For at least a decade, sport and entertainment have been approaching a crossroads. Shifts in media and technology have driven new expectations and behaviours among fans, inspiring countless questions about where to go next.
Some of the most interesting answers to date have come from an organization that sits in a place between sport and entertainment – the company, in fact, that has pioneered its own concept of ‘sports entertainment’ for more than a generation through professional wrestling promotions.
WWE has spent decades using a scripted action format to satisfy the desires of fans for big action and big characters, but with competitive tension and real athletic prowess. Over the past decade, it has transferred its ‘kayfabe’ performance traditions to the digital space and found new ways to create content. At every point, it has maximised the appeal of its wrestlers – who are positioned externally as elite athletes but valued internally for their high skill and charisma as entertainers.
Its media strategy has long been contingent on narratives that build towards tentpole events – most notably the annual WrestleMania extravaganza – that are given pay-per-view status in key media markets. Beneath those, support programming has created something comparable to the seasonal or tournament-based engagement of traditional sports, albeit with carefully planned storylines that build interest and give young stars space to develop an audience.
Shows like Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown have built their own identities while their touring setup allows WWE to bring the arena experience to spectators across the US and beyond. It also allows for a diversified media rights offering, bringing several domestic partners into the mix to balance reach and revenue.
All of this gives the company unique control over its content, while it is also able to offer sponsors much deeper integration. Partners like Snickers are worked into event plans far in advance – with their assets used in a style closer to product placement in films and television series. Former sponsor KFC even saw a representation of its Colonel Sanders mascot perform in the ring.
Financially, WWE has reached new heights in the past year. Its full 2021 accounts showed a 12 per cent rise in annual revenues to $1.095 billion – a company record. That came after it surprised many industry observers at the start of the year by signing a five-year, $1 billion deal to take its direct-to-consumer WWE Network – with 1.5 million subscribers – over to NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service in the US.
That partnership has been credited with extending the reach of Peacock itself and WWE looks set to follow a similar model in other markets, signing with Disney+ Hotstar in Indonesia in January. The diversity of its content may afford WWE some dexterity in how it approaches its international media strategy.
WWE has been popular outside the US for many years but it is targeting deeper incursions into more and more markets. Its ambitions for its events have also grown. The company has stated its aim to move top-tier cards away from arenas and into stadiums, while its positioning could also create possibilities to carry over ideas from other touring properties in music and entertainment.
For all that, the best asset at WWE’s disposal remains its performers, the most successful of whom have built followings over decades before breaking into wider pop culture. It is a personality-led proposition – often literally, given the blurring between the kayfabe characters and real-world personalities of the McMahon family and ownership group – while the perspective of wrestlers like Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque has also been added to the executive suite.
As WWE pushes into new territories, those faces of its brand will only become more important in reaching the right parts of its prospective fanbases and meeting higher goals.
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