I wasn’t in the Bay Area this past weekend, but I had a great time following along with five of the most fun consecutive days in wrestling history. You know who had the most amazing weekend of all? WWE.
WWE WrestleMania 31 set the all-time gate record for pro wrestling, grossing $12.6M at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Cruz. They sold $3.3M in merchandise revenue, breaking the $2.7M record set by WrestleMania 29.
They announced an attendance of 76,976, which is a number too high for Super Bowl 50 to beat when that takes place at the stadium in 2016. Dave Meltzer guessed the real attendance to be around 65-70,000.
Vince McMahon claimed the embellished attendance number during WWE’s conference call for investors Monday morning also. You might think being a publicly-traded company would keep them honest about this, but it’s not unusual for them to present worked attendance figures in press releases appearing on their corporate website. There’s no reason to doubt the gate though.
WWE also drew packed houses for an NXT live event on Friday and to the SAP Center on Saturday for the Hall of Fame ceremony. They returned to the latter arena Monday for a sold-out Raw, which drew an average 5.35 million viewers, an incredible audience for this era, and the largest since 2012. Though she didn’t appear on Raw, the buzz created by Ronda Rousey’s WrestleMania appearance probably deserves some credit. The rating was 3.68. For comparison, the prior week’s Raw did 3.03. This rating edges out last year’s post-Mania Raw for the biggest week-over-week improvement versus the “Mania Go-Home” Raw in modern times. Clearly the value of the post-Mania Raw is on the rise:
The weekend was a creative success as well. The NXT show, Hall of Fame and especially WrestleMania were well-reviewed. The first two hours of Raw were great until the final hour woke fans up from their dreams and back into the cold hard reality that is Big Show and Kane.
One analyst on the conference call asked Vince about the lackluster build to WrestleMania and its contrasting creative success.
Sometimes you have to take, to a great extent, what’s going on in social media with a lot of grains of sand. We have our doubters. And that’s okay. And we have those who have an opinion of our programming. In the end, it’s like, “Wow, I guess they pulled it off.” … We knew the drive to [WrestleMania] was more of a last minute drive. Sometimes that’s the way we do it; sometimes we get way out in front. And you’ll see an evolution of that going into next year’s WrestleMania. – Vince McMahon, WWE Network Post-WrestleMania Conference Call (3/30/2015)
The last sentence suggests WWE has well laid out plans already in place for WrestleMania 32 in Dallas, Texas, where they’ll almost surely claim to break the mythical attendance record of WrestleMania III.
A softball question on the call about Sting’s appearance at WrestleMania also allowed Vince to glorify his great creative power as well as implicitly deny the existence of Sting’s TNA run:
“We took [Sting] from obscurity and developed that character and made it important.. You have to have these skills to take a product like Sting to go from obscurity to one of the main events of WrestleMania.”
This year’s WrestleMania attracted 1,315,000 paid subscribers to the WWE Network, which is the most crucial metric to their business today. WWE claimed they had no information yet on traditional pay-per-view buys.
The free trial in February attracted 201k trial subscriptions. 154k (77%) of those converted to paid subs in March. To compare with November, February attracted slightly fewer subscriptions, but at a higher conversion rate into the following paid month.
April will be another free trial month, a decision prompted by the expectation that many current subscribers will cancel following WrestleMania. Each previous free month has been successful, so running another free month in April is an appropriate way to control the “churn” in their view.
While the converted numbers look good it’s not clear how many are gaming the system, simply creating another WWE account as if they are a new subscriber, getting the trial month free then converting the following month – meanwhile their original subscription appears to be one that churned and never came back.
The company reports there have been 1.8 million unique subscribers in the history of the Network, but number of actual individuals who have subscribed must be lower to some degree since it’s possible to have subscribed at different periods with multiple accounts.
How easy it is to cancel your existing subscription and participate in the free trial? Very easy.
I tried for the sake of this article. I was able to cancel my WWE Network subscription on 4/1 and immediately sign out, create a new account with a different email address and sign up as a trial subscriber using the exact same billing info and the exact same credit card.
How frequent this practice is is very hard to say with the information that’s public, although WWE should be able to notice a large number of cancellations early in the trial month, should this phenomenon exist in significant numbers.
There’s some confusion about whether the 1001k (1/27) and 1315k (3/30) numbers are accounted from exclusively paid subscribers, or whether some free trials are included in the total. Did WWE really hit one million paid subscribers right after Royal Rumble? Or were they doing some tricky accounting to include free subscriptions so they could publicly parade the milestone?
This graph from their slides for the 3/30 call indicates that both the 1/27 and 3/30 numbers are in fact a count of paid subscribers:
The promotional free trial months began and ended from 11/1 – 11/30 and from 2/1 – 2/28, only. So this seems right.
Except it’s unclear how they’re counting subscriptions from UK/Ireland as paid. Subscribers in that region have the legal right to invoke the 14-day “cooling-off period” rule and cancel a service sold online, without charge. So does a UK/Ireland sub count as a paid sub immediately upon order or only after 14 days? It also seems problematic that a subscriber from that region could sign up for the Network just before WrestleMania (or any PPV), cancel within 14 days and have watched the show for free.
UK/Ireland subscribers who signed up in January were also given the month of February free (as a make good on their delayed launch). So it might not be coincidental that the UK/Ireland launch was on 1/18, exactly 14 days from 2/1, the beginning of free February. Were UK/Ireland subscriptions ordered in January by 1/27 counted as paid even though they wouldn’t have been charged until March? An email to WWE’s investor relations asking for clarification was not answered as of the publishing time of this article.
