Q4 2020 Estimate: WWE will double its annual net income from 2019

Expect WWE to shatter its annual profit records when the company reports Q4 and full year 2020 results sometime around early February or late January.

Despite a global pandemic that interrupted live events and despite diminished interest in the company’s flagship brands, contractually escalating fees for Raw and Smackdown continue to drive WWE’s finances to heights that outperform its more popular eras.

The external positive impact of TV networks’ need for highly viewed live programming obscures any external negative effects from Covid. Wider media economics too obscure any internal issues, like WWE’s descending CEO-led creative execution of the very core content that’s largely driving revenue growth while turning fans away.

Net income for 2020 I’m estimating at $162 million, breaking the record set in 2018 ($99.6 million) and more than doubling 2019’s result ($77.1 million).

Revenue I expect to be about $997 million, breaking last year’s record of $960 million.

Media revenue and expenses

Expect a sizeable increase in payments for Raw and Smackdown. WWE’s U.S. deals entered Year 2 in October. I’m assuming those deals are due for 10% increase in accordance with contracts that guarantee annual raises in payments. NXT is also entered Year 2 on the USA Network, which may result in a 10% for those fees also.

Media operating expenses will be higher due to the lack of production incentives relative to Q3 and expenses related to a full quarter with Thunderdome and Capital Center production costs.

WWE guided that there would be increased expenses in Q4, largely due to a full quarter of Thunderdome and Capital Center production expenses, and the lack of production incentives present in Q3.

“[M]anagement anticipates $40 million to $45 million in incremental fourth quarter expenses (4Q20 vs. 3Q20) due to $18 million in production incentives (recognized in the third quarter) and due to $22 – $27 million in ongoing incremental production expenses associated with the creation of the WWE Thunderdome and incremental personnel expenses associated with employees returning from furlough, both of which are expected to continue in the coming year.”

WWE earnings press release, 10/29/2020

Therefore I modeled an additional $42.5 million in total expenses for Q4 from Q3 to account for these incremental costs, and bringing Q4 media operating expenses to $118.8 million.

I’m modeling WWE Network paid subscribers for the quarter up (+6%) from Q4 2019 (1,419,000), at 1,506,000. After declines throughout 2019, subs have rebounded in late Q2 and throughout Q3. Consumer interest in streaming video subscriptions seem strengthened generally, coinciding with Covid. And viewership of Raw and Smackdown have stabilized since the summer, possibly reflecting enduring interest in WWE overall.

WWE Q4 and full year 2020 estimate table

All values in millions USD, except EPS, diluted shares, and values marked as percentages.

Longer-term outlook: 2021 and 2022 estimates

Guaranteed escalating rights fees for Raw and Smackdown should keep the company increasingly profitable for at least the next few years.

I believe fees from NBCU and Fox make-up as much as 80% of the Core Content Rights Fees line.

A full estimated breakdown of rights fees for each major market (and within each program for U.S. fees) with estimates on escalators is here, for patrons only.

View this breakdown on Patreon
View this breakdown on Patreon

PPV rights: How do you sell a product with a warped price point?

The biggest unsettled question for company outlook is whether WWE can sell rights for its pay-per-view events, which are currently primarily consumed on the WWE Network.

The WWE Network did not live up to its ambitious subscriber projections of 3 to 4 million subscribers, which would have made the opportunity cost associated with cannibalizing the traditional pay-per-view model, among other revenue sources, well worth it.

The termination of WWE’s co-presidents George Barrios and Michelle Wilson in January seemed to be the result of a conclusion reached by CEO Vince McMahon, that the Network, which launched in February 2014, had its chance and didn’t work out as hoped. Vince seems to think the best to continue to grow revenue associated with the Network content is to sell some portion of that content, principally the monthly pay-per-view events, for guaranteed rights fees to a major streaming player or other distributor.

Vince hinted in February this year that such a deal would be done by as early as March 31, but then Covid hit. It seems possible WWE was close to reaching a deal with a service like ESPN+ until the pandemic threw the business companies like Disney into uncertainty. There have been no further hints of a deal. Leading streaming players to take the PPVs seem to ESPN+, NBCU’s Peacock, and possibly Amazon Prime.

Maybe a major streaming service isn’t the best potential home for WWE PPVs

One of the major obstacles of such a deal is it’s not obvious to me how a streaming player should offer the PPV events to consumers. PPV events have been provided to fans for well below value for almost seven years. On traditional PPV, WWE events were (and still are) sold for $59.99 (or more for Wrestlemania). WWE Network subscribers have been watching PPV events on the service for a $9.99 monthly fee — all while getting access to a lot of other new content and much of the company’s huge video library.

A streaming player who acquires rights to these monthly peak events (where WWE storylines are meant to culminate), acquires a product that had its price point suddenly cut by one-sixth in 2014.

Should PPV events be offered via a monthly subscription fee, as they are currently with WWE Network? If so, at what price point? Keep in mind WWE is signaling they’ll continue to operate the WWE Network if or when PPV rights are sold. Many WWE Network subscribers might cancel if PPVs are taken away from the service but it’s not like WWE fans will necessarily have free WWE-allocated cash to spend.

Or should PPV events be sold a la carte, like ESPN+ currently sells UFC PPV events, for as much as $60 again? That may be the best way to monetize Wrestlemania. I could see fans being willing, however reluctantly, to go through a lot of friction and to part with more cash in exchange for the one annual super event.

