When World Wrestling Entertainment reported its sluggish first-quarter performance in April, CEO Vince McMahon blamed it on “superstar absences,” the temporary sidelining of many of his star grapplers due to injuries accumulated in 2018 and early 2019.
But now that WWE is on the verge of releasing its second-quarter numbers on July 25, McMahon is going to have to come up with a new excuse if his company’s Q2 results remain soft.
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A Variety analysis indicates that although nearly all of the injured wrestlers McMahon referenced returned to the ring in the first half of 2019, ratings for WWE’s flagship TV properties, “Raw” and “SmackDown,” sunk significantly compared with the same period last year.
Without “superstar absences” to blame, it will be interesting at the end of Q2 to see how McMahon explains the worrisome decline. He may have to do just that if he addresses high-profile new hires he made last month to oversee his ailing shows.
McMahon will also have to offer some kind of hope to investors given how badly WWE stock has been slumping since Q1, closing Friday 29% down against the 2019 high of $99. The company’s TV partners, NBCUniversal and Fox, are also reportedly getting anxious about the state of the WWE, having paid a combined $2.35 billion earlier this year to keep “Raw” and “SmackDown” on the air for five more years.
The networks haven’t said anything publicly expressing concern, but the data demonstrates they have every right to be worried.
McMahon first blamed the WWE’s ratings woes on a talent shortage on the Q4 call in January, naming 13 specific wrestlers whose injuries had impacted the product. “While engagement metrics over the past two quarters were impacted by superstar absences, we believe they will improve as our talent return and we launch our new season following a successful WrestleMania,” he said, citing WWE’s most popular annual event.
WWE Co-President George Barrios echoed McMahon on the Q1 call, referring to the list of specific wrestlers as examples of the “superstar absences.” But the list wasn’t quite accurate; seven of them weren’t off TV for very long and another three who were out with long-term injuries could barely be classified as superstar attractions in the league (a WWE rep declined comment).
The total audience for “Raw” plummeted 20% over the first half of the year compared with the same period in 2018, losing an average of 616,000 viewers per episode. “SmackDown” is down almost as much, registering a 17% drop, shedding 446,000 viewers. WWE is still one of the most watched cable shows on Monday and Tuesday, but the year-over-year declines represents an accelerating downturn compared with 2018 versus 2017, when the difference was negligible.
As for the rest of the names on McMahon’s list, many of these superstars had in fact made numerous appearances in Q1, including top female fighters like Becky Lynch (18 times) and Charlotte Flair (15). Only one name, male star Bray Wyatt, was completely off the air in Q1 due to injury.
It should be noted that being injured and unable to wrestle does not preclude a wrestler from appearing on air. Even when healthy, “Raw” and “Smackdown” may opt to showcase a superstar via a backstage skit or interview segment, and many of the talent called out by McMahon maintained televised appearances while injured.
Neither McMahon nor Barrios should cite a talent shortage this time around. Most of the stars on Barrios’ list logged even more on-air time in Q2 than in Q1, though a few, Sasha Banks and Dean Ambrose, were notable exceptions owing to Banks removing herself from TV owing to a creative dispute and Ambrose leaving the company on his own accord.
But despite having top draws like Roman Reigns and Becky Lynch on the air in Q2 at least 20 times each, WWE TV ratings have continued to drop sharply.
McMahon had pinned his hopes on WWE getting a shot in the arm from the April 7th edition of WrestleMania, which typically sets a new season of storylines for the following year on “Raw” and “Smackdown.” But the pivotal episodes of both shows that aired shortly after WrestleMania—typically among the highest rated of the year—were down 25% on “Raw” and 26% on “SmackDown.”
There’s been several attempts in recent months to re-engage viewers but to no avail, with on-air promises to listen to fans more, the storyline implementation of a ‘wild card’ rule allowing wrestlers to appear on multiple shows in the same week, and the introduction of a new championship in May all failing to bring viewers back. No wonder McMahon in June enlisted two of the most experienced wrestling showrunners in the business, Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman, to run “SmackDown” and “Raw,” respectively, reporting directly to him.
McMahon has yet to publicly comment on the hires. But it’s an important indicator that WWE is finally focused on its biggest problem: the creative.
Critics and former WWE talent have been negative about the direction of “Raw” and “SmackDown” for some time, and it ratings corroborate these sentiments. WWE investors better hope McMahon’s new behind-the-scenes tag team will be able to reinvigorate the storylines for WWE’s talent and recover some of the lost audience.
The timing of the new hires is important, as WWE’s stock has been falling since the Q1 earnings call. The stock fell by 13% on April 25, the day of the Q1 call, which was the largest single day decline for WWE since 2015. The stock finished the quarter 27% below the April high, and has continued to fall, down 3% since the end of Q2.
Last year, NBCU’s USA Network renewed “Raw” for $265 million per year, and Fox grabbed the rights for “SmackDown,” paying $205 million annually to bring the show to broadcast TV for the first time since their deal with MyNetworkTV ended in 2010. Together, these fees represent a 213% increase on the $150 million annual fee it was estimated NBCU paid for “Raw” and “SmackDown” in 2014.
Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer recently reported on his Wrestling Observer Radio show that both Fox and NBCU were nervous about WWE’s recent performance. After Fox shedded half of the company in the sale to Disney and repositioned itself for the upcoming fall season as the broadcast home for live content, the potential for one of their expensive new acquisitions misfiring on arrival means that the stakes are high for WWE fixing this issue before their October move.
New competition presents another concern. Debuting on TNT in the fall, new rival league All Elite Wrestling is already selling out pay-per-view events despite the lack of a TV-show companion to develop storylines. AEW is also hiring famous ex-WWE stars, some of whom have bypassed McMahon because the venture offers them more creative freedom. AEW is rumored to be launching on TNT the same week “SmackDown” switches to Fox.
The stakeholder unease comes at a time when WWE is facing a decline not only in TV ratings, but in live event attendance and merchandise spend. With the last WWE pay-per-view-event for Q2 reportedly seeing markedly lower than usual attendance levels, it’s high time for McMahon to get candid about the fragile state of his core product.