In Which I Talk The Business Of Sports Entertainment

Last year in February, World Wrestling Entertainment launched the “WWE Network,” a 24-hour streaming service granting subscribers access to a full library of content and the company’s traditional monthly pay-per-view events for $9.99 per month.  The service was touted as “like Netflix, but better,” and gave people who subscribed the chance to leave the traditional model of pay-per-view behind for a more cost-effective alternative.

Vince McMahon is a futurist when it comes to the world of professional wrestling, and it was no secret he’d been looking for a way to compete with the gargantuan revenue menace that is the internet.  Prior to February 2014 WWE had a major problem in the price point for their shows; the monthly PPV events were priced at $40-$50, with the company’s annual “Wrestlemania” event around $60-$70 for a buy.  Many internet-savvy fans turned to streaming broadcasts of these shows to save money on a product in which they had waning interest and little to no disposable income to support.  Others simply waited until the next day for a torrent file to appear on any number of wresting-related sites and downloaded the entire show.  In creating what is now known as “The Network,” Vince believed he could eliminate the incentive of illegal streams and give the fans a chance to reach his PPV content with the added bonus of reliving some of sports entertainment’s classic moments through the company’s massive archive of shows.

There was one major problem with Vince’s rationale: You still need a quality product to have a subscriber “buy-in.”

WWE Network’s major selling point in the early days was the inclusion of Wrestlemania 30 with the initial six-month commitment required for the $9.99 price point.  For the cost of the average Wrestlemania, fans would get access to six months of WWE pay per view content and the marquee show of the year, which featured the headline performance of the company’s wildly popular star Daniel Bryan.  This seemed like a no-brainer for many fans, who bought in and tuned in straight through Wrestlemania 30–and then abruptly quit following the expiration of the six month commitment.  This caused a massive furor at WWE’s corporate offices, with much finger pointing and questioning of what exactly happened to turn away subscribers.

The answer was an elephant in the room–the product had turned away from “booking” into “television writing,” and the entire business model had suffered as a result.  Before the late 1990s, wrestling fans had a reason to tune into pay-per-view shows as these monthly events were times when people would get a chance to see something truly special.  Events would get “booked” at least a month in advance with special matches planned, and television time would serve as a sort of “infomercial” to get the fan’s wallet open at the end of the month.  If you didn’t see the Royal Rumble, Survivor Series, Wrestlemania, or any other number of events, you knew you were missing out on those moments fans talk about for months following the show.  All of this changed during the “Monday Night Wars,” when WWE and their rivals, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), began chasing after fans’ attention and clamoring for added ratings during each quarter hour segment.  Eventually the Neilsen ratings ruled all, and the “booking” model began to sing its swan song.

Any student of wrestling history will tell you once WWE won the Monday Night Wars, the lack of competition hurt the product.  Those still watching during the modern “PG Era,” sanitized for children and focused on corporate profit, regularly decry the current product as stale and unwatchable.  Sure, there’s bright moments, but most of them revolve around getting subscribers to buy The Network when numbers are down.  These same students will tell you that competition is key for wrestling to gain a footing in the public eye once again and give people a reason to buy into the product.  The big problem with most every competitor is a complete inability to square off against the juggernaut that is World Wrestling Entertainment.

Enter New Japan Pro Wrestling.  On January 4, 2014, New Japan aired its version of Wrestlemania, “Wrestle Kingdom 9,” worldwide and with significant internet build.  January 4 was the first time New Japan had an English commentary team–the legendary Jim Ross and former WWE star Matt Striker.  Prior to this night, NJPW had been a fixture of fans on the internet who knew names like Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, and Shinsuke Nakamura through Youtube and tape trading.  The show aired on traditional PPV and through the Flipps TV app on the internet, with the modest price point of $35.  Wrestle Kingdom 9 represented a huge gamble for NJPW and its American partners, Global Force Wrestling, as it was a niche product with very little “common man” exposure in the States.

If the nature of the 2 AM stream on January 4 was any indication, Wrestle Kingdom 9 was a success.  The 7 PM stream on Sunday was far smoother, and revealed a stacked four hour card that did not disappoint.  New Japan did away with hokey storylines and massive in-ring promos; the motivation for the teams in the opener was simply “the people who win the belts will make more money.”  The Japanese style of wrestling, known for its physicality and focus on in-ring action, resonated with many old-school fans who clamored for something different beyond the same John Cena match that has dominated the WWE product for over a decade.  It’s hard to keep a wrestling fan’s attention for four hours straight and yet New Japan managed to do it–with a quality product, word of mouth, and a solid build in the months prior to Wrestle Kingdom 9.  After Sunday, competition was back in many wrestling fans’ eyes.  It was time to see what World Wrestling Entertainment would do for January.  The Royal Rumble is at the end of the month–one of WWE’s biggest events–and Monday should have been a build for the big January show.  We are now in “Wrestlemania season,” and WWE just had a competitor do major business in PPV on Sunday night–surely something would happen that would rekindle fan and subscriber interest in the product.  Right?

If you guessed by this point that nothing of note happened last night on the first Monday Night RAW of 2015, you’d be correct.  All fans got was a three hour show full of in-ring promos, hokey storyline interaction between John Cena and “The Authority,” and zero build for the Royal Rumble.

Either WWE’s entire corporate staff has their collective heads in the sand, they are deaf to the to the wants of their fan base, or they are completely delusional in thinking competition can’t take eyes–and subscribers–away from the Network.

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