The deafening roar from a record crowd of more than 93,000 packed inside Pontiac, Mich.’s, Silverdome when Hulk Hogan scoop-slammed the 520-pound Andre the Giant there in 1987 is still music to Vince McMahon’s ears.
Twenty-seven years after “WrestleMania 3,” the chairman of WWE continues to fill stadiums with the company’s biggest pay-per-view event of the year — it’s the Super Bowl of wrestling — with this year’s “Mania” set to take place inside New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome on April 6.
Behind the scenes, it’s negotiating to at least double the licensing fees it earns from its weekly TV shows, which include flagship “Monday Night Raw” and “Friday Night SmackDown.”
The goal: to get closer to the rich deals sports leagues like the NBA, NHL, NFL, NASCAR and FIFA soccer get for their broadcasts, especially as live programming has proved a major ratings generator for networks.
After a negotiating window with NBCUniversal — which airs “Raw” on USA Network, as “SmackDown” on Syfy and “Total Divas” on E! — expired, WWE is now talking to other network owners, with a new deal likely to be announced by early May. The shows will remain with NBCU’s networks through the end of September. “WWE Main Event” is on Ion TV.
The discussions are happening as WWE launched an all-digital network in February, bypassing a traditional cable or satellite deal for an app-based service that gives it more control and full-ownership over its programming. WWE ruffled the feathers of DirecTV and Dish Network when it was announced that all 12 of the company’s PPV events, including “WrestleMania,” would be offered on the service. Miffed that it would lose considerable buys due to the $10 a month the WWE Network is charging subscribers (“WrestleMania” typically costs $70 alone), Dish decided not to offer “WrestleMania 30,” but ultimately relented a month later when it was the sole company to do so.
McMahon likes the kind of noise Dish generated. One of his biggest turnoffs is when a crowd doesn’t react to whatever’s happening in the ring, even if it’s a chorus of boos. And that pertains equally to business.
“WWE is poised for transformative growth as we reimagine how we deliver our premium content and provide unprecedented value to our fans.”
— Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of WWE
For an event like “WrestleMania” to remain relevant after 30 years and continue to attract massive crowds and break attendance records for cities is an impressive feat.
Few companies can claim such a long-running event in their portfolio — especially an event that not only generates a considerable amount of revenue for a company’s bottom line but also drives the rest of its business before and after.
Cities that host “WrestleMania” are just as excited, as the event pumps tens of millions of dollars into their local economies, with some bidding to compete to host future events. After New Orleans, the next two “Manias” will take place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., adjacent to Silicon Valley, and Dallas’ AT&T Stadium.
Last year’s show, “WrestleMania 29,” held at MetLife Stadium, generated $101.2 million for the New Jersey and New York region, and around $16.5 million in local, state and county taxes, according to Enigma Research Corp. Those figures prompted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to comment, “The entire week of events helped generate a tremendous boost for our economy, and we look forward to the possibility of MetLife Stadium hosting a future WrestleMania.”
“WrestleMania 28,” in Miami, generated $102.7 million, shattering the previous record of Atlanta’s $62.1 million from “WrestleMania 27.”
The main reason that “WrestleMania” brings in so much revenue? It’s turned into a week-long event, with meet-and-greet opportunities for fans and other “Mania”-related activities.
“Formally, ‘WrestleMania’ expanded from a one-day event in 2008 at ‘WrestleMania 24’ in Orlando and now there is a formal bidding process similar to Super Bowl and NCAA Tournaments for cities to host ‘WrestleMania,’ ” says Stephanie McMahon, daughter of Vince McMahon and the company’s chief brand officer.
“I remember when I was seven years old, watching ‘WrestleMania 1’ at Madison Square Garden. My friend, Andre the Giant, body-slammed Big John Studd. I remember how I felt, the excitement and the people erupting all around me. And nearly 30 years later, it’s amazing to see just how much ‘WrestleMania’ has evolved.”
— Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s chief brand officer
The weeks after January’s “Royal Rumble” PPV event have long been called “the road to ‘WrestleMania,’ ” with WWE flexing its marketing muscle to hype its biggest show.
This year, that’s included appearances by Betty White, Aaron Paul and Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote their projects. But the celebrity flybys have also helped boost the image of WWE to non-fans and help improve the perception around the company’s brand — one still tainted by a stigma that its shows appeal only to a demo of lower-income, uneducated males who want to watch violent matches.
“It’s still a misconception out there,” admits Michelle Wilson, chief revenue and marketing officer. “We still have our work cut out for us when it comes to being a good family entertainment brand. Perception is still our biggest challenge and opportunity. Once we get over it our business will be much bigger than it is today.”