For the whole calendar of events, I’m not sure. Consuming WWE PPVs on a different streaming service for an additional charge to the WWE fan while WWE continues to market the Network to its base is a scenario rife with friction, expense, and confusion for the consumer.

The best move for all involved may be to go for a strategy that takes PPVs off of streaming platforms entirely. We’re in the era where the premium on live sports lives primarily on linear TV. Maybe the way to go is to broadcast most of the monthly PPVs on a high-reach broadcast or cable network, then sell Wrestlemania a la carte — and maybe the second-most popular event Royal Rumble, maybe the third, Summerslam — at an individual higher price point exclusively via a streaming platform owned by the rights holder.

An example of such a scenario would be NBCU buying rights, airing monthly PPV events live on NBC or USA Network (or any of its universe of channels), and selling the biggest one to three events via streaming PPV, either through Peacock or not. You can imagine similar fits for ESPN and Fox.

Such an outcome would put most PPV airings on an outlet many fans already have access to, taking some of the stress off of the end-consumer. PPVs happen almost completely on Sunday nights. They would probably be a welcome addition, providing a large and young audience, to one of the weaker nights on a network’s lineup.

Estimates for 2021 and beyond do not have model into them any additional revenue related to a sale of PPV/Network content right. Given the uncertainties discussed, a deal does not seem imminent, nor is the value of such a sale clear right now.

Will WWE run live events in 2021?

Live events generally are not very profitable for WWE. Major events, though, most prominently, Wrestlemania are very lucrative for the company. With stadium capacity, venue merchandise sales, and other in-town arena events on surrounding days, a Wrestlemania weekend likely drives more than $20 million in revenue for WWE. The company missed out on that completely this year due to Covid.

Even in light of hopes of a vaccine, I would not expect WWE to return to normal live events before late 2021, at the earliest.

WWE may be hoping to hold some of its major events like Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania in 2021 with some kind of limited capacity. It seems possible WWE may generate some ticket and venue merchandise revenue as a result.

All Elite Wrestling drew 850 paying fans, paying $60,000 to its latest pay-per-view event this month, according to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. AEW draws smaller paying audiences for its regular tapings. If AEW can manage that, one would think WWE should be able to, especially if they can secure an outdoor venue.

Knowing the situation with regard to events and Covid is fluid, I modeled just one Saudi Arabia event for the 2021 estimate. Normally there are two of those events per year, generating payments of about $50 million for each visit.

Disclaimer/disclosure: I have no positions in World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE:WWE), and no plans to initiate any positions. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from supporters via Patreon). This article does not constitute investment advice and should not be construed as investment research.

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

This article is available for everyone because of support from our subscribers.


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WWE Developmental Analysis: In The Performance Center Era and Beyond

Matthew Schroeder‘s (@mat_matician) help in collecting this data and guidance in analyzing it was essential to this project, which required scanning the entire cagematch.net database.

The data referenced here is up to date as of mid-October 2020.

What follows will not be an exhaustive analysis. The amount of data related to this project is vast. Many more articles could be written on this subject, referencing this data. At best, this is an introduction.

The purpose of this analysis is broad. But among our issues of interest was in learning about what the output of WWE’s developmental system has been, in recent years, and going back to as early as the year 2000.

I might at another time, but I will not try to make opinionated conclusions about the output or cost-effectiveness of WWE’s current or previous developmental systems here. I admit I have intuitions about the system (possibly biased by my personal experience as an independent wrestler) that were not much swayed either way by examining this data. If anything, my view has become more complicated. The phenomenon of NXT arguably morphing into something beyond a developmental system further complicates the issue. While we may measure match counts, match types, and time in interesting ways in attempt to shed light on this topic, nonetheless, qualities like “success” and “talent” remain elusive in their subjectivity with regard to pro wrestling, largely due to the predetermined nature of matches. Most importantly, opportunities for wrestlers and the results of their matches are ultimately left to the judgment of WWE’s key decision-makers, CEO Vince McMahon chief among them.

The Performance Center era

The information in this article will focus first on the period since the WWE Performance Center was opened in Orlando, Florida, in July 2013. The opening of the facility marked the moment World Wrestling Entertainment took its talent development in-house, after many years outsourcing developmental to various regional wrestling promotions (e.g., Ohio Valley Wrestling, Florida Championship Wrestling, etc.)

Of particular interest to us was the issue of sorting out which wrestlers, among those who have worked extensively on WWE’s main roster:

  • a) had most of their previous match experience in companies not affiliated with WWE or its developmental system (referred to throughout as “non-universe”)
  • b) had most or all of their previous match experience within WWE’s developmental system, or
  • c) somewhere in between.

We should keep in mind when it comes to the “non-universe” match data, cagematch.net does not have a complete record of all matches that have occurred. Certainly many matches wrestlers have had with lesser known promotions are unaccounted for. However, we believe cagematch.net has the most completed record available for this type of research.

Since we are initially focused on the output of WWE developmental following the opening of the Performance Center in July 2013 (and since many wrestlers who were among the first to train at the Performance Center were participating in WWE-affiliated developmental with Florida Championship Wrestling in the time immediately previous to July 2013), January 1, 2014 seems as good a time as any to start the clock on the analysis.

You will notice throughout we are using a wrestler’s 10th WWE main roster (MR) match as an arbitrary qualifier for assuming a wrestler has worked extensively on the main roster. This is not a perfect qualifier, but we struggled to find one that would be as effective without getting convoluted. Dark matches were ruled out of this criterion.

