Will AEW’s media right’s values affect WWE?

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston sat down with former Wrestlenomics host and AEW SVP “Mookie” Chris Harrington to talk about the wrestling business today.

As noted in many past editions of Wrestlenomics Radio and on this website, wider TV viewership has been down over the past several years. However, TV and media rights values continue to increase, with WWE and AEW signing big deals with top networks. AEW’s growing popularity suggests they may sign a stronger deal when their current agreement is renegotiated. But would this have any bearing on WWE’s TV rights deals? Harrington gave his insight.

“Definitely being able to say, ‘Hey, AEW would not have gotten into this business if we didn’t see the rights that WWE was commanding’ and be able to say, ‘Oh, there’s some investment going on here, and there’s still probably an opportunity for more players in this marketplace, and there’s money that can be spent, and we will be an economical and we believe creatively viable choice, alternative, investment, whatever, to also join this,’ so that was important to us,” Harrington explained. “When you’re talking about ‘what what should I worry about,’ just like what we were talking about earlier, NFT’s wasn’t a thing three years ago, but they’re a thing now.

“So you’ve got to be thinking a lot about revenue streams. Maybe it’s media rights but media rights is a very particular bucket because you could also say it’s TV advertising, and that’s different than media rights. It could be about OTT money, it could be about SVOD, or AVOD, or getting involved in FAST.

“And not just media revenue but just the idea that, ‘Yes, right now, it’s networks paying a lot of money for the rights for a dealer, or Peacock or someone paying the rights for a library, along with special events. We’re still in the pay-per-view business. I work very hard on the pay-per-view side, and that’s the four events we’re doing a year.

“We just had our most successful event ever (All Out), that’s no secret. I’m monetizing this content in a very discrete way, at a very discrete time and maybe that’s what the future is like but maybe there’s some other way that you have that financial transaction so that you can still get value from that event, but it’s in some other way.”

The re-negotiation period for WWE and AEW is expected to be around 2023. Thurston asked Harrington why would a TV network executive pay a certain amount for WWE Raw and SmackDown compared to AEW Dynamite and Rampage’s performance.

“I have no idea. I never worked for a TV network,” Harrington noted.

“You talk to them,” Thurston pointed out.

“I do, but I talk to them from my side,” Harrington said. “I don’t know how they think about it on their side. I don’t know how they position their choices. Do they really say, ‘Oh, I’m deciding whether or not to buy this wrestling show or that wrestling show?’ I would say more they’re deciding ‘what do I program? What does that audience that program bring? How much does it cost for us to be involved with this?

“Next year, AEW Dynamite will move to TBS and AEW Rampage will stay on TNT, that’s because when you think of your slate of times, when you plant a flag to say, this show’s gonna be on at this time, 52 weeks a year, that’s a big investment from a programming standpoint, and I don’t think that anyone says, ‘Oh, I’m choosing my wrestling program to put on here.’ They’re just choosing what are they going to program in a steady slot for these periods of time, and so for instance, WarnerMedia made an investment in hockey rights.

“They’d made the choice to bring in hockey rights as part of what they think they want to put on their programming, but that means they have to be very careful then about what they’re thinking is their portfolio. A lot of times it’s not so much, ‘Hey, I want wrestling. I don’t want wrestling,’ as much as what does this [wrestling program] look like compared to everything else that I’m doing, and what’s [the network’s] vision?

“When MTV plays Ridiculousness, for 23 hours a day, there’s a vision there. There’s a reason they’re doing that, but also, the one hour that they’re not playing that, you don’t expect them to put on Oprah. It’s got to be in line with what the rest of the network is doing and what they carve that to be.”

Excerpts from Wrestlenomics Radio were edited for clarity.

Photo by All Elite Wrestling.

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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How WWE, AEW and Vince McMahon view talent in 2021

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo discussed the changes to WWE NXT in NXT 2.0. They played a clip from a video from Mick Foley out out titled “WWE: we’ve got a problem” where Foley pointed out the creative issues with WWE and the lack of cohesion between NXT and main roster WWE.

Thurston then referenced a line from Vince McMahon on the Q2 earnings call, said in response to the cuts WWE have made and CM Punk joining AEW. McMahon said, “I’m not so sure what their investments are as far as their (AEW’s) talent is concerned… but perhaps we can give them some more.” Thurston and Gullo broke down the statement as well as how talent are valued in WWE and AEW.

Thurston: “I feel sort of ridiculous that we’re trying to unpack such a small sentence. This is not some grand statement or speech that he gave. This is just one sentence, and we’re trying to read quite a bit into this, but on the other hand, we get so little in terms of what Vince really thinks he does. He speaks publicly so little, but is there any insight we can get from this?

