Race demographics in TV wrestling viewership: AEW is still behind WWE with Black viewers

All Elite Wrestling’s portion of viewers who are people of color is still well behind any of the three major WWE programs or Impact Wrestling, even as AEW Dynamite has increased viewership with Black and Hispanic viewers year-over-year.

“Cable primetime PUT” refers to people using cable television from 8 to 11 pm.
Smackdown airs on broadcast network Fox and is not a cable program. The other programs referenced above are cable programs.

The disparity for AEW programs is largely due to a lower percentage of Black viewers.

“I have noticed that,” AEW president Tony Khan said on the media call earlier this month ahead of AEW Revolution. “I study the patterns very closely, and it’s something I’m cognizant of, and it’s an audience that we really do want to grow and it’s very important to us,”

In December, Khan took to Twitter to respond to former AEW wrestler Big Swole’s comments about diversity in AEW and Black representation. At the time, Wrestlenomics looked at the viewership demographics of all the major TV wrestling shows and at the diversity of AEW’s roster.

We have limited data of viewership by race demographics over time, mainly consisting of averages for year-quarters, rather than data for each episode. That said, we have an update on that data for the current quarter.

Viewers 18 to 49

For Dynamite, 15% of the aged 18 to 49 audience consists of Black viewers in the current year-quarter to date, up from 11% last year in the first quarter. Hispanic viewers are 13% of Dynamite’s key ad demographic, up from 11% last year.

Black viewers in P18-49 by percentage for WWE programs NXT, Raw, and Smackdown have also grown year-over-year. More than 25% of each show’s viewers are Black. NXT’s demo in the current quarter is 30% Black viewers (up from 22% last year). Raw is 27% (up from 21%). And Smackdown is 29% (up from 24%). Rampage, which is not yet a year old, has 17% of its P18-49 from Black viewers.

Raw has the greatest portion of Hispanic viewers in the current year-quarter, with 21%, up from 14% a year ago. NXT and Smackdown are comparable. Of NXT’s P18-49 audience, 20% are Hispanic viewers (up from 12% last year), meaning 50% of NXT’s 18 to 49 audience are either Black or Hispanic. Smackdown’s demo is 19% Hispanic viewers (up from 13%). Rampage’s audience is 17% Hispanic viewers.

We didn’t get data by race in P18-49 for Impact, only in total viewership.

Total viewers (age 2+)

The makeup of total viewership (aged 2 or older), has lower percentages for Black and Hispanic viewers, but the differences between WWE and AEW programs is consistent in either age group.

WWE and Impact have an edge over AEW in terms of attracting Black viewers to their shows at a disproportionate rate relative to the general population. Black viewers make up about 14% of the cable audience. AEW’s shows line up close to that but Black viewers make up over 20% of WWE and Impact’s audience. The data also shows similar rates in Hispanic viewers for WWE where they had a slightly higher number of Hispanic viewers than the average rate of cable.

In more recent trends, comparing Q3 2021 (July 1 to September 12) to the current year-quarter, since the move to TBS, AEW Dynamite viewership has fallen 7% overall, the same decrease Raw has seen over that time period. However, Black viewership for Dynamite has fallen 22% along with a 14% dip in viewership from other race demographics. Dynamite saw a 4% rise in Hispanic viewers and a 5% dip in white viewers.

Rampage, on the other hand, removed from its stronger early months in August and September, has had a large decline in their viewers with an overall decrease of 32%, a 60% loss in viewers from other race demographics, a 39% loss in Hispanic viewers, a 31% loss in white viewers and an 8% loss in Black viewers, as illustrated in the table below.

So while Rampage has retained Black viewers better than viewers in other race demographics in recent months, the opposite is the case for Dynamite.

Source: Nielsen
Chart & analysis: Brandon Thurston / Wrestlenomics

For other wrestling TV shows, Impact Wrestling has seen the most growth overall and with Black viewers, with a 25% rise. But Impact did see a dip in Hispanic viewers at 26%. Remember, Nielsen viewership measurements are based on a sample. Given Impact’s relatively small audience, the smaller samples determining these measurements could be resulting in a greater appearance of volatility than the actual viewership that’s taking place.

