As usual, WWE’s quarterly conference call leaves us with more questions than answers.
The bombshell from this morning’s call—and the most likely reason for the exit of co-Presidents George Barrios and Michelle Wilson—is WWE’s movement in licensing/selling what interim CFO Frank A. Riddick III called “WWE Network’s most premium content.”
Vince McMahon early in the conference call referred to strategic alternatives “which could be implemented quite frankly in the next quarter”.
Vince says of WWE Network "strategic alternatives" that "which could be implemented quite frankly in the next quarter."
— Brandon Thurston (@BrandonThurston) February 6, 2020
Later Riddick specified that the strategic alternatives have to do with WWE Network’s most premium content. When asked by a caller if the WWE Network was a business they can sell to a partner like ESPN+, McMahon said:
“We have a lot of options… We continue on with a free and enhanced paid tier. Right now is no more better time than to exercise the selling of our rights. All the majors are really clamoring for our content.”
This was followed up when an investor from JPMorgan asked if they would be willing to move WrestleMania, Royal Rumble and other premium PPVs off the network. Riddick again clarified that nothing is off the table:
JPMorgan: Which PPVs? Wrestlemania? Royal Rumble? You'd be willing to move that over off the Network?
Riddick: At this point there's nothing that would stop us from doing a different type of transaction with the Network.
— Brandon Thurston (@BrandonThurston) February 6, 2020
Finally, McMahon concluded by saying that WWE will be announcing a deal for OTT in the first quarter if one is completed, “that’s how far along we are.”
Okay, so what does this all mean?
This is pure speculation moving forward so please don’t report any of this as fact (I’m looking at you users of Reddit).
My read on all of this is that WWE has seen the writing on the wall in terms of the Network and its stagnant growth since its launch in February 2014. They’ve reached a point where until more people watch and consume WWE, the Network number will not meet the lofty expectations they set when it debuted.
At the same time, consolidated streaming networks are becoming titans in the industry. Disney+ launched to much fanfare blowing away expectations for subscriber numbers — reportedly in the range of 28 million.
Disney+ showed the world a new model for the future of streaming services with the consolidated content from multiple Disney properties including Marvel, National Geographic, Pixar, Star Wars and more.
ESPN+, which recently reported subscriber numbers just shy of 8 million, has seen tremendous success combining first-run and archival content from their sports networks as well as the addition of live UFC events.
It should come as no surprise that other television networks are in a rush to copy and mold their future content distribution after these models. NBC Universal’s recently announced Peacock service still has many kinks to work out but is imminent for release in 2020.
So, this is where McMahon’s declaration that “right now is no more better time than to exercise the selling of our rights,” and that “all the majors are really clamoring for our content,” really holds weight.
Basically, the WWE Network as we know it is going to change and it’s going to change very soon.
My speculation and read on the situation is that WWE will look to sell/license/distribute their premium live events to one of these major players in the streaming service game. Whether that be NBCU’s Peacock (my guess as to the most likely destination), Disney+ or any other service currently out there. Perhaps this could mean the entire movement of the WWE Network over to one of these services—which could be a herculean effort given the size of WWE’s archive—or simply the move to provide live-event purchasing and streaming on another service.
It’s clear the news of ESPN+’s success and the timing of the ousters of Barrios and Wilson are related. I won’t be convinced otherwise. McMahon and others in WWE anxious to move on from the stagnant Network likely butted heads with Barrios and Wilson’s vision which was always focused and supportive of WWE owning their content and pursuing direct-to-consumer distribution like the WWE Network.
The big question surrounding all this speculation really centers around cost. From the moment the WWE Network launched, the decision to price it at $9.99 and offer no additional tiers or premium pricing for major events was controversial. While a great decision for fan’s wallets, the WWE likely lost millions of dollars by pricing and valuing their PPVs—previously in the $50-60 range—at just $9.99. The move to another service may blow that pricing structure up.
If the UFC on ESPN+ model is followed, WWE will likely be asking fans to pay an additional price on top of the monthly cost of whatever service they land on. For fans who have been used to paying $9.99 every month for the last six years, that’s a big and improbable ask.
Could WWE simply sell their archives and streaming rights to Peacock or whomever and fold everything into one set monthly price? Yeah but that would really be a lateral and unnecessary move for WWE. Of course, it’s possible that one of the streaming networks provided WWE an offer they couldn’t refuse and a chance to move away from the hassle and operating costs of their own streaming network.
When WWE launched WWE Network in February 2014, it was to be the hub for all things pro wrestling. Over time, the vision of the network (along with leadership) changed dramatically. While a great asset and one that I would never get rid of—the archives alone are worth my $10—it’s clear the network has been an overall failure. Growth has been stagnant, new properties have not made their way to the network and live/original content has dwindled to almost nothing in recent months. This, combined with lofty goals and projections, as well as a changing television landscape around them, has forced WWE to rethink their over-the-top strategy.
The WWE Network as we know it is going to be changing very soon.