In a Patreon exclusive livestream version of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo discussed the idea that has permeated across wrestling media: WWE potentially preparing for a sale. The idea grew hotter after the releases last week Wednesday of many WWE talents like Braun Strowman, Lana and Aleister Black. That news followed lay-offs of dozens of corporate employees the week prior.
Fans, at least one former WWE writer, and reportedly some current WWE wrestlers believe a sale might be in the works.
While Gullo was open to either side of WWE selling or not, Thurston expressed his pessimism of Vince McMahon selling his company. He first cited a 2019 Variety article that profiled Vince McMahon as that issue’s cover story. “He doesn’t look like a man who’s ready to retire,” Variety wrote.
“We’re open for business,” McMahon told Variety at the time about the possibility of whether he’d be open to selling the company.
The article mentions that while Fox Corp. may look to buy WWE after entering into a TV rights deal involving Smackdown, McMahon wasn’t looking to sell.
On an earnings call in 2016, McMahon was also asked about the subject and used the same “open for business” line.
“We’re open to anything. I think controlling your own destiny is so important,” McMahon said in 2016. “I don’t know how much you lose control of that by being sold.”
Thurston cited WWE President Nick Khan’s interview with Colin Cowherd in April of this year where the topic of McMahon selling WWE came up. Khan also said he didn’t expect McMahon to see the company. He noted how deeply involved and invested McMahon is in WWE, citing how McMahon does not “summer” to exotic locations like many other executives.
Thurston believes Khan is being honest about McMahon’s lack of intent to sell WWE, and that the CEO has few interests outside of his working life.
Thurston detailed the current state of WWE ownership.
“Vince owns 38% of the shares, but because he, Stephanie and Linda own class B shares, their class B shares give them 10 times voting power per share versus everybody else. Yes, including Triple H,” Thurston noted. “Shane used to be a stockholder; he’s not a stockholder at all anymore. The other major shareholders are financial firms. The biggest by far is Lindsell Train.
“So when it comes to voting power, when it comes to who actually controls the company, because of his class B shares, which again give him 10 times the voting power per share of non-McMahon family members, he controls just over 80% of the voting power in WWE. Depending on how the math works out, he could sell his stock down to a small minority but still own 51% of the voting power.”
Thurston also pointed out that WWE’s stock price hasn’t responded much to recent talent releases and employee downsizing. Nor have any of the usual stock analysts who cover the company given these issues much notice. As of this writing, no stock analyst has updated their report on WWE since April 23 and trading volume patterns have so far been normal.
On Thursday, the day after this discussion, Thurston tweeted that he raised the notion of a company sale with five people in the WWE investment community. None believed WWE’s recent cost-cutting moves indicate a sale is likely coming soon.
Thurston gave his thoughts on Vince McMahon potentially selling WWE.
“I just can’t imagine Vince McMahon in his lifetime selling the company. I can’t imagine him doing anything else,” Thurston admitted. “This is a man who has no known hobbies, except for working out of course. I think above any amount of money, he values the control he has of the company, especially over creative, and I don’t ever see him relinquishing that as long as he has more time to do that job.
“All these layoffs, which are substantial to the finances of the company, but the layoffs, and the releases and the restructuring, I think they have more to do with the new WWE president and chief revenue officer Nick Khan and the new WWE chief financial officer Kristina Salen. I think it’s more about them critiquing what they’ve been handed, what they’ve inherited from the former executives, the co-presidents George Barrios and Michelle Wilson, who left in January 2020.
“Nick Khan and Kristina Salen were brought on in August 2020. This is about the new executive team reviewing what was left to them by the old executive team and saying, ‘Well, why are we doing this this way, and why do we have these employees who are doing the same job across two or three different departments? Why do we have all these wrestlers when we’re not using them all the time?’”
Thurston continued reiterating his point that he doesn’t see McMahon selling in his lifetime, and he talked about who would buy the company.
“I think Vince will never relinquish control in his lifetime, and I think that tendency to control his environment has increased over the time that he has been the leader of WWE,” Thurston said. “I think when he’s gone, you might see WWE sell to NBCUniversal or another media company. I think, at this moment at least, NBCUniversal is the most obvious suitor. It’s the one that makes the most sense. NBCU is by far their biggest customer, which has been laid out as we’ve noticed in certain SEC filings, and I understand there are wrestlers out there who believe that they’re looking to sell the company. And I think that’s wrestlers looking for a grand reason about why they or their friends were cut, rather than looking at the more boring minutiae of the company.”
Thurston also discussed the amount of talent that WWE has across all their brands compared to how many are actually being used weekly.
“WWE has roughly 254 wrestlers currently under contract after these cuts that were announced. And then I looked at Raw, Main Event, Smackdown, NXT UK, NXT, 205 Live in the past week. Those are all of their weekly programs.
“There’s 77 wrestler spots in that period. That includes things like Riddle being at ringside with Randy Orton, Commander Azeez being at ringside with Apollo Crews. 77 wrestler spots across all of those programs. Again, you’ve got at least 254 wrestlers under contract. So you’re using 30% of your wrestlers on a weekly basis. That ratio doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I think a lot of that was just motivated by the fact that they wanted to keep talent away from their competitors, especially AEW, and even if you take into account some inactive wrestlers, you’ve got a lot of wrestlers who are just going to be in developmental and who aren’t going to be used on screen just yet.
“I still don’t think that that ratio makes a lot of sense, and I think that’s one strategy along with the strategy to put NXT head-to-head with AEW on cable, that has a cost to it that’s proved to be ineffective. In the case of putting NXT head to head with AEW on cable, it has an opportunity cost, whether that’s keeping NXT on the WWE Network, whether that’s putting it on its own night. In April, they decided to put it on Tuesday. So that was a cost. It’s costly to keep talent under contract when you don’t really need them. It’s costly to try to use NXT as a bulwark against AEW, and ultimately, it proved to be ineffective. AEW won the Wednesday Night War. AEW did better in the ratings. It seems to be finding an audience regardless of what WWE throws at them, and now we’re seeing that strategy get undone.”
The original transcript of the podcast was edited for conciseness and clarity.
Jason Ounpraseuth has covered pro wrestling since 2019. He is a co-host of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast.
Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also an independent pro wrestler and trainer. For more, see our About page.
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