NXT has revamped itself as NXT 2.0 and has seen losses in all demographics except for Black viewers where they saw a 1% rise, contrasting against the show’s 11% overall decline in viewership between Q3 of last year and the current Q1.

Wreddit Census

U.S. respondents to "Wreddit Census 2021", by race. User survey of reddit.com/r/SquaredCircle.

Black: 4%; Hispanic: 9%; Other races: 5%; White: 81%.

Valid U.S. responses: 5,518. Surveyed July 29 to August 16, 2021.
Chart: Brandon Thurston / Wrestlenomics

Some online wrestling fan communities don’t reflect wrestling’s high TV viewership with people of color — quite the opposite.

The Squared Circle subreddit is one of the most popular online wrestling fan communities, with more than 615,000 users. Among those surveyed from the United States last summer, 81% were white, while 4% of respondents were Black, 9% Hispanic, and 5% identified as another race. The 2021 survey results for white respondents are actually an increase from 78% for the survey from the prior year.

Whether wrestling fans from more diverse backgrounds are gathering in other online communities instead or whether there’s something about online wrestling fan communities like Squared Circle that don’t attract people of color, isn’t clear.

The subreddit user base generally prefers AEW above WWE. 87% of U.S. responses said they “strongly like” or “somewhat like” AEW. Only 29% of responses said the same about WWE. Respondents were generally favorable toward AEW and less favorable toward WWE across race, but Black responses were slightly less favorable toward AEW and more favorable toward WWE than people of other races.

Our analysis of the 2021 Wreddit Census, originally published for subscribers on Patreon, is now publicly-viewable.

Chart: Brandon Thurston / Wrestlenomics

Growing the audience

Considering AEW programs lag behind with Black viewers compared to WWE and Impact, it stands to reason Dynamite and Rampage could improve their ratings by better appealing to Black wrestling fans.

“Not just growing that audience, I think diversity is very important to the company for a number of reasons, but absolutely, expanding our viewership, we think that is something that will help us,” Khan said in the same media call earlier this month.

“I think that AEW should do a SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats] analysis of their Black viewership,” says Dr. Kris Ealy, a professor of political science and co-host of the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast.

It’s possible that The Big Bang Theory lead-in could be contributing to an increase in the portion of white viewers watching Dynamite, although we don’t have data on that 7:30 pm airing by race to say whether that’s a factor.

“While the lead-ins to AEW programming might be out of [Khan’s] hands,” Ealy said, “I think it would behoove AEW to find the Black viewers who actually watch AEW and lean into those viewers.”

On the pre-Revolution call, Khan noted the diversity among AEW’s champions and in free agent signings. “When you look at who’s been coming into the company, and the profile of free agents we continue to sign, and the huge push that Jade Cargill is getting and a lot of the stars who have been getting pushed up the card and getting put in big spots, I think that is consistent with trying to grow that audience.”

In addition to Cargill’s TBS title reign, AEW has made prominent moves with Black wrestlers recently. Scorpio Sky won the TNT title this month. AEW debuted stars like Keith Lee and Swerve Strickland this year.

AEW has yet to have a Black wrestler consistently in its main event picture, however. The vast majority of matches for AEW’s men’s world title have been between two white wrestlers. Meanwhile WWE recently had its top men’s titles on the likes of Bobby Lashley, Big E, and Roman Reigns. Impact’s world champion is currently Moose and the title last year was held by Rich Swann.

Beyond representation in key roles, Ealy suggests AEW should appeal to different age and gender groups within the Black audience.

“Does TK even know the amount of Black men versus Black women or the ages of the Black viewers that watch his shows?”

Ealy likens appealing to Black wrestling audiences like how one would appeal to different Black audiences that have different musical tastes.

