NXT Hasn’t Become A Third Media Rights Brand For WWE

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo went into detail on the recent WWE NXT cuts made on Friday. It was reported by Dave Meltzer on Wrestling Observer Radio that these cuts were led by Vince McMahon, with support from Bruce Prichard and John Laurinaitis. The moves are an effort to revert NXT back into a developmental brand.

In 2014, Paul Levesque (Triple H) led NXT to become a prominent third brand away from the earlier reality series origins of the show. Thurston went into detail on this week’s Wrestlenomics Radio on NXT’s new deal with USA Network.

“Let’s talk about what’s causing this. Every wrestling fan wants to talk about AEW vs. WWE and the fact that AEW beat NXT consistently in the ratings, in the Wednesday Night War, almost every time in terms of key demo viewership [viewers aged 18-49] and most of the time in terms of total viewership in the 70 some odd weeks that those programs ran head to head from late 2019 to April 2021,” Thurston said. “I think that’s probably part of the story and part of the perception in Vince McMahon’s mind, and by the way [WWE’s repeated public message is that], ‘they’re only focused on themselves,’ but I don’t believe that.

“I believe WWE cares about what AEW is doing, to a significant extent. There’s that, but I think what’s as big a piece is what happened earlier this year in March, where we got this press release. NXT had a two-year deal that started in fall 2019 to be on the USA Network. USA Network’s parent obviously is NBC Universal, and that deal is coming to an end this fall in two months.

“They renewed, WWE announced on March 30 that they’ve signed a multi-year extension. Now, we don’t know how long it is, but it’s multi-year, so at least two years, and this is when they also announced that WWE would move from Wednesday to Tuesday, and that began on April 13.”

Thurston continued as he discussed NXT’s move from the WWE Network to the USA Network. He examined WWE’s efforts to make NXT into a third rights brand and compares NXT’s financials to that of Raw, SmackDown and AEW.

“We never got an idea of what WWE really got in terms of TV rights fees from NBCU for NXT,” Thurston noted. “Of course, NXT was on the WWE Network. It was essentially the flagship show for the WWE Network for the first several years in the pre-Peacock era, and they decided to move it away from being essentially an exclusive Network show.

“Yes, it was on Hulu too but moving away from the Network to be on the USA Network. There was some worry from stock analysts, media analysts and investor types. ‘Why are you taking content that’s exclusive or almost exclusive to the Network and putting it on television when you’re trying to grow Network subs.’ And I think the media analysts who aren’t inundated in the wrestling industry every day probably didn’t appreciate the extent to which WWE wanted to compete head-to-head with AEW and sort of stamp out AEW’s progress before it got too far, but the public message, and I think there’s some legitimacy to this, was that maybe NXT could grow into this third media rights brand, in addition to Raw and SmackDown.

“Raw is getting $265 million a year from NBCU, that’s just in the U.S. SmackDown is getting $205 million from Fox. WWE in 2020 made over $500 million, more than half of its revenue from Raw and SmackDown rights fees. To an extent, NXT is bundled in there too, but if you took NXT out, it would be a minimal difference. So did NXT turn into this media rights brand? When the move was announced in 2019, there was speculation from stock analysts who cover WWE that the NXT deal to go to USA was worth maybe $50 million a year, early estimates were $100 million a year.

“We don’t know how much it was really worth, and we don’t know if it’s even all guaranteed or if it’s to a great degree, an ad revenue share, but my current belief is that it’s worth well less than what AEW getting from Turner, which is $44 million a year on an average annual basis. I believe it’s something probably closer in the neighborhood to $20 million a year. That’s what I believe about the first term, which is a two-year term.”

Thurston discussed WWE’s attitude towards NXT’s deal with USA Network. He explained what it meant to WWE, based on WWE’s public statements about it and the market’s reaction to it.

“Again, that first term is coming to an end this September, and the new deal will go into effect,” Thurston said. “They announced the new deal this past March, and was it an upgrade? Well, the stock price didn’t move when this deal was announced. The market didn’t feel like it was a big deal, and if this is a $50 million deal or $100 million deal on an average annual basis, that would be a big deal. That would be along the lines of WWE’s second biggest global TV deal, which is India, $50 million a year they get from Sony in India.

