Vince McMahon vs. Paul Levesque market-to-market live event comparison

In 57 same-market and same-event type comparisons, we found 34 cases in which estimated tickets distributed was higher for events when Paul Levesque was head of creative, and 23 events during which Vince McMahon was head of creative where estimated tickets distributed was higher.

The average margin of difference by percentage for the 23 cases where McMahon had the higher tickets distributed count was 17%. For Levesque’s 34 cases, the average margin of difference was 39%.

Timeline used for McMahon’s time as head of creative was from July 19, 2021 to July 22, 2022.

Timeline used for Levesque’s time as head of creative was from July 23, 2022 to March 31, 2023.

For cases in which either McMahon or Levesque had more than one event of the same event type in a given city, we compared solely the event with the higher tickets distributed count. All data points in a given city are shown in the chart below.

Estimated tickets distributed data was sourced from WrestleTix.

Further reading


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


This article is available ad-free for everyone because of support from our subscribers.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Support quality reporting on the wrestling business



Analysis: There’s a possible connection between the Trump Foundation and Vince McMahon’s newly-revealed unrecorded payments

The subject of this article was later confirmed by The Wall Street Journal on August 17, 2022.

WWE stated in a public filing on Tuesday it found an additional $5 million in unrecorded company expenses related to two payments former CEO and chairman Vince McMahon made in 2007 and 2009.

Many, including me, initially thought the additional money had to do with McMahon’s series of alleged pay-offs to women for nondisclosure agreements, but after some research, it seems more likely it’s connected to Donald Trump.

According to IRS filings, WWE spent a total of exactly $5 million in contributions to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in the same two years, 2007 and 2009. The records indicate the contributions came from WWE, and use its headquarters address, with no specific person named; the latest years-old comments from WWE’s media relations attributed the donations to Vince McMahon and his wife Linda McMahon, personally.

We asked a WWE spokesperson this week whether the similarities in the payment amounts and years are an unrelated coincidence, but have yet to hear back.

Tuesday was WWE’s stated target date for publishing reissued financial statements and its second-quarter earnings, but instead, the company wrote the report was being delayed.

Vince McMahon resigned on July 22 from the company he’s been closely identified with since the 1980s, amid an investigation by WWE’s board of directors into his alleged sexual misconduct and money paid to multiple women for NDAs between 2006 and 2022. The previously concealed pay-offs, which, until Tuesday, the company stated totaled $14.6 million, should’ve been recorded in WWE’s financial reporting because they benefited the company.

The unrecorded expenses WWE states it needs to catch up on have grown to $19.6 million.

“[T]he Company has determined that two additional payments totaling $5.0 million, unrelated to the allegations that led to the Special Committee investigation, that Mr. McMahon made in 2007 and 2009 should have been recorded in the Company’s consolidated financial statements,” the company wrote in the Tuesday filing.

WWE was by far the biggest contributor to the Trump Foundation in 2007 and 2009, giving the organization $4 million and $1 million in those years, respectively, and in round numbers — which adds up to match the $5.0 million mentioned in the new WWE filing. Those were also years when the future U.S. president made rare appearances on WWE television programs.

Trump and McMahon supported opposing wrestlers on pay-per-view at WrestleMania in 2007 in what was billed “The Battle of the Billionaires” and resulted in McMahon having his head shaved as a stipulation of his side losing. In 2009, Trump, in an on-air storyline, “bought” WWE’s weekly Monday Night Raw program and “sold” it soon after.

Despite the IRS filings listing WWE as the contributors to the Foundation in those years, a WWE spokesperson in October 2012 said the money came directly from Vince McMahon, as opposed to the company, or both Vince and Linda. The WWE comment was made weeks before the election in which Linda was running for U.S. Senate for the second time.

Later, in 2016, a WWE spokesperson denied the Foundation contributions served as Trump’s appearance fees and that “WWE paid Donald Trump appearance fees separately.” But this time WWE said both McMahons personally made the contributions to the Foundation. “Vince and Linda McMahon made personal donations to Donald Trump’s foundation,” the spokesperson told the Huffington Post at the time.