“My mom’s playlist is going to consist of the Temptations; Earth Wind, and Fire; Roberta Flack,” Ealy says. “My playlist is like Jay-Z, Nas, and Lauren Hill, and my nephew is gonna be into maybe Migos and groups like that. Our music sensibilities are very different and I assume it is similar with Black viewing audiences.”

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’s next record-breaking year: media rights outlook, stagnant fan growth

This article was originally posted for subscribers last week Wednesday and included my full financial estimate model for WWE, not included here. Get access on Patreon.

Escalating media rights values should spur WWE to break its profit records for the third consecutive year in 2022. The tailwind from guaranteed live rights fees and incremental growth from other licensing opportunities more than offsets weakened fan interest that will keep consumer sales stagnant.

Even though popularity in the core product is down from recent years and possibly continues to wane, current viewership of Raw and Smackdown is strong enough to justify an increase in U.S. payments for new deals that would begin in October 2024.

WWE’s recent earnings call reported on the first full quarter since live event touring returned, indicating what normal trends might look like for the near future. I’m now expecting a record $206 million in annual net income for 2022 (up my earlier estimate of $190 million), adjusted OIBDA of $365 million (I haven’t previously estimated adjusted OIBDA), based on annual revenue of $1.25 billion (down slightly from $1.26 billion). Aforementioned differences are largely driven by what I believe is a lower, more accurate estimate of WWE Network revenue and lower expenses than I previously understood related to the operating and marketing of the company’s media and live events divisions.

Media rights value outlook for Raw and Smackdown remains strong

I believe the most important factor determining the value of Raw and Smackdown’s live rights is those programs’ performance with viewers 18 to 49 relative to other programs throughout television generally.

The average episode of Smackdown on Fox in 2021 had a P18-49 audience in the top 4% of all the year’s telecasts among cable originals and national broadcast airings, according to my analysis of Nielsen data from Showbuzz Daily [Chart 2].

By the same measure, the average episode of Raw was in the top 5%. 

NXT, which I believe there’s far less value in, was in the top 24%.

For comparison, competitor AEW Dynamite was in the top 9%. AEW Rampage was in the top 12%, despite its 10 pm time slot.

It’s notable that WWE reality program Miz & Mrs. was in the top 13%, though it had just six new episodes in 2021; the other programs air new episodes year-round.

Despite declining viewership over the years, the trend in the percent rank for Raw and Smackdown hasn’t significantly weakened. Smackdown’s percent rank has only improved, coinciding with its move from USA Network to higher-reach Fox. Raw’s rank has weakened marginally but unpredictably from 2017, while remaining within the top 5%.

Will the reach of linear TV be enough for WWE through the late 2020s?

I expect WWE’s live rights in the next round to include some kind of live streaming component. To ensure WWE can broadly reach consumers including younger audiences, live distribution on linear TV may not be enough by the late 2020s. 

Traditional TV viewership of the daily top 50 cable original telecasts for people aged 18 to 49 declined 49% from 2016 to 2021 and fell 62% for ages 18 to 34 [Chart 3].

That said, even while linear TV viewing is in decline and skewing older in age, traditional TV still makes up the majority of TV use time in the U.S., while streaming accounts for a little over 25% of that share.

Reach is even more important to WWE than to other major U.S. sports leagues, where local markets support individual teams and most games are telecast as regional broadcasts. WWE needs high-reach availability nationwide and weekly to support live event touring and consumer products businesses.

Tentatively, I think the likely outcome is the same company holding streaming and linear rights for the given show: for example, NBCUniversal’s entities USA Network and Peacock holding rights to Raw. Opposing companies may be unwilling to compete with one another, i.e., one company holding streaming rights (e.g., Prime Video) and a different company holding linear (e.g., USA Network), in case one of the platforms ends up empty-handed as behavior shifts (or doesn’t).

If this assumption is accurate, it puts Fox holding onto Smackdown more in question. Fox lacks a suitable streaming platform. Fox-owned Tubi (a low-revenue FAST) and Fox Nation (the streaming extension of Fox News) aren’t sensible options. 

