Despite Falling Ratings, Pro Wrestling Is in a Rights Boom

Wrestling Rights Boom
Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

Note: This analysis is based upon data taken from Variety Intelligence Platform’s “Sports’ New TV Formula” special report, available exclusively for subscribers.

TV ratings for pro wrestling are a far cry from the late ’90s, when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, Degeneration-X, Hollywood Hogan and the nWo dominated Monday nights with ratings for the 18-49 demo in the high 5s and 6s for two shows going head-to-head.

Today’s audiences are nowhere near that. In the week of February 22, “WWE Raw” on USA had an average 18-49 demo rating of 0.57, “AEW: Dynamite” on TNT 0.35, “WWE NXT” on USA 0.18 and “WWE Smackdown” on Fox 0.54.

In spite of this, wrestling rights are now worth more than ever. Variety Intelligence Platform’s “Sports’ New TV Formula,” calculates that with Peacock’s new WWE Network deal, domestic wrestling is now worth $748.8 million annually. Just three years ago, this figure was $150 million a year.

This is while audiences continue to trend down year-over-year. VIP has long covered WWE’s creative issues, and audiences have yet to return despite CEO Vince McMahon’s quarterly pleas to investors that they know what the problem is and are fixing it.

Viewership for flagship show “Raw” in the first weeks of Q1 this year is down by -54.5% (-2.2 million viewers) versus Q1 in 2015. “Smackdown” on Fox has fared better, down by -16.1% (-418k), but it should be pointed out that “Smackdown” in 2015 was widely seen as the WWE’s B-show and didn’t have the star power it has now.

Questionable creative aside, this shows the WWE still has a hardcore audience of at least 2 million, around half of whom subscribe to WWE Network. This is what prompted NBCU to buy the domestic rights to the SVOD service, folding it into Peacock to give it a paid subscriber boost. If WWE experiences another popularity boom, NBCU will be well placed to capitalize.

The seeds for such a boom may already be planted. Since the news broke about the Peacock-WWE collaboration, mega music star Bad Bunny has been regularly showing up on NBCU’s WWE programming and also appeared on “SNL” with his 24/7 WWE title — defended exclusively on “Raw” and reportedly created at the demand of NBCU in 2019 to boost ratings — suggesting NBCU is beginning to get serious about celebrity integrations to draw an audience back.

NBCU will go all out to ensure that the first Wrestlemania held on Peacock is a viewership success, with the hope that celebrity involvement generates more interest and boosts the audience for “Raw” on USA and paid subscriptions for Peacock.

Rival promotion All Elite Wrestling on TNT has also been trying to enter the zeitgeist of late, with the help of network parent WarnerMedia. “NBA on TNT” analyst Shaquille O’Neal has been appearing on AEW lately as he feuds with AEW EVP Cody Rhodes, with their first match on March 3rd seeing the biggest audience for AEW in 2021 (934k viewers).

If Peacock’s WWE move works and subscriptions grow as viewers seek out WWE PPVs running on Peacock Premium, expect to see WarnerMedia make a similar move with AEW PPVs on HBO Max. Competitively, it will limit AEW’s growth to have PPVs distributed for $50 when a rival promotion is backed by two major media conglomerates and has big events included as part of a wider streaming service available for $4.99 a month.

Even with audience declines, professional wrestling regularly tops lists of the most watched shows on cable and remains somewhat of a magnet for live viewing, and audience exposure to ads. This and the need for Peacock to boost subscriber numbers are behind the rights boom. Expect that boom to continue when AEW Dynamite is up for renewal in 2023, with the total value of pro wrestling to exceed $800M a year domestically.

Read the full special report