The critics who deride pro wrestling as an insignificant sideshow were left in the dust once again this week when WWE, the strongest brand in the grapple-game, announced a groundbreaking new partnership with the planets largest streaming service, Netflix.
But. while the news will send shockwaves through many live sports and entertainment industries, those who have followed pro wrestling’s fortunes know that WWE has a track record for carving out a path for others to follow.
“This deal is transformative,” says Mark Shapiro, the president and COO of WWE’s parent company TKO, in a press release marking the news that WWE Raw and other bone-bending content will be headed to Netflix. “It marries the can’t-miss WWE product with Netflix’s extraordinary global reach and locks in significant and predictable economics for many years. Our partnership fundamentally alters and strengthens the media landscape, dramatically expands the reach of WWE, and brings weekly live appointment viewing to Netflix.”
TKO’s announcement that Netflix will gain the exclusive rights to air WWE Raw live, on a weekly basis, in addition to premium events such as The Royal Rumble and Survivor Series outside of the US (NBC’s Peacock service currently enjoys these rights domestically) wasn’t the only bombshell news released this week.
The company that owns WWE, and also UFC by the way, rang the opening bell at The New York Stock Exchange yesterday, alongside its newest member of the TKO Board of Directors; Dwayne Johnson. Apparently, as part of the arrangement, Johnson will now own the rights to his iconic “The Rock” trademark and is also expected to return to the ring to face WWE’s Universal Champion, Roman Reigns.
An incredibly exciting day for our business. @TKOGrp continues to grow bigger and better every day. Welcome to the team, @TheRock. https://t.co/t1UNLBWuIV
— Triple H (@TripleH) January 23, 2024
Undoubtedly, the shifting of WWE’s programming, to become primarily a streaming product, is about staying ahead or at least with the curve when it comes to maintaining and finding new audiences. While WWE SmackDown is set to move from Fox to the USA Network, this is likely done by NBC as a way to add more WWE to Peacock’s streaming service, especially with them losing RAW to Netflix.
What Is WWE’s Track Record for Exploring New Ways to Find an Audience?
Ever since Vince McMahon took his father’s local pro wrestling show and began to dominate the business on a national and then global scale back in the 80s, WWE has built up an incredible track record for finding innovative new ways to reach a bigger audience. When McMahon bet everything he had on the success of his first WrestleMania pay-per-view at Madison Square Garden in 1985, there were many industry insiders that scoffed at the idea of him being able to make the concept work. This year, however, will mark the fortieth anniversary of the “show of shows”. WrestleMania is now a two-night event that is competed over by bids from host cities, much like the Olympics or the Super Bowl. And, speaking of the NFL, they didn’t launch their first dedicated streaming service “NFL+” until July 2022, whereas the WWE Network was available globally online way back in 2014.
Why is Live Sport Such as WWE so Important to Broadcasting Platforms?
Whether or not you consider WWE to be a sport will depend on your view of the athleticism and exhibition of skill that these talented combatants display time after time, but one thing that is becoming clear is the fact that live content is the most sought-after acquisition for broadcasters on any platform. This is because live action is considered to be “appointment viewing.” If you don’t watch a game or special event as it happens, you are likely to encounter spoilers. Of course, fear of spoilers drives the real-time viewership up, and makes this style of programming more attractive to advertisers.
While WWE’s own Network was a financial success, the majority of its content was leased by NBC’s Peacock service. It’s a way for the broadcaster to offer unmissable shows to its subscribers. When that deal was struck, many people couldn’t understand why WWE would change its business model from owning its own service to instead licensing out its bodyslams and piledrivers to other streamers. But the stats soon explained it all. Peacock, with its more mainstream audience, was able to build a larger total viewership for WWE, thanks to new people discovering its shows without needing to subscribe to WWE’s dedicated niche network.
And, on top of getting around $1 billion over five years to share its programming with Peacock, WWE now consistently sets record ratings for the various premium live events shown on its platform. In fact, more people watch WrestleMania and its superstars like Cody Rhodes and Becky Lynch than ever before. So it makes sense for WWE to seek the same model with its flagship linear television show, Raw. Netflix, with more than 260 million worldwide subscribers, will put WWE in prime position to see continued growth. Plus they are reportedly paying them $5 billion for that privilege over 10 years.
Netflix and chi… Wrestle? 🤷🏻♀️😈 https://t.co/qiucSpHsKu
— RheaRipley_WWE (@RheaRipley_WWE) January 23, 2024
WWE’s Deal with Netflix Explained
“We are excited to have WWE Raw, with its huge and passionate multigenerational fan base, on Netflix,” says Netflix Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria. “By combining our reach, recommendations, and fandom with WWE, we’ll be able to deliver more joy and value for their audiences and our members. Raw is the best of sports entertainment, blending great characters and storytelling with live action 52 weeks a year and we’re thrilled to be in this long-term partnership with WWE.”
Netflix plans to show Raw live on it’s platform beginning January, 2025, and will also be able to show events such as WrestleMania and other premium live events to those in other countries where the Peacock arrangement is not in place, such as the UK and Europe. With WWE giving the eventual “Stone Cold” Stunner to linear TV, the company’s track record of finding new ways to grow its audience will no doubt serve as wake-up call for other sports leagues and live content providers that are still stuck in the diminishing era of traditional television.
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