Content owners like WWE hope major tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Netflix become new bidders for their rights. However, none of the tech players currently own a linear network, and therefore lack both kinds of media platforms WWE might need to navigate the late 2020s. A major acquisition that actually passes antitrust scrutiny (like, say, Amazon buying NBCU away from Comcast) or, perhaps more likely, a partnership between a tech player and a traditional network, could change these dynamics.

A third large-scale international event?

WWE president Nick Khan hinted at a third “large-scale international” event on the last earnings call. “Large-scale international event” is the company’s euphemism for its controversial events in service of the government of Saudi Arabia, but it was hinted to me that Khan wasn’t referring to a third event for the kingdom, which would be a significant financial revelation since each Saudi event is worth $50 million in payments to WWE.

Instead, I expect WWE will announce a stadium event in Europe, most likely in the United Kingdom, for the monthly premium live event in September. The schedule the company released in October 2021 shows an event during Labor Day weekend with the location listed as “TBD”. The U.K. hasn’t had a true pay-per-view/premium live event since Summerslam 1992. A peak monthly event in the U.K. would carry historic weight with fans in the region and would be a hot ticket. Putting such an event in a stadium-sized venue is probably optimal for the kind of demand it would attract. Therefore, I modeled into Q3 $5.9 million in incremental live event revenue. Such an event would positively impact venue merchandise in the quarter also.

A major event on Labor Day weekend would also compete for fan attention with one of All Elite Wrestling’s quarterly pay-per-views. AEW’s All Out event has been held during that weekend each year since 2019. AEW has more to lose in such a situation as it more heavily relies on direct-to-consumer activity by way of pay-per-view sales at a $50 retail price in the U.S. Conversely, WWE’s premium live (née pay-per-view) events are primarily streamed to viewers at a fraction of the cost to the consumer, on Peacock domestically and the WWE Network internationally. Ticket sales for the Labor Day weekend events wouldn’t strongly compete with each other since they would be on different continents. I expect All Out 2022 to be in Chicago, as it was last year and in 2019.

Stagnant consumer interest

WWE had a great Q3 2021 for live events, one of the best quarters for the division in company history, benefiting from pent-up demand as touring returned in mid-July. Since then, ticket sales for WWE’s most frequent events, non-televised house shows as well as tapings for Raw and Smackdown, continue to decline [Chart 4].

Another indicator of consumer interest is eCommerce sales. Those surged during the interruption of touring, somewhat offsetting the loss of venue merchandise sales. In the first full quarter comparison since touring resumed, eCommerce sales in Q4 2021 were even in revenue from Q4 2019 (the most recent pre-Covid Q4), but 30% lower in order volume. Fortunately, the company managed to increase revenue per order by 37% from two years ago, counteracting the decrease in transactions [Chart 5].

Google web search, which I view as an indicator of name recognition and mindshare, continues to be in secular decline for WWE, worldwide and in the U.S., for most year-over-year monthly comparisons since 2017 [Chart 6, 7, 8, 9].

I believe WWE’s fan base has deteriorated because of the poor quality of the core content, primarily due to creative leadership of CEO Vince McMahon. New major stars haven’t been more fully developed and storylines are weakened due to a lack of long-term creative planning, inauthentic presentation, misevaluation of talent, repetitive matchups, among other issues.

Management doesn’t acknowledge any problem with creative. McMahon is reportedly dismissive of criticisms of the content, citing the company’s financial success. Khan’s prepared statements in earnings calls only allude to a “strong in-ring product”.

Challenges with consumer interest are obscured by WWE’s increasing and largely guaranteed revenues from business relationships, a dichotomy that continues to become more defined as contractual escalators increase payments while the fan base diminishes under McMahon’s creative direction.

Disclaimer/disclosure: This article expresses my personal opinions only. I do not currently, nor have I ever, held stock positions in World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: WWE). I have no plans to initiate any such positions within the next 72 hours. I am not being compensated for this article or any of my other Wrestlenomics-related work except through audience-driven revenue, including Patreon subscriptions and programmatic advertising.

