WWE SmackDown World Tour
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World Wrestling Entertainment and UFC-owned Endeavor to merge this year in a deal that will create a sports-entertainment giant valued at more than $21 billion.
After the deal was announced in early April, WWE shares rose to their highest level in nearly four years. The stock is up more than 50% so far this year.
But for wrestling fans, the story is not about those numbers. Instead, the success of the merger hinges on what actually happens in the ring – and whether it’s worth their time and money.
In a landscape where consumers wield vast economic and political clout, the merger will be a test of just how strong the collective power of fans will be against corporate giants. And wrestling fans aren’t afraid to share their opinions.
Some worry that a return to pay-per-view form for WWE’s flagship event, WrestleMania, is on the horizon. Last month, it aired exclusively on NBCUniversal’s Peacock, generating the streaming service’s highest weekend usage ever. Although NBCU doesn’t release specific broadcast numbers for the event, only the Super Bowl has surpassed WrestleMania in the most watched hours of any live Peacock event, according to the company.
WWE’s exclusive broadcast deal with Peacock, which includes the rights to broadcast WrestleMania, is set to expire in 2026.
WWE declined to comment for this article. In late March, before the UFC deal was announced, WWE CEO Nick Khan said the company was mindful of fans’ price sensitivity.
“If NBCCU comes to us and says, ‘Hey, we’ll take you from where you are now to five times for Peacock, but we need to charge you extra,’ we’d have to take a hard look at that,” Khan told the Marchand and Aurand Sports Media podcast. We don’t want to underestimate our fans.”
Longtime fan Jerry Derasmo who hosts a wrestling podcast said he understands why WWE might eventually switch WrestleMania to pay-per-view. However, he also believes that it’s one of the few things that can actually turn off large numbers of fans. He said that many fans have told him they would join podcasts like his rather than pay $60 or $70 to watch pay-per-views.
Fans said the way WWE will tell its stories and conduct matches under the new executive system will also help determine how they spend their money.
“The biggest concern from a fan standpoint — not from an investors standpoint, but from a fan standpoint — is creative control,” said Matt Corsell, a longtime wrestling fan and host of the WWE Podcast.
In this case, there is an elephant in the room and his name is Vince McMahon. For many WWE fans, whether they will pay for the new streaming or pay-per-view services depends largely on whether McMahon, 77, who has dominated WWE since taking over from his father in 1982, gets involved in creative decisions.
Despite numerous settlements with women who have alleged sexual misconduct by McMahon, including an allegation of rape, which he denies, he remains at the helm of WWE.
“This guy, for better or worse, has been controlling the biggest wrestling company in the world,” said Jimmy Baxter, a New Jersey-based professional wrestling commentator and podcaster. “For that, it was a success story, but along the way, there was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears — and a lot of paid women.”
McMahon isn’t going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. He will be CEO of the new combined company, which has yet to be named, alongside quest CEO Ari Emanuel. After 40 years, many fans view him as a permanent fixture, even if he’s not the CEO.
“When the bombs fall, there will be three things left: the cockroaches, the Twinkies and Vince McMahon,” said Baxter.
World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Chairman Vince McMahon is introduced during the WWE Monday Night Raw show at the Thomas & Mack Center on August 24, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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McMahon told CNBC last month that he won’t be deeply involved in WWE’s storytelling when the WWE and UFC merge — but fans say they need more evidence before they accept his statements at face value.
“As much as they want to tell us he’s not ‘in the weeds’ creatively, there’s been a lot of evidence lately that Vince is,” Corsell said, including rumors that he was running the show backstage on Raw after WrestleMania.
There are other content concerns, too.
In late April, a former WWE writer sued the company, claiming she was fired in retaliation for responding to racist pitches in a writer’s room, according to court documents. The complaint lists McMahon and his daughter Stephanie McMahon, herself a former executive, as defendants, as well as WWE itself and other behind-the-scenes employees of the company.
“We know what Vince McMahon is; we know what he brought to the table creatively,” Corsell said. “For the last five to 10 years, it hasn’t been the best it could be, from a fan standpoint.”
However, fans keep coming back for more. Anyone who has paid thousands of dollars on wrestling events and merchandise over the years wouldn’t immediately stop watching if the new WWE wasn’t about to take the plunge in their eyes. Some longtime hardcore fans aren’t sure where they’ll land yet, but they’ll likely stick around to see where things go from here.
“I absolutely love drama,” said Baxter. “I love watching a crazy old man burn his empire to the ground just because he can.”
Disclosure: Peacock is the streaming service for NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.