I got inspired to do this by Becky Lynch’s suggestion that the name ‘Men’s’ and ‘Women’s’ be taken off of the top singles titles on each brand. Personally I found the whole ‘remove the distinction’ thing to be a solution in search of a problem, one that doesn’t really fix any of the issues or concerns that people have expressed with how the division is being handled, and one that could have unintended consequences if you look at some other real world examples. Removing the distinction is supposed to put the men and women on more equal footing, and not allow the women to be so easily put in a box or whatever your phrase of choice is. But you know what, people who oppose things like affirmative action say the same things about black people and the results of removing racial distinctions for things like college admissions and hiring for jobs are often less opportunities than more. The truth of the matter is that as long as the same people are making the decisions then there’s going to be a default position that gets reverted to minus any and every form of internal and external pressure that can be applied. As a black man I can tell you that even the most benevolent of organizations have a status quo bias and a tendency to hire and promote the people who management feels most familiar and comfortable with.
We got several decades of history of women’s wrestling being put on the back burner in every company across the globe, the only real exception being Impact/TNA. That’s a practice rooted in sexism (both in management and the fanbase) mixed with anecdotal evidence that women supposedly don’t draw as well – yes you can find all kinds of metrics that support that supposition but it’s nowhere near as conclusive as the detractors of women’s wrestling would have you believe – and there’s little reason to believe that the people in charge have budged from those stances unless there’s a special case like say, Ronda Rousey to force the issue. So yeah, anything that allows those people to just pick what they’re comfortable with over what they aren’t all in one fell swoop may not be the way to go. Sometimes it’s best to put a specific spotlight on things so that what gets done at least can be better measured and reported on. Categories and labels aren’t always good but a lot of times they’re necessary.
And on that note, it’s time to take a specific look at the WWE Women’s division now that we are approaching the fourth anniversary of when the Divas title was retired and renamed the WWE Women’s Title. When the Diva’s division was swept under the rug, I mean upgraded to a more fully functioning division a lot of us had high hopes for progress. Have they gotten there or are we still waiting for something that just may not be coming? And never mind feeling and perceptions, what is the reality? What measurable things can we look at to properly quantify how far they’ve come and how far they have to go? And how should those things shape how we feel and talk about the division going forward? Only one way to find out.
Progress or running in place?
OK now that I’ve pontificated a bit, time for some numbers nerdom!! I contacted my crack research department to dig up some data, and here’s what I found:
In 2014 there were 16 women’s matches across 12 pay per views, followed by 14 across 13 pay per views in 2015. Prior to Battleground 2015 almost all of those matches were under 10 minutes each and three of the first in 2015 weren’t even title matches, just tag matches featuring the Bellas vs different combinations of women with little to no feud or build to speak of. At the 2014 Royal Rumble there were zero women’s matches on a five match card. That would be the lowest of low points had 2012 and 2013 not existed. July of 2015 is when Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Sasha Banks were brought up from NXT to start the Women’s Revolution, and while the match total didn’t go up there was a noticeable increase in the amount of time those matches got on the pay per views, as sub 10 minute matches were no longer the norm. And by years end we got two women’s matches on a pay per view, TLC, that got more than 10 minutes of time – yes that seems like a joke in 2020 but back then it was pretty damn remarkable.
Since the formal rebranding of the WWE women’s division in 2016, they’ve gone from 22 matches where women competed (counting mixed tags) on pay per view in 2016 to 29 in 2017 to 28 in 2018 to 32 in 2019. (UPDATE: 2020 had 28 matches over 14 pay per views while 2021 there have been 18 matches over 7 shows) The big jump in 2017 is largely because that was a full year of split brand pay per views so there were just more shows. But that increase has been maintained even through the return to co-branded pay per views in 2018 and through all of 2019. The average number of women’s matches per show has also gone from 1.8 in 2016 to 2.6 in 2019. And in 2019 on two different shows there were four strictly women’s matches, which is an all time high for any pay per view other than Evolution in 2018 (I didn’t count that in my work here because it would throw off all the relevant numbers for obvious reasons). The previous times when they hit four matches that included women one was a mixed tag. So that’s real progress. from 14 matches on 13 pay per views in 2015 to 32 on 12 in 2019.