WWE gave a comment consistent with that in 2017 after former chief operating officer Donna Goldsmith theorized the donations were in exchange for Trump’s appearances.

It wouldn’t be the first time Trump did something like that. He accepted donations to the Foundation in exchange for other work he did in entertainment, including from NBCUniversal and Comedy Central.

“My guess is that [the contributions to the Trump Foundation] did come directly from Vince,” Goldsmith told Forbes in 2017. “It was probably a payment for the [2007] ‘Hair Versus Hair’ match.”

Trump’s appearances at and leading up to WWE’s biggest pay-per-view event of the year in 2007 possibly being related to a $4 million contribution, and his 2009 appearances on Raw possibly being connected to a lesser $1 million contribution, could reflect the difference in the agreed-upon value of those two sets of appearances.

As for the possible motivation for compensating Trump through his Foundation for performing on WWE television, doing so may have allowed Trump to avoid paying taxes, something he’s made an effort to do in other cases. Likewise, claiming a large charitable donation to the Trump Foundation might have eased the McMahons’ personal tax burden in those years. Whether any of that is legal is another question.

And there’s one more coincidence, but with less reason yet to believe it’s related to the latest details on the scandal surrounding Vince McMahon. The wrestling company’s disclosure on Tuesday came just a day after the FBI executed a search warrant on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. Beyond the timing and the relationship between Trump and the McMahons, there isn’t more evidence yet that the search, seemingly related to the suspected removal of classified documents from the White House, is connected to McMahon. The Department of Justice on Thursday moved to unseal the search warrant and the itemized receipt of what was taken by the FBI.

The scandal that led to Vince McMahon’s resignation began emerging to the public in June when The Wall Street Journal broke the story. Allegations include a coerced sex act with one of his former female wrestlers, sending unwanted nude photos, and having inappropriate relationships with his employees.

Federal investigations scrutinizing the scandal are underway, according to a report from the Journal last month. The report said those investigations played a role in compelling McMahon to permanently step down from WWE. He remains the company’s controlling shareholder. Another executive who is a subject of misconduct allegations, John Laurinaitis, who headed the company’s talent relations department, was fired.

Linda McMahon, who is a former WWE executive, served in Trump’s cabinet as Small Business Administrator from 2017 to 2019. She’s continued leading political organizations supporting Trump even after his presidency ended.

Trump and the McMahons have a long relationship that goes back to the 1980s when Trump’s venues in Atlantic City hosted the McMahons’ WrestleMania events in 1988 and 1989.

Since Vince’s resignation, Stephanie McMahon (his daughter) and Nick Khan have taken over as co-CEOs. Stephanie assumes his place as chairman of the board of directors. Stephanie’s husband and Vince’s son-in-law, “Triple H” Paul Levesque is now in Vince’s former role as head of creative and in Laurinaitis’s former role as head of talent relations.


Donald J. Trump Foundation’s Form 990-PF for period ending December 2007, page 16. Highlight added by Wrestlenomics.

Donald J. Trump Foundation’s Form 990-PF for period ending December 2009, page 16. Highlight added by Wrestlenomics.

WWE’s Form 12b-25, published August 9, 2022, page 2. Highlight added by Wrestlenomics.


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


This article is available ad-free for everyone because of support from our subscribers.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Support quality reporting on the wrestling business



We’re in this together, right?

“A press that is free to investigate and criticize the government is absolutely essential in a nation that practices self-government and is therefore dependent on an educated and enlightened citizenry.” – Thomas Jefferson

This quote from Jefferson is still relevant in 2022, perhaps now more than ever. In the wake of the latest scandal involving Vince McMahon, I have given a great deal of thought to wrestling’s relationship with wrestling media and the mainstream media.

I have been following wrestling media since I was in high school. While most of my friends stopped caring about wrestling as they got older, I stayed a fan. Full disclosure, I probably would not be such an ardent wrestling fan for as long as I have been one if it wasn’t for guys like Dave Meltzer or Wade Keller. As far as I am concerned, sometimes the behind-the-scenes stuff is more intriguing than the stuff that goes on in front of the camera in wrestling. For example, I care way more about how the backstage drama with Naomi and Sasha Banks will play out than I care about who’s going to be the next member of Maximum Male Models.

