Multiple outlets reported yesterday that FOX is in negotiations, or at least serious discussions, about acquiring the television rights to Vince McMahon’s WWE. This would include the promotion’s flagship program, Monday Night RAW, as well as the Tuesday night SmackDown Live! broadcast. This isn’t new information, although many didn’t know about it outside the pro wrestling and television business landscape. Rather than go into the financials or the numbers, of which others, including Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, could do far better than me, I have another angle to explore.
Do I have a dog in this fight? Yes. I worked in pro wrestling, though not for WWE, between 2000 and 2009, and have written about the industry since 1998. I have been a casual UFC fan, getting caught up in the hoopla surrounding the big money fights and the most marketable stars, but by no means would I consider myself educated. For that, I primarily listen to and read Ariel Helwani, Meltzer, and Kevin Iole or Dan Wetzel.
This is a take from someone who has watched and followed, then covered, then made a little money in pro wrestling. But it’s coming from a place of common sense first, and it’s the same argument I’ve made between the two entities for as long as I’ve cared to engage in the discussion. In a nutshell, it’s as simple as this.
There is too much money involved in making stars to leave outcomes up to chance.
I could stop the article right there, because if you read that sentence and think about it, there’s no denying it. While the Buster Douglas result was historic, while Holly Holm ending Ronda Rousey’s reign of terror in UFC was unbelievable, the problem magnified itself in what happened after those moments. Mike Tyson was still the charismatic, over-the-top superstar, and Rousey was still the woman who drew over a million buys on PPV. Buster Douglas was never known for anything else, and Holm famously fell off a proverbial cliff when Miesha Tate beat her. And then came Amanda Nunes, who could walk in virtually any sports bar in this country wearing a shirt that says “Hi, I’m Amanda Nunes of the UFC” and no one would have any clue who she was.
Yes, there’s a difference between legitimate sport and a business with predetermined outcomes, but if you’re at all able to either suspend your belief or simply enjoy the pro wrestling dance, with its intricate but easy to follow in-ring storytelling, the probability of consistency is far greater than Dana White could ever hope to get from UFC.
Consider how many truly transcendent superstar fighters you’ve watched in UFC. Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar (whose name and persona was bolstered heavily by WWE), Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, and now I’m losing a lot of you who don’t follow the sport closely. Many of the most charismatic UFC fighters…quite frankly haven’t been very good in the Octagon. The problem for Dana and for his sport is that his biggest names are a loss away from losing marketability or staying power. We love a comeback story, but we’re only going to watch a loser for so long before the impact wears off.
Let’s face it, Chael Sonnen cuts one hell of a promo, but talking and then getting your face bashed in simply isn’t enough. Daniel Cormier is accomplished and is a good promo, but his fights aren’t particularly interesting most of the time and he isn’t all that strong a draw unless he’s got someone like Jon Jones on the other side of the Octagon. The list goes on and on, and WWE can have the same problem, however that organization and any other wrestling promotion has a built in advantage over UFC, and always will.
If you pay for a heavyweight fight, it could be a 15 second knockout. If you pay for a Rousey fight, it might have been a super quick tap out. The undercard might underwhelm, and then you’ve paid 70 bucks (or more in some cases) for virtually nothing. I remember watching Mike Tyson vs. Peter McNeeley with friends, and realizing what a rip off it actually was if you’re looking at an entertainment proposition. The quick KO is fun, but it has to be rare. Even then, some will be miffed at the duration of that proverbial movie. At the end of the day, entertainment value what we’re talking about here. Whether or not it’s legitimate is entirely irrelevant to this discussion.
What WWE can offer, due to its script, is a guaranteed run time. You know if RAW is a three hour show, you’re going to get three hours of content, plus a slight overrun. That’s usually a detriment, but on a two hour show, you’ve found the sweet spot. Three hours is simply too long for a weekly program. When the main event of WrestleMania begins at :25 after the hour, you can be assured, except in the rarest of circumstances, that it’s going to be around a half hour match. Maybe 25 on occasion, but you can plan in your head the entertainment you’re about to receive.
In many respects, this makes WWE more of a normal sports viewing experience than UFC or boxing, because NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL games all have guarantees on their time as well. It might fluctuate, but if the Rockets are squaring off with the Raptors, you know you’re going to see AT LEAST 48 game minutes of action. In the Super Bowl, it’s going to be 60 minutes. At WrestleMania, it’s going to be a six hour show, in fact more likely a little more than that.
Ideally, the script puts WWE in control of its own fate. If you want to make a superstar, you can create one. Hulk Hogan was never a good wrestler, which he himself will admit, but he was a legend. The late Ultimate Warrior was a horrible worker, but it never mattered. The reason why is because WWE could make those guys with the stroke of a pencil, and never had to worry about putting money behind someone that might get knocked out. The only concern is injury or personal or legal troubles, but that’s inescapable in any business.
WWE has been rightly criticized for not making new stars as they should, but they’re starting to break through with guys like Braun Strowman and well-traveled veterans like AJ Styles. Braun is incredibly limited in the ring, and still learning, but he’s a legitimate attraction. Styles is one of the best wrestlers in the world and has been for a long time as a matter of fact. Here you see the ease with which Vince and his people can choose their own destiny. They can build stars who have it all and mold the ones that don’t. Do they get it wrong? Absolutely. Right now, Rusev should be a megastar on Tuesday nights and he’s still toiling around doing very little despite being arguably the most over guy on the entire brand.
