WWE Q3 2020 Estimate: Enter The Thunderdome

How will WWE’s Thunderdome production affect the company’s financial outlook?

WWE’s new “Thunderdome” production, which debuted Friday, is the company’s latest response to slumping ratings of Raw and Smackdown. Those two programs, highly valued by NBCUniversal and Fox, respectively, have been challenged for at least a few years, but have been especially hit since the pandemic forced the company to stop running at major arenas before thousands of fans. 

From mid-March to mid-August, all of WWE’s in-ring content has been taped at its Performance Center training facility in Orlando. This made TV production much less expensive, while not affecting guaranteed revenues related to contractual escalating rights fees. In the short-term, taping out of the Performance Center increased WWE’s profits.

The TV program is hurt by the lack of a live audience, and that is a component of declining viewership. There were several questions to executives about ratings on the Q2 call on July 30. After providing a number of reasons why viewership and other consumer metrics were in decline pre-pandemic, CEO Vince McMahon’s latest explanation is that it’s because there are no fans in attendance.


Moving out of the Performance Center and into Orlando’s major sports arena, the Amway Center, and working with The Famous Group to create the “Thunderdome” production, will be more expensive. WWE is reportedly paying just $450,000 for 60 days of residency at the Amway Center, but the production costs associated with the “Thunderdome” are probably far higher. 

I don’t have a strong sense for what the specific production cost and compensation to The Famous Group will be. I could see the expense being somewhat less than, similar to, or somewhat greater than the normal costs of WWE’s production at an arena. Due to this, I am modeling in an operating expense on WWE’s Core Content and Network lines at a slightly increased rate relative to what I estimate were the operating expenses for those segments in the period immediately before Covid took production out of arenas.

This results in a significantly less profitable 2020 than previously estimated, but my estimated net income for the full year remains within the range of the company’s current inflation-adjusted annual net income record, set in 2018 ($99.6 million).

This estimate assumes there will be no ticketed live events for the remainder of the year, and there will be no second lucrative event in Saudi Arabia.

My current estimate of $100 million in net income for full year 2020, implies earnings per share (EPS) of $1.15 for the year, and an EPS of $0.15 for Q3, and $0.20 for Q4.

These estimates are considerably lower than current analyst estimates. Among 11 analysts, the mean EPS estimate for the year is $1.61, with a low of $1.32. The low EPS analyst estimate for Q3 is $0.19 and $0.20 for Q4. However it appears there hasn’t been a new analyst estimate since July 31, well before WWE’s “Thunderdome” announcement on Monday.

Past analyst estimates from Zacks. Current analyst estimates from Refinitiv.

Vince McMahon’s problem is Vince McMahon

WWE has effectively been able to improve television viewership for a week or two with concepts like Raw 25, Smackdown 1000, Raw Reunion, Smackdown’s hyped debut on Fox, and the recent introduction of new concepts “Raw Underground” and the “Thunderdome”.

What WWE hasn’t been able to do is cause any long-lasting improvement to viewership. While Raw and Smackdown remain highly ranked and are the main source of growing revenue for the company, their ratings continue to predictably decline. Smackdown’s viewership is already showing year-over-year declines, despite not yet being through its first full year on Fox, after its move from USA Network in October 2019. Raw doesn’t have the external benefit of having been moved to Fox. It’s lived on the USA Network on Monday nights for many years. Raw is in its 28th consecutive month of year-over-year decline in P2+ and P18-49, as of August.

As of August 23, 2020. Note: Smackdown moved from USA Network to Fox in October 2019.

Friday’s Smackdown, with the first use of the new production set, coincided with the program’s best viewership in months. I believe this is a result of short-term curiosity. Monday’s Raw may benefit as well, but I expect viewership will revert to its usual pattern within a few weeks.

McMahon’s latest answer, that Raw and Smackdown are hindered by the lack of live crowd, and they’ll turnaround once they get fans back doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

No amount of special effects or reunion programs address the underlying problem which is WWE’s current creative system, under the leadership of McMahon, cannot create stars or any other sort of interest that will result in a long-term increase in consumer interest.

Before Covid, live event ticket and consumer product sales were in decline. WWE Network subscribers, which are showing signs of stabilizing during Covid, saw year-over-year declines throughout 2019.

