The WWE learned a lot about the ties that bind with its fans during the pandemic.
The return of live audiences to WWE events with the “WrestleMania 37” event in Tampa, Fla., in early April was moment of celebration, for fans and for the league, WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon tells Variety‘s “Strictly Business” podcast.
“To see the tears in the eyes of our fans — I got goosebumps,” she says. There was joy in a bottom-line sense as the event set sales and viewership records, and was a good way for WWE to energize its new streaming relationship with NBCUniversal’s Peacock, she said.
But perhaps the bigger surprise was how much WWE was able to rally when it had to host the event — the Super Bowl of the WWE’s year — in 2020 with no fans in the audience. A big spike in online sales of WWE merchandise helped offset the lost ticket revenue and sales of T-shirts and other items at the live event.
When lockdown conditions hit, WWE went into overdrive to make sure it got back in the ring as soon as possible. One of the league’s selling points to its TV network partners — and fans — is that the shows run year-round with no repeats.
“It wasn’t a question of if, but how we were going to produce our programming,” McMahon says. Last year, with the absence of live crowds, WWE made a point to increase content production as a way of staying connected with fans.
“We produced 2,300 hours of content last year across all platforms,” she says. There is no question that the WWE product suffered without the roar of a real crowd. McMahon was impressed how the level of engagement stayed strong.
“Our audience has always been a part of our show. Digital and social allows them to be part of it, even if they’re not there,” she says.
McMahon, who is the daughter of WWE chairman-CEO Vince McMahon and former WWE chief executive Linda McMahon, has literally grown up with the WWE brand. She has held numerous roles throughout the Stamford, Conn.-based company — from answering phones to steering the writers’ room — all of which are put to good use in the chief brand officer role she took on in 2013.
“I have not led a boring life,” she observes, recalling family dinners as a child with WWE performers such as Mr. T and Hulk Hogan.
“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.