“If WWE is really getting $50 million, or something in that neighborhood, for NXT on USA Network, I would think the stock market would respond, but the stock market didn’t respond in March when this deal was announced or in early April when the stock market had the opportunity to react. And then we had the Q1 call on April 22. Stephen Cahall from Wells Fargo asked Kristina Salen about it.

“Basically, what I read this to be saying is that whatever the NXT deal was worth, the new deal was not a surprise to them. Or the value is too small to even really affect their financial guidance. The NXT deal, number one, was not a surprise to them.

“If it was a really great deal, they wouldn’t report a number on these earnings calls or in the press release, but they could have at least, if it was a great number, celebrated it in some way or given some indication about how happy they were about it. I know she’s happy saying, ‘We’re really pleased with that result,’ but it wasn’t a highlight in the press release.

“It only came up because an analyst asked about it, naturally, because NXT rights are something that has been hyped in the past. They justified putting it on the USA Network with the idea that they would be able to grow this third brand as a major media rights producer. We didn’t get any sort of hype. It’s not leaked to the Hollywood Reporter or to Sports Business Journal, that this is a big deal. If this was a big deal, something like that might happen, but it didn’t.”

Thurston then discussed what this all means for NXT now. He talked about NXT’s business performance over these past two years.

“Yes, NXT did not win the Wednesday Night War. AEW did, and NXT did not transform itself into just being some hybrid version of developmental and good content for the WWE Network into being, whatever value that has, this real tangible value of producing dozens of millions of dollars in media rights every year,” Thurston explained. “That’s not happening.

“NXT did not turn into this third media rights brand, yet it’s still on the USA Network. It’s probably producing some money. I would guess somewhere around $20 million a year. It doesn’t sound like it got a major upgrade and I think that’s sort of the financial, tangible, quantifiable, if you want to call it, failure. NXT didn’t meet those expectations.”

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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WWE Developmental Analysis: In The Performance Center Era and Beyond

Matthew Schroeder‘s (@mat_matician) help in collecting this data and guidance in analyzing it was essential to this project, which required scanning the entire cagematch.net database.

The data referenced here is up to date as of mid-October 2020.

What follows will not be an exhaustive analysis. The amount of data related to this project is vast. Many more articles could be written on this subject, referencing this data. At best, this is an introduction.

The purpose of this analysis is broad. But among our issues of interest was in learning about what the output of WWE’s developmental system has been, in recent years, and going back to as early as the year 2000.

I might at another time, but I will not try to make opinionated conclusions about the output or cost-effectiveness of WWE’s current or previous developmental systems here. I admit I have intuitions about the system (possibly biased by my personal experience as an independent wrestler) that were not much swayed either way by examining this data. If anything, my view has become more complicated. The phenomenon of NXT arguably morphing into something beyond a developmental system further complicates the issue. While we may measure match counts, match types, and time in interesting ways in attempt to shed light on this topic, nonetheless, qualities like “success” and “talent” remain elusive in their subjectivity with regard to pro wrestling, largely due to the predetermined nature of matches. Most importantly, opportunities for wrestlers and the results of their matches are ultimately left to the judgment of WWE’s key decision-makers, CEO Vince McMahon chief among them.

The Performance Center era

The information in this article will focus first on the period since the WWE Performance Center was opened in Orlando, Florida, in July 2013. The opening of the facility marked the moment World Wrestling Entertainment took its talent development in-house, after many years outsourcing developmental to various regional wrestling promotions (e.g., Ohio Valley Wrestling, Florida Championship Wrestling, etc.)

Of particular interest to us was the issue of sorting out which wrestlers, among those who have worked extensively on WWE’s main roster:

  • a) had most of their previous match experience in companies not affiliated with WWE or its developmental system (referred to throughout as “non-universe”)
  • b) had most or all of their previous match experience within WWE’s developmental system, or
  • c) somewhere in between.

We should keep in mind when it comes to the “non-universe” match data, cagematch.net does not have a complete record of all matches that have occurred. Certainly many matches wrestlers have had with lesser known promotions are unaccounted for. However, we believe cagematch.net has the most completed record available for this type of research.