UPDATE (4/2): According to WWE, UK/Ireland subscribers are counted as “paid” subscribers during the cooling off period, even though they could cancel within their first 14 days as subscribers.
But what’s astonishing is that despite being at 816k on 12/31, hitting 1001k paid subs on 1/27 and 1315k on 3/30, they’ll still only average 918k for Q1 (1/1 – 3/31).
This must mean that paid subscriptions dipped well below 1 million during February and maybe even in early March. It leads one to wonder whether many did try to game the system to get February free, or whether many who were interested in Royal Rumble weren’t interested in Fast Lane or any other content offered in February, so decided to cancel until WrestleMania.
Average paid subscriptions is a crucial metric because it’s the key to determining WWE’s profitability, which is no longer certain following their gamble with the Network.
WWE provides the following guidance for scenarios of profitability as it relates to Network subscribers:
WWE revealed this week that their plan to attract and retain subscriptions post-WrestleMania is to debut eight new programs on the Network:
- “Camp WWE” (debuting late 2015): an adult animated comedy created by Seth Green. Starring WWE personalities as children at summer camp. Vince told investors, “Think South Park.”
- “Swerved” (May): created by Jeff Tremaine, director of “Jackass” and “Bad Grandpa.” Vince: “Think pranks on WWE superstars when they least expect it.”
- “Divas Search” (this fall): “WWE will span the globe in search of the most beautiful, athletic and charismatic women in the world to find the next stunning WWE Diva.” No word on whether this will be subtitled, “Kevin Dunn’s Misogyny World Tour.”
- “Jerry Springer presents WWE Too Hot for TV” (April): 30-minute series. Sounds like Springer throwing to clips of WWE’s most outrageous (trashiest?) moments.
- “Live! With Chris Jericho” (April): Likely a simulcast of Jericho’s Podcast One audio show. It’s unclear if this will be a regular, one-time or occasional deal. John Cena will be Jericho’s guest on April 6 following Raw. Previous podcast interviews on the Network with Vince McMahon and Triple H were done in conjunction with Steve Austin’s podcast. This is another suggestion that there was a rift recently between WWE and Austin, who was surprisingly not present at Wrestlemania or the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony.
- “Unfiltered” (May): Interview show hosted by Renee Young, with celebrity or WWE guests, “covering just about everything, except what they’re famous for.”
- “Culture Shock” (June): A short-form series hosted by Corey Graves. Sounds like a travel style show exploring venues and culture where WWE runs live events.
- “WWE: The List” (June): Not discernible how this will be different from the “Countdown” series currently on the Network.
“Camp WWE,” “Swerved,” “Divas Search,” and the Jerry Springer show, if not others, seem aimed at digging deeper into the male 18-34 demographic which is almost certainly the WWE Network’s largest subscriber segment, perhaps the majority. On the call, Vince admitted that’s the demographic that gets first priority, but of course said they’re going after demographics “across the board.”
Will any or all of these series go the way of Vince’s other forays into non-ring content like WBF, XFL and The World restaurant? Or will they work like “Total Divas” has? We won’t get public viewership information like a normal TV program since these are on WWE’s own OTT service, but it should be clear enough eventually when we see which programs survive.
Other programming being added to the Network includes new episodes of “WWE 24,” “WWE Countdown,” “Rivalries,” and a special on the Floyd Mayweather vs. Big Show match from WrestleMania 24 coming out just before Mayweather’s huge PPV fight with Manny Pacquiao. Further indicative of their effort to present more than just in-ring programming, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, which had two seasons from 1985-1986, will be coming to the Network at an unspecified date. They reported an additional 1000 hours will be added to the VOD library, again with no specific timetable, but the suggestion seems to be over the rest of the year.
This is a lot more original, and apparently more expensive, content than the Network produced last year. WWE CFO George Barrios said they plan to spend the same amount of money on the Network this year ($120 million) as last year, but that “we’re not going to get into which thing is going up and which thing is going down.” Meltzer speculated on his audio show on Tuesday what this might mean. A large portion of the Network expenses last year were in start-up costs for the launch. With the Network fully launched those costs won’t be recurring, so they can spend the same total amount on the Network, but spend a far higher portion of that total on original content.
WWE’s stock price fell 15% on Monday, the day the post-WrestleMania subscriber number was announced.
By most accounts, 1315k subscribers was a good number, well within expectations. So why did the stock fall so sharply?
It’s important to view the drop in price in the context of $WWE’s recent performance. I doubt it’s because the market viewed the subscriber number poorly or because of any reinforced pessimistic sentiments about the Network. It’s more plausible that there were many short-term plays on $WWE for a “sell on results” strategy, likely including stock options targeting 3/30. The spike in volume on 1/27 (5.15M trades) and the fact that the stock price increased an enormous 56% from 1/27 to 3/27 supports that theory.
Today the stock price is hovering around $13, which overall is still better than the $10 it was at just before the 1M subscriber milestone was announced. The stock fell hard on Monday. That’s bad if you bought it in February, hoping it would shoot up again after WrestleMania, but it’s not reflective of WWE’s successful weekend. The health of the company remains very stable. Whether the Network will be as successful as WWE hopes is a story that will continue to unfold for at least the next couple years.