How ROH and NJPW are Stealing WWE's Fans

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(Photo: Ryan Droste / PopCulture.com)

Going to a Ring of Honor show is a unique experience for a wrestling fan in 2017. Add in some of the stars of New Japan Pro Wrestling, and you have a true counterculture experience.

While WWE shows these days are filled with children and the over 40 crowd, a ROH show is filled with the 18-34 age group that WWE so craves. The same could also be said for some of the most revered independent promotions in the country and world (PWG and PROGRESS come to mind). The make-up of these audiences are a throwback to the days of the Attitude Era when this age group made up the majority of the crowd.

Having experienced a live WWE show in September, I was struck by the stark difference in the crowds when I attended ROH/NJPW Global Wars Chicago this past weekend. I haven't had this kind of experience at a wrestling show since the early 2000s, having mostly attended WWE shows in recent years.

The passion and desire of the fans in attendance was far from the lackadaisical crowd one finds at WWE these days, who can often be seen sitting through the shows uninspired and out of routine. The ROH/NJPW crowd is vocal and immersed in the action.

These companies have tapped into something special. Of course they are drawing far smaller crowds and less money than the well-oiled machine that is WWE, but they're also a growing business at a time when WWE's numbers are trending down every quarter. WWE often doesn't feel like they are in touch with the current generation of young people. It's rare that the product feels modern in the way that, say, the Bullet Club does.

Look, I'm not saying WWE isn't wildly successful at what they do. They are and they make fistfuls of money. I'm saying WWE doesn't connect with that young "hip" crowd in the way that ROH and New Japan clearly do these days. It's a much smaller audience than WWE to be sure, but it's a cross section of the audience that isn't coming out for WWE anymore.

Entering the Odeum Expo Center was like walking into a Bullet Club exposition.The merchandise was absolutely everywhere for the hottest faction outside of WWE. There's no doubt that WWE craves the kind of merchandising phenomenon that the Bullet Club has become. Though WWE sells a ton of merchandise, they have an extremely hard time coming up with designs that appeal to the masses (and that are seen out in public). It's been a long time since they have had a t-shirt that was associated with pop culture in the same way that Bullet Club shirts have become. Nearly everyone in the crowd was wearing some kind of indy wrestling merchandise (with the majority being Bullet Club), a far higher percentage of the crowd than you find wearing WWE branded merchandise at a WWE show.

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(Photo: Ryan Droste / PopCulture.com)

WWE is taking notice of what the Bullet Club has accomplished in tapping into this underground, young market that they have been unable to appeal to since the heyday of Steve Austin and The Rock. Sure, there have been brief periods, like with CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, but there's been no sustained merchandising success with the younger crowd that they so crave. I see Bullet Club merchandise in public far more than WWE merchandise, even though WWE in terms of volume sells much more. It's because they are better, more "hip" designs that people want to wear outside of a wrestling event. The Bullet Club has struck merchandising gold, making it very lucrative for the group to work outside of WWE and still earn a great living.

If you don't think WWE is studying what is happening on the independent circuit, look no further than them forcing the Young Bucks to pull their "Too Sweet" merchandise years after they began marketing it. Is it jealousy or business savy? Take your pick.

What I do know is that Global Wars felt like a special event filled with people invested in the product in a way I haven't felt at a WWE show in a very long time. While WWE shows are always a good time, this ROH/NJPW show felt real.

And I didn't sense much overlap between this crowd and what I experience at WWE shows. This is the lost audience that has tuned out of WWE. The chants of "F*ck You Vince," "F*ck The Revival," and several anti Roman Reigns chants were similar to what one would find at an ECW show back in the 1990s. These people aren't WWE fans by and large, they're a whole different animal.

The members of New Japan's Bullet Club were what the people came to see, with Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, Cody, and Adam Page having the crowd in the palm of their hands all night long. The success of Cody in particular, who has made no bones about the fact that he is earning more money on the independent circuit than his days in WWE, show a supreme lack of booking prowess on WWE's part to have never made him more than a mid-cart talent in his several years working for the company. Given his family lineage, it's even more mind-boggling at how badly WWE botched his run there.

Kenny Omega was the star of the night, though, without a doubt. The IWGP United States Champion defended his title against New Japan's Yoshi-Hashi. Did I mention he didn't even have the belt with him? Still, nobody cared. They went absolutely wild for him. Omega is clearly the most popular wrestler in the world right now outside of WWE and has a real connection with his audience.

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(Photo: Ryan Droste / PopCulture.com)

The in-ring highlight of Global Wars Chicago was a tremendous match between two of the hottest up and coming lightweight wrestlers in the world, Will Ospreay and Flip Gordon. Dave Meltzer gave the bout 4 and a half stars in the latest issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, for those keeping score.

This is the kind of wrestling that fans crave in 2017. High flying, physical, and athletic. It was a unique match that was unlike any other bout on the card. While WWE is filled with great matches every year, perhaps more and more each passing year, the undercard always feels about the same. Look no further than the cruiserweights being forced to tone down their style on the WWE's main roster. WWE no doubt has a wrestling style that they train their performers to embody, but that's not a style that has appeal to the young crowd that was present this past weekend in Chicago or anywhere else on the Global Wars tour. Matches like Gordon/Ospreay and more notably Ricochet/Ospreay last year in New Japan are what that 18-34 crowd wants.

While WWE will continue to be the biggest wrestling company in the world, with that title not in any kind of remote danger, ROH, NJPW, and others will continue make small dents in WWE's 18-34 market share. Especially in the merchandising department. And while WWE still does bigger numbers there, they don't have the audience connection that can't truly be measured that some of these other companies do. They aren't going to challenge WWE and they don't need to. They have carved out their own niche and made it possible for wrestlers to leave WWE and make a decent living working elsewhere. This outside option is going to continue to be more and more appealing for WWE's undercard stars as the years go on.