WWE’s third brand NXT and new competitor All Elite Wrestling entered the major cable picture last fall. They, along with Raw and Smackdown saw their viewership decline following Covid affecting events beginning in mid-March. But since, NXT and AEW have made a comeback while Raw and Smackdown have not. The key difference there is Vince McMahon. McMahon is the head of creative for the company’s main roster Raw and Smackdown brands, which has been the case for decades. NXT’s creative leadership is delegated to McMahon’s son-in-law, EVP Paul Levesque. AEW is a competing business, headed by Tony Khan.

Before Covid, McMahon claimed engagement including viewership would turnaround after certain talent returned from injury. After talent returned from injury and there was no turnaround, McMahon said there’d be a turnaround after new stars were developed on Raw and Smackdown. McMahon created new executive director positions for each brand in June 2019. Those positions have already fully turned over and been consolidated. Smackdown director Eric Bischoff barely lasted a few months before being fired. Paul Heyman almost lasted a year as director of Raw. The two positions have been merged into one under long-time aide Bruce Prichard. Throughout, the overall vision and the main brand’s inability to develop stars hasn’t changed.

We have a 30-plus year track record of creating compelling characters and engaging a variety of audiences, and we obviously remain confident we can continue that with our collective ability, even in the most challenging environments with no live audience.

WWE CEO & Chairman Vince McMahon, WWE Annual Shareholders’ Meeting (7/16/2020)

Executives’ current talking point in response to questions about star development is that the company has a 35-year track record of creating compelling characters and storylines. That claim is undermined by the company’s failure to create a star who boosted long-term economics for the last 15 years.

Creative leadership seems to have gradually lost its understanding of its consumer base over the last two decades. Rather than realize and address that issue, it’s evident there’s a culture of denial about this within the company.

Until WWE, or really McMahon himself, shows a willingness to reckon with the possibility that the core of WWE’s problems with declining interest lies with the CEO’s performance as head of creative, there’s no reason to expect any internal cause of long-term improvement to consumer metrics — TV ratings or otherwise.

WWE is fortunate it finds itself in a media market where the value of live content like its in-ring programming has exploded. There are opportunities to continue to grow its content value despite these issues. New President and Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan will likely be tasked with selling the company’s pay-per-view events, currently offered via the direct-to-consumer WWE Network streaming service, to major streaming players. Market circumstances insulate the company from larger financial hardship, but also removes the economic pressure that might be cause for introspection needed to deliver more value to shareholders.

Based on Smackdown AAV of $205 million (2 weekly hours), Raw AAV of $265 million (3 weekly hours), and AEW AAV of $45 million (3 weekly hours, 1 not yet delivered)

More concerning for the next few years, WWE is on a trajectory where the viewership margin the company’s flagship shows have over rival AEW’s “Dynamite” program is shrinking.

AEW’s TV deal with WarnerMedia expires at the end of 2023, with an option for WarnerMedia to extend through 2024. If the option is picked up, then negotiations for AEW programming and WWE’s Raw and Smackdown will happen around the same time, in mid-2023.

By that point WWE and AEW ratings may be even more comparable than they are now, which could either jeopardize WWE’s content value or may result in the two companies bringing in a similar amount of revenue per hour from the U.S. TV market, and thus contributing to a more competitive environment for WWE, which has been largely unrivaled in the wrestling market since 2001.

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Reopening Wrestlenomics Patreon support beginning October 1

Hello everybody,

Thanks for supporting my written and audio work lately! Your feedback, questions, social media interaction, and sharing of my work have been very motivating.

You may have noticed, I’ve been more productive on this website and the podcast in 2020. I plan to keep this going for the foreseeable future. It’s rewarding personally and I feel it’s an important contribution to wrestling media to do the kind of research-based work Wrestlenomics is known for.

It’s a fascinating time in wrestling history and, with further investments of time and money, I believe I can make my work even better.

Wrestlenomics founder Chris Harrington and I used Patreon for about 18 months, from mid-2017 to late 2018. We chose to pause our Patreon just before Chris began working full-time for All Elite Wrestling.

