One of the most debated points of the past few years has been regarding the decrease in ratings for WWE RAW in the United States and the effect that cord-cutting has had on those ratings. Some people have argued that the drop in RAW viewership is primarily due to cord-cutting.
I’m going to define two terms for the rest of this article. Cord-cutting will be used to exclusively refer to customers canceling their subscriptions to cable or satellite television services. The “USA Network universe” refers to the number of American households that the USA Network is available in.
I used Wrestlenomics’ viewership data for WWE RAW to calculate the average number of viewers per month. I included every episode in each month to determine those average viewers. I chose to do this due to concerns that picking a single episode may result in basing calculations off of an episode that had abnormally high or low viewership for the time period in question. My source for USA Network universe size is Byron Media.
I was able to find statistics for the size of the USA Network universe for a handful of months from a reputable source – either directly from Byron Media or other media that cited Byron Media’s data. These months were February 2017, May 2017, February 2018, September 2018, January 2019, June 2019, January 2020, July 2020, and January 2021. For all other months, I simply calculated a linear rate of change for the months in between the two known endpoints.
An example calculation follows. I know the size of the USA Universe in February 2017 – 91,726,000 – and in May 2017 – 91,319,000. To approximate the size of the Universe in March and April 2017, I have to calculate the rate of change between the two months with known data.
We’ll round that to -135,667 to have a whole number as our rate of change. We then subtract that number from the February 2017 measurement to have an approximation for March 2017. We again subtract -135,667 from the value for March 2017 to have an approximation for April 2017.
There was only one period where there was an increase in the size of the USA Network universe: between May 2017 to February 2018, the number of households the USA Network was available in increased by 139,000.
Between the period of February 2017 and January 2021, USA Network lost an estimated 6.1 million households. In that same time period, WWE lost approximately 1.2 million viewers on an average episode of RAW. The argument that the decrease in RAW viewership is largely due to cord-cutting would require that about 20% of the people who dropped the USA Network to also be viewers of RAW.
However, at its maximum, RAW viewership only made up approximately 3.75% of the USA Network universe at its peak, and it hasn’t been above 3% since March 2019. In fact, RAW viewership hasn’t even been 2.25% of the USA Network’s households since March 2020, hitting a low point of 1.89% in July 2020, and was 2.22% in our most recent month, January 2021.
I don’t doubt that RAW’s viewership numbers have been affected to some extent by cord-cutting. But I also find it very unlikely that RAW viewers are a dramatically disproportionate percentage of people who have dropped cable, particularly when they’re such a relatively small percentage of the households that have access to USA Network.
A graph of each month’s percentage of households with the USA Network that watched RAW. The average rating of each month’s RAW episodes was used for comparison against that month’s universe size for USA Network. The trendline is in gold.
The percentage of the USA Network universe watching RAW peaked in April 2018, which was the month of WrestleMania 34, but May and June 2018 have similar audience percentages to those same months in 2017. It’s not until later in 2018 that the percentage falls off notable against the previous year. By October 2018, the year-over-year difference in this statistic becomes significant.
A year-over-year comparison between 2017 and 2018 for the percentage of the USA Network households that were watching RAW. The gap starts to widen in July 2017, closes a bit in September 2017, and then widens again.
By the time we get to the build for WrestleMania 35, the difference decreases a bit but then worsens the month of Mania itself.
Another year over year comparison, this time between 2018 and 2019 for the Royal Rumble to WrestleMania period. You can see where the rate of change leveled out some before Mania, but appears to have increased after WrestleMania 35.
The most significant drops came in 2020. The increasing loss of household percentage from March 2020 to July 2020 can be blamed on the empty arena shows due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the rate of decrease was lessened some after the introduction of the ThunderDome in August 2020, it was still a faster decrease than it was prior to the pandemic.
The closest thing to an increase in this statistic came between October 2019 and January 2020. This is notable because the alleged incident involving the return flight of the WWE roster from Saudi Arabia came on October 31 and November 1 of 2019. While there may have been a delayed reaction to this event, there’s no evidence that it directly impacted television ratings.
The rest of the year-over-year comparisons through January 2021. The only period where the drop was minimized consistently was between October 2019 and January 2020, and that included a month (November) with a jump in household percentage.
Further indication that RAW’s rating decreases are not due to cord-cutting can be found by comparing the month-to-month turnover of RAW ratings against the size of the USA Network viewership. I did this by finding the percentage of each month’s average RAW audience size compared to the audience size of February 2017, and finding the same percentage for the USA Network universe size compared against the value for February 2017. While you can see a slight, fairly steady decrease for the size of the USA Network universe, the rate of change for RAW ratings far outpaces that of the universe size. The green line is a linear trendline for RAW ratings.
This graph compares each month’s average RAW ratings and the USA Network universe size of each month as a percentage of those respective values for February 2017.
A decrease in audience numbers is always multi-factorial. There’s no doubt that the horrible pandemic of 2020 had an effect on ratings, but it’s also clear that the ratings drop of the past few years cannot be solely attributed to that. The loss of stars before or during this period such as John Cena, Batista, Brock Lesnar, and Triple H, and the failure to establish new stars to replace them, is one factor I would clearly point to. Wrestling is a star-driven business, and without a star or stars that fans respond to, the
Another factor would be poorly received creative decisions. While the voting results of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards is only one sign, WWE has won every “Worst Promotion of the Year” award between 2018 and 2020. There is a Wikipedia page entitled “Persona and reception of Roman Reigns” that has nearly 200 citations and is over 5,000 words long – about four times the length of this article. Wrestlers that have left the promotion, including Jon Moxley, Brodie Lee, Paul Wight, Christian Cage, and Andrade Almas, have given interviews after their exits detailing their frustration with the creative process of the company.
WWE also consistently loses RAW audience after WrestleMania, and only comes close to recovering it in the period leading up to the next Mania. There are consistent lesser peaks around the time of SummerSlam each year, excluding the trash fire that was 2020. I would expect this peak to return in 2021 barring a second leg of the pandemic.
Cord-cutting will remain a hot topic whenever television ratings are discussed. It’s easy to blame shortcomings on this movement. I do not believe that the drop in ratings for WWE RAW should be predominantly attributed to the reduction in the number of households that have access to USA Network, and instead would suggest that the predominant factors would be tied directly to WWE’s creative missteps.