As of the timing of the data collection (mid-October 2020), 128 wrestlers have had their 10th WWE main roster match after or on January 1, 2014.

The table for those 128 wrestlers, with various other data points in additional columns is below. They are sorted in chronological order, beginning with the wrestler who had their 10th MR main the earliest.

A few notes for reading the table:

  • The numbers you see in parenthesis next to each wrestler’s name is simply a unique identification number associated with each wrestler in the cagematch.net database.
  • The name listed for a given wrestler in some cases may not be the name the wrestler is best known by. In many cases, a name used early in the wrestler’s career may be shown. Rest assured, though, due to our reliance on unique ID numbers for wrestlers, matches for an individual wrestler who used many names are counted to the individual wrestler and their associated ID number.
  • “A TV” refers to WWE main roster programs Raw and Smackdown
  • “B TV” refers to WWE programs 205 Live, Main Event, and possibly others.

You may click on any of the table images to enlarge view

Note the column “Non-universe development” (on the far right, in orange) attempts to measure the percentage of non-WWE matches a wrestler had before that wrestler had their 10th main roster match.

So for example, someone like Finn Balor (listed in the table as “Prince Devitt” has very high percentage (96%). He wrestled many matches before coming to WWE and working in NXT. For an opposite example, Baron Corbin was signed by WWE and went into developmental without ever having had previous wrestling experience. His result in this column is 0%.

Again, this is where the incompleteness of the cagematch.net database may be misleading. The most controversial example may be that Becky Lynch (who I would venture to guess most people would not think of as “pure Performance Center” developmental talent) has a value of 38% in this category, likely due to the lack of a complete record on cagematch.net of her pre-WWE independent wrestling matches.

Of those 128 wrestlers, there are 20 wrestlers who came to WWE with no prior wrestling experience. Those wrestlers are filtered in the following table:

Charlotte Flair (12939)
Baron Corbin (12474)
Braun Strowman (16167)
Mojo Rawley (12415)
Enzo Amore (13212)
Lana (13845)
Dana Brooke (15363)
Jason Jordan (11408)
Alexa Bliss (14526)
Carmella (15172)
Nia Jax (14763)
Riddick Moss (15858)
Mandy Rose (16878)
Sonya Deville (17658)
Rezar (17239)
Akam (17499)
Ronda Rousey (19446)
Lacey Evans (18121)
Tucker Knight (17113)
Bianca Belair (18242)
Click to enlarge view

A more historical analysis: Ohio Valley Wrestling, Heartland Wrestling Association, Deep South Wrestling, Florida Championship Wrestling, NXT

Let’s take a longer view of WWE developmental history. We looked at what percentage of talent in a given year that had their 10th main roster match had the majority of their previous experience outside of WWE’s system (“non-universe”) or majority within the WWE system. Again, this data may be incomplete due to the incompleteness of non-WWE records in the cagematch.net database.

I understand readers may want to know which developmental system was the best, the most effective at putting out talent wrestling stars. It’s a difficult question to answer without gathering better data about how many wrestlers signed to developmental and main roster contracts throughout the relevant period of time. Otherwise the denominator to weigh the results against isn’t clear.

In this very long table, we instead look all the wrestlers who had at least 100 main roster matches since 2000 (217 wrestlers) and this is what the table looks like, sorted by highest MR match counts:

