Is John Cena a draw? A historical analysis (part 1)

John Cena the money manJohn Cena

John Cena is the undisputed face of the modern WWE.  His image adorns the posters; his voice can be heard on the radio announcements and his face seen on the TV spots to promote the live shows and PPV’s.  He sells more merchandise than anybody in the company (some estimates put it at five times more than his nearest rival).  His recent Wrestlemania programme with the Rock generated 2,256,000 buys at the box office, which equals over $135,247,000 in PPV revenue, alongside a combined attendance of 159,039, generating around $21,200,000 at the gate. He often delivers the highest rated segments on Monday Night Raw, and the house shows that feature Cena as the headline act and main event almost always outdraw those headlined by other talents.  For example, John Cena and Daniel Bryan were the marquee names for their respective live event crews on the road to Wrestlemania.  Live events headlined by John Cena averaged an attendance of 6200, compared to an average of 3500 for Daniel Bryan.  If both appeared at the same live event, the attendance averaged around 7800.  Every time the WWE gets into a spot of trouble, they increase the burden on Cena: it is why he is a 15 time WWE Heavyweight Champion.  John Cena is the man.

John Cena vs history

Now that we’ve established the importance of John Cena to the WWE, it is time to ask the following question(s): in a historical context, how important is John Cena?  Is John Cena a draw when compared to the faces of yesteryear?  How much of a marquee talent is John Cena when compared to folk like Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Sting, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock? It is my contention that Cena as a draw is not comparable to Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock.  Those three gentleman drew numbers that were fortuitously cushioned by an economic boom and technological revolutions.  In the 1980s’s, the Reagan boom and the advent of cable television allowed the WWE to expand across America and the world.

In the 1990′s the proliferation of the internet had a similar effect for promoting the Attitude Era and allowing its two main stars to crossover and achieve mainstream levels of celebrity of popularity.  Although, especially in the wrestling industry, it is unwise to never say never, it seems unlikely that the WWE will experience the level of popularity it felt in the Golden Era and the Attitude Era.

John Cena’s time as the MVP of WWE has coincided with the 2008 banking collapse and consequent recession, the effects of which are still being felt.  In times of depression, disposable income is less and thus items of discretionary spending, like going to watch wrestling events or buying the merchandise, is going to fall as a result.  This isn’t Cena’s fault, and the case can be made that the level of sales he has generated is remarkable considering the environment.

The WWE has experienced two boom periods since Vince McMahon purchased the business from his father in 1982.  The first boom was initiated at Wrestlemania I, which was viewed by more than 1 million people on closed circuit television.  Through the combination of technology and celebrity, WWE abandoned the anchor which had tied it to North Eastern America and began touring across America.  Hulk Hogan became a huge international celebrity who could sell out arena’s and stadiums across the world.  His match against Andre the Giant in February 1988 on Saturday Night Main Event remains the most watched and highest rated wrestling match of all time, drawing a 15.2 rating with 33 million people watching.  During the 1980s, the WWF would run live events that drew between 10-15,000 people and they would sell them out.  Today, the WWE will run events in large arenas like the Allstate Arena in Chicago, the Barclays Centre in New York, the TD Garden in Boston etc but they will rarely sell them out unless it is a televised show.  John Cena’s name on the card does have a positive effect on attendance in today’s marketplace, but the 6,000 he’ll on average draw to a live event does not compare to the 12,000-15,000 who would flock to the events to see Hulk Hogan wrestle the heel of the day.

During the combined 529 days of Stone Cold’s run as WWF champion, he on average drew 9610 people to see him.  The Rock, over a combined 262 days, drew on average 11,734 people.  Average live event attendance was 5,826 in 1997; 10,006 in 1998; 12,017 in 1999; 11,460 in 2000 and 11,556 in 2001.  Average attendance was 5,973 in 2008; 6,226 in 2009; 6,300 in 2010; 6,000 in 2011; 5,900 in 2012 and 2013. John Cena had his best year as the main draw for WWE was still less than the lowest drawing year in the Attitude Era.

It is no secret that PPV buys have been a declining source of revenue over the last several years for the WWE.  Indeed, television rights fees now make up a greater proportion of revenues than PPV buys, and the advent of the WWE Network has sealed the fate of that revenue stream. John Cena’s record as a PPV draw is hardly something to write home about.  However, he has had to deal with challenges not faced by the triumvirate of Hogan, Austin and the Rock: namely, internet streaming.  The internet has led to an increase in the number of people streaming PPV’s.  This inevitably causes buy-rates to fall.  Hogan didn’t have this problem, and the internet was still in its infancy during the Attitude Era, and very few areas outside of government organisation had the download speeds required for video streaming.

Before the Network, and excluding Wrestlemania, the average WWE PPV would receive around 185,000 buys, with more buys for established events like the Royal Rumble (around 500,000) and Summerslam (around 300,000).  In the Attitude Era, even the B shows would receive between 450,000-600,000 buys.  It is important to note that PPV’s were much cheaper in the Attitude Era.  It is hard to offer a conclusion that differs from the view that Cena is not a mega-draw for the WWE in comparison to their most profitable characters/wrestlers.  Hulk Hogan was the star around which the modern WWE universe was constructed.  Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock are the stars that caused a new big bang.  However, how successful is John Cena compared to Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair, Sting etc?

Part 2 will look at John Cena in comparison to the WWE’s main box office draws during periods of economic stagnation and recession. It will perhaps be a fairer comparison when one considers Cena’s time as the marquee guy has coincided with the most severe recession in 80 years.



  • Maddox

    Cena’s best years was in 2007