Return of live fans may not have the long-term effect on TV ratings some expect

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo discussed the possible effects the return of fans at shows will have on television ratings. AEW will resume touring starting with Road Rager in Miami on July 7, and WWE will kick off a multi-city tour on July 16. Thurston and Gullo broke down what effect they think fans will have on TV ratings for Raw and Smackdown.

Since recording the episode, Thurston has added predictions for monthly averages for AEW Dynamite, WWE NXT, and AEW Rampage, seen in the charts below. Rampage debuts on TNT on Friday in a 10pm Eastern time-slot, beginning August 13, before both AEW weekly shows move to TBS in 2022.

Averages for Smackdown and Rampage in December will be challenged by running on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, which fall on the last two Fridays of the year. Thurston anticipates Rampage will begin by performing close to Friday Night Dynamite’s Hour 1 average (562,000 viewers total, 277,000 in 18-49), and wane from there. The amount of time viewers are willing to spend watching AEW will be spread more thin, which will cause Dynamite’s viewership to be slightly lower than it would be otherwise as well.

By the end of the year, he sees Dynamite and Raw’s 18-49 viewer counts drawing close to one another, but not quite overlapping.

Chris Gullo: Fans are coming back. We had a Dynamite in front of fans on Wednesday, and we’re gonna have fans in WWE crowds in a couple weeks. How much of an effect do you really think it makes on the ratings because you’ve heard, ‘Oh, wrestling’s hard to watch with no fans, or in Thunderdome or with the same fans at Daily’s Place.’ Well now, we have live audiences all around the country.

They’re going to fill arenas. Do you really think it’s gonna make that huge of a difference on the ratings? I think because it’s summer, it won’t, but that’s just me. I don’t think, after a year and a half, someone goes, ‘I think I’m gonna watch Raw again because they have fans.’

Brandon Thurston: I was looking at what the month-to-month trends usually are, and usually, July is up from June and then August is up from July. I just sort of went through each week and tried to do a rough prediction of what I think is going to happen, trying to take into account holidays and things like that.

General overview, I think that there’s definitely going to be a short-term bump with Raw with its first event in front of live fans. It will pop a pretty big number over what it had been doing in the weeks leading up to it. Smackdown, same thing. I don’t know this, but I think they’re going to bring in John Cena and probably advertise him ahead of time and maybe he’ll start a program off with Roman Reigns heading towards Summerslam.

I think there’s going to be a short-term boost, and after that, both of these programs are just not good enough and don’t make people feel like watching them enough to sustain a long-term increase in ratings compared to their trends over the last year and a half during the pandemic.

Thurston noted WWE investors have high expectations for TV ratings when fans return.

Thurston: In July 2020, Vince was grilled on the earnings call about ratings and the excuse was that, well, once we get fans back in attendance, ratings will improve, and the Thunderdome was introduced partly to address that.

And the Thunderdome did coincide with ratings stabilizing. But I think investors are really expecting a major boost in ratings when fans return.

With the prediction that Raw and Smackdown will have a short-term boost, Thurston explained predictions for total viewership numbers for Raw and Smackdown for the remainder of the year. These predictions also take into account the NFL season where there will not be a lead-in during the holiday season like there was last year that led to a big number for Smackdown on Christmas.

Thurston: Let’s talk about what the averages were for June. I’m just gonna talk about total viewership here. Raw averaged 1.67 million viewers. Smackdown averaged about 2 million flat, which I think is the first time that the average comes in below 2 million on Fox. I think in July, about 1.7 million for Raw and 2.1 million for Smackdown, so they’re both up. This is for the second half of the month only, including live fans in attendance again, and then in August, 1.75 million for Raw and 1.20 million for Smackdown. And then in September, we’ll start to get back into the season of Monday Night Football, in the case of Raw, and I see it falling about 1.60 million for Raw and then maybe Smackdown, I feel like this is being generous, but Smackdown staying above 2.1 million.

It certainly may have John Cena throughout August, but then I see it really slipping for Raw down to 1.5 million, and Smackdown getting to 2 million flat again. Smackdown, the way the calendar works this year, is going to land on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. So those ratings, almost certainly, are going to plunge. I see Raw doing 1.5 million through the prime of the football season so that will be scraping record lows again. To be fair, I expected that to happen last year, and it did not go as badly as I expected. I think that’s partly thanks to the Thunderdome, remember through the summer where they were panicking with things like Raw Underground.


Jason Ounpraseuth has covered pro wrestling since 2019. He co-hosts 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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