Since we are initially focused on the output of WWE developmental following the opening of the Performance Center in July 2013 (and since many wrestlers who were among the first to train at the Performance Center were participating in WWE-affiliated developmental with Florida Championship Wrestling in the time immediately previous to July 2013), January 1, 2014 seems as good a time as any to start the clock on the analysis.

You will notice throughout we are using a wrestler’s 10th WWE main roster (MR) match as an arbitrary qualifier for assuming a wrestler has worked extensively on the main roster. This is not a perfect qualifier, but we struggled to find one that would be as effective without getting convoluted. Dark matches were ruled out of this criterion.

As of the timing of the data collection (mid-October 2020), 128 wrestlers have had their 10th WWE main roster match after or on January 1, 2014.

The table for those 128 wrestlers, with various other data points in additional columns is below. They are sorted in chronological order, beginning with the wrestler who had their 10th MR main the earliest.

A few notes for reading the table:

  • The numbers you see in parenthesis next to each wrestler’s name is simply a unique identification number associated with each wrestler in the cagematch.net database.
  • The name listed for a given wrestler in some cases may not be the name the wrestler is best known by. In many cases, a name used early in the wrestler’s career may be shown. Rest assured, though, due to our reliance on unique ID numbers for wrestlers, matches for an individual wrestler who used many names are counted to the individual wrestler and their associated ID number.
  • “A TV” refers to WWE main roster programs Raw and Smackdown
  • “B TV” refers to WWE programs 205 Live, Main Event, and possibly others.

You may click on any of the table images to enlarge view

Note the column “Non-universe development” (on the far right, in orange) attempts to measure the percentage of non-WWE matches a wrestler had before that wrestler had their 10th main roster match.

So for example, someone like Finn Balor (listed in the table as “Prince Devitt” has very high percentage (96%). He wrestled many matches before coming to WWE and working in NXT. For an opposite example, Baron Corbin was signed by WWE and went into developmental without ever having had previous wrestling experience. His result in this column is 0%.

Again, this is where the incompleteness of the cagematch.net database may be misleading. The most controversial example may be that Becky Lynch (who I would venture to guess most people would not think of as “pure Performance Center” developmental talent) has a value of 38% in this category, likely due to the lack of a complete record on cagematch.net of her pre-WWE independent wrestling matches.

Of those 128 wrestlers, there are 20 wrestlers who came to WWE with no prior wrestling experience. Those wrestlers are filtered in the following table:

Charlotte Flair (12939)
Baron Corbin (12474)
Braun Strowman (16167)
Mojo Rawley (12415)
Enzo Amore (13212)
Lana (13845)
Dana Brooke (15363)
Jason Jordan (11408)
Alexa Bliss (14526)
Carmella (15172)
Nia Jax (14763)
Riddick Moss (15858)
Mandy Rose (16878)
Sonya Deville (17658)
Rezar (17239)
Akam (17499)
Ronda Rousey (19446)
Lacey Evans (18121)
Tucker Knight (17113)
Bianca Belair (18242)
Click to enlarge view

A more historical analysis: Ohio Valley Wrestling, Heartland Wrestling Association, Deep South Wrestling, Florida Championship Wrestling, NXT

Let’s take a longer view of WWE developmental history. We looked at what percentage of talent in a given year that had their 10th main roster match had the majority of their previous experience outside of WWE’s system (“non-universe”) or majority within the WWE system. Again, this data may be incomplete due to the incompleteness of non-WWE records in the cagematch.net database.

I understand readers may want to know which developmental system was the best, the most effective at putting out talent wrestling stars. It’s a difficult question to answer without gathering better data about how many wrestlers signed to developmental and main roster contracts throughout the relevant period of time. Otherwise the denominator to weigh the results against isn’t clear.

