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.
More young adults are sometimes watching Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime Video than Monday Night Football and ESPN and ESPN2.
In total viewership, MNF has been ahead of TNF every week of the NFL season so far, but TNF beat MNF in P18-49 in Weeks 4 and 8, and they virtually tied for Week 9.
Younger viewers are presumably a leading indicator of future television trends. This should give WWE, and other content providers considering selling live sports rights to Amazon or possibly other streaming platforms, some reassurance that Prime Video provides substantial reach value which should only improve over time. The first Nielsen measurements of live sports of this size on a streaming platform show streaming need not be merely the home for scripted and unscripted programming that can be watched at any time, but it can be a medium for huge live audiences as well.
Based on comments on last week’s earnings call, WWE I believe took a low revenue renewal with Hulu for next-day rights to Raw so that those rights will expire at the same time as live rights in the U.S. Next-day rights to Smackdown, which are sublicensed by Fox to Hulu, I believe also expire in line with live rights, in September 2024. This should allow WWE to more favorably negotiate with streamers like Amazon who would naturally want next-day rights when considering live rights.
The viability of Amazon buying Raw or Smackdown should better allow WWE to leverage a favorable TV rights upgrade. I expect at least one of the shows to stay on traditional TV, most likely Raw because of the depth of WWE’s relationship with NBCU. Smackdown going to Amazon is a real possibility. Even if it doesn’t happen, the notion makes enough sense to cause NBCU, Fox, and possibly others to bid more aggressively. I believe WWE has an exclusive negotiating period with both NBCU and Fox for Raw and Smackdown, respectively. Even if neither show goes to the open market, the prospect of Amazon may encourage either network to make WWE a good enough offer to finalize a deal in the exclusive window.
Given the less lengthy relationship between WWE and Fox and rumblings that Fox may not be satisfied with ratings for Smackdown, I believe Smackdown is more likely to go to the open market. I believe WWE will start serious negotiations for its live rights just after Wrestlemania in April. Deals could be completed within months of that start time.
I see NBCU, Fox, and Amazon as the most serious potential bidders. I don’t believe Apple will make an aggressive attempt to associate its brand with pro wrestling and the stigma that comes with it. I rule out Warner Brothers Discovery based on the assumption they’ll retain AEW content in at least some form.
It’s plausible Paramount could make a bid if either property reaches the open market, but a network fit isn’t obvious; MTV and the Paramount Network would be the two likeliest fits. Paramount+ isn’t proven with live sports beyond as a streaming supplement for CBS.
Raw or Smackdown couldn’t possibly take priority on the ESPN mothership. ESPN2 is more plausible but would be a step down in reach and profile. If Disney is willing to pay to offset reach in the short term, ESPN+ could make sense. Still, it’s been decades since ESPN regularly aired in-ring pro wrestling content. There may be unhealed wounds too from WWE choosing Peacock over ESPN+ in 2021.
I don’t believe macroeconomic headwinds, including recession, will precipitate an unprecedented reduction in value for live sports rights.
The exponential growth of sports rights fees in trailing decades is largely the result of — not Vince McMahon’s creative genius, but — the proliferation and evolution of media, which is indifferent to economic cycles, and continues to increase entertainment options while fragmenting audience sizes. That exacerbates the value between the haves and have-nots of content. Suitors compete for a few reliable, highly-popular sports properties, which are exponentially more highly viewed than other content further down the strata.
Economic hardship may well provide potential buyers with a sad sap story about why they should pay a lower upgrade rather than a higher upgrade, but I believe someone will still be paying a sizable upgrade when the agreement is made, as multiple suitors need those rare highly-viewed programs to justify their business models. And if their business models are in decline (traditional TV), they need the best content to invest consumer behavior on their new platforms (streaming) if their businesses will thrive in the future. Though I readily anticipate consolidation or acquisition of traditional players Fox, Paramount, NBCU, and WBD seems inevitable.
The entrance into the market of companies that don’t originally rely on content, for whom content is a pivot into a new venture (Amazon and Apple), have greater businesses that can subsidize their investments. A reduction in suitors because of further consolidation I expect to be offset by tech companies’ increasing participation in this market.