How about someone that’s purely an entertainer, who virtually never excites in the ring, but can still be built around and pushed to some extent? Elias, who debuted on the main WWE roster this past April, sings bad parody songs and plays a guitar, but comes across like a superstar. His matches are average at best, but it doesn’t matter. People know his catch phrases and go crazy for his “concerts” at live events around the country. Or The Miz, the former Real World star that doesn’t generally excite in the ring, but is a phenomenal talker and has been able to take his act to the big screen, as well as hits on ESPN programming and other venues.
The closest comparison to these guys would be someone like Sonnen, but who has real staying power here? Sonnen continually has to push the envelope or shift his focus, and I find him entertaining, but without hyperbole, it’s highly probable Elias could still be doing the EXACT same thing he’s doing right now in 10 years and still be popular. If he never gets any better as a wrestler, he’s still a star and a wildly fun character. If he does, if it ever really clicks for him and his ring work improves, the sky is the limit for him.
Finally, there’s another thing the script does, and in particular this effects the female competitors. Most of the female UFC fighters aren’t pushed or marketed on their appearance. It’s legitimate fighting and the pretty people aren’t often the dominant people. That’s how it has to be and how it should be. In WWE, whether you like this or not, you’re going to see a LOT of not just attractive, but extremely beautiful women that can be pushed as stars just as the men can. Add Rousey to that mix, which lends a different level of realism to the matches, and you have a recipe for success in that arena.
Guys like pretty girls. It’s not rocket science.
Plus, in recent years, we’ve seen a major growth in the quality of the wrestling from the ladies, who are still largely knockouts, but now can flat out get it done in the ring. It’s not that every woman needs to be attractive, which is an offensive notion. It’s that from a business standpoint, you can take gorgeous women in WWE and give them winning streaks and create powerful characters out of them, and never feel uneasy about a possible loss in their future. Just as with the guys, if you want to make a star, you can make a star. If that person can actually work in the ring effectively, then you have something truly special.
Brock Lesnar’s real rise, following his departure from UFC, came as a result of one match. He defeated The Undertaker at WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans. It’s the kind of thing that can never be assured in UFC or in boxing. WWE didn’t initially plan for the Dead Man to be 21-0 at Mania, but at some point they recognized they had always booked him to win his Mania match. In the later years, those bouts were billed as the most important and intriguing portions of the biggest cards of each year. No one expected Brock to beat him, but he did, and fans were largely irate about it.
But, WWE had the benefit of writing its own autobiography in advance. What they knew, once the decision was made, was that in the wake of that one single win, Brock Lesnar would be red hot. From that point forward, all they had to do was make him a monster, have him run through everybody he faced, until that time when the superstar Vince deemed to be “the guy” would defeat him and receive a similar push to what Brock got from the Undertaker. Sure, Lesnar lost to Goldberg in a surprise in 2016, but that was calculated, and everyone involved knew Brock would end up getting that win back in the end.
If WWE business struggles, they can point the finger at themselves, their storylines, theis miscalculations, or their own mistakes. If UFC business is tanking or taking a substantial hit, it often can come down to having the WRONG PEOPLE WINNING THE FIGHTS. Back to my thesis from above, you simply can’t leave this stuff up to chance in the long term as an entertainment property. I’m not saying Dana needs to start scripting things, not at all, just that it’s always going to be a problem for that sport. If you love UFC, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it’s entirely inarguable that from a consistency standpoint, WWE is a safer bet. And that’s a WWE that frankly often isn’t very good, but still has the built in advantages of scripting, timing, and star building.
Even with television numbers that aren’t anywhere near as strong as the boom of the late 1990s, the pro wrestling audience seeks out and cares about the programming. WWE has been one of the primary factors of USA Network’s many years atop cable television. It’s been a perfect lead-in, as well as a good spot to push new content during commercial breaks. Still, because ad executives see wrestling fans as lower class, the ad rates are nowhere near what they should be for the amount of eyeballs on the shows.
My argument is this: Take out the specifics and look at it from a purely entertainment standpoint. Without question, UFC does some things, including how it hypes some of its big fights, better than WWE. Dana White does a lot of things right, but he’s handcuffed by the unpredictability that is both a blessing and a curse to his business model. Whatever your favorite television show is, and this includes news programming, there’s a script. Do you enjoy it any less because it’s not “real?” The answer is no, unless you’re being dishonest. “Reality TV” is effectively an oxymoron, and WWE just happens to engage in an athletic soap opera. What’s the difference between WWE and Scandal, The Walking Dead, or Homeland?
UFC can and sometimes is incredible, but it can also be ho hum, and often by factors that the company itself can’t control. WWE SHOULD regularly be incredible, even if cyclical annually in how it approaches various times of a calendar year, and when it’s not good it’s usually easy to point to the reasons why. So for FOX, which hasn’t had the stellar Monday lineup it enjoyed when the likes of Jack Bauer were reigning supreme, why wouldn’t you bring in the built in WWE audience and hitch your wagon to it? It’s a risk worth taking, and I’m not even sure it’s a risk.
Because of the predetermined outcomes, you know what you’re getting. That’s not the case with UFC, so if I’m making the choice, if I can’t have them both, I’m calling Vince McMahon or sitting down with Paul Levesque (Triple H) and getting this done. No offense whatsoever intended to UFC, but I prefer my key variable known over precariously unknown when it comes to my entertainment dollar…or hour.
I submit that not only is the script not a hindrance, and not only is it actually just “A” reason, but it’s “THE” reason why FOX should do all it can to make this move in today’s television landscape.