A Brief State of the Pro Wrestling Business at the End of 2020

I’ve gone to some lengths the last few years to research and try to understand the popularity and finances of the pro wrestling business.

There’s good reason to believe World Wrestling Entertainment’s popularity diminished each of the last three to four years, based on consistent annual declines in ticket sales, merchandise sales, Google web search, WWE Network subscriber losses in 2019, and Raw’s viewership has been under-indexing since at least 2019 compared to other TV trends.

WWE is the industry leader, obviously. The company attracts the vast majority of the eyeballs and view time globally, and the vast majority of the revenue.

WWE will report somewhere around $1 billion in revenue for 2020. I estimate All Elite Wrestling, WWE’s new competitor, generates somewhere around 10% of that amount. The likely next-closest company, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, in its most recent non-Covid fiscal year, reported $53 million in revenue, about 5% of what WWE will generate this year.

The business model for the biggest wrestling companies transformed drastically over the last several years. No longer is U.S. pro wrestling such a “destination” business: where promotions’ TV programs are a loss leader used to promote sales of tickets and pay-per-views. (This raises questions about what the optimal creative approach is to wrestling storytelling in this environment, but that’s another article.) A progressively large portion of U.S.-based wrestling companies’ revenues come from television broadcast rights. This has little to do with anything wrestling companies have accomplished and more to do with the media economy. As cable homes and viewership have diminished, the most-viewed programs have become increasingly valuable. Top wrestling programs are among these.

To maintain their diminishing subscriber bases, cable networks and cable/satellite systems are increasingly reliant on highly-viewed programs that people watch live. Viewing programs that are live (like sports and news) is emerging as cable TV’s enduring valued function for consumers. Netflix and other streaming services have absorbed much of the time viewers used to spend watching scripted programming, but those services have yet to do so much in the area of live programming. Because of that, cable networks are paying increasingly huge fees for highly-viewed programs that are best watched live.

For the first time, WWE will get the majority of its revenue this year from TV rights fees. That will be the case after Covid is long gone too. This will also be WWE’s inflation-adjusted most profitable year ever, despite not selling a single ticket since March and not being able to do Wrestlemania in front of fans.

So while cable TV is perceived to be a dying medium, it’s actually making wrestling more profitable than ever.

And — you may be thinking: But what happens to wrestling when cable actually dies? I’m skeptical it truly will, but even if cable subscribers were to evaporate entirely, I don’t see the value in highly-viewed live content diminishing much. Big live audiences will be highly monetized some way or other. And if the large FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) companies ever get involved in live sports rights bidding — a topic explored on the previous WWE earnings call — that may drive the going rate for sports rights, including wrestling, even higher.

Clearly there’s a ton of watch time and other forms of engagement happening digitally, across many wrestling brands. That digital consumption drives far less revenue, though, even for WWE. Even if you live in an economy where the digital CPMs (ad rates) are high, an hour of watching WWE content on YouTube is probably worth about 5% of what it is when you watch on traditional TV.

Keep in mind, too, cable television is not just an ad platform (like YouTube is), but it’s a subscriber-supported platform too (unlike free-access YouTube).

Not only are advertisers paying more per eyeball on cable TV versus digital platforms, but networks rely on highly-viewed programs to justify the affiliate fees they charge your local cable/satellite system. (And, by extension, your local system relies on top programming to justify the subscriber rates they charge, you, the end-consumer.) And those affiliate fees make up the majority of cable networks’ revenues.

Revenue sources breakdown for TV networks that distribute WWE and AEW in the U.S.

Consider, too: Netflix has been hugely successful. It’s in more than 73 million homes between the U.S. and Canada, as of Q3. But major cable networks like USA Network and TNT, for now, likely still have the edge. As of 2019, USA and TNT were in 89.7 million and 89.2 million U.S. homes, respectively. Those counts are almost certainly lower today, but probably still marginally above the count of Netflix subscribers in the U.S.

That said, time spent on wrestling is probably stable, maybe growing. WWE still easily makes up the majority of time spent, but people are engaging with a wider variety of wrestling brands, which probably make up a larger minority of the engagement than at any time since the end of World Championship Wrestling in 2001, especially with the introduction of AEW on cable in October 2019.

Quality of the current content notwithstanding, it’s a great time to be a fan. Fans have more easy and low cost access to a wide variety of current and historical wrestling content than ever. There’s an enormous supply of wrestling footage for free on YouTube. Every wrestling company of note with a substantial archival library has a streaming service for about $10 monthly or less.

And creative fulfillment notwithstanding, it’s a great time to be a wrestler. There are more living-wage-paying positions for wrestlers in the industry than at any time since the fall of the territories. And that’s the case as we head toward a time where WWE might cut back on house shows post-Covid, and AEW will probably never run them, meaning there are more positions with less travel, time away from home, and physical wear required. Even as house show fees for wrestlers may disappear, competition for talent among major companies is tremendous and should result in increased salaries. It likely already has.

At the independent level — where many of today’s top wrestlers started — wrestlers and promotions are empowered (and hazarded) with the tools of social media, which allow them to connect with fans, wrestlers, and promoters like never before. As mentioned, there’s an endless relatively low cost video library at wrestlers’ fingertips to study. And the eagerness with which top companies are signing wrestlers to exclusive contracts means roster spots at the more prestigious independent promotions have been largely vacated, and those companies should be desperate to cultivate a new crop of independent stars.

The enormous time people spend using the internet also empowers those ambitious indies to monetize video in various ad- and subscriber-supported platforms. Companies like FITE work with a variety of wrestling companies to stream live pay-per-view events, and IWTV (which I’ve done limited work for) live streams some of its partners’ events. I expect before long live streaming events for most any indie of note behind a paywall will be commonplace. All this allows relatively small companies to monetize not just live events (via ticket sales) with fans in the local area but to monetize video as well with fans globally, without the expense, shipping, and labor required of creating a physical product like a DVD.

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

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