It’s the kind of comeback that would make a perfect underdog-conquers-haters storyline in the ring for World Wrestling Entertainment.
The company that embodies modern professional wrestling — or “sports entertainment,” as coined by CEO Vince McMahon — has been on a growth rampage during the past 18 months. Its stock price has more than doubled as the company, once seen on Wall Street as past its prime, has found itself with the right assets at the right moment to capitalize on the massive disruption in the traditional television business.
The WWE was fortified last year by a huge five-year, $1 billion deal with Fox Corp. that will bring its live “Smackdown” franchise to a Big Four broadcast network for the first time in the WWE’s nearly 40-year history. The pact was richer by hundreds of millions of dollars than the WWE’s most bullish supporters expected, and a stunning example of newfangled Fox network’s hunger for high-wattage live programming.
And while NBCUniversal’s USA Network lost “Smackdown” to Fox, it cut a rich new agreement to keep WWE franchise “Raw” on USA — at a much higher price than it paid before. Facebook was also in the hunt, which only helped drive up the price tag.
Now WWE is planning to harness all this momentum to drive a vast expansion of international operations and to cement its place as a mainstream part of the U.S. entertainment landscape. But to pull it off, the company will have to overcome baggage from its past, a wave of fresh competition and continued criticism of its safety record and labor practices — and, perhaps the trickiest task of all, keep its leader from sparking controversy, as moguls who have iron-clad control of their companies are wont to do.
“So few people understand what we do and how we do it,” McMahon tells Variety during a rare extended interview at the company’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters. “We’re different than anything else that’s out there. The respect factor is here, and now it’s global.”
Fans know McMahon, 73, as the bombastic villain he frequently plays on camera for WWE, referred to as “Mr. McMahon.” At six-foot-one, with a helmet of lacquered hair that has become his trademark, he commands attention. He revels in his ability to strut into the ring in exaggerated fashion and antagonize both his wrestlers and his crowds.
But behind “Mr. McMahon” is a savvy businessman who took over a regional operation from his father four decades ago. He banked on what was then cutting-edge satellite technology to transform the family business from just one of many territorial wrestling operations in the U.S. into the premier destination for a broadly popular product. He was a pioneer in pursing innovative ways to distribute WWE content, from pay-per-view in the 1980s to pushing into the streaming vanguard with the launch of the WWE Network subscription platform in 2014.
WWE consciously began cleaning up its act about a dozen years ago as it sought to broaden its appeal among viewers and advertisers. The level of violence in the ring has been toned down — no longer do wrestlers take folding chairs to the head — and its female stars typically show less skin and bigger biceps than they once did in the ring. In fact, grooming a young generation of formidable women wrestlers is a huge priority for the company.
But the hangover from the older, rowdier WWE days still lingers. And even the PG version is still too raunchy for some blue-chip advertisers. Among the biggest challenges ahead is achieving the delicate balance between the unpredictable action that fans crave and the needs of marketers who want to sell soap to middle America.
“What we’ve done over the last 20 years is educate the marketplace about who we are,” says Michelle Wilson, a WWE veteran who serves as co-president with George Barrios. “We have this authentic connection with fans and this community that has been created over decades.”
The WWE’s profile is expected to soar to new heights this fall as “Smackdown” premieres on Fox. And the company has the potential to become a profit-minting machine in the coming years.
Together, the WWE’s new Fox and NBCUniversal pacts are valued at an average of $465 million a year over the five-year term. That amounts to 3.6 times the value of the WWE’s previous licensing deal with NBCUniversal, which was pegged at about $130 million a year. That level of guaranteed revenue growth has fueled a 300%-plus spike in WWE’s share price (it’s hovered around $85-$88 in recent weeks after reaching a $99 high last month) and made the company a Wall Street darling.
“These new TV contracts are as big a transformation as I have seen a company execute in a long time,” says Alan Gould, a veteran media analyst who covers WWE for Loop Capital Markets.
In today’s environment, WWE has a bumper crop of what investors want most from media companies: guaranteed revenue streams, little exposure to the cyclical nature of advertising and unique IP that cannot be easily replicated by competitors. Wall Street and Hollywood have not traditionally viewed WWE as a media enterprise, but that’s what it has become.
“It’s a low-risk, high-return media company,” says Curry Baker, media analyst for Guggenheim Securities. “The contracts are straight licensing revenue. There’s no variability built into them for ratings or advertising sales. The company has very little debt, and the risk to [earnings] in terms of a recession is low. They are pretty immune in the event of an economic downturn.”
How did McMahon engineer such a turnaround? WWE’s fortunes seemed to be diminishing quickly just a few years ago, when the stock was stuck at $11.
For one, the WWE caught a lucky break in the fall 2019 timing that marked the end of its previous NBCUniversal deal. The new Fox broadcast network is looking to emphasize sports and live events following the sale of most of Rupert Murdoch’s Hollywood empire to Disney. The WWE’s signature production — a highly rated live wrestling showcase that airs 52 weeks a year with no reruns — was clearly a perfect fit with Fox’s new focus. Fox’s largesse forced NBCUniversal to step up in a bigger way for “Raw” in order to avoid losing USA’s top-rated programming franchise entirely.