Now carrying the Wrestlenomics media brand on my own, I’ll be reopening the monthly $5 Patreon membership for Wrestlenomics on October 1, 2020 at patreon.com/wrestlenomics.

I intend to do this primarily as a way for the Wrestlenomics audience to financially support my work. Your contributions will allow me to invest in research services, software, audio equipment, and more, which will help me create better written work and podcasts.

I don’t plan at this point to put any content behind the pay wall. This may change in the future, but that’s the plan for now. Wrestlenomics Radio will remain a free weekly podcast on the feeds you currently listen to it on. My written blogs on Wrestlenomics.com will continue to appear here, where they are accessible publicly on an ad-free website.

You can signup now at patreon.com/wrestlenomics as a $5 “per creation” patron, and you won’t be charged until I convert the Patreon to monthly support, which will happen just before October 1.

In October, I will also make it possible to make one-time contributions of any value here on Wrestlenomics.com for anyone who wishes to do that.

What if I was previously a Wrestlenomics patron and never canceled?

There are a number of people who are still current members of the Wrestlenomics Patreon, however, no one has been charged for anything since November 2018.

If you are among these current patrons and you wish to contribute $5 monthly beginning October 1, simply do nothing and you will be billed once again in October. Your contributions will be much appreciated.

If you’re unsure whether you’re a current Wrestlenomics patron, you can check the Manage Memberships area of your account at Patreon.com.

If you are a current patron and you don’t wish to contribute $5 monthly beginning October 1, I totally understand. You should cancel your patronage as soon as possible so you are not billed in October. You can do that in Manage Memberships in your account or at patreon.com/pledges.

In the event you are finding this message after October 1 and you didn’t wish to financially support and have already been charged, please contact me either in a message on the Wrestlenomics Patreon account, or email me at brandon@wrestlenomics.com, or DM me on Twitter at @BrandonThurston, and I will give you with a full refund, no questions asked. Even if a few months went by before you realized you were being charged, and you’ve been charged multiple times, I will give you a full refund.

What are you going to do with our financial support?

Depending on how many supporters contribute, there are a number of things I would immediately invest in:

  • WordPress Business Plan. This would allow me to use additional features on Wrestlenomics.com (like plugins and SEO) and would eliminate WordPress branding. This will help Wrestlenomics have a more powerful and professional-looking website.
  • Software. I’m currently using Microsoft Office 2016. Its version of Excel doesn’t have all the features or formulas that 365 has. An upgrade will allow me to do better research, and a better job of processing data and presenting that information to audiences. I may end up purchasing some Adobe products like Photoshop and Premier Pro to do some graphics and video editing work for Wrestlenomics.
  • Improved audio equipment. Currently I’m using a dreaded Blue Yeti. I would upgrade to a AT2020 Cardioid Condenser or a similar microphone. I would buy a new arm stand and a shock mount. This should enhance the audio quality of Wrestlenomics Radio.
  • Recurring fees and subscriptions associated with researching wrestling business: PACER (for legal documents), Pollstar (for live event data) Seeking Alpha (for stock information), Newspapers.com (newspaper archives). There’s almost no end to additional, more expensive services that would be valuable to Wrestlenomics research.
  • Artwork and marketing: I would consider promoting Wrestlenomics with ads on various digital platforms. I could commission additional work from graphic and musical artists, which could accompany blog posts or be used on the podcast, and which could be used to promote Wrestlenomics or for creating merchandise.

I hope you’ll consider supporting and helping me create important work that’s valuable to those inside and outside the industry.

Thanks again for reading and listening and making my work worthwhile. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

-Brandon Thurston

What Wreddit’s Census Tells Us About Wrestling Program Engagement: WWE, AEW, NXT, ROH, Impact

This year and last year, the popular pro-wrestling focused subreddit r/SquaredCircle (also known as “Wreddit”) distributed the “Wreddit Census” survey.

r/SquaredCircle boasts more than 500,000 subscribing members (almost three-times that of WWE’s official subreddit).

EDIT: This article previously incorrectly stated that the WWE official subreddit is newer than SquaredCircle. It is not. WWE’s subreddit was credited in October 2009; SquaredCircle was created in June 2011.

Wreddit posted a full look at the results for each year, linked here: 2019 and 2020.

You may also look at the datasets here: 2019 and 2020.

