Is WWE TV Becoming Stagnant?

Is WWE becoming stagnant? That's the central question we're trying to answer. The concern is that should WWE fail to "develop, progress of advance" they run an enormous risk of being irrelevant in the eyes of existing fans and they'll become unable to hook new fans. Wrestling empires have crumbled before and resting on one's laurels has never worked out well. There's three metrics which historically are of special importance to Vince McMahon when he's tracking his company's health: Live Event Attendance, Television Ratings and PPV buys. Television has always played a crucial role in the rise of the WWF/WWE and with PPVs moving to be part of their online WWE Network, television will remain the primary (and most critical) outlet for connecting fans with the pro-wrestling product.

Television Ratings

In 1999, while WWF was reaching incredible peaks of popularity (culminating with over 10 million tuning in to see Stone Cold Steve Austin win the WWF Heavyweight Title from The Undertaker during the overrun of the June 28, 1999 episode of Raw), TV Rights Fees were remarkable small. That year, WWF earned about $7.3M in domestic TV rights fees and $5.5M international TV rights fees. Instead, it was television advertising where WWF raked in the cash - they made almost $65M in TV advertising revenue.

Feeling undervalued and frustrated (USA's pre-emptions of Monday Night Raw for Dog Shows and Tennis did not endear themselves to Vince McMahon), fans were stunned when the WWF jumped to Viacom's TNN (later Spike TV) in the latter part of 2000 (after winning a court case). Coupled with the successful launch of Smackdown on the UPN network (a few years earlier), by 2001 WWE was earning nearly $135M in between TV rights and Advertising revenue. (Specifically, they made $32.8M in domestic TV rights, $18.3M in international TV rights and a whopping $83.4M in TV advertising). The fateful contract negotiation of 2000 set in motion a clear direction: WWE's would grow their revenue stream through blossoming Television Rights. They've been executing that plan for fifteen years.
The company's annual compound growth rate over the past 15 years for just TV rights has been over 18%. Advertising hasn't fared quite as well - when WWE came back to the USA Network in Fall of 2005 they lost their rights to domestic advertising revenue. The chart above demonstrates how that had a significant impact. While the amount of programming has varied over 15 years, Raw & Smackdown have endured. Domestically, programming has come and gone (e.g. ECW, WWF/WWE Superstars, NXT, Main Event, Saturday Morning Slam, Velocity, Confidential, Heat, Jakked/Metal, Super Astros, Shotgun Saturday Night, Livewire, Excess, Afterburn/Bottom Line, Experience) while some shows continue to live on internationally. Additionally, the WWE Network is providing a second life to many of these programs as well. While television is not experiencing revenue stagnation (the latest domestic & international renewals estimated at $92M increase), there's a huge risk that the WWE television product is stagnating. It's tough to deliver first-rate content for Raw & Smackdown all year round. Meanwhile, PPV's occupy an increasingly unclear role (does a monthly live special on the WWE Network really deserve the same pedestal as before?). Meanwhile, there's an increased focus on television ratings (especially LIVE ratings) and content. The decision to expand Monday Night Raw to a three-hour weekly show (starting in late July 2012) only further endangered the freshness of the product. And it shows. In 2013, there was over four hundred matches on Monday Night Raw. About 70% of them were singles matches (and the majority of the remaining were tag matches). The main currency of professional wrestling is still the one-on-one encounter. When a viewer turns on Raw and sees two wrestlers facing off they may be intrigued or they may be bored. I believe two important elements dictating the reaction is whether you have stars involved and whether it's a "fresh" (read: new) matchup. It's going to be exceptionally difficult to present new pairing every single week, but that doesn't mean there's no absolutely responsibility for the creative team to work on offering new combinations. Unforunately, these last few years have been sad tales in terms of "freshness".
Over the past twelve months, only about a quarter of Raw singles matches had not yet been seen on television before. That's down from an average of above 40% when you look back 7-10 years ago. Likewise, Smackdown "freshness" has dropped from nearly 50% to below 30% in recent years. It's clear this is not being driven by a statistical anomaly or cherry-picking time-periods. Instead, we're seeing evidence that not only are less televised match-up new & "fresh", but we're seeing greater repetition. Five years ago, if a match was a rematch, we'd only seen that rematch a little more two other times. Now, that number has skyrocketed to almost four times. What causes this? There's two big culprits: lack of a brand split and addition of a three-hour of Raw. When there was a more defined brand split between Raw and Smackdown there was greater opportunity to see different main eventers on each show. Additionally, when talent was rotated from one side to the other brand there was a host of new match-ups available. Now, it's possible to see the same two wrestlers perform on Raw and then again (that same week) on either Main Event or Smackdown. Secondarily, the three-hour Raw is burning out match-ups faster and faster. That's a 50% increase in demand for weekly programming and while some evidence points to extending matches longer, there's also more matches performed each week. Consider this, 52 additional "hours" of Raw each week (really about 37 annual hours when you take off commercials) is equal to a year's worth of monthly 3 hour PPV events. And the stagnation grows. In terms of television ratings, since the heyday of the Monday Night Wars, Raw and Smackdown have slowly (but surely) been declining for 15 years.
The graph is pretty clear - since about 2003 TV ratings for Raw & Smackdown have been flat and declining. It's clearly not a dire situation (it's tough to stick around for fifteen years without being somewhat inventive), but it's not terribly encouraging either. Despite WWE's claims that the WWE Network would bring back viewers to Raw & Smackdown (part of their pitch why NBCU shouldn't be mad they launched the service), March through May 2014 Raw Rating (3.07) was lower than ratings for either 2013 (3.12) or 2012 (3.10) during the same three month timeframe. Smackdown's comparison is similarly flat (1.88 for 2014 versus 1.91 in 2013 and 1.83 in 2012). The fear is that three hours of Raw combined with two hours of stale & repetitive Smackdown is not a recipe for enticing new viewers to become WWE fans and buy the WWE Network, but rather it's a formula for a company whose core television product is at risk for withering on the vine. It's amazing that in this context WWE was able to wrangle about a 50% increase in domestic TV Rights Fees commencing at the end of this year. Meanwhile, the fact that WWE is struggling to sell peripheral programming (Main Event, Superstars, NXT, Legends House) to major networks reinforces the idea that while WWE isn't knocking at death's door, they're not the hot thing in town either. There's going to be good years and bad years. WWE has shown a lot of initiative in recent years pushing new stars (The Shield, Daniel Bryan, the Wyatt Family) and this year we've already seen many new faces on TV (Adam Rose, Rusev, Emma, Paige). Still, the danger of stagnation is real - WWE is using the same brand on both programs and has to fill three hours every Monday Night for their flagship show. There's never been been less importance about "selling the monthly PPV" for modern WWE. They cannot remain complacent about their position just because they tout their "DVR-proof" live sports programming status. Instead, they must honestly address the core atrophy we're seeing - flat ratings, declining house shows and anemic WWE Network growth. Otherwise, WWE risks becoming just another cautionary tale for whomever takes up the successful promoter mantel in the future.
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I'm a professional wrestling analyst, an improviser and an avid NES gamer. I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota and I'm working on my first book (#wrestlenomics). You can contact me at chris.harrington@gmail.com or on twitter (@mookieghana)