World Wrestling Entertainment’s thirty-first annual Royal Rumble takes place tonight live on the company’s streaming service, the WWE Network, and on pay-per-view. The event culminates in a 30-wrestler over-the-top-rope battle royale in which the last person remaining in the ring wins a championship match at WrestleMania, the wrestling world’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. What’s notable about this year’s show is that it’s the first time a 30-woman Royal Rumble match will also take place.
The likes of the late Joanie “Chyna” Laurer and Beth Phoenix have participated in the men’s match on occasion but, three years after the fan-led #GiveDivasAChance movement for WWE to utilize their women wrestlers—then regressively called “Divas”—for more than just few-minute matches, a women’s Rumble is well overdue.
Since then WWE has appropriated #GiveDivasAChance, turning it into their own marketing venture. The “Women’s Evolution” as it is known involved rebranding their Divas division into simply women’s wrestling, booking them in marquee matches, and recognizing that their growing female audience will fork out good money for products that represent them, as with last year’s line of Barbies.
But WWE’s women employees have yet to reach the benchmark of gender equality: equal pay. Former WWE star and New York Times bestselling author AJ Lee called for her then-employer to close the wage gap back in 2015 but, according to an article published by Forbes at the end of last year, women are still a long ways away from making bank comparable to their male counterparts.
Data from 2016 lists big names such as John Cena, Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker as wrestling’s highest earners, with Forbes columnist Blake Oestriecher offering five more wrestlers who could make upwards of $2 million by year’s end.
Brandon Howard Thurston of WrestleNomics Radio, which looks at the economics of professional wrestling, cautions against taking these salaries as gospel. “I've noticed… many inaccuracies [in the Forbes reports], so I'm not sure how credible their salary reports are,” Thurston says. The one referenced above “doesn’t mention what methodology it used to draw its conclusions, so I would be agnostic about its accuracy.”
What do many of WWE’s highest paid wrestlers have in common? Apart from the fact that they’re all male, most of them only work select dates, such as big events like WrestleMania and the Royal Rumble. Chris Harrington, Thurston’s colleague at WrestleNomics, notices that WWE’s continued reliance on headline names and nostalgia acts unfortunately “means that neither the hardest-working men… [or] women are really shown to be stand-alone draws.” Lesnar, for example, despite being the champion, only wrestled in six televised matches in 2017. Meanwhile, former women’s champion Naomi, who also happens to be African American, was stripped of her title after nine days when she couldn’t defend it due to injury.
Let’s remember that wrestling is sports entertainment, where any so-called “rules” can be broken with little consequence, such as the 30-day title defense clause. WWE acknowledged as much in their announcement that the match stipulations for women’s Royal Rumble will be the same as the men’s, effectively breaking “kayfabe” (the fictionalized reality in which wrestling exists) in the process. Despite forfeiting the title, Naomi recovered and returned little more than a month later to regain the championship at last year’s WrestleMania and has been injury-free since then. WWE’s schedule sees its performers wrestling four to five matches a week in a different city every night. Unlike legitimate sports, there is no wrestling off-season, equating to a minimum of 200 days a year that WWE’s full-time employees are putting their bodies on the line, sacrificing time with their families, and likely shaving years off their lives.
So why is Naomi, for example, and the rest of her women’s wrestling cohort, paid so much less than Lesnar, Cena et al, who show up a handful of times a year yet make 36 times as much, based on the reported earnings of Charlotte Flair, WWE’s highest paid full-time woman wrestler? (That’s a rhetorical question.)
As wrestling is a visual medium, all wrestlers are held to a higher standard of physicality and that goes double for women wrestlers. Not only do they have to be in peak physical shape, they sit for hours in the makeup chair and have candy-coloured hair extensions and nails to maintain. Men, meanwhile, can get away with rubbing baby oil on their pecs and pouring water over their heads. This is not to mention the hours much of the female roster spend filming E! reality show Total Divas. Considering its cast members’ reported earnings from WWE, filming the show becomes a necessity for many women to achieve pay parity with male wrestlers.
This contradicts WWE’s “Women’s Evolution” which posits that women wrestlers are equal now, despite WWE being the one largely responsible for their inferior position for the better part of the last several decades. In the past couple of years, women Superstars have been given opportunities to wrestle in matches formerly only available to men, such as Hell in a Cell (a weapon-heavy match that takes place inside a steel cage with an enclosed, 20-foot high ceiling) and Sunday’s Rumble match. Last June saw a man win the first-ever women’s Money in the Bank ladder match (not a good look, WWE) and the company is still holding out on putting women in the main event match at WrestleMania, which considerably pads the pockets of the competitors with big bonuses and would go a long way to pay equity.
When women wrestlers are granted these opportunities, they routinely steal the show. One of the top fifteen highest-rated third-hours of Raw, WWE’s flagship show on the USA Network, featured women’s wrestling as the main event. Depending how you look at it, this might not seem very impressive. But this time slot was only entrusted to them four out of 52 weeks last year, which is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what women wrestlers can do given the chance.
“It's difficult to just correlate [the] closing segment/main event segment with show ratings, because the third hour of Raw has consistently been the lowest-rated hour of the show throughout 2017,” Harrington says.
With a culture-wide move from traditional media to the internet, “YouTube views might be a better measurement of interest in particular segments,” Thurston elaborates. Given the innovation of the WWE Network and their current Facebook Live series Mixed Match Challenge, which also has potential to level the playing field between genders if only in the ring, television ratings are less of an indication of which wrestlers are speaking to fans. This graphic of 2017’s ten most popular YouTube videos on WWE’s channel includes the aforementioned first women’s Hell in a Cell between Sasha Banks and Charlotte, Cena’s proposal to Nikki Bella which made mainstream headlines, and a match from this past summer’s all-women tournament featuring WWE’s first female signee from India.
“Any of [these women] might be able to rise to the level of WWE's male main eventers, but I don't believe they've been given a genuine opportunity to reach that full potential,” Thurston says.
By making the women’s Royal Rumble match the main event on Sunday, WWE can put its money where its mouth is in the “Women’s Evolution.”