WWE Raw long-term ratings compared to wider TV trends

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo took a look at the growing decline of Raw ratings. Raw recently hit a record low 1,472,000 viewers early this month. Many were quick to point out linear TV viewership in general is down in large part due to streaming, which is true. However, Thurston addressed that argument.

“People have asked lately, I’ve seen people discussing, yes, Raw is at an all-time low, but is Raw really declining at a rate that is worse than comparable shows, worse than the decline of TV overall?

“I know we’ve talked about this with some regularity, but I think it’s worth revisiting and going into some detail to show the answer is, ‘Yes’,” Thurston said. “Raw is doing worse than other sports programs. Raw, over the last couple years, has been doing worse than TV in general.”

Thurston broke down how and compared Raw’s decline in ratings compared to other sports broadcasts using a timeframe from 2016 to 2020. Raw was down 41% during this period, and the NBA Conference Finals on TNT was down 55%. However, other telecasts like the NFL Draft are up 30%, and the NBA Conference Finals on ESPN was only down 30%.

“A lot of different sports telecasts have held up over these four years better than Raw has,” Thurston said. “So yes, ‘streaming is the future,’ but TV ratings still matter, and TV ratings for other programs have declined, but not quite as bad in most cases than Raw has.”

Thurston has also included 2021 in this timeframe as well. These numbers are as of June 30, and they show that Raw is down 42% from 2016 to the first half of 2021. The NBA Conference Finals on TNT are down 52%, but the NBA Conference Finals on ESPN are only down 1%. Thurston then took a deep dive on Raw ratings compared to non-news cable programs.

View charts: How much has sports television fallen since 2016?

“Now that’s just sports. Let’s say you don’t want to compare Raw to sports programs because wrestling isn’t real sports, and you shouldn’t compare Raw to other sports because sports are just more popular and they’re gonna hold up better,” Thurston explained. “Let’s make a stronger argument, people are more likely to watch WWE stuff on DVR than they are to watch actual shoot sports on DVR.

View charts: Top 50 cable originals (excluding CNN, Fox News, MSNBC) vs. WWE Raw, 2017-2020

“Let’s talk about non-cable news programs, the top 50 from Showbuzz Daily from 2017 to 2020. In ‘17 and ‘18 Raw did hold up better than the top 15 non-news cable programs, but in 2019 and 2020, Raw declined more sharply. Raw was down year over year in 2019, 14%. Top 50 non-news cable, only half as bad, 7%. That’s pre pandemic when they still had live crowds. 2020, Raw was down 22% compared to non-news cable, which was down 15%.”

Thurston transitioned into talking about the popularity of WWE compared to other sports leagues. He references a Seeking Alpha article he wrote in 2016 titled “WWE TV Ratings No Longer Reflect Popularity”. At the time, metrics like Google web search, live attendance and merchandise sales were not in line with WWE’s decline in ratings.

View charts: (1) U.S. Google Web Search versus U.S. WWE Raw TV Ratings; (2) WWE consumer trends

WWE consumer trends

However, looking at it in a more current lens, worldwide Google web search has now caught up to WWE’s ratings decline. Thurston found in his research that the Indian Premier League (IPL) was the most searched sports league in 2020. The cricket league that was founded in 2008 has seen a sharp rise in growth over the years and was valued at $6.7 billion in 2018 and had signed a $2.55 billion international media rights deal with Fox.

Coming in behind the IPL was the English Premier League (EPL) followed by NBA and NFL. After a significant drop, La Liga comes after. La Liga is the top division of Spanish football (soccer) and is home to top teams like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid and one of the best players in the sport, Lionel Messi.

In 2015, when Thurston wrote his original article, WWE was one of the most searched leagues behind the NBA and the NFL. However, in 2016 and to today, WWE has declined in Google web search while leagues like the IPL, EPL and La Liga have grown.

Other leagues that are above WWE in 2020 Google web searches are Formula 1 (F1), UFC and MLB. WWE only beats out the NHL and NASCAR in this metric. Thurston gave his analysis of this data.

View chart: Worldwide Google Web Search for sports leagues

“It doesn’t seem very debatable to me that WWE has declined in popularity over the last four, five years,” Thurston said. “They’re amazingly popular on YouTube and on forms of social and digital media, which I think, in many ways, wrestling is predisposed to being popular on those media platforms. The trajectory is, in a number of ways, pointing downwards. You’ve got declining ticket sales before the pandemic. You’ve got declining merchandise sales before the pandemic. You’ve got declining licensing revenues before the pandemic.”

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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