An Investigation Into WWE’s Slumping Ratings
Last week I read on various sites that rather than rising as WrestleMania neared, recent WWE Raw TV ratings were some of the lowest so far this year. That got me to wonder how this year’s ratings pattern for Raw leading into WrestleMania compares with past years.
Are slumping ratings an indictment of a lackluster build to WrestleMania 31?
I’m afraid not. Raw’s ratings are down but not at a rate exceeding US TV viewership overall. While researching, I also found it worth mentioning that WWE business improved in some key metrics from 2004-2006, a fact I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.
With Monday Night Football ending in late December, there’s at least one fewer excuse and caveat to account for when analyzing the Raw’s ratings. So you’d think that the new year, through the Royal Rumble and on to the build to WrestleMania would produce a gradually increasing ratings pattern. But it doesn’t:
However since 2001, the build to WrestleMania has outperformed the Raw rating for the whole year:
The average rating for Raw during the Mania build as of this writing (there is still one more Raw before WrestleMania) is 2.91. So if the above pattern continues, the yearly average rating for Raw will continue its year-over-year decline.
In fact, this is the lowest-rated build to WrestleMania since the build to WrestleMania 13 in 1997. This year’s ratings are on par with the build to WrestleMania 12 in 1996. And remember in 1996, Raw was running against Nitro, which was drawing a similar or larger wrestling audience in the same timeslot.
WWE is a long way from the ratings peak of the beloved Attitude Era, when Raw averaged a monstrous 6.23 going into WrestleMania 2000. Going by just this one metric it looks like the popularity of WWE is sloping downward with no end it sight, although as I’ll discuss later, there’s a lot more to it. But has WWE’s business as a whole ever improved in a truly remarkable way since the popularity of the late 90s cooled off?
THE MINI-BOOM OF 2004-2006
Notice in the two above line graphs the short upswing from 2004 to 2006. This appears to be the only time WWE has gained momentum with TV ratings since the end of the Attitude Era. What about other metrics for that period? Total annual pay-per-view buys also increased over the same time period and declined after it.
Average worldwide live event attendance follows a similar ’04-’06 upswing:
What can be credited for the most noticeable uptick in TV ratings, PPV buys and attendance since the end of the Attitude Era? Was it due to the emergence of new stars John Cena and Batista? Maybe. And did business gradually wane after their novelty wore off while no new stars of equal power emerged? It’s the best answer I can think of. If true, it’s a testament to how important creating new stars is. And to think Batista probably wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if Triple H hadn’t reportedly insisted on a slow burn storyline culminating at WrestleMania 21, rather than the hotshot turn some in creative wanted, much like the squandered, hotshot turn of Randy Orton that year following SummerSlam. And is it any coincidence Batista arguably became a bigger star than the more talented Orton?
THE FRAGMENTATION OF MEDIA
At least attendance numbers, although they tapered, have stabilized. PPV numbers stabilized in a similar manner before the WWE Network was launched in 2014. But the trajectory of Raw TV ratings is ever-sloping downward.
Is it because the show is so damn long and horrible? Triple H basically admitted in his interview with Steve Austin that he wishes the show could be shorter. Whatever the reason, is this terrible news for WWE?
When I posted a couple of these graphs on the F4W Board many brought up the fact that television ratings overall in the US are declining, not just WWE’s. Rightfully so, some argued that this should be taken into account when considering the decline of Raw’s ratings.
I’ve tried to account for this by collecting data for the average rating for the highest-rated US TV series in a given television season (henceforth “HRTVS”). I compared that figure to the Raw rating for the corresponding television season (September through August of the following year). The HRTVS numbers are too large to make for a good direct comparison to Raw’s numbers. Instead, I’ve compared the percentage of year-over-year (YOY) change in both figures. This YOY percentage change for both HRTVS and Raw are a negative number most years, consistent with declining television ratings overall. (In fact if you look back on the history of the HRTVS number, you’ll see it’s been in a gradual descent since the advent of the television, almost certainly due to increases in the number of channels available to Americans, the emergence of streaming video services and other entertainment options as technology develops.)
So what we have is this:
The trends match up pretty well. More importantly, Raw’s ratings are declining at a very similar rate to that of the HRTVS. Over the last ten TV seasons, Raw has declined an average of 2% per year; HRTVS has declined an average of 1% per year. Over the last five TV seasons, Raw has declined an average of 3% per year; HRTVS the same.