Strong ratings, a PG-rated format, growth in female viewership, massive social media following and new products like the WWE Network have helped attract bigger advertisers to WWE.
“One of the things we’ve been working on is bringing on advertisers we see as blue chip partners,” Wilson says. “We’ve done a good of job over the last five years.”
Indeed, such giants as General Mills, General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Disney, Doritos, DreamWorks, Paramount, Kmart, Subway, Taco Bell, Colgate, Frito-Lay, Schick and Mattel have come onboard WWE events or buying ad time during its weekly shows.
“It’s all about educating the marketplace, whether it’s Hollywood celebrities, advertising and media-buying companies. Our numbers are unmatched by any other property they could do business with,” Wilson adds.
She notes that while WWE has done a great job communicating who it is as a company, Wilson says, “the PG rating got us our meetings but didn’t close the sale.”
“I was big fan growing up and watched every ‘WrestleMania,’ and now I’m a student of WWE’s history. To have realized a dream of becoming a WWE Superstar and perform at ‘WrestleMania’ is indescribable, and to have played any role in helping make ‘WrestleMania’ what it is today is incredibly humbling.”
— Paul Levesque (“Triple H”), executive VP, talent, live events, creative, WWE
To help turn around its image, WWE has a dual strategy of promoting both WWE as a brand, but also building up its talent roster.
“NXT” is hyping new wrestlers, while airing “Total Divas” on E! has certainly helped attract more women to its programming.
The show was a strategic decision to reach more female viewers that wouldn’t have watched WWE before, Wilson says.
New projects like “WWE SlamCity,” a co-production with Mattel that relaunched a toy line of action figures with playsets and is backed by an animated online series watched more than 1 million times in its first week, also has helped reach more kids and families, and helped bring more of WWE’s talent roster to life. So have films like “Scooby-Doo WrestleMania Mystery!”
“When you do a Scooby movie you’re going to reach a lot of kids that aren’t WWE fans,” adds George Barrios, WWE’s chief strategy and financial officer.
Launching the Be a Star anti-bullying campaign, partnering with Susan G. Komen and the Special Olympics has also helped change opinions.
“Giving back is in WWE’s DNA, and Vince McMahon has done it since the beginning of our company because it is the right thing to do,” says Stephanie McMahon. “We feel strongly about using the power of our brand to help organizations and initiatives that improve the lives of children and families around the world.”
In that regard, Stephanie McMahon also has become WWE’s global brand spokeswoman and aggressively gone after media buyers and ad agencies, as well as mommy bloggers as a way to boost the company’s PG-friendly profile.
“Her role was built primarily to break down barriers,” Wilson says. “She’s covering a lot of our targets. It’s not about changing perceptions overnight, but everything we do becomes walking case studies.”
The WWE Network will also play a major role in WWE’s future plans.
“The network is less a product and more of a platform for growth,” Barrios says. “It’s become a key strategic element for us,” with WWE planning to offer the service on more devices — from Amazon’s upcoming set top box and smart TVs and in other countries.
The service was also designed to add more features and programming. “We’ll be rolling out more cool features to enable our fans to interact with the content, and will continually bring new fresh content,” Barrios says.
Much of WWE’s business, around 75%, is still generated in North America. But the company is aggressively looking at international territories to expand — countries like India, where it hopes to secure a significant new broadcasting deal by the end of the summer, Mexico, the Middle East and Thailand. China, where it’s operated for six years, is considered a long play for the company.
“You have to take China slowly,” Barrios says. “The NBA is considered an overnight success for being there 20 years.”
After brokering a lucrative new TV deal in the U.K., it’s now moved its shows from pay-TV to free-to-air networks in Germany, another key market.
As it looks to attract new fans and hold onto its current base, WWE knows it needs to find its next Superstars.
“Just like there will only be one Hulk Hogan, one Stone Cold Steve Austin, there will only be one Rock and one John Cena,” says Paul Levesque, executive VP of talent, live events and creative for WWE, and otherwise known as Triple H, one of its biggest stars. “But the next Superstar is out there. We can help talent develop all the tools they need — charisma, athleticism and a strong work ethic — but it is up to them to make a connection with the audience that takes them to another level.”
Many of those new stars get a boost when they’re thrust into the spotlight of “WrestleMania.”
“‘WrestleMania’ is the biggest stage we have and the fact that so many new talent are involved demonstrates their abilities to connect with and wow an audience,” Levesque says. “At WWE, talent is our only natural resource so investing in their future is investing in our future.”
That’s the real bottom line. “If (viewers) don’t connect with our Superstars and Divas it doesn’t matter what you say about the WWE brand,” Wilson says.