NameTotal WWE main roster matchesnon-WWEHWAOVWDSWFCWNXT
Randy Orton20914%2%16%0%0%2%
John Cena200017%4%65%0%0%2%
Kofi Kingston190823%0%8%21%38%10%
The Miz180118%0%42%26%4%11%
Dolph Ziggler17790%0%44%0%52%4%
Cody Rhodes14100%0%87%0%1%12%
Jack Swagger12870%0%40%2%57%1%
Rey Mysterio124899%0%0%0%0%0%
Zack Ryder123817%0%26%20%1%37%
Shelton Benjamin11951%0%49%0%0%0%
Seth Rollins113479%0%0%0%16%5%
Jimmy Uso11246%0%0%0%58%36%
CM Punk110487%0%13%0%0%0%
Jey Uso10777%0%0%0%48%45%
Roman Reigns10540%0%0%0%80%20%
Dean Ambrose101692%0%0%0%6%2%
Chavo Guerrero101299%0%0%0%0%1%
Curtis Axel10079%0%0%0%69%22%
Heath Slater9955%0%0%13%69%13%
John Morrison9888%0%86%0%2%5%
Big E9680%0%0%0%74%26%
Chris Benoit962100%0%0%0%0%0%
Daniel Bryan95197%0%0%0%1%3%
Titus O’Neil9280%0%0%0%56%44%
Drew McIntyre89745%0%4%0%26%25%
Alicia Fox8750%0%29%0%51%20%
Alberto Del Rio84796%0%0%0%4%0%
Santino Marella8087%0%87%0%4%2%
Bray Wyatt7790%0%0%0%79%21%
The Hurricane77199%0%1%0%0%0%
Booker T765100%0%0%0%0%0%
Jinder Mahal74067%0%0%0%25%8%
Sin Cara73637%0%0%0%41%22%
Wade Barrett72319%0%16%0%52%13%
Luke Harper70487%0%0%0%1%12%
Charlotte Flair6950%0%0%0%0%100%
Bo Dallas6730%0%0%0%62%38%
Brian Kendrick66984%12%0%0%0%4%
Damien Sandow66415%0%56%0%27%3%
Tyson Kidd66061%0%0%1%21%17%
Eddie Guerrero657100%0%0%0%0%0%
Kevin Steen65395%0%0%0%0%5%
Luke Gallows65231%0%17%45%5%3%
Erick Rowan64657%0%0%0%12%31%
Mickie James64067%0%30%0%1%2%
Becky Lynch63437%0%0%0%0%63%
Baron Corbin6310%0%0%0%0%100%
The Great Khali63087%0%0%8%0%5%
Sasha Banks61922%0%0%0%0%78%
Charlie Haas61952%34%14%0%0%0%
AJ Styles610100%0%0%0%0%0%
Beth Phoenix59244%0%54%0%2%0%
Curt Hawkins58715%0%23%19%29%14%
Ted DiBiase58457%0%0%0%31%11%
Jamie Noble58260%35%2%1%2%0%
Braun Strowman5750%0%0%0%0%100%
Nikki Bella5620%0%0%0%85%15%
Fit Finlay548100%0%0%0%0%0%
Chris Masters54820%0%66%0%0%14%
Darren Young54676%0%0%0%9%15%
Brie Bella5370%0%0%0%88%13%
Chuck Palumbo533100%0%0%0%0%0%
Trish Stratus5220%0%0%0%0%0%
Lance Cade51419%56%24%0%1%0%
Spike Dudley512100%0%0%0%0%0%
El Generico49783%0%0%0%0%17%
Bobby Lashley4900%0%97%3%0%0%
Tyler Breeze48718%0%0%0%11%72%
Karl Anderson482100%0%0%0%0%0%
Xavier Woods48063%0%0%0%22%16%
Justin Gabriel47327%0%0%0%48%25%
Paul London471100%0%0%0%0%0%
Apollo Crews44076%0%0%0%0%24%
Matt Sydal43293%0%5%0%2%0%
Alexa Bliss4160%0%0%0%0%100%
Shinsuke Nakamura40892%0%0%0%0%8%
Chad Gable40712%0%0%0%0%88%
Lance Storm404100%0%0%0%0%0%
Prince Devitt40379%0%0%0%0%21%
Kelly Kelly4010%0%40%0%10%50%
Vladimir Kozlov3860%0%75%15%2%8%
Eve Torres3830%0%0%0%100%0%
Mojo Rawley3790%0%0%0%0%100%
Brodus Clay3750%0%0%10%72%19%
Brock Lesnar3610%0%10%0%0%0%
Jimmy Wang Yang36091%9%0%0%0%0%
Michelle McCool3480%0%0%67%0%33%
Trevor Murdoch343100%0%0%0%0%0%
Rene Dupree34050%5%42%1%1%0%
Sylvain Grenier33550%0%50%0%0%0%
Alex Riley3290%0%0%0%70%30%
Ezekiel Jackson3164%0%0%0%92%4%
Samoa Joe31587%0%0%0%0%13%
Aiden English3131%0%0%0%4%94%
Nia Jax3120%0%0%0%0%100%
Dash Wilder31243%0%0%0%0%57%
Davey Boy Smith Jr.31072%0%4%0%24%0%
Bobby Roode30744%1%0%0%0%55%
Shannon Moore30675%25%0%0%0%0%
Orlando Jordan30250%0%50%0%0%0%
AJ Lee30218%0%0%0%65%17%
Mr. Anderson30190%0%9%0%1%0%
Scott Dawson29416%0%0%0%0%84%
Dana Brooke2910%0%0%0%0%100%
Gail Kim28993%0%6%0%2%0%
Marco Corleone28171%5%19%5%0%0%
Torrie Wilson273100%0%0%0%0%0%
Adam Rose2721%0%0%0%41%58%
David Otunga2650%0%0%0%65%35%
Cedric Alexander25195%0%0%0%0%5%
La Sombra24086%0%0%0%0%14%
Jason Jordan2370%0%0%0%9%91%
Colin Cassady2363%0%0%0%6%92%
Enzo Amore2340%0%0%0%0%100%
Mike Knox23054%0%0%45%2%0%
Joey Matthews22588%0%12%0%0%0%
Johnny Stamboli21860%40%0%0%0%0%
Jillian Hall21745%0%55%0%0%0%
Prince Mustafa Ali21596%0%0%0%0%4%
Tyson Tomko1977%4%89%0%0%0%
Mandy Rose1970%0%0%0%0%100%
Summer Rae1960%0%0%0%4%96%
Liv Morgan1941%0%0%0%0%99%
Tony Nese18992%0%0%0%0%8%
Paul Burchill18754%0%46%0%0%0%
Sarah Logan18583%0%0%0%0%17%
Rosa Mendes1844%0%31%0%65%0%
Akira Tozawa17999%0%0%0%0%1%
Sonya Deville1780%0%0%0%0%100%
Lince Dorado17697%0%0%0%0%3%
Mascara Dorada17599%0%0%0%0%1%
Heidi Lovelace17580%0%0%0%0%20%
Kevin Thorn17229%1%63%0%6%0%
Dean Malenko171100%0%0%0%0%0%
Candice Michelle1650%0%0%0%0%0%
Robbie McAllister16151%0%49%0%0%0%
Drew Gulak16197%0%0%0%0%3%
Rodney Mack16066%1%33%0%0%0%
Matt Striker16093%0%0%5%0%2%
Tye Dillinger15833%0%19%0%5%43%
Tyler Reks1510%0%0%0%86%14%
Rory McAllister14954%0%46%0%0%0%
Mason Ryan14548%0%0%0%23%29%
Ember Moon14556%0%0%0%0%44%
Sean O’Haire14476%2%23%0%0%0%
Nikki Storm14264%0%0%0%0%36%
Buddy Murphy14224%0%0%0%0%76%
Luther Reigns14168%5%26%0%0%0%
Elijah Burke1400%0%100%0%0%0%
Peyton Royce13824%0%0%0%0%76%
Lacey Evans1370%0%0%0%0%100%
Billie Kay13744%0%0%0%0%56%
Dawn Marie135100%0%0%0%0%0%
Ariya Daivari13597%0%0%0%0%3%
No Way Jose12720%0%0%0%0%80%
Jack Gallagher12591%0%0%0%0%9%
TJ Perkins12298%0%0%0%0%2%
Simon Gotch12250%0%0%0%0%50%
Tommy End12075%0%0%0%0%25%
Chris Nowinski11735%42%23%0%0%0%
Mike Bennett11499%0%0%0%0%1%
Raymond Rowe11387%0%0%0%0%13%
Grand Total106,73497.934.8227.374.1328.6448.56

