ll be more than happy to offer some suggestions.  

#2- Complication of the Situation

Where is it written that storylines must contain swerves, surprises, and face/heel turns every week?

History shows us that the most successful storylines are those that are simple and easy to follow.  The rule of thumb should be this: If someone samples your show for the first time, he/she should be able to understand everything that is going on, no questions asked.

Vince Russo thinks title changes and turns equal ratings.  Of course, Vince Russo is an idiot.  Logic tells us that if you change titles every week, they will quickly mean nothing to the point where ratings dwindle to nothingness, which they did under Russo’s regime.

The best example was this past SummerSlam.  A simple story of Brock challenging Rock for the 1st time.  Some training vignettes were shown.  Brock destroyed a legend and it was played up as a huge deal, thus increasing his star power (see, wins/losses DO mean something, duh).  Brock & Rock were kept apart and didn’t touch until the final show before the PPV.  Most of all, this main event was planned out weeks ahead of time.  How could something so simple not be understood?

It doesn’t take much effort if, near the end of each show, you show Okerlund or Coachman in the studio, recapping the night’s events.  Go through every match, tell us who won, show highlights, and recap all angles and major points of the promos.  ESPN does this on “NFL PrimeTime.”  Why can’t WWE?

Some wrestling fans don’t live and breathe wrestling like the McMahons do, and they might miss a show one week.  If they tune in the following week and see that they missed so much, they won’t be able to follow.  What happens next?  They stop watching.

What gets me is that WWF used to do this in the late 80s.  Savage turned on Hogan, and accused him of having lust for Elizabeth.  Ted DiBiase bought off the referee to put the belt on Andre.  A clear, simple tournament would crown a new champ at WrestleMania 4.  Earthquake crushed Hogan’s ribs.  Cheryl Roberts slapped Rick Rude.  These angles and clips were replayed AD NAUSEUM on WWF TV so much that you couldn’t possibly NOT follow the storylines.

Why WWE stopped doing that is beyond me.  I can recall those angles so freshly in my mind, but I couldn’t tell you who the current IC champ is.  It’s RVD, right?  Who knows.  And when no one knows, no one cares.  And when no one cares, WWFE revenues plummet.

HOW TO AVOID THIS MISTAKE: Book simple angles that make sense, and recap them frequently so everyone can follow them.  Keep the belts on champions for a long time so that when titles change, it means something.  If someone tunes into your show for the 1st time, your storylines should be simple enough so that he/she can know exactly what’s going on with every angle.

#1- Bad Finishes

Ain’t nothing that will deflate a crowd, audience, and loyal fan base more than bad finishes will.

If you look back in history, it is bad finishes that have most directly killed business dead.  In some cases, business never recovered.

We all know the story of Dusty Rhodes’ 1987 booking disaster in Chicago.  The Chi-Town fans were salivating over the idea that their hometown favorites, the Road Warriors, had just become the new NWA tag team champions.  But those poor fools had just fallen victim to Dusty’s genius booking, as LOD had their victory overturned.  You see, those fans were supposed to be so IRATE at the heels, that they’d come back next time and pay to see them get their asses kicked!!

Uh-uh, it doesn’t work that way, Big Dust.

It DID make the fans irate to be sure, but not at the heels.  At the NWA!!  And the next time NWA came to town, those fans did spend money… but not on the NWA.  They found other forms of entertainment.  You see, those fans left altogether and never came back.

Chicago, a key market in the expansion of JCP, was dead in the water.  It wasn’t until 10 years later, with the help of Dennis Rodman and a hot nWo angle, that WCW could draw in that town again.

And just when WCW was red hot, it was once again killed by a finish.  Some people point (interesting word) to when Hogan pointed to Kevin Nash’s chest and “knocked” him out for a title win, in front of around 30,000 fans in Atlanta, as the moment in which WCW started its demise. 

Seriously, if I was told to book a finish that I know would make sure the fans never came back, that’s the exact finish I’d book.  Once again, a territory is killed.

WWE has largely given fans satisfying finishes on their big main events over their storied history.  They haven’t been perfect, but nothing stands out in my mind that really killed business.  The problem with WWE has never been their lack of clean finishes, it has been who they chose to WIN those matches.

Long after WCW was dead, Vince Russo came in with his theory that finishes didn’t matter. 

I’m not a baseball fan, but I know that after hearing about the All-Star game draw, fans certainly care about finishes.

Fans in any sport would balk at, riot, and simply stop financially supporting anything that didn’t produce anything other than a clear-cut winner and loser.  Why should wrestling be any different?

While bad finishes have killed business everywhere, CLEAN finishes turned around All Japan in the early 90s.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what to do, but no one has figured it out yet.

HOW TO AVOID THIS MISTAKE: This is real complicated so get ready: Pick a winner, and pick a loser.  Is that clear?   No ref bumps, foreign objects, outside interference, DQ’s, double DQ’s, countouts, sports entertainment finishes, hooking the tights, Dusty finishes, overturned decisions, double pins, draws, or fast counts.  One man wins cleanly, and one man loses cleanly, 100% of the time.  It will take some getting used to, but if all those other sports that outdraw you in arenas and attendance can do it, so can you.