In this very long table, we instead look all the wrestlers who had at least 100 main roster matches since 2000 (217 wrestlers) and this is what the table looks like, sorted by highest MR match counts:

NameTotal WWE main roster matchesnon-WWEHWAOVWDSWFCWNXT
Randy Orton20914%2%16%0%0%2%
John Cena200017%4%65%0%0%2%
Kofi Kingston190823%0%8%21%38%10%
The Miz180118%0%42%26%4%11%
Dolph Ziggler17790%0%44%0%52%4%
Cody Rhodes14100%0%87%0%1%12%
Jack Swagger12870%0%40%2%57%1%
Rey Mysterio124899%0%0%0%0%0%
Zack Ryder123817%0%26%20%1%37%
Shelton Benjamin11951%0%49%0%0%0%
Seth Rollins113479%0%0%0%16%5%
Jimmy Uso11246%0%0%0%58%36%
CM Punk110487%0%13%0%0%0%
Jey Uso10777%0%0%0%48%45%
Roman Reigns10540%0%0%0%80%20%
Dean Ambrose101692%0%0%0%6%2%
Chavo Guerrero101299%0%0%0%0%1%
Curtis Axel10079%0%0%0%69%22%
Heath Slater9955%0%0%13%69%13%
John Morrison9888%0%86%0%2%5%
Big E9680%0%0%0%74%26%
Chris Benoit962100%0%0%0%0%0%
Daniel Bryan95197%0%0%0%1%3%
Titus O’Neil9280%0%0%0%56%44%
Drew McIntyre89745%0%4%0%26%25%
Alicia Fox8750%0%29%0%51%20%
Alberto Del Rio84796%0%0%0%4%0%
Santino Marella8087%0%87%0%4%2%
Bray Wyatt7790%0%0%0%79%21%
The Hurricane77199%0%1%0%0%0%
Booker T765100%0%0%0%0%0%
Jinder Mahal74067%0%0%0%25%8%
Sin Cara73637%0%0%0%41%22%
Wade Barrett72319%0%16%0%52%13%
Luke Harper70487%0%0%0%1%12%
Charlotte Flair6950%0%0%0%0%100%
Bo Dallas6730%0%0%0%62%38%
Brian Kendrick66984%12%0%0%0%4%
Damien Sandow66415%0%56%0%27%3%
Tyson Kidd66061%0%0%1%21%17%
Eddie Guerrero657100%0%0%0%0%0%
Kevin Steen65395%0%0%0%0%5%
Luke Gallows65231%0%17%45%5%3%
Erick Rowan64657%0%0%0%12%31%
Mickie James64067%0%30%0%1%2%
Becky Lynch63437%0%0%0%0%63%
Baron Corbin6310%0%0%0%0%100%
The Great Khali63087%0%0%8%0%5%
Sasha Banks61922%0%0%0%0%78%
Charlie Haas61952%34%14%0%0%0%
AJ Styles610100%0%0%0%0%0%
Beth Phoenix59244%0%54%0%2%0%
Curt Hawkins58715%0%23%19%29%14%
Ted DiBiase58457%0%0%0%31%11%
Jamie Noble58260%35%2%1%2%0%
Braun Strowman5750%0%0%0%0%100%
Nikki Bella5620%0%0%0%85%15%
Fit Finlay548100%0%0%0%0%0%
Chris Masters54820%0%66%0%0%14%
Darren Young54676%0%0%0%9%15%
Brie Bella5370%0%0%0%88%13%
Chuck Palumbo533100%0%0%0%0%0%
Trish Stratus5220%0%0%0%0%0%
Lance Cade51419%56%24%0%1%0%
Spike Dudley512100%0%0%0%0%0%
El Generico49783%0%0%0%0%17%
Bobby Lashley4900%0%97%3%0%0%
Tyler Breeze48718%0%0%0%11%72%
Karl Anderson482100%0%0%0%0%0%
Xavier Woods48063%0%0%0%22%16%
Justin Gabriel47327%0%0%0%48%25%
Paul London471100%0%0%0%0%0%
Apollo Crews44076%0%0%0%0%24%
Matt Sydal43293%0%5%0%2%0%
Alexa Bliss4160%0%0%0%0%100%
Shinsuke Nakamura40892%0%0%0%0%8%
Chad Gable40712%0%0%0%0%88%