Disclosure: I’m long on Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL). I have no positions in WWE (NYSE: WWE) and have no plans to initiate any such positions.
Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.
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WWE moved the earnings call date back a day, to Wednesday evening rather than Thursday morning. The company noted that was to accommodate scheduling related to their Saudi Arabia event on Saturday.
Does that mean there will be more involvement on the call from the newly-appointed chief content officer, Paul Levesque, than they previously planned? They may want to have him comment and highlight that he’s done an effective job since taking over creative in late July.
I expect positive stories about TV ratings. Monday Night Raw is holding up well in year-over-year comparisons, despite NFL competition starting in September. Smackdown is also up year-over-year in four of the last five months. I expect an emphasis on “Easter eggs” as they point to how they hinted at the return of Bray Wyatt with clues in their programming and QR codes.
Stronger ratings will help their case for an upgrade in live rights fees. I believe serious negotiations for U.S. rights to Raw and Smackdown will start in Q2 2023 (April to June) and may even be finalized in that quarter. Given NFL on Thursdays has done well on Prime Video, Amazon seems like a more realistic player for one of the WWE shows. Current deals with NBCUniversal and Fox expire in the fall of 2024.
NFL Thursday Night ratings make it seem less likely a core WWE show would be airing in obscurity on a streaming platform. Streaming one of the flagship shows may actually expand WWE’s reach, given the younger demographics of streaming and pay TV’s continued decline and aging audience. Although the trade-off of moving away from the wide reach of broadcast (Fox, in the case of Smackdown) in favor of streaming (hypothetically, Prime Video), may be negative. Amazon can to afford to pay content providers like WWE commensurate to the tech giant’s current lesser ability to reach audiences.
Smackdown I believe is more likely to find a new home since it’s held by Fox. It’s questionable whether Fox is happy with the show’s ratings performance. And Fox can certainly live without WWE content. Contrasting against that, NBCU is deeply invested in WWE, so I see them likely to hold on to Raw and keep it on the USA Network.
Next-day Hulu rights are still in question. Did WWE and Hulu agree to an extension? Don’t expect clarity on that, but I’d work with the assumption that those rights will be dealt with live rights. Where NXT ends up in all of this seems in play, as well. It’s not publicly known when the agreement putting NXT on the USA Network expires, but it’s possible WWE has aligned those rights with Raw and Smackdown’s deals.
If Comcast/NBCU really wants to acquire WWE, it seems like 2023 is the time, ahead of another likely rights fees upgrade. Vince McMahon’s exit reasonably opened up speculation about whether WWE will be acquired. However, I’m neither convinced that Comcast wants to own WWE and fit it into its set of brands, nor that WWE is enthusiastic about selling with family members like Stephanie McMahon and Paul Levesque recently elevated in their executive roles. Acquisition seems somewhat inevitable, though. Endeavor is a well-suited acquirer and their president, Mark Shapiro, sounded interested in his comments on The Town podcast recently. Maybe that happens someday.
WWE’s September 3 “Clash at the Castle” event will be another highlight. Because of how WWE breaks down its revenue lines, we should get an idea of what the live gate was for the event since that was the only international event in Q3.
Domestically, I expect them to report an average paid attendance of around 7,000 per event, based on my reading of WrestleTix data, which would be their highest excluding-Wrestlemania quarterly average since the return-to-touring quarter of Q3 2021.
It will be interesting to see what their merchandise numbers are like, too. I built $28.5 million in revenue for the quarter toward the consumer products division, which consists of three areas: product licensing, venue merchandise, and eCommerce.
Consumer metrics have improved somewhat since Vince left, I believe due to the quality of the content. Some fans say not much has changed, but it seems to me enough has perceptibly changed to strengthen TV ratings and attendance, at least in the short term. It’ll be curious to see how WWE spins these trends without contrasting against the weak performance of their disgraced former CEO and Chairman.
On the Sept. 19 edition of Wrestling Observer Radio, Dave Meltzer revealed something quite notable about why Drew McIntyre did not defeat Roman Reigns at Clash at the Castle–saying that the move was likely done because the Saudi Arabian government dictated that Logan Paul vs. Roman Reigns needed to happen at their upcoming Crown Jewel show.
