The professional wrestling industry just changed, folks. The old model for virtually every promotion in history has always been to use television to build the big money matches for Pay Per View, but that’s now over…
…at least for WWE.
There are many unanswered questions about WWE’s agreement with Fox, and we’re not going to know how to address many of them until October of 2019. That said, USA Network has to understand that it now possesses the “B” show to Fox’s “A” show. This is two hours on broadcast television, and although it’s not the first time SmackDown has been moved to a non-cable network, it’s by far the biggest. This is a huge move. Time will tell if it works. Friday is not a good television night, and measuring WWE numbers against the giants in primetime TV (as should be the comparison) means work will have to be done.
The secondary SmackDown show has been on UPN, it’s been on the CW, and it’s been on MyTV. It was canceled in every one of those situations, although the latter came as that company didn’t have its legs underneath it. But, it was deemed as not a strong enough property in the past for multiple networks. Now, and this has already been pointed out by many others covering the industry, WWE could and will be subject to true ratings analysis like any other primetime show. If it fails, or can’t build a strong-enough audience, it could be moved to FS1 relatively quickly.
The other TV reality is WWE and pro wrestling as a whole has always been seen as the ugly stepchild to advertisers. Even with consistent ratings numbers, the charged rates have been among the lowest in television for decades, because wrestling fans are viewed by elite Don Draper types (and the companies they represent) as low class, low income, and not to be coveted. Despite consistently good ratings, even including WCW when it was falling off a cliff in 1999 and 2000, it hasn’t translated to big ad revenue.
And WWE isn’t exactly red hot right now. There are less people watching pro wrestling right now on Mondays and Thursdays than were watching most Nitro shows in the dying days of WCW. When both Vince McMahon and Ted Turner were rolling, there were sometimes in the neighborhood of ten million wrestling viewers on Monday nights. RAW and Nitro would both do a 4, a 5, or sometimes even higher. Even when one was dominant over the other, the top dog would be eclipsing a 6 (and occasionally a 7) and the competitor would be in mid 3s or even low 4s.
The current numbers might be impressive in a vacuum, but overall, they’re barely a drop in the bucket compared to what the industry has done in its best moments. Many fans have walked away from the product. Some WCW fans left in 2001, never to return. But there’s a built-in WWE fan base and a built-in pro wrestling fan base that simply will never quit and won’t be chased away. If so, it would have happened by now.
Does the Fox move change that? We don’t know. What we know is the WWE fan base continues to age, with the average viewer of RAW and SmackDown falling above 50. Kids are watching less, which is a symptom of the a la carte culture, streaming, and other interests. In many ways, the pro wrestling fan base mimics the video game fan base. While both might be seen as immature or childish, it’s an unfair criticism, because especially in gaming, the first generations are just now advancing in age to their 50s. It began for kids, but very little is being created for young players.
WWE business is now completely different than any other promotion in the world, because PPV becomes secondary, the WWE Network loses much of its importance, and with guaranteed money, much of the talent on the Independent scene can be swallowed up with exorbitant contracts the likes of which we’ve never seen. Offering millions to mid card talent, not even the main event guys, can become commonplace, because money will be falling from the sky. But, making nearly two billion bucks over five years means Vince may not even care. It’s all money, and it’s locked in. That said, if there’s a challenger to Vince McMahon, he can throw obscene dollars at those individuals to try and buy it off.
But, while USA Network knows they’ll continue to have RAW, they also now know that with the money involved, SmackDown has NEVER been even CLOSE to the priority it will be once the deal officially begins. In the fall, where the NFL has traditionally pilfered viewers away from WWE programming, now we’ll likely listen to the Thursday Night Football crew reading copy for Vince McMahon, and there will be plenty of pro wrestling advertisements during pro football games. That said, USA has developed a new identity and has built critically acclaimed shows like Mr. Robot and The Sinner and viewer favorites and cable powerhouses like Suits. Years ago, shows like Burn Notice would DEBUT after RAW, because that’s when USA knew it had its biggest audience. Now, in similar fashion to TNT, while that content was still huge for them, USA is in a much better state from a reputation perspective.
Two hours on Fox is better than three hours on USA, although the fans will find the content wherever it is. That’s been proven for many years, but two hours is better for a wrestling fan than three, which has led to a degradation in RAW quality as the shows are simply too long, too stretched, and an audience ends up exhausted and disinterested. Because of Fox’s local news arrangements, a third hour would assuredly have to be placed on FS1, and that makes little sense. You simply put forth a loaded two hours, with the biggest matches imaginable on those shows, and you stack that side of the roster with talent.
