WWE Backlash France: When The Crowd Becomes The Show

Originally published at https://www.postwrestling.com/2024/05/05/wwe-backlash-france-when-the-crowd-becomes-the-show/

By: Félix Gouty

Special contributor to POST Wrestling

Backlash France was another success in WWE’s strategy of benefiting from underserved international territories and a fanbase willing to be the show, no matter what.

As I headed back from Backlash in Lyon-Décines, this record-setting milestone in the history of pro-wrestling in France, I couldn’t help but feel perplexed (under my partially blown-up eardrums).

An unhindered success.

Yes, economically, it was a smashing success for WWE. Even without having to go the public subsidies route, like for the initial Clash at the Castle in Cardiff or last year’s Backlash in Puerto Rico, as neither the Lyon Metropolis nor the region’s authorities (as confirmed to POST Wrestling) gave a cent to the company.

Aside from a temporary dedicated store, Lyon and the Décines suburb weren’t invaded by WWE branding – you’ll have to know the happenings to be aware of it. Plus, as WWE’s French promoter explained to POST Wrestling as well, Paris was indeed the first choice but with the Olympic Games less than a hundred days away, not one building was willing to accommodate them for a four-day stop (counting two days for installation and disassembly). Either way, after the highest-grossing SmackDown TV taping ever, Saturday’s show was touted as the largest gate for any Backlash event or any show in an “arena” (meaning, likely, in a 16,000-seat-or-less building). And surely, as Paul Levesque joked at the post-show press conference, WWE president Nick Khan seems eager to come back to the country with a larger setting.

And yes, as far as the output, sometimes the atmosphere speaks for itself. French fans were ready to show off and beat the Puerto Rican fans’ level of energy during the previous May double-shot. First, with SmackDown, during which Paul Levesque took to X to share a photo of a spectator’s smartwatch signaling that the surrounding decibel level may be too high for their own good. And then, with Backlash itself, screaming, shouting, and chanting since waiting to cross the LDLC Arena’s gates and until leaving for the Décines’ T7 tramway. For that matter, the French fans (joined by those from Romania, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and even the Comoros) were not only enjoying themselves but hot for pretty much every talent and into each entrance and catchphrase.

The @WWEUniverse in France literally received a warning about the noise level tonight at #SmackDown @LDLC_Arena. Absolutely insane.

Like @myMotorhead said… “Only way to feel the noise is when it's good and loud.” pic.twitter.com/i4KMGnfUtY

— Triple H (@TripleH) May 3, 2024

Marketing the feeling

However, the crowd was indeed the show. As I was sitting ringside with the rest of the media contingent, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a bad, correct, good, or even great wrestling show. The crowd, in no way trying to hijack the show, was enjoying the moment rather than the matches and the stories. It was almost the only thing I could remember about the show – without even knowing if I loved it or not. The opening brawl, between the team of Randy Orton (over as he has ever been, perhaps in part due to gaining his top-star status during the height of “WWE mania” in France in the late 2000s and early 2010s) & Kevin Owens and the Bloodline duo-soon-to-be-trio of Solo Sikoa & Tama Tonga, didn’t quite leave a lot of things on the table (pun intended) but was the first one where I felt I was watching a glorified and very loud house show.

Every talent was obviously working hard but the crowd wasn’t there for the stories, the emotion, or the tension of possible upsets. Again, they were there to enjoy this historical moment, inducing wrestlers like Randy Orton, Bayley, or Jey Uso to play along rather than play the fans themselves and bring them along through their rhythm and narrative.

The only moment I felt people were really into a match was during the false finishes of the Damian Priest-Jey Uso affair. The only moment I felt the talents were really trying to get fans back on track was with what seemed a serious and quite competitive main event between a pumped-up Cody Rhodes and a jacked-up AJ Styles. The fact that every result was pretty much predictable from the get-go (look at the odds, for instance) surely must have played a part, too.

WWE doesn’t seem to care about producing successful narrative experiences, as long as the crowd is there and hot no matter what it brings and as long as the company can pride itself in the media. But the fact of the matter is that WWE doesn’t need to work that hard to achieve that when it deals with underserved countries like France, which will play its game every chance it gets in the hope of getting some kind of recognition from the rest of the wrestling world and an even bigger dose next time. The “globalization” of its future PLE scheduling seems to be aimed in that direction, first with Scotland for the second Clash at the Castle and Toronto with Money in the Bank but then with a much hungrier territory like Germany with Bash in Berlin and, perhaps, next time with Italia (as the Bologna event earlier this week maybe foreshadowed). All the while WWE is, hypothetically, trying to play the long game to, one day, come back with a proving track record and getting site fees in mind.

Listing and translating every chant the French fans chanted this past weekend:

  •  “Il est vraiment phenomenal” (“He is really phenomenal”) is a referenced to a hit song of the late 1990s – which was a fitting way of jokingly embracing ‘The Phenomenal’ AJ Styles
  • “Simplement deux” (“Only two”) and “Par-dessus la troisième corde” (“Over the top rope”) are famous catchphrase of French announcers, Philippe Chéreau & Christophe Agius, who were commentating the event for French-speaking fans watching on cable channel AB1 or the WWE Network. The audience also chanted their names as they were the iconic commentating duo for WWE during the late 2000 to mid 2010 wrestling craze in France
  • “Qui ne saute pas n’est pas Français” (“You are not French if you don’t jump”) is a recurring chant during soccer games and other sport events
  • “Allez les bleus” (“Let’s go Blue”) was chanted at the Street Profits during Smackdown because of their outfits and in referenced to the rallying cry for the French national soccer team (which is usually draped in blue
  •  “Ils vont tricher” (“They’re gonna cheat”), “Tu t’es trompé” (“You screwed up”), “C’était méchant” (“That was mean”), “C’est pas gentil” (“That’s not nice”), “Ça doit faire mal” (“It has to hurt”) pretty much explain themselves
  • “On fait l’histoire” (“We are making history”), “On est bouillant” (“We’re so hot for this”) and “On est pas fatigué” (“We are not tired”) were also heard loudly as well.
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