“It’s a completely different situation when it comes to matchmaking in Saudi Arabia. It’s all about something that will get publicity for an event in Saudi Arabia. It’s not about selling tickets,” Meltzer said. “It does explain why Roman Reigns had to beat Drew McIntyre. Because they had this match [Logan Paul vs Roman Reigns] going on and that is why they had to have Drew lose.”
When WOR co-host Bryan Alvarez asked why the Reigns vs. Paul match had to be for the title, and why couldn’t McIntyre win the title at Clash anyway, Meltzer speculated that the Saudi Arabian government likely pressed for Reigns to retain the title.
“It probably matters to the Saudis that it’s a world championship match, and they don’t want to have a non-title match in the main event of their show. They want celebrities, that is why they had Cain Velasques and Tyson Fury. That is what the show is about. They are essentially booking for him [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman],” Meltzer said.
While this conversation will likely fly under the radar in favor of juicier breaking news, the reality is that it is one of the most revealing tidbits of information we have gotten about WWE’s key decision-making and the company’s broader motivations all year.
For WWE today, unlike the company in the past, the business model is not about servicing its own fanbase. The business model is about serving their biggest corporate partners, one of which is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who (according to Wrestlenomics) pay the company somewhere in the ballpark of $50 million per event, and will have paid the company around $400 million in total by the time Crown Jewel takes place on Nov. 5.
The chart below demonstrates how over the years, WWE’s business profile has shifted from being primarily direct-to-consumer revenue (selling tickets, selling pay-per-views, merchandise, etc.) to business-to-business revenue, which is the large TV deals, the Peacock streaming agreement, and the lucrative KSA deal.
For those reasons, WWE can afford to not be invested in servicing their own fanbase. The reason Drew McIntyre didn’t win the world title at Clash at the Castle, something that would have delighted the 48,000 paid fans who spent millions on tickets for the first major PPV event in Europe in 30 years, was because WWE had a more important customer in mind.
That customer was Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. According to Meltzer, MBS wanted to have Roman Reigns vs. Logan Paul on his paid show, because a match featuring Reigns and a celebrity like Paul for the world title, would get a lot of mainstream publicity, which is the main motivation for the government paying for a WWE show.
The point of the WWE shows, like their aim with LIV Golf and Formula 1, is for the Saudi government to host global events that attract attention across the world, and show people that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a place where cool things happen. This is largely done to distract people from the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does a lot of uncool things, including the murdering of journalists, where being gay is punishable by death, and a prolonged war in Yemen.
So WWE accepted the whims of the Saudi Arabia government because their money is more important to them than the interest of their hardcore fans, who traveled to Clash at the Castle that they want to see gets put on the back burner because not only are they not as valuable to WWE as a partner like MBS and the Saudi government, the hardcore fans will continue to support the product in large numbers even if they are constantly dismissed by WWE and left disappointed. The Saudi interest is likely less durable; WWE needs to continue to satisfy the government, or else the business relationship could be terminated. Or the talent could be held hostage on an airplane trying to leave the country.
While WWE will presumably always be able to hold on to a portion of their hardcore audience, that audience has been diminishing over the years. The sham of booking the promotion and the world title around the interests of business partners like MBS breeds resentment from the fanbase, and over time those fans have watched their interest in WWE wane. Since the company first started promoting shows in Saudi Arabia in 2018, Raw’s total viewership is down by roughly 35%, going from an average of 2.8 million viewers per week in 2018 to 1.8 million viewers in 2022.
WWE’s allegiance to Saudi Arabia and booking shows around those interests is not the sole reason for that decline. There are plenty of other reasons, including Vince McMahon’s longstanding war with the fans in pushing Roman Reigns as the top star in the company, and the refusal to push new talent adequately. What those things have in common, though, is that it all comes from a place of WWE not feeling like they have to satisfy their fanbase with rewarding stories and the triumphs of their favorite wrestlers. Instead, the company can force-feed stories that play to the whims of a few key people, often Vince McMahon and as we see here, MBS, and they will make more money than ever thanks to the security of their business-to-business relationships with media conglomerates and despotic governments.