100 matches is obviously an arbitrary minimum. It’s not clear whether it’s important to set a lower minimum. For transparency, frequency distribution for total MR matches among the larger all-time dataset of 4,415 wrestlers breaks down something like this:


Among the 217 wrestlers with 100 MR matches, in recent years there seems to be a trending increase in the prevalence of wrestlers who have had the majority of their prior experience from non-universe matches.

The below column graph tries to address the question: Of the wrestlers who were promoted to WWE’s main roster (using date of 10th MR match as a proxy), what made up the majority of their experience prior to that 10th MR match: WWE developmental or non-universe experience?

And a second similar question: Of the wrestlers who were promoted to WWE’s main roster (~10th MR match), on average what percentage of those wrestlers’ experience up to that point was non-universe experience?

It seems possible talent development leadership played a role in these results. These charts may be reflective of the timing of transitions in leadership from Jim Ross (late 1990s until 2005) to John Laurinaitis (2001 to 2012) to Paul Levesque (2011 to present), and is consistent with an intuition (of mine at least) that Laurinaitis oversaw a period of WWE developmental that was less interested in non-WWE (“non-universe”) experience, maybe even saw it as a negative. I believe Paul Levesque had a similar mentality when he took over talent relations, but for whatever reason evolved after 2014.

WWE EVP Paul Levesque (Triple H) made comments in separate NXT media conference calls that suggest he had a change in philosophy on talent development between 2014 and 2015.

Levesque in February 2014 made it sound like he preferred talent come to WWE with less wrestling experience:

The indie scene becomes less and less of a factor all the time. It just does… We’re having to create the talent. They’re not out there ready to just get picked…  Sometimes it’s really hard to get people out of — they’ve been doing a playbook for eight years, to get them to come over to ours. It’s a tough transition. Sometimes [it’s] easier to almost teach guys from day-one, to just do [our] playbook.

Twelve months later, on another media call in May 2015, his view changed:

It’s funny, sometimes people will say — there’s this big comparison of like, ‘Oh, this guy’s an indie guy; this guy didn’t have experience.’ I don’t care where people come from or — yeah, indie guys are great because they have experience, whether I agree with their style or anybody does, it’s irrelevant. They have experience in front of crowds. And that is something you can’t teach.

Among the group of 217 wrestlers with >=100 MR matches, there’s no strong relationship between non-WWE experience and either MR match count.

But can we say there’s a statistical relationship between non-WWE experience and going on to have a disproportionately high number of matches on the WWE main roster? No. Maybe there are other analyses that might get the heart of whether having non-WWE experience gives one an advantage, but the relationship between those two metrics (a] percentage of non-WWE experience before 10th main roster match and b] total main roster matches) in particular is basically random (as indicated by the very low R-squared result).


But is there a relationship between developmental background and whether a wrestler is used more on A-shows or on B-shows? (Looking at TV programs only, i.e., excluding house shows.) In other words, are wrestlers with experience being signed and disproportionately cast in less important “B” TV programs (like 205 Live, Main Event, Velocity, Heat, Metal, Jakked, etc.)?

Again, no, there’s no sign of a relationship here. The R-squared is nearly 0.

But maybe it’s a trend that’s only emerged more in recent years?

There are some interesting trends, suggesting wrestlers with majority WWE developmental experience (as opposed to non-universe) tend to have the majority of their TV matches on A shows.

Despite Levesque’s aforementioned turn to accept wrestlers with non-WWE experience, does WWE nonetheless still prefer to put those who are more purely WWE projects into more prominent roles, i.e., Raw and Smackdown (“A” TV matches)?

It’s not present in every year, but especially since 2013, there does actually appear to be a distinct difference in the destinies of wrestlers with non-universe experience versus those without.

The analysis here likely only scratches the surface. I’m interested to hear any feedback or questions that might lead to better insights.

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

This article is available for everyone because of support from our subscribers.


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How we know WWE is paid about $50 million by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for each event

Updated April 10, 2023

Based on evidence from WWE’s own filings as well as public legal filings, we can be confident the Saudi Arabian government pays WWE about $50 million for each event in the country since 2018.

But first, why is $50 million per event is significant to WWE’s business?

WWE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia agreed to a ten-year deal for two events per year, running from 2018 to 2027. The deal may be extended due to missed events during the pandemic.

So that’s about $100 million in revenue for WWE per year.