Additionally, the recent news of Vince McMahon allegedly engaging in sexual relationships with a former paralegal and other women under his employ in his company — allegations that include sexual coercion and sexual harassment — has me thinking about the way mainstream media covers wrestling.

There was an episode of Dark Side of the Ring, airing on Vice last September, where the topic was the now infamous ”Plane Ride from Hell”. In this episode, wrestling personalities like Tommy Dreamer, Rob Van Dam, Terri Runnels, Jim Ross, and others were documented by producers Evan Husney and Jason Eisner talking about an infamous plane ride where the passengers got belligerently drunk and caused hell for the flight attendants and others on the flight. This plane ride was so infamous that it got Curt Hennig and Scott Hall fired almost immediately and, almost twenty years later, Tommy Dreamer was suspended from his duties on Impact Wrestling and Busted Open for brushing off allegations from flight attendant Heidi Doyle, that Ric Flair flashed himself in front of her and forced her to touch his penis on this now infamous plane ride.

This brings me back to the Jefferson quote. The relationships between media and politicians has always been a complicated one with a lot of layers. The same can be said about wrestling media and wrestlers. As with the media and politics, the job of wrestling media is to be a check on the wrestling industry and help unblur the lines between rumor and reality. The media is often nicknamed “the fourth branch of government” (in addition to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) because the media exists to make sure that political actors are being honest and giving the public the truth, whether we want to hear the truth or not. It is important for me to illustrate the complicated relationship between media and politicians to underscore why I believe wrestling media’s relationship with promoters and wrestlers have similar complications.

From Watergate to “fake news”

In the 1960s President John F. Kennedy had a media image of a devoted family man. While this might be true on the surface, it had been rumored as early as 1962 that Kennedy was a notorious philanderer and had multiple affairs with women of note, like Marilyn Monroe.

There is much speculation as to why the media did not run with this rumored affair of JFK and Monroe. One of the most prevailing thoughts is that because there was no hard evidence. Outside of eyewitness accounts to suggest that JFK and Monroe were romantically linked, the media did not want to report on mere speculation. Another reason why the media might have protected JFK is because many in the media felt that the president’s reputation should be protected at all costs by the media during this time.

Fast forward to Richard Nixon. In 1972 journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered what is now known as the Watergate scandal, which included audiotapes of Nixon conspiring with Bob Halderman about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. What made this scandal unique is the hard evidence it produced in the form of audio tapes. Woodward and Bernstein had to make an ethical decision: Should they report the evidence they have or should they protect Nixon?

Fast forward to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and his multitude of extramarital encounters that included famous WrestleMania 14 alumnus Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, etc. The mainstream media not only reported on all of Clinton’s philandering, it was sensationalized.

Since the advent of social media, the relationships between media and politicians have been turned upside down. So much so, that two former presidents have used Twitter to generate media buzz. When Barack Obama announced who his running mate in 2008 would be, he did so via Twitter. Donald Trump has also openly admitted how he used Twitter to generate media buzz to help him win the presidency in 2016. Like with these former presidents, Twitter has given wrestlers a chance to take control over their own narratives.

Outside of being a former president and media star, Trump is also famous for how he was able to bypass the checks and balances of the media, and proclaim on a huge platform that any negative story he was involved in was “fake news”. People laughed at this until he was able to rally up a group of his faithful supporters in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. What followed was a disgusting display of rebellion and a complete disregard for the law. At the cornerstone of all this is Trump discrediting the media to garner public distrust and disdain for the media.

Antinomy of the liar

So how is this similar to wrestling? Well, Trump was able to use the public’s natural distrust for media outlets to build up his supporter base. This has been referred to by psychologists as antinomy of the liar or simply a false dichotomy. The general premise behind this fallacy is the notion: “If I tell you that I am lying, am I really lying?” For someone like Donald Trump, who will outright say anything he wants, no matter if it is a lie or not, to a lot of his followers, he will come across as honest since he has no filter and others in the same political space that he is in do have filters. Essentially it is a fallacy that can be used to garner distrust of media outlets and trust for himself.