“Along with some other moves that they’ve made recently, to me, that’s doubling down. All the talent that they’re cutting, cutting even people Braun Strowman. I’m thinking too about what Nick Khan said to Ariel Helwani, about indie wrestlers, if you will. If people move on, that’s fine by them, which is just great corporate speak to make it sound like they’re doing somebody a favor by cutting, but in some cases, they are, as far as their careers go.

“I think what we’re seeing happen is this bifurcating, that’s a Chris Harrington word, of maybe wrestling audiences, definitely two different creative visions of what their product is. WWE not even willing to accept that they’re in the wrestling business. AEW embracing that they’re in the wrestling business. Those visions are very different.

“They have different visions of what they do creatively, and they have different visions of what talent they value. They kind of already did in the first place, but I think we’re seeing a doubling down on that in WWE’s case.

“Maybe part of that is this sort of you can’t quit, you’re fired kind of thing. ‘Oh, these indie people are leaving us? Adam Cole is going to pass us up, and CM Punk was not interested in dealing with us. Apparently, we had some discussions with him, and we couldn’t get Bryan Danielson to stay. Jon Moxley wanted to leave a few years ago, and he left, wouldn’t even look at his deal, wouldn’t even look at what the money was that we were offering him.’

Gullo: “Christian. You got to add Christian not wanting to really pursue a deal with them.”

Thurston: “Maybe it’s sort of ‘I’m starting to feel rejected. So rather than allow people to reject me, I’m going to preemptively reject them,’ and I think we’re seeing maybe the next step is deals are coming up around the end of the year for three other wrestlers, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and Johnny Gargano, who, I would guess, are not going to re-sign with this company when when their deals are up.

“And these are three wrestlers who were big time indie wrestlers before they came to WWE, and you combine that with will if not wrestlers, not people who have already been in the wrestling business and have already been on, some level, relatively speaking, successful wrestlers, then what kind of talent are they going to sign? Maybe it’s more of the Gable Steveson types, on the high end. I don’t know how often you can sign a gold medalist, but that seems to be their idea.

“Obviously, we see that in the repackaging of NXT, NXT 2.0. Now, they just put the title on Tommaso Ciampa, who’s a big indie wrestler, but maybe that’s part of a transition into a future of WWE talent development that’s more about people who have athletic backgrounds, perhaps. Especially on the women’s side, maybe they’re fitness models but not necessarily independent wrestlers. I know Triple H, at the Las Vegas tryout said that it’s not a negative if they have indie experience. I’m not so sure. Maybe Triple H feels that way.

“It’s evident, through what NXT has put out, that Paul Levesque has a different creative vision than Vince McMahon about what pro wrestling can be creatively, and to Paul Levesque, I don’t think it’s a negative that you have independent wrestling experience. I think around 2014 he had a change of mind, at least he did relative to what he was willing to say publicly. I think what he’s willing to say publicly, as much as anybody, is not necessarily what he believes genuinely, and I don’t know what he believes genuinely.

“But in the case of Vince McMahon, I know Vince is very much just not aware of what’s going on in wrestling beyond his company, but I do wonder when or if he learns that somebody has an independent wrestling background or has any sort of wrestling background outside of the company, whether that becomes a negative to him and not a totally prohibitive negative but a negative. There are other things that can outweigh that.

“This is one thing we can say in WWE’s favor here, I think they do value diversity of people from a variety of backgrounds. That’s something that AEW needs to work on, in terms of having stars who are not just white guys. You’ve got CM Punk, that’s a big deal. You’ve got Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole, and this is a huge deal for the company, but in the future, they really have to look at building people from more diverse backgrounds.”

Excerpts from Wrestlenomics Radio were edited for clarity.

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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Summerslam’s business results in context

Summerslam 2021 delivered huge numbers for WWE. In its press release, WWE touts Summerslam as “the most-viewed and highest-grossing Summerslam in the company’s history.”

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo analyzed the press release and examined the context of the numbers WWE has released. The following bullet points were looked at on Wrestlenomics Radio:

– More people watched Saturday’s event live across Peacock and WWE Network than any other SummerSlam in the company’s history. The seven-figure global audience marked a 55% increase over 2020 and a 29% increase over 2019.

– The sellout crowd of 51,326 broke SummerSlam records for indoor attendance and gate receipts. With tickets purchased by fans from all 50 U.S. states, Saturday’s live gate was more than four times greater than the last SummerSlam held with fans in attendance in 2019.
Merchandise sales posted an increase of 155% over 2019.

– SummerSlam set a new sponsorship record, growing by 25% vs. 2019 and 18% vs. 2020.

– With more than four million views, Brock Lesnar’s return became WWE’s most-watched Instagram video of all time – surpassing the video of John Cena’s return at WWE Money in the Bank. In total, SummerSlam videos generated more than one billion views across all WWE social platforms during the week.

Thurston went point by point through the press release on Wrestlenomics Radio. He gave more detail and and context to the numbers that WWE have released.