This article is not investment advice, nor should it be construed as investment research.

Chart 1: My recent history estimating EPS

↓ Chart 2: Compound Annual Growth with Linear Trendlines
(Jump back to text)

↓ Chart 3: P18-49 Viewership Percent Rank: Calculated Annually
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↓ Chart 4: Estimated Tickets Distributed, by Event Type
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↓ Chart 5: WWE eCommerce Orders and WWE Average eCommerce Revenue Per Order
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Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.

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WWE Smackdown and AEW Rampage set for “The 30-Minute War”

This week’s episode of Smackdown is set to run for an extra half hour on FS1, commercial-free. Game 1 of the ALCS will occupy Smackdown’s normal timeslot on Fox, so a “super-sized” episode of the WWE show will be broadcasted on FS1. This means Smackdown is set to go head-to-head against a live broadcast of Rampage for 30 minutes, from 10 pm to 10:30 pm on Friday night.

This will be the first time a main roster WWE program will go head-to-head against an AEW program on national TV. With viewers aged 18 to 49, the valued demographic for advertisers, AEW’s Wednesday night program, Dynamite, twice edged out WWE Monday Night Raw in the same week in September.

AEW President Tony Khan’s tweet, welcoming the challenge, came before fast national data was reported on Saturday, and then final ratings data come out on Monday, showing Rampage viewership was down significantly, while going against MLB playoffs on Friday.

Smackdown viewership was lower than usual, too, but not to the degree Rampage suffered. Compared to the median of the prior four weeks, Smackdown was down 13% in the 18 to 49 demographic, and Rampage was down 37% by the same comparison.

This past week’s Smackdown on Fox was watched by an average of 2,147,000 viewers and did a 0.52 rating in 18 to 49. AEW Rampage was watched by 502,000 viewers and did a 0.17 demo rating. The showed ranked at 15 among cable originals for the day, according to Showbuzz Daily.

The MLB playoff games had a strong effect on these numbers. The Dodgers-Giants game on TBS was the most viewed, and the Red Sox-Rays game on FS1 aired during all of Smackdown an most of Rampage. The games were watched by 3,982,000 (1.08 demo rating) and 2,618,000 viewers (0.65 demo rating), respectively.

This resulted in the least-viewed Rampage in the show’s nine-episode history in both total viewership and in the 18 to 49 demo. For Smackdown, it was the lowest total audience number since September 24 and the lowest 18 to 49 number since July 9.

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo discussed “the 30-minute war,” specifically what numbers both shows could likely do.

When on broadcast network Fox, Smackdown is usually the most-watched weekly wrestling show on television, seen by more than 2 million viewers live and same-day. On the lower profile FS1, though, Smackdown’s ratings will likely be much lower.

This is not the first time Smackdown has been on FS1, and Thurston looked back at how Smackdown has done on FS1 when preempted in 2019 and 2020.

Brandon Thurston: “There are three occasions so far in the history of Smackdown, and what’s it done in the past?

“888,000 viewers, 885,000 viewers, just barely over 1 million viewers. There was a Pac-12 college football championship game that it was preempted for in December of last year. But I think more importantly, yes, we need to look at the demo. What were the demo ratings?”

Chris Gullo: “For 18-49: 0.27, 0.25, and 0.30.”

Thurston: “Okay, and read to me what the last three demo ratings have been for Rampage.”

Gullo: “0.28, 0.29, and 0.25.”

Thurston: “Those are pretty similar numbers aren’t they?”

Smackdown having an extra 30 minutes, which will happen to air simultaneously with the first-half of Rampage, makes it more likely Smackdown finishes ahead of Rampage in the 18 to 49 demo on Friday.

Apparently to counter, AEW will stream an extra 60 minutes of action live on YouTube beginning at 9 pm.

Before the final numbers were released on Monday for this past Friday’s programs, fast national ratings came out for Smackdown and Rampage on Saturday, first reported by Wrestling Inc.

The kinds of ratings normally reported by sources like Wrestlenomics and Showbuzz Daily are called “final ratings”.