Following the earlier report of alleged misconduct by Vince McMahon, in June, he made a grandiose appearance on the June 17 edition of Smackdown on Fox where he reminded fans of WWE’s signature tagline: ”then, now, together, forever”. He also appeared on the next Monday’s Raw in a similar grandstanding gesture. The unassuming WWE fan might come to the conclusion that, well, since he is this bold in the middle of this huge scandal, he’s at least more honest than the media. Those fans who truly believe in the aforementioned tagline might fully embrace that not-so-subliminal message that an attack on Vince McMahon is an attack on them as fans, similar to the way Trump was able to convince his supporters that the election wasn’t just stolen from him but from everyone who voted for him.

To mainstream media, the thought might be, “Well, this is just fake wrestling and who cares what Vince McMahon does?” This was evident when CNN’s Jake Tapper scoffed at the announcement that McMahon was going to appear on Smackdown a mere two days after news of the scandal broke, when Tapper dismissively said, “Of course he is,” as if the anchor had better things to do then report on this stupid wrestling story.

If all this wasn’t enough, to add gasoline to an already wild fire, the Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that McMahon, over the course of the last 16 years has paid more than $12 million dollars in hush money payments to various women. While the totality of this seems more egregious than the initial allegations, it has seemingly gotten less coverage by mainstream media than the initial allegation involving the paralegal.

Hiding in plain sight

For someone like McMahon who runs WWE and is also from time-to-time an on air character, mainstream media might just assume that since wrestling is a circus anyway, this story might not be worth spending much time on since currently we are dealing with more pressing matters in the world such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In this regard, McMahon is able to hide in plain sight right in front of the mainstream media. Often when a wrestling scandal breaks, mainstream media defers to people who actually work in wrestling and not those of us who cover it. But this is where wrestling media should come in, because wrestling media is capable of investigating and vetting stories. 

For some fans and people in the wrestling industry who do not understand power dynamics in business, they might think this story is much ado about nothing. Chris Jericho recently stated in an interview, apparently recorded before the Wall Street Journal revealed additional allegations: 

“When you look at it, it’s really not illegal. He had an affair, paid the lady off to not say anything, and moved on. It’s almost like, okay, and? It was a mutual acknowledgment of the affair, he paid the lady to say nothing, and she took the money. I really know Vince well and it sucks that it happened. It sucks that he did it, but is anything really going to happen from it? I don’t think so. Is it morally right? Absolutely not. Is it illegal? No. Is it something that is going to get him into real trouble? I don’t think so.”

It would be very easy for me to pass judgment on Jericho. He is someone who often has takes I do not agree with but I have often found this to be the prevailing thought, not just in wrestling, but in business generally. While Jericho is almost certain that Vince did nothing illegal, the legality of what McMahon did or did not do is really tough to say with the limited information the public has on this.

In the 1986 case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, Sidney Taylor was a Vice President at Meritor Bank. He hired 19-year-old Michelle Vinson as a bank teller trainee. Over the course of four years Vinson advanced to the position of head bank teller. Vinson was then fired for excessive absences but she claimed that she was actually fired for ending a sexual relationship with Taylor. Vinson said she felt if she didn’t comply with Taylor’s advances, she would be fired. She believed that once she grew tired of the sexual relationship Taylor decided to fire her. Taylor, of course, denied everything Vinson accused him of. Initially, Vinson lost and Taylor was able to keep his job. However, on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court took into account the explicit conditioning of sexual receptivity and stated that such an act is sexual harassment and a violation of Title VII. Additionally, if the employer sees an instance of sexual harassment the employer must take action.

So, contrary to what Jericho might believe, the story about McMahon’s relationship with the former WWE paralegal might go beyond a simple breach of ethics. McMahon could have possibly broken the law.

I am not sure if Vince McMahon is guilty of a crime. We do know that his lawyer admitted that he was in a “consensual” relationship with a former paralegal and that further reporting from the Wall Street Journal is suggesting it goes deeper than that. While McMahon may or may not have committed a crime, in most corporate settings it is not ethical for a superior to start sexual relationships with employees. One might ask can a sexual relationship with an employee really be “consensual” if the employee is desperate for money? In any case, it says a lot about the culture in WWE.


Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.

What happens next with Vince McMahon and WWE is up to the “real” media

The irony is that mainstream media reporters are asking wrestling media people in recent days how the inquiry surrounding Vince McMahon will play out. It’s those interviewers themselves, their colleagues and editors, who will determine the outcome — more than WWE’s Board of Directors and its arcane means of corporate governance.

If you’re a wrestling fan you’ve probably encountered a non-fan who first learns about your affinity for this strange medium that overlaps sport and drama, and jocularly asks you after a knowing pause, “You know it’s fake, right?”

It must be you who doesn’t know where the line is between fantasy and reality.

I learned in the last few days the opposite is true. It’s the non-fan, the rest of the general public that’s not making that distinction when it comes to pro wrestling.

I’m reminded, too, of the question from a member in the studio audience at the end of the 1992 episode of the Phil Donahue Show about sexual misconduct in the WWF.

After sitting through details of numerous allegations, she was compelled to ask:

“Isn’t wrestling fixed anyway?”

Maybe she thought what she was seeing was part of a fictional wrestling storyline. Maybe she thought that because the subjects were involved in pro wrestling it was worthy of no moral or legal scrutiny anyway. I don’t know.

Revisiting that moment in Between the Sheets’ review of the “Titangate” scandals of 1992, I figured there must’ve been some progress in the 30 years since.

I was too optimistic.

Wrestling is still seen as tacky fake-sport and society can’t get past its fixation on that quality even in the face of serious misconduct by WWE’s billionaire CEO.

CNN anchor Jake Tapper opened a two-and-a-half-minute segment on Friday about Titangate 2022 with the kind of punny play on words that frequently undermines the sincerity of mainstream coverage on wrestling.

“From out of the ring to on the ropes,” Tapper teased, alluding to Vince McMahon’s latest scandal.

CNN correspondent Jason Carroll narrated: “The wrestling world” is “waiting to see how this real world match will end.”

The short segment was spliced with B-roll of goofy highlights from Vince McMahon’s onscreen career: getting his head shaved by Donald Trump, ripping apart his tank top in the ring.

Tapper scoffed, “Of course he is,” when Carroll informed him that Vince would appear on that night’s Smackdown.

Vince’s Smackdown live address on Fox later that evening was a ratings hotshot and sadly effective piece of public relations. The broadcast showed WWE fans cheering on Vince regardless of the Wall Street Journal’s reporting of his alleged improprieties. Vince baby-faced himself to the Minnesota crowd, growled a few of his well-developed buzzwords, didn’t so much as allude to the Board’s investigation, and slapped hands with fans on the way out.

The rest of mainstream media’s reporting on the story is with a similar surface-level reading as the CNN piece, spreading WWE’s message crafted in the Friday morning press release: “Vince McMahon steps down”.

But what did he really step down from? Less attention is being paid to the fact, stated in the joint statement from WWE and its Board, that Vince will remain head of creative, the role he’s been most active in, as more traditional corporate duties in recent years have instead increasingly been overseen by President and Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan and others.

Vince will at least temporarily stop serving as CEO and Chairman until the Board completes their investigation. Stephanie McMahon serves in those roles in the interim.

But are those changes in title-only? Or — to make another one of these obnoxious puns — is Vince’s withdrawal as CEO and Chairman no more real than the action in the ring?

I’ve yet to come across any mainstream scrutiny into that subject beyond CNBC’s Alex Sherman’s tweet on Friday.

Fellow members of wrestling media and I have been called on this week to bring some background and insight to this story in guest appearances and sound bites. We’re asked to predict what’s next. Journalists at “real” news publications ask those who cover the “fake” world to report from the future about cultural icon Vince McMahon’s destiny.

But whether Vince McMahon, John Laurinaitis, and possibly others are held to account for their alleged transgressions depends largely on whether mainstream media reports as seriously and persistently on this “fake” world like all the “real” industries they manage to report on without puns or silly video clips.

WWE’s Board of Directors will feel much more comfortable to mildly reprimand Vince and restore him officially as CEO and Chairman if the public doesn’t care or isn’t aware of the story.

