WWE fans know that 2020 wasn’t the best of years for the “sport.” Like so many other things during pandemic times, it struggled with a variety of different issues that had more than a few people pessimistic about its long-term viability. But the clock struck midnight on January 1st rolling us into a new year and wrestling was one of the first big winners of 2021. That’s because their first episode of Friday Night SmackDown won the ratings for New Year’s Day. You could say they body-slammed the competition (as weak as it was).
The WWE broadcast on Fox did a .5 rating, beating out a rerun of MacGyver on CBS (.2), NBC’s Weakest Link (0.3), and ABC’s Shark Tank (.4). The overall tally of viewers saw the SmackDown numbers actually finish fourth among that group, but as we know Nielsen ratings are still the barometer by which success is calculated. And by that, WWE came out the winner.
The New Year’s Eve WWE ratings were likely a welcome sign for the entertainment company who had a pretty rough 2020 all around. Ratings had been on a steady decline over the course of the year, following a year-over-year trend. The beginning of 2020 saw the first Monday Night RAW ring in with 2.4 million viewers, but by late November, that number had dipped to 1.5 million, marking a roughly 37% decline. The aforementioned SmackDown had fared a bit better over the course of the year but only by comparison. It had similarly seen dips in overall viewership.
But between the New Year’s Day show and their last show of 2020, there’s at least some room for optimism. The Monday Night RAW episode on December 28th hit right around 1.7 million viewers which was an uptick over November. And they were able to carry some of that momentum into 2021. It’s worth mentioning that the Friday, January 1st television schedule didn’t offer all that much competition with most stations just airing reruns in what wasn’t a very competitive lineup across the dial. But the WWE still managed to attract viewers more than any other offered program.
Now, of course, there’s some context here. The WWE’s 0.5 New Year’s Day rating is a far cry from what these folks saw at their absolute peak. In the early 2000s, Friday Night SmackDown was regularly seeing a 5+ rating with major names like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin among the many superstars in the lineup. But those days are long gone now with the sport struggling to maintain a wide viewership and without major names in their celebrity stable.
And the January 1st WWE SmackDown actually had some real-life drama involved. Kevin Owens, who wrestled on the main card against Roman Reigns, was injured in the match and had to be taken to a local hospital. He suffered bruised kidneys and spinal contusion after being thrown out of the ring. For the “wrestling is fake” crowd, it’s a reminder that while the matches are staged, the actual physicality is a real thing.
Whether the WWE can carry this momentum over throughout the rest of the year remains to be seen. But they at least came off the top rope with a big first day of the year.