What do we know about the population and the sample we’re looking at here?

In each survey, more than 8,000 responses were obtained from users worldwide.

I’ll be focusing here only on the U.S. responses, which totaled more than 5,000 responses in each year. I’ll focus on U.S. responses in the interest of consistency and due to my ongoing interest in studying wrestling television programming in the U.S. I also want to think about these results in the context of known U.S. television viewership data.

According to someone with access to analytics, on an average day on r/SquaredCircle this summer, about 160,000 unique users visited the platform. U.S. responses accounted for about 60% percent of total responses in each Wreddit Census 2019 and 2020. If that applies to traffic on the subreddit, that would mean about 96,000 users from the U.S. visit daily.

That would mean the roughly 5,000 U.S. responses would come out to a 5% sample of the population (96,000).

In terms of demographics, the sample is disproportionately white and male compared to wrestling television audiences in the U.S.

Linear television audiences however tend to skew older, by nature of the medium. People over age 50 consistently makeup the largest age segment of wrestling TV audiences, which is probably disproportionate relative to what we think of the general pro-wrestling consumer.

A consistent 96% of U.S. respondents in both 2019 and 2020 were between the ages of 18 and 49.

78% in 2019 and 71% in 2020 were between the ages of 18 and 34.

In this age makeup I suspect lies the greatest value of this study. As alluded to earlier, much of the data we have about wrestling audiences are data from linear TV viewership, which is disproportionately generated by older audiences.

In other words, while the demographics of the Wreddit census has its own issues with over- and under-representation, it may serve as a helpful supplement to a study of wrestling TV viewership relying mainly on Nielsen-sourced viewership data.

The data from the Wreddit Census, while itself skewed in terms of demographics and possibly fan type (i.e., Does the sample over-amplify a “vocal minority” of the fan market?), might tell us information to balance against the also skewed television data.

In light of that, the Wreddit Census data might to an extent be a bellwether for some trends in the wrestling industry.

Additional demographic charts on the Wreddit Census are appended to the end of this article.

What did you do to the data to look at the subject of wrestling program engagement?

These graphs selectively group together some responses. Depending on the program, respondents were asked whether they watched live, watched through some form of on-demand viewing, or if they watched occasionally or regularly.

The possible “Yes” responses may have included:

  • Yes. I regularly watch it every week as it airs
  • Yes. I occasionally watch them as they air, but sometimes I watch them later
  • Yes. but I watch them later, not as they are airing.

Respondents were also offered two possible “No” responses:

  • “No. I don’t watch or follow [program]”
  • “No. I don’t watch [program] regularly, but I do try to keep up with news and storylines.

Fortunately, questions and possible answers related to popular wrestling programs were phrased in almost identical terms in both years.

So how did engagement with popular wrestling programs change from 2019 to 2020?

Wreddit Census demographics (U.S. respondents only)

2019 demographics


2020 demographics

Note: race/ethnicity information was not surveyed for 2019

Country demographics: 2019


Country demographics: 2020


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I Believe WWE, And In WWE

Taking inspiration from this column by George T. Conway III.

I believe WWE re-imagined its content and puts smiles on people’s faces.

I believe AEW and NXT viewership bounced back better than Raw and Smackdown after the initial Covid bump simply because they’re new, and not any other commonality. I believe ratings are down because of talent injuries, and if not injuries then it’s because Vince McMahon is working on getting over new talent, and if not that, then it’s the lack of a live audience, even though AEW and NXT are dealing with that too. 

I believe Vince listens to fans, and I believed him when he said that #CancelWWENetwork trending after Royal Rumble 2015 was “good for WWE”. As is more and more common these days, it was just an over-amplified vocal minority expressing their disapproval of the creative, because the babyface didn’t win — even though the babyface did win, albeit to massive boos, despite coordinating the surprise post-match endorsement of one of WWE’s biggest stars ever and one of the most famous names in Hollywood. But that incident was just an aberration from the weird people there in Philadelphia that night, and the subsequent negative reaction to Roman Reigns at numerous subsequent TV tapings, PPVs, and Wrestlemanias, for years afterward, was unavoidable and not indicative of any internal problem. At least Reigns was getting a reaction.

