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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You talk to them,” Thurston pointed out.

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

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

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

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

Excerpts from Wrestlenomics Radio were edited for clarity.

Photo by All Elite Wrestling.

Jason Ounpraseuth has covered pro wrestling since 2019. He co-hosts the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also an independent pro wrestler and trainer. For more, see our About page.

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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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Net Promoter Score: March 2021

Patrons got early access to this article on March 28 at patreon.com/wrestlenomics.

I collected responses for another survey that measures Net Promoter Score.

The results from the study done in late December to early January were published in the Wrestlenomics Pro Wrestling Industry Report (available via Payhip and Patreon).

I obtained responses through a Facebook ad again, to hopefully obtain a more random sample. I’m considering using Google Ads too in the future.

Monetary support from patrons made this study possible. Hopefully as we continue to produce valuable research, we produce a flywheel effect that drives interest and allows further investment in surveys and other research like this.

I plan to continue to do the NPS survey, maybe every quarter, so we can collect data points over time and evaluate trends. Below you’ll see the beginning of that as we now have two data points over time (for December/January [will be referred to as “December” for shorthand] and March).

It’s notable that the wrestling companies this time were listed in random order. In the previous survey, the wrestling companies were listed in this order for all respondents: WWE Raw, WWE Smackdown, WWE NXT, AEW Dynamite, Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro-Wrestling.

The New Japan sample small enough to not take very seriously, but it’s plausible that appearing last for all respondents in December and appearing in a random position for each respondent in March contributed to the lower scores for New Japan in December and higher scores for the company this time.

I discovered it’s probably more fair to break out regular viewers’ sentiments from those of occasional viewers, rather than combining them as I did earlier. Regular viewers, as you might expect, tend to be more positive toward the program they watch than occasional viewers. Plus, some programs’ respondents are mostly regular viewers (like WWE main roster shows and AEW) and others (like ROH and New Japan) were mostly occasional viewers. A relevant breakdown will be displayed below.

With the prospect of full capacity live events and hopefully a return to normal life on the horizon, I included in the same survey form a question about the respondent’s willingness to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Results for that are also displayed below.

Although I spent a similar amount of money on the Facebook ad this time, only about half the number of samples were collected. The sample was also adjusted for disparities in race and gender, as compared to reports of viewership data.

Instead of targeting multiple major English language countries, this time I decided to focus on the United States only. Therefore the December results were filtered to responses from the U.S. only.

NPS results for March 2021

Click to enlarge view

NPS results over time: 

Regular and occasional viewers

“Dec 2020” here refers to responses collected between December 30, 2020 and January 3, 2021.

Regular and occasional viewers

Regular viewers only

Regular viewers only

Occasional viewers only

Occasional viewers only

Lapsed viewers only

Lapsed viewers only

How willing are U.S. wrestling fans to get vaccinated?

The below chart measures responses only from U.S. adults aged 18 years or older. 

Realizing there may be other factors that consistently coincide with vaccine willingness, information about age, education level, and household income was also collected and shown below.

Click to enlarge view

These results are comparable to the general public in the U.S. According to a study by Pew Research Center in February, 69% of Americans said they would probably or definitely would get vaccinated or already had at least one dose.

Political affiliation

I anticipated political affiliation might relate to vaccine willingness, and it does among respondents to this study. Respondents who identified as Republicans were 8x more likely than Democrats to say they won’t be getting vaccinated. Nonetheless, as you can see above, I didn’t find strong differences in vaccine willingness among viewers of different wrestling programs. Nor did I find strong differences in political affiliation about viewers of different programs.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer. For more, see our About page.

Wrestling TV Ratings Update (1/22/2021)

ProgramDateNetworkP2+P18-49 viewersP18-49 cable rank
WWE Smackdown1/15/2021Fox2,261,000869,000n/a
WWE Raw1/18/2021USA Network1,854,000783,000#3
AEW Dynamite1/20/2021TNT854,000466,000#33
WWE NXT1/20/2021USA Network659,000194,000#67
Impact Wrestling1/19/2021AXS147,000~40,000#145

WWE Raw on Monday on USA Network was watched by 1,854,000 viewers. It did a P18-49 rating of 0.60 (about 780,000 viewers). It ranked #3 on the day on cable, only behind NBA on TNT, and beating Below Deck and news programs.

Source: Showbuzzdaily/Nielsen; Graphs: Brandon Thurston/Wrestlenomics

Relieved from going head-to-head with Monday Night Football, Raw is having a healthy January month-to-month bounce, stronger than last year’s. This is happening in total audience, P18-49, and P18-34.

Raw is widening its lead of Dynamite in viewers age 18 to 34. Dynamite edge out Raw in that category some weeks in December, but the WWE program is more than doubling the AEW program in January.

AEW and NXT aired against strong cable news viewership three Wednesdays in a row so far in January: Capitol attack (two weeks ago), impeachment (last week), inauguration (this week) were all on Wednesdays. Next week looks like it will finally be a more normal night of competition.

AEW Dynamite on Wednesday on TNT was watched by 854,000 viewers. It did a P18-49 rating of 0.36 (about 466,000 viewers).

WWE NXT on USA Network had 659,000 viewers. It did 0.15 a P18-49 rating (about 190,000 viewers).

Showbuzzdaily’s top 50 cable programs for Wednesday night was dominated by news networks like CNN.

AEW Dynamite ranked #33 on the day on cable, behind inauguration coverage and MTV’s Challenge. NXT ranked #67.

After a strong December, AEW in January is averaging 759,000 in total audience (P2+) and 394,000 viewers age 18 to 49. Total audience for Dynamite is down 15%, and even with November.

Smackdown in January on the other hand is down 16% in total audience from December, and 18% in 18 to 49. Raw is leading Smackdown in 18 to 49 in January (but not total audience), as it did in January 2019.

Wrestlenomics TV ratings analysis stream with charts and Q&A is tonight at 6pm ET at http://twitch.tv/wrestlenomics.

Get the data! Become a Patron now and get access to Brandon’s wrestling viewership dataset:
→ A living spreadsheet, updated weekly!
→ Viewership records for WWE Raw, WWE Smackdown, AEW Dynamite, WWE NXT, Impact Wrestling, and wider cable trends.
→ Data across numerous demographics, breakdowns across various time periods, going back to as early as September 2014.

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Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer. For more, see our About page.

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