WWE aims to grow international media revenue but faces a new competitor

World Wrestling Entertainment

World Wrestling Entertainment pulled off its top annual event, SummerSlam, in Las Vegas this month and is now looking to line up global business to reach historic revenue.

With its U.S. media rights secure, WWE wants to land global deals for its WWE Network streaming service. Although the world’s largest wrestling company dismantled the service in the U.S., it still serves as an international component. WWE wants similar streaming-rights deals like the one it has with CNBC parent company NBCUniversal, betting that its weekly wrestling content and classic library will lure media companies around the world.

WWE has agreements with Fox Sports and NBCUniversal, including a $1 billion agreement to stream U.S. content on NBCUniversal’s Peacock service. The company also has linear and streaming-rights packages internationally with networks including Virgin Media (Ireland), United Kingdom-based BT Sport and Sony India. Additionally, WWE has a deal with sports streaming service DAZN to show events in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, along with a streaming deal in China with online platform iQIYI, which is owned by tech company Baidu.

The combined media deals helped WWE bring in $475.9 million of its $529.1 million in revenue for the first six months of 2021. Last year, WWE made $868.2 million from media rights, not including revenue from the Peacock deal, which started in March. WWE is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and has a $3.6 billion market cap. On Monday, shares of WWE opened as $52 per share still down from its 52-week high of $70.72 last June.

WWE said SummerSlam, a full capacity event in Las Vegas, was the highest-grossing and most-viewed event, touting a “seven-figure” global viewership mostly consumed on Peacock and WWE Network. But the company didn’t disclose specifics around the figures.

Becky Lynch celebrates defeating Bianca Belair at SummerSlam 2021.

World Wrestling Entertainment

It’s not clear how much WWE would gain from other international deals, but new agreements to license its content will not come close to NBCUniversal and Fox Sports’ fees. Fox also has a deal with WWE for $1 billion, and the USA Network — also owned by NBCUniversal — has a TV-only rights deal.

Eric Handler, MKM Partners managing director and senior research analyst, said WWE’s Day 2 rights with Hulu, which allows subscribers to watch Raw and Smackdown shows 24 hours after they air, will also be something to monitor on the media rights market. Currently, Peacock viewers can watch the shows 30 days after live telecasts.  

WWE uses operating income before depreciation and amortization formula on its earnings report to break down finances. Though media rights are stable since 2017, noticeable drops in revenue came in advertising, sponsorships and consumer products.

Chief Financial Officer Kristina Salen told CNBC in April that WWE wants to add more sponsorships and grow its e-commence business. In addition, WWE reportedly earns up to $40 million per event in a 10-year deal with Saudi Arabia signed in 2018.

Should WWE gain more global media deals and follow through on its plan to increase revenue, it could top $1 billion in revenue, which would be the highest in the company’s history. In 2020, WWE netted $974.2 million in revenue, up from $801 million in 2017 thanks in large part to media fees.

“They are very good content creators,” Handler told CNBC. “As the media world evolves, so does their business. They can sell their product to a number of media players throughout the world. So for them, it’s finding more ways to monetize the content.”

Will wrestling start-up threaten WWE?

WWE invited CNBC to watch its SummerSlam event, which attracted 51,326 people to Allegiant Stadium, the National Football League’s Raiders home complex. The event drew surprising returns with popular wrestlers Brock Lesnar and Becky Lynch. SummerSlam also continued to build on the stardom of wrestling champions Bobby Lashley and Roman Reigns.

The overall in-person presentation had its moments of excitement but SummerSlam lacked pyrotechnics. In NFL stadiums, the fireworks-like display is not allowed unless the roof is open. Hence, specific character entrances that usually rely on the effects — a fan favorite — didn’t have them. Also, some of the drawn-out storylines took away from the actual wrestling.

WWE is also facing greater competition. All Elite Wrestling, started by the family of NFL team owner Shahid Khan, is gaining recognition in pro wresting circles.

“The theatrics are good,” Octagon media executive Dan Cohen told CNBC in April. “The quality is good. Where AEW lacks, though, is in star power.”

AEW is attempting to solve this after signing one of the most famous figures in wrestling entertainment — Phillip Jack Brooks, aka CM Punk. The former WWE superstar’s addition to the roster gained national and social media attention for AEW. Brooks returned to the scene following a sabbatical in 2014.

WWE hasn’t had a genuine threat in its space since World Championship Wrestling, which signed star Hulk Hogan in 1994 to help grow its brand. WWE eventually purchased WCW in 2001 from WarnerMedia (then AOL Time Warner).

AEW has a media rights deal with WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports property and is aligned with a former WWE international rights partner Sky Sports. Turner operates AEW under its entertainment division, and internally, the network’s executives like its viewership growth and see it as competition for WWE’s main brand.

AEW still has a way to go to reach WWE’s market share, but it has lured attention from hardcore fans. WWE considers it a competitor for its NXT division, but it can’t ignore AEW’s recent momentum spike. Punk’s debut attracted over 1 million viewers, and chatter suggest another former WWE superstar in Daniel Bryan is set to join AEW, too.

Disclosure: CNBC parent company NBCUniversal has a content distribution agreement with WWE.

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