We’re on the eve of Vince McMahon perhaps signaling that he’s permanently back as the leader of WWE’s creative direction, depending on whether he’s present in the Gorilla position on Friday night at Smackdown in Portland, following his reported heavy involvement with production at the Raw after Wrestlemania on Monday.
Many fans and, reportedly talent, fear Vince’s return to creative means the product will reverse to the state when those viewers and wrestlers were more frustrated.
There may be business implications, too, as many have the impression that WWE under Paul Levesque’s creative direction coincided with better TV ratings and live event attendance.
So did the possibly-fleeting “Triple H era” under Levesque, from the tail end of July 2022 through last week’s Wrestlemania really coincide with improved business results for WWE?
Certainly when it comes to measuring fan interest, in year-over-year comparisons — to avoid any misleading seasonal trends — WWE’s shows were more highly-attended. Despite traditional television viewership generally being challenged by the ongoing decline in pay TV homes — meaning the “Triple H” had a slight disadvantage compared to the prior “Vince era” — Raw and Smackdown viewership was either even or up compared to his father-in-law’s last months in charge.
Levesque’s eight months leading creative saw Raw average 1.80 million viewers. The same eight months a year prior, under Vince, Raw averaged 1.77 million viewers. Levesque’s run in the same months was 4% higher than Vince’s, despite Vince’s programs having slightly more households in reach.
Smackdown under Levesque improved more, averaging 2.28 million viewers to Vince’s 2.14 million over the same months the year before. The Triple H era of Smackdown had 6% higher viewership, again, despite fewer pay-TV households.
Live event ticket sales are a clearer story. Average tickets distributed, according to WrestletTix, for Raw was higher in every month of the Triple H era. For Smackdown, the Levseque months were higher in all cases but one. This is the case even though the Vince era, in the summer of 2021, benefited from strong initial ticket sales likely due in part to “pent-up demand” as WWE returned to touring, which had been paused for 15 months because of the pandemic.
The average number of tickets distributed for Smackdown under Triple H was 8,555 to Vince’s 7,532 in the comparable period; 14% higher for Levesque. Raw under Triple H averaged 8,463 tickets out to Vince’s 6,787; 25% higher for Levesque.
Vince’s period did have a higher average by 2% for domestic house shows, leading 4,436 to 4,357. That lead however is entirely in the early months of Vince’s comparable period, from August 2021 to November 2021, the first months of the return to touring. After that period, house shows year-over-year had higher averages in the Triple H era, with a narrow lead widening in February and March of this year.
Was fan-driven business better in the Triple H era?
Based on the data above, the answer is a pretty definitive “Yes”, fans were more engaged in Levesque’s first eight months compared to the prior year with Vince.
It’s not an abrupt, massive difference, but in most comparisons, results driven by fan interest were better in the Levesque era than during the comparable McMahon era, despite some external tailwinds McMahon’s data has that Levesque’s doesn’t (return-to-touring timing, slightly higher traditional TV reach).
If Vince takes over again for the foreseeable future, though, will there be economic pressure that will strongly affect WWE’s business to the extent that, say, WWE’s future overlord, Ari Emanuel takes enough notice to remove McMahon from creative? That seems unlikely in this environment where TV rights fees are guaranteed and escalating, according to contracts, regardless at least in the short-term of viewership; where the Saudi government pays WWE $100 million a year for two events no matter what; and where live event ticket sales make-up a smaller snd smaller percentage of WWE’s revenue, commensurate with WWE’s increasing media revenues.
WWE’s TV rights negotiating period is now underway with incumbents NBCUniversal and Fox. One of the few ways those negotiations could be negatively impacted due to a decrease in the quality of programming related to Vince’s direction would be if Raw and Smackdown’s ratings declined so badly that those programs ceased being highly ranked+ in P18-49 on their respective nights.
Even throughout the measurable decline in fan interest from 2016 to 2019 and the decrease in viewership that coincided, Raw and Smackdown never consistently lost hold of its high rank among other programming generally, which is largely the key to maintaining strong media rights values.
Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.
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