“Fox was super aggressive, and we came to a deal pretty quickly,” says Barrios.
Fox has committed to promoting WWE and its personalities across its Fox Sports broadcast and cable programs. Plugs for WWE during NFL games can only help bring new viewers to wrestling. And expect to see a fair amount of WWE stars making appearances on other Fox network series.
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“WWE talent will be appearing on [Fox] programming,” McMahon says. “It’s going to be a totally integrated approach. We’ve never had a platform like this in terms of promotion. Fox is going to go all-in, and they’re great promoters.” He adds, “NBCU is going to step up as well to the equivalent of what Fox is going to do.”
Eric Shanks, CEO and executive producer of Fox Sports, echoed McMahon’s enthusiasm, saying the new deal was a matter of “the stars aligning” as Fox begins this next chapter. With “Smackdown” coming to Friday nights, the mothership Fox network will serve up more live sports than any other broadcaster.
Indeed, WWE’s traditional focus on live programming has turned into a gold mine at a time when the largest-established broadcast and cable channels are looking for anything that adds urgency to content and makes for appointment TV.
The three-hour-long “Raw” is averaging just under 3 million viewers a week in Nielsen live-plus-3 numbers through April 9, with 1.4 million of those who watch falling into the key adults 18-49 demographic. The two-hour “Smackdown” is close behind with 2.5 million viewers, 1.1 million in adults 18-49.
“As we all know, the power of live television is unparalleled, and nobody does it better or more consistently than the WWE,” says Chris McCumber, president of entertainment networks for NBCU Cable.
To appreciate the scope of the WWE’s operations, it’s helpful to see the company in its element — producing a live wrestling spectacle in a stadium full of screaming, multigenerational fans.
On a cool night in Lincoln, Neb., the WWE’s traveling circus has come to town to produce a live show that also provides the programming for USA’s April 23 edition of “Smackdown Live.” Attendees have paid up to hundreds of dollars to see their favorite wrestling stars in the flesh and keep up with the soap opera-like storylines that McMahon and his team craft with great care.
At the Pinnacle Bank Arena, recently crowned WWE champion Kofi Kingston makes his way to the ring accompanied by his longtime compatriot, Xavier Woods, as well as Kevin Owens. Owens is filling in at this taping of “Smackdown Live” as an honorary member of the New Day, a team consisting of Kingston, Big E and Woods. Kingston’s opponent for the night is Shinsuke Nakamura, who has in his corner fellow wrestlers Lana and Rusev. A recent WWE import, Japanese wrestler Nakamura is known almost as well for his stylish entrances as he is for his world-famous ring work.
Just as Kingston is about to secure the pinfall, Rusev jumps into the ring and puts the boots to the champ. Naturally, Woods and Owens intervene. Owens leaps in to apparently aid the downed Kingston, but then betrays his new partner by delivering a kick to Kingston’s head. After laying out Kingston, Owens savagely power-bombs Woods against the side of the ring — the sound of which can be heard throughout the arena.
“So few people understand what we do and how we do it. We’re different than anything else that’s out there.”
The crowd quickly lets Owens know how it feels, showering him with a cacophony of boos. Yet there’s no real animosity in the jeers. People leave the arena satisfied, and maybe with a new WWE T-shirt in hand.
“The superstars that can really take in the moments and listen to the audience and be in character have an emotion while being physical. It’s just — I know it’s corny, but this is my destiny,” says “Smackdown” star Charlotte Flair, also on the night’s card.
WWE’s brand of scripted scrapping revels in all things Americana, but it has also traveled well beyond the United States. The company has a TV presence in 180 countries around the world and has recently pushed into China with programming available on digital platforms. Some of its overseas activities have sparked criticism. The pay-per-view “Crown Jewel” event, held in Saudi Arabia in November, came just one month after the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of that country’s government. WWE faced public pressure to cancel the event, but McMahon refused. In a statement, the company called the Khashoggi killing a “heinous crime” but said it had to “uphold its contractual obligations” to the Saudi promoters.
In March, the WWE was the subject of a highly critical segment of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” that focused on its safety record, labor practices and modest pay scales for all but top stars. The company has maintained that the segment distorted the truth. “John Oliver simply ignored the facts,” WWE said at the time in response to the March 31 segment.
One of Oliver’s targets was the very thing that makes WWE so appealing to broadcast partners — the lack of an off-season. In addition to weekly live TV tapings for both “Raw” and “Smackdown,” WWE performers are on the road plying their trade in non-televised shows the vast majority of the year. Critics say it’s a grueling schedule that often has bad consequences for wrestlers, from exhaustion (which leads to a greater chance of injuries) to the temptation to turn to steroids that promote healing and to other substances.
McMahon insists that WWE talent has the option to take a break without repercussions.
“Anybody who wants time off can get time off. That’s easy,” McMahon says. “In addition to that, it’s easy to weave a talent in and out of a storyline. If they get injured, you’re not expecting that. Or if they have a family matter. Our characters are real people with real problems. It’s a revolving situation where this talent will work these dates, that talent will work those dates.”
