First batch of subscribers will help determine whether WWE has a future in digital or should stick with its traditional PPV providers
It’s a certainty that the figure — no matter how big or small — will be closely analyzed by Wall Street, the entertainment industry and the blogosphere because it will provide the first official glimpse at whether going alone and spending tens of millions of dollars to launch its own digital-only network is breaking new ground for the company and giving it control over its content or turn into a risky move that could go bust.
Should it prove a success, however, you can be sure that it will serve as a model for other content owners looking to untether themselves from their traditional pay-TV partners — and for major online entertainment players looking to unplug their programming from YouTube and build up their own over-the-top networks through new digital platforms.
WWE has said it hopes to attract 1 million subscribers by the end of the year, and it’s counting on this weekend’s “WrestleMania” — its 30th — as a way boost sign ups to the network that’s available online, and through apps on a variety of devices from Apple TV and Roku set-top boxes, PlayStation and Xbox 360 video game consoles, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, and mobile devices that run on Apple’s iOS and Android. One million subscribers would enable the WWE Network to break even, the company has said. With 2 million, it could add $50 million to its coffers; 3 million turns that into $150 million — far more than the 20 cents per month it would have earned from cable, where most of its weekly shows currently air.
WWE produces 12 PPVs a year that cost around $55 to view via PPV platforms; “WrestleMania” is $70, turning the events into a carrot to attract subscribers.
Not surprisingly, WWE is filling the network with a programming lineup themed around “WrestleMania’s” 30th anniversary. The live event is the company’s biggest pay-per-view and moneymaker each year, with this year’s show held from inside the New Orleans Mercedes-Benz Superdome on April 6.
While the event itself attracts well over 70,000 fans from around the world, it typically generates around 1 million PPV buys, with up to half of the revenue split with PPV providers. Up until this year, that’s mainly been through cable and satellite services. Either way, the number of potential viewers of “WrestleMania 30″ could put considerable pressure on the network on a technical side, although WWE says it’s bolstering its streaming capabilities in order to meet the demand.
With its WWE Network, that launched Feb. 24 and has been mostly well received so far, WWE will keep much of that coin. “WrestleMania 30” will still be offered on cable and satellite services, including Dish Network, which had considered dropping the big event from its lineup because of the availability of its PPVs on the new network.
Last year’s “WrestleMania 29” was bought by around 650,000 in the U.S., with the rest of the 1.039 million coming from foreign territories. The event, which took place inside New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, set an earnings record for WWE when it hauled in $72 million.
In addition to offering “WrestleMania 30” live, along with a two-hour pre-show that will include a tag team championship match, the WWE Network will also stream the full WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony, on April 5, from the Smoothie King Center, during which Mr. T, the Ultimate Warrior, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Lita, Razor Ramon, Paul Bearer and Carlos Colon will be honored. WWE Network will also host a one-hour show from the Hall of Fame’s red carpet.
■ The themed programming kicks off April 1 with a WWE press conference, from New York City, during which “WrestleMania 30’s” headliners like Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan, Triple H and John Cena will promote their upcoming bouts.
■ “Legends of WrestleMania” launches April 4, featuring a round table discussion with “WrestleMania” stars as they look back at their favorite matches. “WrestleMania Today,” hosted by Booker T, Alex Riley and Josh Matthews, will premiere with three nights of coverage starting April 3, from “WrestleMania Axxess,” the company’s fan event.
■ And WWE Network will also host a “WrestleMania Weekend Marathon,” April 4-6, during which it will replay “WrestleMania 25,” from Houston, and blocks of “WrestleMania Rewind,” a series that takes a look at groundbreaking matches from past “WrestleMania” events.
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Much has changed over the last three years. In 2011, the WWE Network looked like it was going to be a traditional cable channel — something like an NFL Network filled with hours of past pay-per-views, packaged clip shows and a John Cena movie or two.
But WWE wound up bypassing TV for a more digital approach, launching an over-the-top channel through apps available on everything from smart TVs and set-top boxes to video game consoles.
The streaming network includes a slate of original series like “The Legends of Wrestling,” clip show “WWE Countdown” and upcoming reality show “Legends House” and “The Monday Night War,” as well as access to a vault of PPVs, and matches.
For WWE, the network is a way to capitalize on the rising value of programming and the global appeal of its brand, WWE chairman Vince McMahon has said.
Looking ahead, WWE said it will introduce new interactive features to enhance a growing number of shows, and sees the service as a platform to help it grow its brand overseas, as well. Major League Baseball Advanced Media handles the tech aspects of the service.
In the future, it anticipates streaming live shows from different locations around the world. Plans are to launch the network in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Nordic countries by the end of they year.
“It will be about getting onto new devices, geography, improving features and the content,” according to George Barrios, chief strategy and financial officer for WWE.
WWE has kept a close eye on what people are watching on its network, and so far viewers are splitting their time between new series like clip show “WWE Countdown” and digging through older library fare. Anything live also plays well, including “Main Event” and “NXT Arrival,” a two-hour special. Pre- and post-shows also perform well after “Raw.” Past “WrestleManias” also have been popular with the 30th anniversary coming up.
“Content that rises to the top is anything that’s live,” says Michelle Wilson, WWE’s chief revenue and marketing officer, who will announce WWE Network’s subscribers the day after “WrestleMania” next week. “We had the right content, which was critical, and the right user interface, but also the price is right. Once you get those things right, you’re in great shape.”
While there were some glitches out the gate, that’s not uncommon for new digital platforms.
“We continue to put a lot of resources into the technical side to make sure the fans have a great experience for “WrestleMania 30,” Wilson says.