The HRTVS is not the only metric we can look at. The Wall Street Journal reports that traditional TV viewership overall is down 12% so far in the first quarter of 2015 compared to the first quarter of 2014. (Google the headline to read the full WSJ article.) The article reports that the blame goes largely to new streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime — the big OTT products that inspired WWE Network.
If this trend holds throughout 2015, Raw’s ratings could fall another 12% from its 2014 average of 2.95, ending 2015 at as low as an average 2.60. In that scenario, at 2.60 they would not be at a relative loss compared to TV viewership overall. Indeed, the Mania build rating of 2015 (2.91) has “only” declined by 8% versus 2014’s Mania build (3.17). So if US TV ratings decline 12% in 2015, an 8% decline would be a small relative win for WWE.
Honestly, I doubt the differences of a few percent between Raw and TV overall are really that significant. It’s probably more correct to say that, with the decline of traditional TV considered, the performance of WWE Raw over the last five years has been very flat, which is right in line with WWE’s equally flat live event attendance and pre-Network PPV numbers.
But what does this absolute decline in ratings really mean for WWE? Obviously it means fewer people are watching the television show, which is the main gateway to other product consumption.
I do think this sheds some long-term uncertainty on what the future holds for TV rights deals, WWE’s largest revenue stream. If traditional TV becomes less and less relevant and therefore ratings continue to decline, how long will Raw and Smackdown be able to attract the hundreds of millions of dollars per year that NBC Universal currently pays for them? Or is there a hard floor that certain live programming such as Raw just won’t go below that will continue make it a viable product for traditional TV networks to the extent that it at least maintains its current TV rights value?
But many people watch Raw — or parts of it — through Hulu or YouTube now.
While you can watch WWE programming on Hulu the day after its first-run, I doubt that viewership is large enough to make up for a significant portion of the viewers Raw has lost over recent years. Nielsen just started measuring viewership of streaming services including Hulu, so maybe we’ll find out for sure.
And how about WWE’s 4 billion YouTube views? Is that any consolation? What about people who watch a few YouTube clips on Tuesday morning and get the gist of Raw rather than suffering the three hours?
And there are people too who just read or hear about Raw online through various reviewers. (Many weeks that certainly describes me.) Ironically these people are almost by definition who we think of as the most die-hard fans.
Maybe these alternative ways to follow WWE mean something as a supplement for the lost viewership since at least live event attendance held steady through 2014. Though a lack of 2014 PPV numbers to check obscures further conclusions. So comparing ratings to attendance I think is something to watch for in 2015 and for years to come.
Clearly WWE is in a business paradigm unlike any other wrestling promotion in history, where live attendance is very much a secondary revenue stream. Much of the money is guaranteed in advance by selling TV rights. Most PPVs too are essentially bought in advance by fans committed to the Network. Like Raw itself, within WWE’s current business model, it’s getting harder and harder to grasp the meaning of anything.
Disclosure about this data:
1. WWE Raw TV ratings were sourced from Gerweck.net which seem to be recorded cumulatively from internet reports as news of the ratings came out. The average Raw rating for each year derived from the Gerweck numbers is usually slightly lower than the number WWE provides in their annual reports. In their financial reports, WWE does not provide a full week-by-week listing of Raw ratings, only a final yearly average. Here’s the difference:
Since I am using only the Gerweck numbers in this article, I believe this still provides a consistent and appropriate set of data for what I am analyzing. While true the Gerweck numbers are collected from second-hand sources and one would think WWE has the most complete and accurate data, the increasing difference as the years go on (while at the same time Gerweck records ratings are going down) is suspicious. I brought this up to Chris Harrington, who suggested Raw’s overrun may not be included the Gerweck numbers. But he also suggested it’s possible WWE is doing some creative calculations. For example if they get a 3.55, they might record it as a 3.6 so the overall average turns out higher. Or they might be averaging quarters rather than averaging the individual episodes.
2. The highest-rated US TV series in a given television season (HRTVS) data is taken from this Wikipedia article. The section I took this data from cites these apparently credible sources:
“2003-04 Season To Date Program Rankings from September 22, 2003 Through May 30, 2004”. ABC Medianet. 2004-06-02. Archived from the original on 2007-02-08. Retrieved 2006-11-24.
Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh (2007). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present, p. 1679-1698. ISBN 978-0-345-49773-4
Andreeva, Nellie (27 May 2011). “Full 2010-11 Season Series Rankers”. Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 27 May 2011.
“America’s Most Watched: The Top 50 Shows of the 2013-2014 TV Season”. June 6, 2014. Retrieved 2015-03-15.
This article was edited to update data for the rating of the final Raw before WrestleMania, which took place after this article’s publication.