This is an enormous amount of revenue for WWE. In 2018, the year the deal was made, the wrestling company reported $930 million in annual revenue. $100 million in that year accounted for more than 10% of the company’s yearly gross.

For further context, the biggest gate ever for a single pro wrestling event was $17.3 million in 2016 for Wrestlemania 32 in Arlington, Texas. Each Saudi event is equal to about three of those.

In fact, just the first five Saudi events WWE held under the agreement added up to more revenue than all Wrestlemania ticket sales combined, ever up to that point, adjusted for inflation.

How do we know the value is about $50 million?

As part of its quarterly regulatory filings, WWE consistently reports 11 different revenue lines, each categorized into one of three divisions. Page 2 of the company’s Trending Schedules provides a comprehensible table.

WWE Trending Schedules

Notice the “Other” line under the “Media” division. This is where WWE reports revenue related to Saudi events.

How do we know Saudi event money is reported in the “Other” segment within the “Media” division?

Lines in WWE’s quarterly reports (10-Q) filed with the SEC make this evident.

WWE’s Q1 2020 report, published in April 2020, mentioned that the February 27, 2020 event in Saudi Arabia affected the “Other” media revenue line. From p. 33:

“Other revenues increased by $53.1 million, or 565%, primarily driven by the timing of our large-scale international event, Super ShowDown, coupled with $4.9 million of revenues associated with the timing of delivery related to our WWE Studios content.”

How do we know $50 million is the per-event value?

The values in “Other” media revenue line is much smaller in quarters in which there was no Saudi event, and much higher in quarters in which a Saudi event did occur.

The dates for each of the first five Saudi events are as follows:

  • 4/27/2018: Q2 2018
  • 11/2/2018: Q4 2018
  • 6/7/2019: Q2 2019
  • 10/31/2019: Q4 2019
  • 2/27/2020: Q1 2020

WWE’s fiscal year is the calendar year. Quarters containing Saudi events are highlighted by Wrestlenomics in yellow here:

WWE Trending Schedules

There are other revenues sources besides Saudi event money going into the “Other” media line. The “Other” line also consists of revenue from reality TV series (Total Divas, Total Bellas, Miz & Mrs.), WWE Studios, whatever’s left of home entertainment, and the Mixed Match Challenge programs that aired on Facebook in 2018.

This is a spreadsheet I used to estimate how the “Other” media revenue line breaks down.

Brandon’s estimate of further detail on WWE’s Other media segment revenue

In the last green row, underlined in red, you can see how I couldn’t find a home for about $50 million of the revenue in each of the quarters that contained a Saudi event.

An analysis of WWE’s revenue reporting isn’t the only evidence supporting the notion of a $50 million per event value.

An audio documentary timeline, produced in June 2019, on WWE’s relationship with the Saudi government

Activity in WWE’s accounts receivable line suggests the Saudi government pays for at least some portion of the events in a delayed manner.

That activity is illustrated in my table below that summarizes information from WWE’s public filings.

Paragraphs in WWE’s filings report what percentage of the total amount of accounts receivable (money owed to WWE) is owed by the company’s most-indebted customer at that time. WWE doesn’t disclose the identity of the customer but this allows us to see that the company is owed more than $60 million by a single customer in some quarters.

In WWE’s Q3 2019 earnings call on October 31, 2019, WWE’s then-co-president George Barrios mentioned on the call that after the quarter ended (September 30, 2019), WWE received a cash payment of $60 million. Barrios said:

“Notably, subsequent to quarter-end we received a $60 million payment for an outstanding receivable that would have resulted in year-over-year cash flow growth and positive free cash flow in the period had it been received during the quarter. “

It seems possible KSA is paying with interest, or the revenue for each event is more than $50 million, or, perhaps more likely, WWE is being reimbursed for some expenses.

Is it possible the payment Barrios referenced was from something other than a Saudi event?

Not according to a declaration under penalty of perjury from WWE’s chief accounting officer, Mark Kowal, who “[a]mong other things, [oversees] the corporate accounting for payments received by WWE in respect of WWE events held in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

Kowal’s statement is related to a shareholders’ class-action lawsuit filed against WWE. The relevant portion of Kowal’s statement reads:

“KSA paid the full fee due with respect to WWE Super ShowDown 2019 prior to WWE Crown Jewel. In fact, WWE publicly disclosed in its Q3 2019 Earnings Conference Call held at 11 am ET on October 31, 2019 — prior to the start of WWE Crown Jewel 2019 later that day — the receipt of a $60 million payment for an outstanding receivable subsequent to the close of the quarter. Following the receipt of that payment, the full fee due with respect to WWE Super ShowDown 2019 had been paid, with $1.9 million of reimbursable costs relating to the event subsequently paid comprised of payments advanced by WWE for (i) shared costs (security, ground transportation, hotels, catering); (ii) customs and VAT; and (iii) merchandise/freight costs.”

Kowal essentially confirms that the $60 million payment disclosed by WWE on October 31, 2019 was indeed related to a Saudi Arabia event. That event was Super ShowDown 2019, which took place on June 7, 2019 in Jeddah. The show is probably best remembered for the main event between The Undertaker and Goldberg. The amount, $60 million, is in excess of $50 million, possibly because it includes payment for multiple events or because it includes interest accumulated due to delayed payment.

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

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There Is No Mainstream Wrestling In The U.S.

There are two pro-wrestling companies (WWE and AEW) now with coverage in most U.S. homes, another (Impact Wrestling) in about a third of homes. None of them have a mainstream creative vision. Instead, they have niche creative visions.