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Head injuries and concussions are of increasing concern, as they are in pro football and boxing. McMahon asserts that the WWE keeps a physician either at ringside or backstage ready to evaluate an in-ring injury; the company also makes a point of reinforcing to wrestlers the risks associated with their profession. Safety training around head injuries at the company’s facility in Orlando, Fla., has been stepped up significantly as awareness of problems associated with brain trauma has increased.
Jim Ross, a former WWE executive and on-air commentator, says keeping talent healthy is an issue of managing schedules.
“Any company that is a 52-week-a-year operation should be evaluating the number of dates that their talent works,” Ross says. “You can give them the time off they need without closing down. One of the charms of buying that brand is that it’s never a repeat. It’s always first run. And it’s live. If you take away those elements, it loses a little bit of its luster.”
McMahon is the WWE’s undisputed leader. But observers say the elevation of responsibilities for Barrios and Wilson in recent years was a good move for bringing more financial and operational discipline to the company. The pair’s leadership has allowed McMahon to focus on crafting storylines and grooming the next generation of WWE stars. The CEO is also devoting considerable time and resources to his private effort to revive the XFL football league as an alternative to the NFL.
WWE, meanwhile, is focused on building out its international live-event tours and diversifying its TV and movie productions. In addition to “Raw” and “Smackdown,” the company has three reality shows on USA and its NBCU sibling E! (“Total Divas,” “Total Bellas,” “Miz & Mrs.”) all of which feature current or retired WWE stars.
Moreover, the company has its own streaming service, WWE Network, whose library includes more than 10,000 hours of on-demand content. McMahon took a risk in launching the network, with his broadcast partners none too happy to see considerable amounts of WWE programming moving to the in-house service. Today WWE Network provides a powerful revenue stream for the company, boasting 1.7 million subscribers who pay $10 per month. Barrios says the hope is to grow the subscriber base to 3 million-4 million subscribers “over the long arc of time.”
That long arc is another reason investors are so bullish on the company’s potential as it emerges from the shadow of its former self. The WWE lags behind other sports leagues in the sponsorship dollars it attracts around its live events, according to Guggenheim analyst Baker. He estimates the WWE draws about $25 million a year in sponsorship coin, compared with about $60 million for the ultra-violent UFC. “If they start closing that gap, it will be tens of millions of dollars in incremental revenue,” Baker says. “We see big opportunity on the sponsorship front.”
Media buyer David Campanelli, executive vice president and co-chief investment officer of Horizon Media, concurred that WWE’s image has changed for the better in the eyes of advertisers. Nowadays it works with Madison Avenue to integrate brands into its live performances.
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“Going back a few years there was definitely some hesitation,” Campanelli says. “I think they have worked really hard to make their content much more family- and advertiser-friendly over the years. By and large, there are not content concerns anymore. It’s not a program we avoid the way some advertisers may have in the past.”
In television, the WWE is still climbing up to the revenue level where it should be, relative to the audience it delivers, because for years the company viewed TV rights deals as a form of promotion to drive attendance at live events. TV deals in many instances were arranged as infomercial-style time buys from networks in which the WWE sold all the advertising time. But that time-buy legacy meant the company started from a low base when it shifted to a traditional license-fee arrangement in 2003, when “Smackdown” was airing on UPN. In 2018, TV rights deals around the world accounted for some 73% of WWE’s $930 million in revenue. That number will only grow as the new contracts kick in.
All of the good news surrounding WWE is a far cry from five years ago, when NBCUniversal was the only serious bidder for U.S. rights. WWE’s stock hovered at $11-$12 around that time. In 2002, three years after the company went public, the stock hit its all-time low of just under $7.
The growth momentum and enormous gains on the horizon have surely made WWE attractive as an M&A target to media giants eager to gobble up marquee brands. Indeed there was speculation last year that Fox Corp. might try to buy WWE outright.However, McMahon has firm control of a majority of WWE voting shares, which means he would have to agree to any such transaction. He is clearly energized by the company’s improved financial prospects and the new affection it commands on Wall Street. He doesn’t look like a man who’s ready to retire.
“We’re open for business,” McMahon says when pressed on whether he’d consider selling all or a partial stake in WWE. He declines to elaborate.
The CEO takes great pride in the company’s growth in recent years and its ability to endure against numerous competitors. He points to the ’90s, when Ted Turner tried to turn his World Championship Wrestling into a player on the scale of WWE. More recently, the rise of UFC and mixed martial arts sports was seen as a significant threat to WWE’s tamer brand of brawling. But the new TV-rights deals have quieted much of that chatter, at least for now.
“Ted Turner opened his checkbook and spent a lot of money buying our talent,” McMahon recalls. “We knew they’d do OK for a while, but we knew they couldn’t stand the grind.” McMahon is also gratified to see WWE recognized as a well-managed business. He credits the company’s longevity to his refusal to become complacent about the business and the audience it entertains.
“I liken it to the military,” McMahon says. “At the end of the day I’ve got these ribbons and all these medals, and I wake up the next morning, and every one of them is gone. You have to earn everybody’s respect every day, all over again, and I don’t take it for granted.”