I believed Reigns himself when he said WWE is for kids, and he performs for them and not for the male fans around his own age, who, after all, watch Raw 43% less in the four years since he said that.

I applauded Edge for noting some fans are little more than a “minuscule militia of malcontents who will just want to complain about everything”, and that it’s more important whether 60-year-old retired wrestlers like your match than paying customers. Reigns agrees that the opinions of people who’ve never locked up don’t matter. And I nodded along with Seth Rollins recently when he said fans today don’t have the patience for long-term storytelling. At the same time, I totally get why Vince frequently changes course and orders the entire show to be rewritten on short notice.

Furthermore, I loved it when Paul Heyman (a few years before he was hired then fired as WWE Raw executive director) said to paying WWE Network subscribers that fans “bitch about anything” and they should “STFU” or “boycott”. The fact WWE ticket and merchandise sales have grown -26% and -16%, respectively, after that cathartic rant only proves his point.

While I believe the problem is the fans, I also believe the problem is the talent. I couldn’t agree more with Vince that the problem with this generation of WWE talent is that they’re unambitious millennials who are afraid to fail. And the reason Cesaro isn’t a bigger star is because he doesn’t have “it” and “because he’s Swiss”. I believe WWE is a meritocracy, and if Superstars work hard enough and grab that brass ring, they’ll always get what they earn. 

I scoff when people say Vince is out of touch. The guy has had huge success and is pretty self-aware. I think back to that 2004 interview he did when he said he doesn’t want “to be an impediment to progress”. He knows people around him, including and not limited to his family, will let him know if he was anywhere near as out of touch as some people say. It’s like Vince’s long-time and current aide Bruce Prichard says: people have been saying that about Vince for decades, and he’s got a 35-year track record of creating compelling characters and story-lines.

But I believe John Cena when he says it’s pretty much impossible to have that era-defining star because of the “knee-jerk reaction” of fans and how they use social media, which totally explains why WWE hasn’t created a star as big as him in the last 15 years.

By the way, people need to get over the “Saudi blood money” thing. WWE’s deal to provide events to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia twice a year at $50 million per show as part of Vision 2030 is a lot of guaranteed revenue for the company. WWE is a part of the change in that country because they were allowed to have women wrestle there. It’s not propaganda and it’s not a case of “sportswashing”. And it’s not like what KSA does is so much worse than other countries. People also need to get over the notion that the Saudi government supports a pirate broadcaster, which screwed up WWE’s ability to complete a Middle East-North Africa TV deal — even if the company’s handling of the ordeal left them vulnerable to a class-action lawsuit.

And I believe whatever WWE says about why its talent was stranded in Riyadh last October while the CEO and privileged others flew out promptly on the corporate jet. I believe the delay was due to mechanical issues and nothing else.

I believe positive Covid test results among WWE talent are evidence that their “system is working”, as EVP Paul Levesque said. It’s not really relevant the company started testing in late June only after a Covid outbreak at their facility. And I support EVP Kevin Dunn in the sentiment that masks look bad on TV.

Other sports suspending their seasons while WWE continued on with tapings just shows how dedicated the company is to providing entertainment. I agree with EVP John Brody that WWE has a social responsibility to put smiles on people’s faces. I believe smiles are the primary motivation, and securing hundreds of millions of dollars in TV rights fees is just an added bonus.

I believe EVP Levesque that a lot of companies are “having to make tough business decisions to ensure they’re still there” at this unprecedented time. WWE’s decision to furlough and lay-off employees and talent early on in the pandemic was a matter of fiscal survival. The company also has a responsibility to its investors, which is why 2020 will be the company’s most profitable year ever.

I believe none of these stories, individually or in aggregate, have a negative effect on WWE’s brand. These are internet stories a small number of online fans care about, nothing more. Speaking of which, WWE has over 1 billion social media followers; when critics point out WWE’s declining consumer metrics, they never bring up that the company’s social media followers are always growing (except for last quarter).

I believe there’s nothing economically insidious about WWE’s TV viewership trends or other consumer metrics. I believe WWE’s long-term growth opportunity to take full advantage of the rising value of live sports content remains strong. And more than anything, I believe Vince McMahon and WWE know what they’re doing.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.