The execution of those niche creative visions may gratify key decision-makers and performers, but while companies prioritize amusement over a more sports-like presentation, they turn off more fans than they attract, and the potential market for pro-wrestling remains limited. I’ll explain here why I think this is the case.

First, how did we get here?

Televised pro wrestling in the U.S. has been desperate to be anything but sports for much of the last 30 years. 

While he was still probably paying for some TV time, Vince McMahon won the 1980s wrestling war with gimmick-heavy creative and celebrity guest appearances.

Vince finally vanquished rival World Championship Wrestling in 2001. His former disciples with creative influence at WCW (e.g., Vince Russo, Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, etc.) played a role in causing the company to combust from dysfunction as they poorly tried to apply Vince’s vision of wrestling. Back then, WWF (before it was WWE) was getting just $550,000 a week from Viacom and $300,000 weekly from UPN. 

Perhaps feeling affirmed by achieving a virtual monopoly, around that time McMahon’s programs became increasingly scripted. Backstage skits where the wrestlers did not acknowledge awareness of the cameras began routinely appearing on Raw and Smackdown.

Since winning the war in 2001, theoretically affirming Vince’s creative genius, WWE has doubled-down on his less-sports-like vision — while becoming gradually less popular with consumers in the ensuing 19 years.

Total Nonstop Action Wrestling made it to high-coverage cable on Viacom’s Spike in 2005. TNA tried and failed to compete with Vince, but only on his creative terms. The leaders at TNA largely assumed Vince’s creative approach was the right and true way to appeal to the masses. His dominance of the industry must have been proof. TNA’s creative endeavors were so chronically disdained, the company had to abandon its toxic trade name and rebrand itself “Impact Wrestling” in 2017.

It’s as if Vince has long been trying to morph his pro wrestling business, which he took over from his father, into something that transcends pro wrestling. He’s spent decades trying to make movies — literally. And he’s spent longer trying to turn his programs into something more like the scripted entertainment that gets more cultural respect.

So what befalls WWE now is a tragicomic blessing. The media economy is making pro-wrestling richer than it’s ever been — not because it finally recognizes wrestling as honorable scripted entertainment, but because it identifies it as at least enough of a live sport.

Despite the career-long efforts of Vince McMahon, and the generation of derivative minds he trained and influenced, to divorce their medium from sport and to re-engineer it into some kind of ironic meta-comedy, wrestling gets to share in the billions nonetheless. Fox now awards Smackdown with about $4 million per episode (13x what UPN was paying). USA Network gives Raw $5 million a week (9x what Viacom once paid).

TV networks are writing huge contracts for sports, in eager attempt to keep the MVPD complex alive in the face of streaming video and the increasing uselessness of the very invention that originally helped bring Vince to such power: the cable TV subscription.

What can we learn from regions with different creative roots?

Japan is often a control group for the wider wrestling business. Wrestling in Japan may tell us how the creative side of wrestling would naturally play out if the free market were actually free and not determined by one major company from 2001 to 2018. New Japan Pro Wrestling is the country’s leading company, by far. It features a straight-forward sports approach, without fourth-walled skits, without ironic breaks from the narrative, with few angles, and with some of the most charismatic and talented wrestlers of the generation. It’s a mainstream product.

Bearing in mind Japan and the U.S. are different countries with different cultures, it seems likely to me the outcome for modern wrestling is that the U.S. market would naturally be led by a major player whose creative approach is one presenting wrestling more strongly as a sport. Yes, predetermined still. Spectacular, still. But with the audacity to take itself seriously. A company where titles, wins, losses, and angles are greatly consequential, not merely the currency of a desensitized narrative. And if this is not the likely outcome, it is at least untested.

Certainly there’s an audience interested in comedy in wrestling, extraordinary storylines, and other experiments from other mediums — exemplified in things like WWE’s cinematic matches and All Elite Wrestling’s “Le Dinner Debonair” — which break greatly from wrestling-as-simulated-sport. There’s a real and respectable audience that’s interested in a novel flavor of wrestling. I’m not sure, though, leading wrestling companies can successfully appeal to the widest possible audience while also serving big helpings of elements more familiar to scripted media. And likewise, I doubt audiences who love cinema and skits in their wrestling will be prohibitively turned-off by a wrestling product that looks more like the live sports content the media industry increasingly values.

WWE has gotten less popular with consumers while New Japan has gotten more popular

Consider a recent survey conducted by Yougov for Variety found “it seemed more cartoonish than when I liked it” was the leading reason former wrestling viewers said they stopped watching.

Consider that New Japan — with its strong sports-like creative — has grown its consumer revenues and key metrics in recent years. And WWE — with its insistence on diverging away from sports — is losing in direct-to-consumer revenues.

WWE’s finances have improved due to the greater appeal the company has to its business partners, especially its television distributors. Despite creating content that supposedly serves the masses, though, ticket sales, merchandise sales, and product licensing revenues fell each year, 2017 to 2019. Even a new technology, WWE Network subscribers, fell in 2019.

According to New Japan’s parent company, in fiscal year (ending July) 2018, media revenue only made-up 20% of New Japan’s business. The rest of their business is from events and consumer products: direct-to-consumer revenues. And given the loss of New Japan’s distribution in the U.S. via AXS TV, there’s little reason to think media revenues for the company have strongly grown since FY2018.

Until Covid interrupted events, New Japan’s paid attendance and total revenue grew each year since FY2013.