WWE’s institutional shareholders will be more tolerant of the idea of having accused sex pests for a CEO and Chairman and Head of Talent Relations if that’s a notion the average person isn’t more than vaguely informed about.

Business partners and sponsors will be less bothered about cooperating with Vince’s company if the public doesn’t have enough information to question those brands’ association.

The Board’s independent members are current or former executives in media and other businesses. Some, like Barstool CEO Erika Nardini, may be all-too familiar with downplaying alleged sexual misbehavior of men like Vince McMahon or Dave Portnoy.

The Board’s oversight will be more trustworthy if there’s competent scrutiny of whether Friday’s announcement is anything more than that. Wrestling reporters will report, but our work, indiscriminately labeled that of ”the dirt sheets” and dismissed as part of a “vocal minority” will certainly not be enough.

If you’re a non-wrestling fan reading this — or even a member of the more prestigious non-wrestling media — you’re among those who have some real influence in how this unfolds. And unlike WWE’s executives or its Board or its business partners or shareholders, you’re lacking incentives to protect a powerful billionaire.

Even though it’s fake pro wrestling, this story — you know it’s real, right?

Will WWE sell? Maybe

I’ve often been dismissive of suggestions that Vince McMahon would ever part with controlling interest of his company. Sure, he cares about making money, I’ve argued, but wrestling’s most infamous micromanager would never part with control.

Plus, succumbing to merger or acquisition would end the lineage of a family-owned business that traces back to his grandfather. Given Vince’s fascination with talent who are the descendants of his former stars, passing the business to the next of kin seems like something that’s broadly part of his philosophy.

But the last signal that the Logan Roy of pro wrestling will hand the business on to the next generation of McMahons seemed to fade when Stephanie McMahon curiously announced her leave of absence on May 19, saying she would return after “taking this time to focus on my family.”

The notion that Vince pushed Stephanie to take a leave of absence, reported by Business Insider, has been has been disputed by Fightful.

Around the time of Stephanie’s announcement, Vince removed Claudine Lilien, Head of Global Sales and Partnerships, we’ve confirmed, who worked under Stephanie, related to frustration with the performance of WWE’s advertising and sponsorship sales. Improving those sales is a growth opportunity analysts have repeatedly cited.

WWE announced yesterday the hiring of Catherine Newman, formerly CMO for Manchester United, as new EVP and Head of Marketing. She’ll take over many of Stephanie McMahon’s duties while she’s absent.

Whatever the full story is behind Stephanie’s absence, with her away at least temporarily, I’m less confident than ever WWE will be led in the future by a McMahon other than Vince.

Vince’s oldest child, Shane McMahon, once the presumptive heir, left his executive role in late 2009. Despite returning as a performer, he hasn’t held a corporate role since.

“It stopped being a collaboration and it stopped being fun,” he said years later in an interview about his exit from the company.

“I wasn’t going to allow a deteriorating business relationship affect our personal lives, and that’s exactly what was happening.”

Stephanie and her husband Paul Levesque seemed to be filling the vacuum left by Shane through the mid-2010s.

Levesque was the leader behind the emerging NXT brand. His role was reduced around the time he had serious health problems last year, but also after it was clear NXT was succeeding neither at becoming a lucrative media rights brand nor at beating AEW in head-to-head Wednesday night TV ratings.

Vince alluded to difficulties working with family members in a rare interview with WWE on-air commentator Pat McAfee in March.

“Hopefully if you’ve built something, hopefully you want it to continue on and prosper and grow, whether that’s with a family member or without a family member, because my view is the business is best for everybody, whether you’re a part of it or not a part of it, and you have to treat it as such,” Vince said.

“You have to be objective and look at family members or whoever it is just like you would other employees. And quite frankly I’ve probably expected more out of my family members, which is probably not the right thing either… But you have to do the right thing for the business, so if this person is not working out, they shouldn’t be a part of the company.”

Meanwhile Vince has re-elevated past aides, Bruce Prichard (who Stephanie fired in 2008) in Creative and John Laurinaitis in Talent Relations. Long-time political rival to Stephanie and Paul, Kevin Dunn, seems as secure as ever. His Television department was merged with the former Advanced Media Group last year, with Dunn winning out over EVP Jayar Donlan, despite Donlan getting recognition like being included in Sports Business Journal’s Forty Under 40.

