WWE Raw gained an extraordinary amount of buzz on Monday night for their go-home show before the brand’s Elimination Chamber event this coming Sunday. Raw started with a seven-person gauntlet match featuring all of the participants in Sunday’s main event.
Under normal circumstances, the gauntlet match wouldn’t be anything exceptional. The weeks before PPV-level events are normally filled with different combinations of whoever is facing each other at the big show. One week it’s singles matches, then a couple tag matches, maybe a six-man tag. Move the names around the chalkboard. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Often times it can become very repetitive with nothing of real consequence happening between the feuding parties before they settle the score on WWE Network.
But Monday’s gauntlet match was special because of how rare it was, specifically, in the length of the match. In fact, nobody who tuned in at the start of Raw on Monday night could have predicted the history they would witness. The Elimination Chamber Gauntlet Match Preview lasted a WWE record 146 minutes, comprising the entire first two hours of the program. It’s by far the longest televised match in company history. (And yes, technically it was a series of six singles bouts with one superstar entering to face the previous winner after each elimination, but it’s all under one match.)
The match won rave reviews from all corners of the wrestling world, with Seth Rollins specifically earning plaudits for lasting over an hour of the match by himself.
— WWE Stats & Info (@WWEStats) February 20, 2018
And most importantly for WWE, on a night that saw them competing with the Winter Olympics, viewers responded.
PW Torch notes the most significant aspect of the Gauntlet Match. While Raw ratings usually drop from the first hour to the second and further to the third, Monday night’s gauntlet match caused viewers to stick around in a big way, boosting ratings for the program overall.
This week’s episode of Monday Night Raw on USA Network drew a 2.21 rating, higher than the previous two weeks and above the ten week rolling average headed into this week of 2.13.
With the special gauntlet match filling the vast majority of the first two hours, the hourly ratings are more interesting than usual. The first hour viewership averaged 3.518 million, the second hour drew 3.509 million, and the third hour 2.821 million viewers. Dating back to the beginning of October 2017, the average dropoff from hour one to hour two has been 153,000 and this week the dropoff was just 9,000. That’s a dramatic change from usual. The average dropoff so far this year from the first to the second hour has been a more modest 119,000, but this week’s dropoff is still a small fraction of the usual. That’s a sign that fans were drawn into the Gauntlet match and more than usual stuck around for the full second hour to watch it play out.
These aren’t numbers that WWE should take lightly. As Deadspin points out, these epic wrestling matches have ebbed and flowed throughout recent pro wrestling history. Back in the day it was common for Bruno Sammartino and Ric Flair to consistently wrestle in one hour time limit draws. More recently in the late 90s and early 2000s, the 60 minute iron man match was one of WWE’s most prominent grudge matches. A full one hasn’t been seen on WWE TV since 2009, though, with several 30 minute versions happening throughout WWE shows.
However, the rising influence and popularity of lengthy contests have been seen outside WWE with stars like Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada having a thrilling trilogy in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Similarly, Lucha Underground has showcased one match for an entire hour long episode on multiple occasions throughout their cult-favorite run. Wrestling fans have often turned to promotions like New Japan to get their wrestling fix in recent years while Raw is often filled with matches that last less than five minutes.
It will be fascinating to see if WWE uses the positive response to the gauntlet match to take a second look at how they present their television shows. Perhaps a way to grow ratings and revive interest in the product is as simple as giving wrestling fans more wrestling. It doesn’t have to be a two-hour long match every week, but even if there were value in changing one or two featured matches that went to the half-hour mark it would be a markedly different product week in and week out.
One of the reasons for doing another brand split between Raw and Smackdown was theoretically to give more talent more time with WWE’s enormous roster. With the best talent in the world, WWE can decide to have longer televised matches and rework Raw and Smackdown anytime they want. It’s just a matter of whether or not the company sees value in changing course.
The gauntlet match didn’t even have any huge consequences, but it was some of the best and most compelling wrestling WWE has put on in years. And fans spoke loudly and clearly that they’d love to see more of it.