Source: Bushiroad

The number of events New Japan ran over this time increased, but so did average paid attendance per event.

Google web search may reflect how much people are thinking about various brands or topics. Searches for WWE, domestically and globally, have fallen each year since 2016. Until the year of the pandemic, searches for New Japan, domestically and globally, have grew each year since 2010.

Monthly data averaged by year

Havens for alternative flavors of wrestling do exist in Japan, in the form of two of the most popular companies, after New Japan: Dragon Gate and DDT. No doubt, there is a place for novelty and experimentation in the wrestling economy.

Dragon Gate has strongly storyline-heavy content. It embraces of non-traditional wrestling values. It appeals to demographics the more mainstream approach to wrestling doesn’t serve as well. Dragon Gate exercises a plethora of stipulations, gimmicks, and relationship-heavy storylines.

And then there’s DDT with its wild embrace of “entertainment” wrestling and comedy. As much as any company in the world, DDT has tested the bounds of what pro-wrestling is.

In this sense WWE is not in fact delivering mainstream wrestling to its audience. To the contrary, WWE is producing utterly niche programming, despite long ago earning its high-reach platforms and universal brand recognition.

But isn’t AEW supposed to be more sports-like?

AEW comes closer, but is still not quite doing “mainstream wrestling” in this sense. The people behind AEW have consumed many years of WWE content. A large portion of the people who work there, from executives, to wrestlers, to agents, to staff, formerly worked for WWE. WWE’s actually-niche creative is the unquestioned presumption about what popular wrestling ought to be in the U.S. and globally.

Certainly people at AEW know part of their opportunity is in being an alternative to WWE, but the content AEW produces still emanates from the inescapable U.S. wrestling groupthink that prefers short-term amusement over long-term emotional investment.

But it’s not from a lack of promising. Like a reformed addict, U.S. wrestling brands — or their TV networks — have repetitively given signals they’re going to be sports-like.

As if anyone believed it, WWE even was supposed to become more sports-like following Smackdown’s move to Fox in October 2019.

“Fox wants everyone to promote WWE as a legitimate sport,” Dave Meltzer wrote in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in July 2019, “not that the outcomes are real, but that it is a choreographed sports presentation as part of a Thursday through Sunday sports block in the fall with the NFL on Thursdays and Sundays and College Football on Saturdays.”

Major League Wrestling, which is distributed by beIN Sports and DAZN, markets itself as a sports-like approach. MLW’s executive Court Bauer says the right things: “Major League Wrestling is a sports centered league. I think there are wrestling leagues that are like a variety show, or a circus or over the top. For those wrestling leagues where it’s like you’re in on the joke.”

MLW calls its matches fights and says it presents itself as more of a combat sport. But it also puts out content that looks like a cross between a wrestling promo and a direct-to-video movie scene. Bauer, too, worked for WWE as a writer from 2005 to 2007.

AEW’s chief executive Tony Khan told fans ahead of the company’s inaugural event: “We’re going to offer a sports-centric product that focuses on the athletes and work… I plan to draw from a lot of what’s worked outside of wrestling in sports. In MMA, UFC, and Boxing, people have done great things. There’s a lot to be said in how we’re going to cover the sport of wrestling. We’re now identifying wrestling as a sport.”

There were AEW press releases, too, with sentences like: “Focused on producing fast-paced, high-impact competitions, AEW offers fans less scripted, soapy drama, and more athleticism and real sports analytics, bringing a legitimacy to wrestling that it has not previously had.”

At yesterday’s AEW media conference call, EVP Cody Rhodes was asked if the creative direction described early on had changed.

So when it comes to sports-centered wrestling, I consider everything I do — me, personally — to be sports-centric. I honor my own identity by presenting myself as such because that is who I am. You talk about Dinner Debonair. That is who Chris Jericho is. There are different flavors of ice cream that we serve at AEW, and it is very funny to me, [that] some of the modern — I don’t know [if] ‘pundits’ is the term — the wrestling journalism that tells you it has to all be one way. That hasn’t worked for anyone you’ve told that it all has to be one way. So why tell us [that]?

Cody, AEW FULL GEAR Media Briefing (11/5/2020)

The seven-minute musical comedy involving Chris Jericho and MJF on the October 21 episode of AEW Dynamite got rave reviews from some fans. I was watching live and thought it was genuinely creative, funny and intelligent — all of which I think is rare for comedy in wrestling. And MJF revealed himself to be a great singer. But “Le Dinner Debonair” drove viewers away.

15% of the total audience tuned out before it was over.

And despite Jericho branding himself the “demo god”, 11% of adults 18-49 tuned out. The key demo audience started out at 402,000 at 9:19pm and dropping to 357,000 by 9:25pm.

The segment appeared in the sixth quarter of Dynamite. With one of year of data, we now know the average growth/loss for viewership for the sixth quarter is -4%, in both key demo and total audience. The tune-out rate for Le Dinner Debonair fell well below that rate.

A sports-centered creative approach is most pronounced in AEW in the storylines Cody’s involved in. I’m not quite sure what Cody was trying to say yesterday in the comment quoted above. Since we’re the same age, I’m sure he knows as well as I do that during our adult lifetimes there’s never been a strongly sports-centric wrestling product with high-reach distribution in the U.S. It’s not only possible that such an approach more broadly applied would strongly succeed; it’s never even been given the chance to fail. When sports have never been more economically valuable, now is certainly the time for someone to at least try.

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

This article is available for everyone because of support from our subscribers.


Support quality reporting on the wrestling business