Lance Storm404100%0%0%0%0%0%
Prince Devitt40379%0%0%0%0%21%
Kelly Kelly4010%0%40%0%10%50%
Vladimir Kozlov3860%0%75%15%2%8%
Eve Torres3830%0%0%0%100%0%
Mojo Rawley3790%0%0%0%0%100%
Brodus Clay3750%0%0%10%72%19%
Brock Lesnar3610%0%10%0%0%0%
Jimmy Wang Yang36091%9%0%0%0%0%
Michelle McCool3480%0%0%67%0%33%
Trevor Murdoch343100%0%0%0%0%0%
Rene Dupree34050%5%42%1%1%0%
Sylvain Grenier33550%0%50%0%0%0%
Alex Riley3290%0%0%0%70%30%
Ezekiel Jackson3164%0%0%0%92%4%
Samoa Joe31587%0%0%0%0%13%
Aiden English3131%0%0%0%4%94%
Nia Jax3120%0%0%0%0%100%
Dash Wilder31243%0%0%0%0%57%
Davey Boy Smith Jr.31072%0%4%0%24%0%
Bobby Roode30744%1%0%0%0%55%
Shannon Moore30675%25%0%0%0%0%
Orlando Jordan30250%0%50%0%0%0%
AJ Lee30218%0%0%0%65%17%
Mr. Anderson30190%0%9%0%1%0%
Scott Dawson29416%0%0%0%0%84%
Dana Brooke2910%0%0%0%0%100%
Gail Kim28993%0%6%0%2%0%
Marco Corleone28171%5%19%5%0%0%
Torrie Wilson273100%0%0%0%0%0%
Adam Rose2721%0%0%0%41%58%
David Otunga2650%0%0%0%65%35%
Cedric Alexander25195%0%0%0%0%5%
La Sombra24086%0%0%0%0%14%
Jason Jordan2370%0%0%0%9%91%
Colin Cassady2363%0%0%0%6%92%
Enzo Amore2340%0%0%0%0%100%
Mike Knox23054%0%0%45%2%0%
Joey Matthews22588%0%12%0%0%0%
Johnny Stamboli21860%40%0%0%0%0%
Jillian Hall21745%0%55%0%0%0%
Prince Mustafa Ali21596%0%0%0%0%4%
Tyson Tomko1977%4%89%0%0%0%
Mandy Rose1970%0%0%0%0%100%
Summer Rae1960%0%0%0%4%96%
Liv Morgan1941%0%0%0%0%99%
Tony Nese18992%0%0%0%0%8%
Paul Burchill18754%0%46%0%0%0%
Sarah Logan18583%0%0%0%0%17%
Rosa Mendes1844%0%31%0%65%0%
Akira Tozawa17999%0%0%0%0%1%
Sonya Deville1780%0%0%0%0%100%
Lince Dorado17697%0%0%0%0%3%
Mascara Dorada17599%0%0%0%0%1%
Heidi Lovelace17580%0%0%0%0%20%
Kevin Thorn17229%1%63%0%6%0%
Dean Malenko171100%0%0%0%0%0%
Candice Michelle1650%0%0%0%0%0%
Robbie McAllister16151%0%49%0%0%0%
Drew Gulak16197%0%0%0%0%3%
Rodney Mack16066%1%33%0%0%0%
Matt Striker16093%0%0%5%0%2%
Tye Dillinger15833%0%19%0%5%43%
Tyler Reks1510%0%0%0%86%14%
Rory McAllister14954%0%46%0%0%0%
Mason Ryan14548%0%0%0%23%29%
Ember Moon14556%0%0%0%0%44%
Sean O’Haire14476%2%23%0%0%0%
Nikki Storm14264%0%0%0%0%36%
Buddy Murphy14224%0%0%0%0%76%
Luther Reigns14168%5%26%0%0%0%
Elijah Burke1400%0%100%0%0%0%
Peyton Royce13824%0%0%0%0%76%
Lacey Evans1370%0%0%0%0%100%
Billie Kay13744%0%0%0%0%56%
Dawn Marie135100%0%0%0%0%0%
Ariya Daivari13597%0%0%0%0%3%
No Way Jose12720%0%0%0%0%80%
Jack Gallagher12591%0%0%0%0%9%
TJ Perkins12298%0%0%0%0%2%
Simon Gotch12250%0%0%0%0%50%
Tommy End12075%0%0%0%0%25%
Chris Nowinski11735%42%23%0%0%0%
Mike Bennett11499%0%0%0%0%1%
Raymond Rowe11387%0%0%0%0%13%
Grand Total106,73497.934.8227.374.1328.6448.56