“‘The most watched Summerslam in the company’s history,’ which makes some sense,” Thurston stated. “What we gather from this too is the cynicism that the WWE Network is now being viewed less because they moved from the standalone WWE Network in the U.S. to Peacock, not the case. As we know, the standalone WWE Network had about 1.2 million subscribers. In March this year, the standalone WWE Network in the U.S. shut down, and now everybody’s been encouraged to sign up for Peacock. There was no automatic transition, but you were encouraged and marketed to. Nonetheless, there’s more people watching Summerslam than ever. I don’t doubt the veracity of this.

“There’s some truth to the hype that this enhanced reach of Peacock over WWE’s direct-to-consumer network is paying off, is producing some results. That said, there’s some interesting fact to get out of this where it says, ‘The seven-figure global audience,’ so that just means there’s somewhere in excess of a million viewers, and who knows if that means average throughout or just checked out at least 10 seconds of it, but anyway, ‘marked a 55% increase over last year,’ which was on the WWE Network standalone, ‘and a 29% increase over 2019,’ which means that 2020 was down from 2019. 2020 is a COVID year with Braun Strowman and Bray Wyatt with Roman Reigns running in at the end, finally returning. You got John Cena and Roman Reigns here, bigger match.

“John Cena had not wrestled since the Wrestlemania at the Performance Center [in April 2020]. It had been over a year since John Cena wrestled in WWE, and so I think that that means something. The 2019 Summerslam was at least in front of a live audience, and it certainly doesn’t dispute the notion that in 2019 to 2020, there was less interest in WWE. Whether you want to discount that because of COVID or not, it’s just two data points without true values here but with relative values in terms of percent.

“But maybe there was some increased interest, and I think we saw that too when Nick Khan disclosed a similar comparison using percentage changes from year to year when he discussed the Money In The Bank difference in viewership, which was up in this year 2021 as well because now they’re on Peacock and apparently that really does result in more people watching these WWE PPVs.”

Thurston then moved to the next bullet point that regards Summerslam attendance. Wrestle Tix reported that the estimated capacity for Allegiant Stadium was over 46,000. However, WWE reported a much larger number, and Thurston noted what Nick Khan had to say about Summerslam attendance.

“A sold out crowd of 51,326,” Thurston continued. “In the last couple of days before Summerslam and there could have been some sales, I’m sure there were some sales on the last couple of days, but Nick Khan said in print, in Variety and to Ariel Helwani for BT Sport that the paid ticket sales were over 45,000. Sounds pretty close to what Wrestle Tix found in their analysis of Ticketmaster. 45,000 is the paid. Sure, everybody exaggerates their attendance.

“People get cantankerous about it, though, when it comes to wrestling because wrestling’s a work, and this is the only objective measurement that we have of success. We can’t look up how many touchdown passes Roman Reigns has thrown. We can look up, though, the attendance or at least we can look at what Wrestle Tix, for example, reports what the attendance or what the tickets distributed count is. And when we see a number that doesn’t reflect what was possible, based on the ticket map, it’s worth talking about.”

Thurston went through the final bullet points. He explained that while the numbers for merchandise, sponsorships and video views may sound impressive, the whole story is still missing.

“Merchandise sales increased 155%. This is probably not venue merge per capita, right?” Thurston questioned. “This is an audience of 45,000 people compared to 2019 in the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. We’ve got probably well over two times the audience so maybe that’s what’s happening there. It’s not clear if this is a venue merge per capita number or if this is a revenue comparison, if you see what I’m saying there. It’s possible that the venue merch per capita was down from that event, but the revenue was up just by sheer volume of customers that may have made a purchase.

“Summerslam sets a new sponsorship record growing by 25% vs. 2019 and 18% vs. 2020, and I think that’s WWE’s business brand, which is pretty good and going in the right direction. WWE’s business brand is becoming more advertiser and business partner friendly, even while WWE is not a great consumer brand, in my view. It is becoming a stronger business brand, and that bears out here in the ad revenue, the sponsorship revenue that they were able to get here. It probably helps too that you’ve got a bigger audience. You’re on Peacock now, and you can tell these potential advertisers that we’ve got a track record now.

“We can look back at Money In The Bank that we had earlier this year and see how much viewership was up vs. when we were on the standalone network. Now we’re on Peacock. The reach is bigger, the audience is bigger and it probably helps your ability to sell advertising, even though advertising is probably sold so far in advance. I’m not sure how this is all working out on streaming, but a genuine positive for WWE. Video views, who knows what context to put that in. It’s in front of such a tailwind. Social media viewing, it’s hard to get an idea of what a true index would be and what true great numbers are, but they did a bunch of billion video views and who knows how many of them were even monetized? Well, some of them were through YouTube, certainly. Maybe some others on other platforms were but hard to say.”

Excerpts from Wrestlenomics Radio were edited for clarity.

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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