There is no question in my mind Ronda Rousey will be drafted to SmackDown next year when the company engages in its post-WrestleMania Superstar Shakeup. If they’re smart, they won’t switch talent around until after SummerSlam next August, potentially holding the swaps off until late September, setting the stage for SmackDown to feel entirely new immediately.
For the pro wrestling fan, SmackDown will be can’t miss, but the truth is, WWE has no real impetus to change how it does business or how it books, because it will attract new fans simply as a byproduct of that show’s new home. Those that despise Roman Reigns won’t matter. Those that decry part-timers like Brock Lesnar holding the WWE Universal Championship hostage for over a year and performing less than 15 times during a two year span will have no voice. As long as the investors are happy, or as long as WWE can trot out various statistics to MAKE them happy, that becomes the name of the game.
Why else would Backlash, one of the worst-received WWE events of all time, have gone four and a half hours a few weeks ago? As Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer pointed out the next day, solely so WWE could show stockholders a data point that people were watching the Network for more total time than ever before. It wasn’t about the show or the quality of the show, it was simply about trying to hold an audience longer to turn a negative into a positive.
Comparing WWE to sports isn’t the game, but it really never was. NBA ratings don’t generally effect Vince’s numbers all that much, outside of the largest playoff matchups, because there’s not a tremendous amount of crossover, and WWE has often been described as “DVR proof.” You should analyze WWE against other SCRIPTED television, because it’s not a sport. You can judge it against cable, but comparing it to sports has always made little to no sense to me. And, like many top flight “DVR proof” dramas or comedies, WWE having that potential remains a true statement generally, because even when SmackDown (and RAW when overseas) have been taped shows, the numbers don’t tend to fall off much. That becomes another question for SmackDown, which traditionally, at least until the past few years, had been a taped show more often than not.
With the money Fox is paying, you imagine they’d want a live event, but within WWE, reports have already surfaced that employees and some in the office believe the show will revert to a taped model. If I had to predict, I’d say it’s live. If I’m Fox, I’d do everything in my power to mandate that. Even if the ratings wouldn’t drop off to a gigantic degree, you don’t want spoilers out there three days before the show would presumably air.
SmackDown has aired live for the past few years on Tuesday nights after the ratings fell precipitously due to negligence and booking malfeasance. The show was an afterthought, often repeating what had been done on Monday, and the audience was small enough that WWE would test angles out on the taped show and if they worked, sometimes actually do the exact same thing on RAW. Doing the show on Friday makes live a little more difficult, but again, even the non-televised house show events that travel the country (and the globe) on weekends can be moved and shifted. The schedule changes because of this deal. The money is such that it has to become the priority, no matter what it means for the traditions of business.
Pro wrestling was one industry. It’s now two. That’s what the deal ultimately means. With the guaranteed money, the placement on Fox (or FS1 if that became necessary a little further down the line), WWE will operate as its own entity and everybody else will do what they’ve always done. It’s a good thing for the young talent out there, because they’re going to make more money. The risks of the business, particularly the insurance risks to Independent talent, have always been concerning. I’ve personally taken friends to the hospital for costly procedures that resulted from injuries sustained in the ring. Many times, it’s bankrupted some of these guys and gals. If you work for WWE, you have a good chance at getting paid, whether you’re there now or they sign you later.
And, for the Ronda Rouseys and Brock Lesnars of the world, the sky is the limit when it comes to the checks Vince can write. It’s even less likely now that Lesnar will do much of anything with UFC, because at his age, he’s not going to be dominant in the Octagon, and he can command a boatload of cash from WWE if he wants to do so. Vince can pay the guy just absurd money to stay put, or to do more dates. Again though, this is GUARANTEED money, which means Vince can basically tell many of his fans to screw off if they aren’t digging the creative direction. He won’t be forced to do much of anything, unless the Fox numbers aren’t strong enough, and even then, he might not care all that much. FS1 as a fallback with that kind of cash being thrown around isn’t too shabby either.
Football used to be the bane of Vince’s existence, at least as a viewer vulture, but now, due to the TNF situation, it becomes an ally and at the very least a partner to drive new people to Friday nights. Time will tell how well this works or if ad execs finally take WWE seriously. Time will tell if Fox gets gunshy in a few years and tries to move the show to FS1. Time will tell as to what impact this has on the WWE Network, where the exclusive supercard monthly content now becomes far less important than weekly television.
But, it’s good for the boys in the locker room, it means WWE TV could consistently become must-see (which it hasn’t been for quite some time), and it means the business has changed. RAW doesn’t become a lame duck, as both shows are now worth somewhere around 3x what they were previously, but SmackDown becomes A1, A2, and maybe even A3 in the mind of Vince McMahon.
One thing is for certain.
It’s a new day, yes it is.