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AEW’s Women Have Yet to Main Event Dynamite and Seldom Appear in Other Key Quarter-Hours

The 1st, 5th, and 8th quarter-hours are arguably the most important segments of either two-hour program, AEW Dynamite and WWE NXT.

All Elite Wrestling’s roster of women haven’t main evented any of the 45 episodes in the history of the company’s flagship program, Dynamite, which airs Wednesdays on TNT, head-to-head against WWE NXT on the USA Network. To contrast, NXT has more often put women in these key segments, including the final “main event” 8th quarter.

Why are Q1, Q5, and Q8 important?

The 8th quarter is perceptibly prestigious because it’s the show closer. By its very placement at the end of the program the match or whatever content may be promoted throughout the show, and may be used to “anchor” viewers’ attention, driving them to stay tuned during the segments leading up to the end of the show.

More concretely, the 8th and 5th quarters are the only two segments that are actually likely to gain viewers. That’s the case for both AEW and NXT. The 5th quarter opens the 2nd hour of the program, perhaps as viewers turn away from other programs or activities that have ended at the previous hour.

By definition, the opening segment (Q1) cannot gain viewers from the prior segment of the program, but the opening segment is the most-viewed segment more often than any other. Again, this is true for both AEW and NXT. Reasons may include a benefit from a strong lead-in from whatever program precedes Dynamite or NXT, or because viewers tend to tune-in, then gradually tune-out over the course of 2 hours.

How often are women featured in these segments (Q1, Q5, and Q8) for either program?

The limits of this data

As of this writing, I’m missing segment labels for the first month of each program (episodes on October 2, 9, 16, 23, 30), so this study will not include data associated with those 5 weeks’ episodes, but will include all programs from November 6 to July 29, excluding December 25 (when there was no episode of Dynamite). In all, we’re looking at 38 episodes of each program.

This study will also be hindered by the nature of the labels themselves. The labels may not account for the appearance of every person who appeared in a given segment. The labels are merely derived from text descriptions of each quarter from reports in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

Further, quarter-hours offer some enticing detail we might use to get insight into which stars are driving viewership, but quarter-hours do not neatly organize segments of a wrestling program. Matches especially often overlap multiple quarter-hours. Promos and angles are often less than 15 minutes long. Ideally, we’d like to be studying the minute-by-minute data for a better understanding. AEW clearly looks at minute-by-minute data (and WWE probably does too) but it’s doubtful wrestling companies will allow minute-by-minute data, barring favorable snippets, to reach the public.

What that said, who’s appeared most often in Q1, Q5, and Q8?

Some Q8 appearances for NXT include episodes that had an overrun, so Q8 wasn’t the last quarter of the program, but Q9 was. NXT had its last overrun on March 11. Here’s what Q8 appearances look like beginning with the March 18 episode through July 29.

It’s apparent from these tables women appear in Q1, Q5, and Q8 more often on NXT than on AEW Dynamite.

For AEW, we’re looking at 114 instances of Qs 1, 5, and 8. Of those 114 instances, AEW’s women’s roster appeared in 11 of those quarters (or 10%).

Of those 11, there were just 2 instances where women entirely occupied the quarter-hour. In the other eight, women appeared in part of the quarter along with appearances from men.

In the 2 instances where appearances of women made up the entire quarter-hour, (Q5 on November 6 and Q5 on July 8), viewers were lost in a quarter (as shown earlier) usually gains viewers.

It’s notable that November 6 and July 8 are nearly at opposite extreme ends of the chronology of this data set.

What did we learn?

This study might stir but probably won’t settle debates about AEW’s presentation of women. Either AEW’s women aren’t TV attractions because they’re not put in a sufficient position to do so or they’re not put in a position to do so because it’s judged ahead of time they won’t get over or the truth is somewhere on the spectrum between those alternatives.

It might be contended the company’s women’s roster — especially in its current state, hindered by injuries of Britt Baker and Kris Statlander and by Covid-related limits on international travel — lacks star power and talent depth. It may be pointed out that the 2 instances when women fully occupied one of the key quarter-hours in which viewers are normally gained, viewers were lost. And viewers are especially important, it will be argued, amid weekly head-to-head competition with NXT.