Fast nationals, though, are different. They’re a kind of “overnight” rating that’s requested and paid for by a Nielsen customer so the customer can get viewership data sooner than they would otherwise.

Thurston predicted we’ll see more of these early reports in the coming weeks.

Thurston: “I would expect these fast national ratings continue to come out in the weeks to come throughout October, not only for the programming on Friday but maybe for the Saturday Dynamites too, especially if the fast national data can be read in such a way that it looks favorable for WWE or unfavorable for AEW.”

Due to NHL hockey on TNT on Wednesdays this and next week, AEW Dynamite will be preempted to Saturday on October 16 and 23.

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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What Effect Could CM Punk Have On AEW’s business?

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo discussed AEW running another Chicago show, this time at the United Center on August 20 for the second episode of Rampage. The event sold over 10,000 seats in presale and sold out quickly on Monday.

On the July 28 episode of Dynamite, there were many CM Punk references throughout the show as a report came out that Punk is in talks with AEW for an in-ring return. The most clear reference for many fans was in a Darby Allin promo that was played after the announcement of the United Center event on for AEW Rampage on August 20.

Allin said, “I’ll be in Chicago. You know I’ve been around a lot of men in this world that have laid claim to how they’re the greatest, and there’s only one place to really prove that, right here in AEW, even if you think you’re the best in the world.”

Thurston and Gullo discussed what they will be looking out for when it comes to the United Center show and the future ahead.

Brandon Thurston: Let’s try to look ahead here. Let’s say CM Punk debuts on the August 20 Rampage. He doesn’t wrestle, probably, but maybe he wrestles by the time he’s on the All Out pay-per-view. Maybe that’s CM Punk’s first professional wrestling match since early 2014 at the Royal Rumble.

If he wrestles on the pay-per-view, All Out on September 5, what is that going to draw? It depends greatly, obviously, on the rest of the card. It depends greatly on who his opponent is. It depends on how it’s promoted, what the angles are promoting it and the sentiment around the match, but I think it’s reasonable to expect maybe he wrestles Darby Allin just because why else would you have Darby Allin do that promo saying, “even if you’re the best in the world,” on Dynamite after the United Center announcement.

I could see CM Punk being interested in wrestling somebody Darby Allin. That adds up to me. What does he draw on pay-per-view? At this point, the biggest AEW pay-per-view is Revolution at about 135,000 buys.

Chris Gullo: What do you think? Do you think it breaks 150?

Thurston: Yeah, I think it does. Again, it depends greatly on the execution and the other context. All Out did roughly 90,000 last year. Maybe 175,000 to 200,000?

Another thing I wanted to talk about in this context is the viewership. I think they do have CM Punk. I think they would be insane to do anything other than already have CM Punk under contract and then book and advertise this United Center with hints all around that CM Punk is going to be there. I think they have CM Punk. If they didn’t have Bryan Danielson, I don’t know why Tony Khan would say “no comment” in relation to both of them in an interview that he did recently.

Gullo: If he’s going to be there, and just thinking previously about how Turner didn’t want AEW to not advertise debuts of major talent and all that, do you think they advertise by the 13th, the first Rampage, “Hey, next week, CM Punk will be in the United Center.”

Thurston: I don’t know. I think that’s a calculation that’s debatable. Which way is there more interest? You’re already going to sell out the building. You don’t need it for ticket sales. Is there more buzz and talk that leads to stronger viewership by leaving it strongly implied or by being explicit? I think if the reaction was weaker, yeah, just make it explicit.

Gullo: But people will tune in expecting it and not have to have it out there publicly.

Thurston: If Bryan and Punk are on their way to AEW, I want to think about how that affects TV ratings too, especially in September.

I know AEW’s not really competition to WWE, but ratings between Dynamite and Raw might get closer than ever. Raw will be against Monday Night Football in September. Meanwhile on Dynamite you might have the addition of Punk and Bryan and whatever other momentum they have, assuming that they continue to be at least as well booked and well produced as they are currently.

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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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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