With a McMahon family successor unclear, not only is it believable WWE could sell, it’s at least as plausible there’s a willing buyer.

Sports rights fees in the U.S. continue to grow across the space, including for WWE’s Raw and Smackdown programs. I’ve put the base expectation for renewal at 1.5x over the current average annual value of about $470 million for the two programs combined. Current terms expire in September 2024. Add another $200 million annually for the value of the deal that puts WWE’s tentpole events and video library on Peacock, which expires in March 2026, and the total value per year for much of the company’s content comes to $670 million — currently. Assume all those rights are due for a 1.5x raise and the cost to distributors comes to almost exactly $1 billion per year.

Profitable cable businesses of companies like Comcast will likely continue to erode, contrasted by uncertainty over whether streaming can fully replace those profits.

Now is the time for media companies to consider acquiring their sports content providers — while they can still afford it and before those fees multiply further, and with that, the value of the related companies. For now, WWE’s market capitalization is about $5 billion, maybe still small enough to be acquired by a major media company like Comcast.

Comcast subsidiary NBCUniversal already holds domestic rights to a bulk of WWE content: weekly flagship show Raw, monthly peak events formerly sold on pay-per-view, developmental program NXT, and unscripted series Miz & Mrs. Universal Studios could benefit from what WWE won’t hesitate to remind you is their wholly-owned intellectual property, as WWE president Nick Khan pointed out a few months ago. Smackdown, currently broadcast on Fox, could certainly find a well-suited home somewhere in the NBCU family, if not return to the USA Network, where Smackdown was televised until 2019.

Given NBCU’s deep investment in WWE content currently and relative lack of intellectual property, Comcast seems like the likeliest candidate to acquire the wrestling company.

Khan, who would likely lead negotiations of any deal to sell WWE, has been non-committal on the subject publicly, but clearly recognizes how WWE’s assets could be a fit for NBCUniversal.

“As we say, we’re open for business,” Khan said in an interview on The Town podcast in March.

“So if you look at, what does NBCU/Comcast lack that they need? And I think it’s a factual statement: they don’t have the intellectual property that some other companies have. They certainly don’t have the Disney treasure trove of IP, nor should they.”

But Comcast has a Chairman, CEO, and preferred class shareholder of its own, Brian Roberts, who would have to approve of any deal to acquire WWE. Analyst Brandon Ross mentioned in a recent episode of the LightShed podcast his team’s belief that Roberts was initially hesitant to commit to putting WWE content on Peacock.

Since WWE Network content debut on the streaming service in March 2021, though, the deal seems to have worked out well for both sides. WWE is among the most popular content on Peaock and the former pay-per-views have never been more highly-viewed, coinciding with the stabilization of a number of consumer metrics for WWE that previously were in consistent decline.

Maybe Roberts has warmed up to the WWE brand, but it’s unclear how willing Comcast would be to acquire a pro wrestling company and the hazards that come with it. Does a major media company want to oversee an entity with WWE’s track record of scandal and perhaps future issues like worker misclassification? Vince would likely insist on Dana White-like continued autonomy over WWE as part of any sale. What would it be like overseeing the CEO, who hasn’t answered to anyone in decades beyond passive shareholders and fans whose discontents have largely been dismissed?

Would parent company executives who inherit WWE understand this peculiar industry well enough to install effective leadership when Vince is no longer around? Turner Broadcasting and its successor Time Warner struggled to do so for WCW in the 1990s and that wrestling company failed. But those were different companies at a different time with different executives. Would WWE succeed under a parent company in the 2020s? Maybe.

Disclosure/disclaimer: I do not currently nor have I previously held positions in WWE stock (NYSE: WWE). I have no plans to initiate any such positions. I do not hold positions in any other companies mentioned in this article. This article expresses solely my personal opinions. The opinion expressed here is not and should not be construed as financial advice.


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


This article is available ad-free for everyone because of support from our subscribers.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Support quality reporting on the wrestling business