On the other hand, star development is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy: stars cannot be developed without sufficient opportunity. There is clear evidence here, though, that opportunity is rarely granted to AEW’s women in quarters when viewership is likeliest to increase (Q5 and Q8) or when the audience is likely to be largest (Q1) or when the audience is likeliest to perceive talent as important (Q8). More time for women on the show, and in key quarters, may in fact cost short-term losses in viewership that are necessary investments if women are to better drive viewership in the future, and possibly to better attract a female audience that’s proportionally lacking compared to WWE programming.

Compared to WWE programs, AEW Dynamite consistently has a smaller portion of female viewers between ages 18 to 49. Open data.

Recruitment seems to be a factor too. NXT’s women’s roster is deeper in talent than that of AEW. In the months and years leading up to the launch of AEW in January 2019, WWE increased the number of talent it holds under exclusive contract. Still, after AEW’s debut on TNT in October 2019, WWE and Impact have signed women who might’ve been strong additions to AEW’s roster: Shotzi Blackheart (signed with WWE in October), Scarlett Bordeaux (signed with WWE in November), Mercedes Martinez (to WWE in January 2020), and Deonna Purrazzo (to Impact in May). Since the debut of Dynamite, AEW most notably added Statlander to its roster, who was being pursued by WWE.

WWE Hasn’t Created Strong New IP In Over 15 Years

The rise of John Cena in 2005 was the last time WWE made a star whose value strongly drove consumer metrics. Despite branding all of its talent “superstars”, it was the last time the company created a major star, or strong — what the media industry might call — intellectual property. I’m thinking about the likes of the rise of Hulk Hogan beginning in 1984, Steve Austin in 1998, The Rock in 1999. To be fair, Cena’s star didn’t burn as brightly as the aforementioned, but he outmatches them for longevity as a full-time top attraction for WWE.

The self-described integrated media company has struggled to cultivate a star of comparable value for the last 15 years. In that time, some notable players have come along — Roman Reigns, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Braun Strowman, Becky Lynch — each with a complicated development, and none reaching the level of WWE’s era-defining successes.

This would be sort of like if Disney’s last big hit was Cars: a franchise — like Cena — polarizing among some fans, highly merchandised, repeatedly spun off, and having its last big iteration around 2017 (about the time Cena stopped working for WWE full-time and more fully pursued an acting career).

In fact John Cena wrote a children’s book that looks like it could’ve been right out of the Cars franchise

To compensate, Vince McMahon has increasingly relied on guest appearances (like The Rock), “reunion” TV specials (like “Raw 25”), and short-term runs from aging legends (like Goldberg). The CEO and head of creative leans on nostalgia to momentarily excite interest (like, most recently, bringing Vince’s 50-year-old son Shane back to TV to introduce a new concept).

But in more general terms, too, there’s evidence that there’s a lack of new, more youthful star power in WWE. The median age of the top 10 and 25 most-searched for WWE personalities (using having at least 1 WWE match in a given year as a criterion), has gradually increased since 2004, peaking this year.

2020 data for January to June only
Open data

Perhaps WWE has less control over which personalities are searched for, though. What the company certainly controls is who its champions are, thanks to the nature of pro-wrestling. Yet WWE’s top men’s champions have increased in age over the same timeline.

2020 data for January to July only

Does this really matter though? WWE is more profitable than ever.

Short-term, maybe not. Long-term, it does matter.

While revenues from business partnerships are growing impressively, most consumer metrics are in multi-year declines, which was the case before COVID.

Data source: corporate.wwe.com

Total attendance and average attendances are down since 2017. Likewise for merchandise and licensed product sales. Google searches for WWE topics have declined worldwide and in the U.S. each year since 2016. YouTube is the exception — a relatively small revenue area, estimated to be worth around $20 million annually to a company generating nearly $1 billion per year.

WWE Network content will need to be sold to a major streaming player to further monetize peak monthly events, as paid subscriptions stopped growing year-over-year in 2018.

It’s not clear where future growth areas are for WWE, if not in its consumer metrics, which historically have always been driven by the emergence of new top stars.