100 matches is obviously an arbitrary minimum. It’s not clear whether it’s important to set a lower minimum. For transparency, frequency distribution for total MR matches among the larger all-time dataset of 4,415 wrestlers breaks down something like this:


Among the 217 wrestlers with 100 MR matches, in recent years there seems to be a trending increase in the prevalence of wrestlers who have had the majority of their prior experience from non-universe matches.

The below column graph tries to address the question: Of the wrestlers who were promoted to WWE’s main roster (using date of 10th MR match as a proxy), what made up the majority of their experience prior to that 10th MR match: WWE developmental or non-universe experience?

And a second similar question: Of the wrestlers who were promoted to WWE’s main roster (~10th MR match), on average what percentage of those wrestlers’ experience up to that point was non-universe experience?

It seems possible talent development leadership played a role in these results. These charts may be reflective of the timing of transitions in leadership from Jim Ross (late 1990s until 2005) to John Laurinaitis (2001 to 2012) to Paul Levesque (2011 to present), and is consistent with an intuition (of mine at least) that Laurinaitis oversaw a period of WWE developmental that was less interested in non-WWE (“non-universe”) experience, maybe even saw it as a negative. I believe Paul Levesque had a similar mentality when he took over talent relations, but for whatever reason evolved after 2014.

WWE EVP Paul Levesque (Triple H) made comments in separate NXT media conference calls that suggest he had a change in philosophy on talent development between 2014 and 2015.

Levesque in February 2014 made it sound like he preferred talent come to WWE with less wrestling experience:

The indie scene becomes less and less of a factor all the time. It just does… We’re having to create the talent. They’re not out there ready to just get picked…  Sometimes it’s really hard to get people out of — they’ve been doing a playbook for eight years, to get them to come over to ours. It’s a tough transition. Sometimes [it’s] easier to almost teach guys from day-one, to just do [our] playbook.

Twelve months later, on another media call in May 2015, his view changed:

It’s funny, sometimes people will say — there’s this big comparison of like, ‘Oh, this guy’s an indie guy; this guy didn’t have experience.’ I don’t care where people come from or — yeah, indie guys are great because they have experience, whether I agree with their style or anybody does, it’s irrelevant. They have experience in front of crowds. And that is something you can’t teach.

Among the group of 217 wrestlers with >=100 MR matches, there’s no strong relationship between non-WWE experience and either MR match count.

But can we say there’s a statistical relationship between non-WWE experience and going on to have a disproportionately high number of matches on the WWE main roster? No. Maybe there are other analyses that might get the heart of whether having non-WWE experience gives one an advantage, but the relationship between those two metrics (a] percentage of non-WWE experience before 10th main roster match and b] total main roster matches) in particular is basically random (as indicated by the very low R-squared result).


But is there a relationship between developmental background and whether a wrestler is used more on A-shows or on B-shows? (Looking at TV programs only, i.e., excluding house shows.) In other words, are wrestlers with experience being signed and disproportionately cast in less important “B” TV programs (like 205 Live, Main Event, Velocity, Heat, Metal, Jakked, etc.)?

Again, no, there’s no sign of a relationship here. The R-squared is nearly 0.

But maybe it’s a trend that’s only emerged more in recent years?

There are some interesting trends, suggesting wrestlers with majority WWE developmental experience (as opposed to non-universe) tend to have the majority of their TV matches on A shows.

Despite Levesque’s aforementioned turn to accept wrestlers with non-WWE experience, does WWE nonetheless still prefer to put those who are more purely WWE projects into more prominent roles, i.e., Raw and Smackdown (“A” TV matches)?

It’s not present in every year, but especially since 2013, there does actually appear to be a distinct difference in the destinies of wrestlers with non-universe experience versus those without.

The analysis here likely only scratches the surface. I’m interested to hear any feedback or questions that might lead to better insights.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.

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