From a raw business perspective, it’s a great strategy and the company has never been more profitable. The issue (beyond the fact that WWE is selling itself to be used as a propaganda tool by an autocratic government) is that the average wrestling fan gets left behind. The company abandons the hopes of fans like the ones at Clash at the Castle, who were given a boring, interference-laden finish to the world title match and saw Drew McIntyre defeated because they need to make the Saudi Crown Prince happy by putting on a celebrity match for the world title at a future show.
As a fan, it becomes very difficult to get emotionally invested in the major aspects of the product, such as the world championship and who is going to be presented as a top star, when those decisions are being influenced not by fan support, and not even by the egos of the wrestlers or key decision makers, but by the powerful business partnerships with a regime like Saudi Arabia. The dismissal of Drew McIntyre in favor of a vanity celebrity match that typical WWE fans really aren’t interested in seeing, all for the purpose of an attempt to spread the word further that Saudi Arabia is a hip, happening place, makes it very hard to feel engaged in a truly invested capacity.
With the dismissal of Vince McMahon from WWE, the idealized future by fans was that the company would start listening to its fanbase again and no longer be controlled by the narrow-minded view of one man. However, as the Logan Paul vs. Roman Reigns match and decision-making around it shows, WWE is still being influenced by at least one other dictator.
Based on our analysis of WWE’s second-quarter reporting, the two-day Wrestlemania on April 2 and 3 generated between $17 million and $19 million in ticket revenue for the company. That was driven by paid attendees somewhere between 109,000 and 120,000, or about 57,000 paying fans driving between $6.5 million and $8.5 million each night.
That’s well below the 77,899 and 78,453 (156,352 total) the company announced as in attendance for Night 1 and Night 2, respectively. WrestleTix’ analysis of the ticket maps for the events estimated 65,719 and 65,653 for the two events (131,372 combined).
The live gate for the two events combined likely edged out ticket sales for the one-day Wrestlemania event in 2016, also in Arlington — the all-time leader for inflation-adjusted ticket sales to a single event in pro wrestling history — which generated $17.3 million in ticket sales, according to WWE’s press release at the time. The company’s reporting indicates that paid attendees ranged between 74,000 and 86,000, as opposed to the 101,763 announced on the telecast. The Arlington Police Department told me in an email a year after the record-setting event that the turnstile count, which would presumably include comped attendees, was 80,709.
Consequently, the average ticket price for this year’s Wrestlemania events was lower than in previous years when Wrestlemania was a one-night show. The average ticket price for this year we estimate was somewhere between $140 and $177 (the median of which is $159), which would be on par with last year’s Wrestlemania over two days with limited capacity. Previous years’ average ticket prices in the one-night era, which ended in 2019, grew to more than $200.
If venue merchandise sales for this year were on par with last year’s $32.09 per capita, that would result in around $3.5 million in addition to ticket sales.
We estimate between $17 million and $19 million for ticket sales related to this year’s Wrestlemania events based on an analysis of WWE’s second-quarter reporting for its live events division. The company reported $34.9 million in North American ticket sales, much higher, as expected, than $19.9 million and $15.8 million in the prior two quarters, Q1 2022 and Q4 2021, respectively. Those periods had average ticket prices in North America of about $58 and $67. To determine our estimate for Wrestlemania’s ticket sales, we assumed non-Wrestlemania events in Q2 had an average ticket price somewhere between $60 and $70. We justify elevating our non-Wrestlemania average ticket price slightly above the range between that of Q4 and Q1 given the lack of premium live events in Q4 (there was only one, as opposed to two in Q1 and three in other quarters), and based on the lack of discount offers on tickets we noticed in Q2 compared to Q4. Each of the last three quarters (Q2, Q1, and Q4) had a similar number of house shows and Raw and Smackdown events.
A range for the paid attendance for Wrestlemania has been implied in the company’s Key Performance Indicators since 2008, and was possible to deduce from the latest update of that document. WWE reports average paid attendance in North America for the relevant quarter with and without Wrestlemania factored in. Deducing the range is just a matter of algebra. Because WWE reports average attendance rounded to the nearest hundred, we’re limited to a range within which the actual number must have fallen. This year that range has a five-percent margin. The math behind this year’s paid attendance calculation is shown below.