Over the last few years especially, there have been numerous excuses provided for why viewership and other metrics have weakened. Despite some talent being out injured and subsequently returning, despite promises of new writing team members, despite the creation of executive director positions for flagship programs Raw and Smackdown, despite firing both executive directors and consolidating the position — what’s remained constant is Vince McMahon as head of creative, which has been the case for decades.


The only area of WWE that’s overachieved creatively in the last several years has been the NXT brand: the only area of WWE in-ring content that McMahon completely delegates. Under creative direction of Vince’s son-in-law EVP Paul Levesque, the brand was expected to be little more than a weekly TV program for the WWE Network, to run small house shows at a loss, develop talent for main roster brands Raw and Smackdown, and give Levesque experience so that he might take over some of McMahon’s creative responsibilities in the future. The brand was never supposed to turn into a unit that tours mid-sized venues, sells out major arenas for peak events, and now has its own two-hour time-slot every week live on USA Network with the hope of earning large rights fees someday.

Still, there’s only so much NXT can do on its own. Until its move to USA Network, the brand had limited reach. Even now, it’s still positioned as a feeder brand to Raw and Smackdown. Further, it’s been strategically placed as head-to-head competition on Wednesday nights on cable, to mitigate the performance of new competitor All Elite Wrestling.

[I]f you wanted to say, ‘feeder system’, [NXT] is that, but it also has become its own third brand.

WWE EVP Paul Levesque at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting, 7/16/2020

Meanwhile WWE’s most recognizable intellectual property is aging and increasingly absent from regular appearances on televised programming and pre-COVID non-televised live event tours.

Marketing materials often leverage talent/IP whose heyday was a generation ago, or longer.

A recent promotion of a WWE tie-in with the World of Tanks game features Sgt. Slaughter, Becky Lynch, Steve Austin, and the Undertaker. 3 of the 4 are over age 55. 2 of them (Austin and Slaughter) haven’t had a WWE match within the last seven years. None have had a match on WWE TV since April.

For another example, let’s take the cover image for the company’s newest licensed console game, WWE 2K Battlegrounds, which is set to release in September.

At the forefront are Steve Austin and The Rock, known for their legendary rivalry from 1999 to 2003. Over Austin’s right shoulder is full-timer Charlotte Flair and former MMA fighter Ronda Rousey; the latter hasn’t appeared on WWE programming since 2019 and it’s unknown when or if she’ll return. Across the ring is Bray Wyatt, a full-timer, facing off with 55-year-old guest star Undertaker. Would-be full-timer Roman Reigns battles former full-timer John Cena. Behind them is full-timer Asuka. In the back corner are two deceased legends, Yokozuna (who last wrestled for WWE in 1996) and Andre the Giant (who passed in 1993). In their direction, throwing a dropkick, is full-timer Kofi Kingston.

If you turn on Raw or Smackdown these days, you’re only likely to see 4 of the 12: Charlotte, Bray Wyatt, Asuka, and Kofi Kingston.

On the other hand, the above examples are licensed products. Surely many video games and other products successfully use intellectual properties that are decades old. And these games might sell quite well in their own right.

Let’s look at how the core content is promoted then.

Consider the commercial to promote the debut of WWE Smackdown on Fox last fall. 

The WWE talent appearing on-screen in the commercial?

  • Steve Austin: age 55, has not wrestled anywhere since 2003.
  • John Cena: 43, rare TV appearances, stopped being a full-time performer in 2015 .
  • Becky Lynch: 33, full-timer until her pregnancy announcement in May.
  • Kofi Kingston: 38, full-timer.
  • Charlotte Flair: 34, full-timer.
  • Undertaker: 55, rare TV appearances, last had more than 5 matches in a year in 2010.
  • The Rock (Dwayne Johnson): 48, rare TV appearances, his last 7 matches were all between the years 2004 and 2016.
  • Daniel Bryan: 39, full-timer.
  • Ric Flair: 71, appears occasionally, last WWE match was in 2008.
  • Seth Rollins: 34, full-timer.
  • Randy Orton: 40, full-timer with more limited schedule than others.
  • Roman Reigns: 35, full-timer, hasn’t appeared since March due to COVID-19 concerns.

In the case of the Smackdown commercial, maybe half of the personalities highlighted are likely to appear on WWE TV on a random week this month.

At least in the case of the mobile and console games, all the IP represent playable characters.