But everything embedded in that isn’t so great. For one there just aren’t very many women’s matches on pay per views that aren’t title matches; that number has gone down even as the overall number of matches has gone up and when you throw out the Royal Rumble, WrestleMania battle royal, Money in the Bank, and Survivor Series matches it looks even more dire. Last year there were a grand total of three women’s pay per view matches that did not involve a championship. Going to co branded pay per views has been the main culprit here as the single branded shows usually had a second or even third women’s match on the card, but that’s also been an unintended consequence of adding women’s tag team titles as now there’s another title that needs to be contested on pay per view shows. I don’t know how I would fix it other than to defend all the secondary singles titles and tag team titles more on TV and free up space on the pay per views for grudge matches and such.
There’s another problem that goes from perception to reality once you look at the numbers. This is the elephant, or should I say quartet of horses, in the room:
Too many Horsewomen, too many matches (for them)
You can’t talk about the women’s division with discussing the sheer and utter stranglehold that the Four Horsewomen (Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Bayley, and Sasha Banks) have had on the biggest matches. Now it’s one thing for us to think that but the numbers really do back that, to the point where we need to have a conversation. Here’s why. Over the three full years of the brand split there have been 52 title matches where either the Raw or Smackdown women’s title was being defended. 36 of them (69%) included at least one of the Horsewomen, 13 (25%) included multiple Horsewomen, and 7 were one on one Horsewoman vs Horsewoman matches. Person by person it breaks down to 16 for Charlotte, 15 for Becky, 13 for Bayley, and 8 for Sasha. By contrast there have been only 15 title matches over that timeframe that didn’t include any Horsewomen, 10 of which were in 2018 when Ronda Rousey was chasing and defending the Raw title and was deliberately kept away from any of them.
(UPDATE: For 2020 it went 13 for 15 and in 2021 so far it’s for 7 for 8, bringing us to a total of 56 for 75 or 75 percent. Matches with multiple Horsewomen went up to 15, and one on one between two Horsewomen went up to 8. Individually the totals go up to 19 for Charlotte, 15 for Becky, 23 for Bayley, and 15 for Sasha.)
It’s not just title matches, either. All of the ‘first ever’ matches (Iron Woman, Hell in a Cell, Money in the Bank, Royal Rumble, Elimination Chamber, Last Woman Standing, TLC, WrestleMania main event) featured and/or were anchored by one or more of the Horsewomen, too. In short when it comes to title matches and important milestones, these four ladies take up a whole lot of real estate. And while they have delivered in all of the milestone matches and most of those title matches there are definitely some spots where someone else could have gotten a turn and not for the sake of just giving everyone a turn but because they’ve earned them and can handle the task. Outside of Alexa Bliss with 16 no one else has really gotten consistent opportunities to do anything noteworthy. Asuka (11), Nia Jax (7), and Natalya/Carmella/Naomi (all with 5) have gotten a handful or so of title matches spread across those years, while the ascendant Bianca Belair has been in 3 so far in 2021 with more on the way, and Rhea Ripley has 4 under her belt as well.
So what to do?
Honestly I don’t know. The Horsewomen aren’t going to get demoted down the card just because, but there’s no reason they can’t handle non title feuds sometimes so that others like Naomi and Carmella can get some more time challenging for or holding titles and the Sonya Devilles and Dana Brookes of the company can get some title matches, too. Asuka should definitely get some more title reigns somewhere down the line. But what can be done right now is get more women’s matches on TV, particularly on Raw. Start some feuds, have some contenders matches, get some of these other ladies out in front of the audience more so that they can build, and then you can get more of them into title matches that don’t look like foregone conclusions.
But Rob, everyone can’t be champion! Yes, I say this often, and I hold to it. But that doesn’t mean the ones who won’t be can’t at least get some more title shots. That’s the point I’m going for here. Yes there could stand to be some more titleholders in the lineage of these titles but the women’s tag team titles are there and can be fought over by most of the women who will likely never see a singles title reign. But that notwithstanding there absolutely need to be more people getting opportunities to win a singles title on the bigger shows. That’s the key for the women’s division to truly live up to it’s potential. Until then it’s going to be the Horsewoman Show plus Alexa, Asuka, Rhea, and Bianca while everyone else will be waiting for scraps until they decide to move on.
There does seem to be some hope now that Bianca and Rhea have arrived. Both have already crashed the title scene and are firmly entrenched there for the time being. Bianca shows no signs of being in any jeopardy to lose the Smackdown Women’s Title and while Rhea is currently the former Raw champion she’ll be holding it again soon. The wildcard is Lynch, as she is yet to return after a year off and we don’t know how she will be used when she gets back. So the forecast for now is a little more of the same but some new stuff as well. We’ll see how it goes.