WWE came out with their fourth quarter financial numbers this past week.
What they said and what they didn't say were both notable:
* They didn't have any news on Middle East and India distribution deals being signed, except to suggest that any increases in India would only be "incremental".
* They said nothing about the controversies that took place at WWE's last Saudi trip, or the delays in payment by the Saudis.
* They didn't explain why long-time co-Presidents Michelle Barrios and George Wilson were fired, save a general one regarding different visions for the company.
* Despite repeated questions, Vince McMahon didn't seem to reassure investors that there would be no issues with McMahon running both the XFL and WWE, or that there would no WWE money being used for the XFL.
The part of the call that got the most attention was what Vince McMahon said about the future of WWE Network.
In a shocking move during the conference call, Vince McMahon hinted that WWE is close to making "transformative" changes to WWE Network; including selling PPV rights to a major streaming service, which would likely get them off the WWE Network, the major reason most subscribers have the service.
Another option is to remain largely as is with a free and paid tier. No mention was made of the higher priced tier that has been in the works, to add EVOLVE and other independent promotions. McMahon indicated that WWE would look at adding advertising to the Network if the model remains as it is now.
McMahon said if they go the route of selling PPV rights that "WWE will be announcing a deal in the first quarter....Thats how far along we are.....Theres no more better time to exercise the selling of our rights to all the majors who, quite frankly, all the majors are really clamoring for our content. So that could be a significant increase, obviously, in terms of revenue...
While he said such a plan wasn't definite yet and nothing is a must have", he said that WWE would evaluate all options and do what is best for the company.
Needless to say, fans who read this news were pissed, seeing little reason to continue to subscribe to WWE Network if this comes to pass, given that one of the two main reasons for being on the Network was already taken away when NXT was put on USA Network in October. This would seem to be the other one.
So, if WWE takes this step, what are the possibilities?
* Peacock - NBC's new streaming service, named after the logo of NBC, set to launch on July 15, with early availability for Xfinity customers starting on April 15. An ad supported version of Peacock will be available free for Xfinity customers that have the X1 operating system.
This would seem to be the most likely option, given WWE's longtime relationship with NBC and USA Network; and the fact that the person in charge of Peacock is NBCUniversal Direct- to-Consumer and Digital Enterprises chair Bonnie Hammer, a major longtime ally of WWE. Beginning in 1989, Hammer became a programming executive for Universal Television and pushed WWE as a major part of USA Network's programming.
In a 2011 New York Times feature, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon praised Hammer. "She just came in and rolled up her sleeves...She taught us a lot about network quality writing, story arcs, character development. She really helped the overall brand...." Hammer returned the favor to McMahon by crediting the success of USA Network as being "one third original series, one third acquired shows, and one third World Wrestling Entertainment."
While NBC certainly has a library in place to offer potential subscribers on Peacock with hundreds of movies, series libraries of shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, live sports, as well as original series; WWE PPVs... especially the traditional Big Four of Royal Rumble, Wrestlemania, Summer Slam, and Survivor Series would be a major addition.
* ESPN - ESPN has been buying up programming left and right for its ESPN service, and has already done PPV with UFC, which moved all their PPVs to ESPN in May 2018.
While ESPN has no relationship with WWE, Disney/ESPN has been buying all sorts of sports related programming for ESPN , and already has a PPV infrastructure in place, strong enough to have handled an estimated 1,000,000 buys for UFC 246 featuring Conor McGregor-Donald Cerrone. This would seem the next best option given the reliability factor, a bugaboo that has held back many from subscribing to the Network, which has been notorious for glitches during major PPVs. But there's a question if Disney would want two major PPV franchises, and would want any potential stigma of offering entertainment versus sports.
* Amazon Prime - One of the two 900 pound gorillas in streaming programming. It's been rumored to have interest in airing the MLW Fusion show, which currently airs free on You Tube. While this would seem to rule out WWE, investment firms suggest Amazon as their pick for most likely choice to partner.
* DAZN - A major boxing/MMA streaming service, most known for airing major boxing events with Canelo Alvarez, GGG, Andy Ruiz, Anthony Joshua; and Bellator PPVs. There's been no word of interest in pro wrestling.
* Hulu/Hulu Live/Hulu Plus - While it already carries WWE content, it's only existing WWE programming plus 205 Live. There seems to be no plans for independently produced programming. Disney has a 60% ownership share, and plans for Hulu to augment ESPN and Disney as being the streaming option for "general entertainment".
* HBO Max - Starting in May, the next to least likely, given that Warner Media airs All Elite Wrestling on TNT. Kevin Reilly, who just signed AEW to a four year extension three months into their first season, is in charge of HBO Max.
* Netflix- Least likely of all, given that it carries no live sports whatever and seems to have little or none planned for the future.
Some would argue all this came about as a result of UFC's success at moving their PPVs from their own Network equivalent, UFC Fight Pass, in May 2018.
McMahon's plans to explore making PPVs available to outside streaming services were apparently kept highly secret to all but the highest levels of WWE. Not even those working in the WWE Network department knew about it. It's not out of the realm of possibility that these plans were the reason George Barrios and Michele Wilson were fired, given that Wilson and Barrios were the prime drivers of the creation of WWE Network, and that they may have fought McMahon on this major change.
Another rumor was that Wilson and Barrios wanted to see Vince McMahon invest in the company to raise stock prices, whereas McMahon wants to spend to restore WWE dominance over the industry by establishing multiple NXT groups in other countries, and in signing up talent to longer term deals to insure they stay with WWE and not move on to AEW, New Japan, or elsewhere. Disagreements about both the Network and this may have played a part in their dismissal.
WWE stocks have taken a major hit as a result of the Wilson and Barrios firings, dropping more than 25% of their value, then taking another further beating following Thursdays earnings report and on Friday closed nearly 5% lower, ending the week trading at $42.93 per share.
With streaming networks... the best comparison to what's being proposed was seen with UFC's major change. After some initial reluctance by UFC fans used to the traditional PPV model and UFC Fight Pass, fans showed they'd buy in to ESPN for the right fight with UFC 246 featuring Conor McGregor- Cowboy Cerrone. As fans get used to streaming services in general and ESPN in particular, I think such services are the future of PPV.
Even major cable providers like Xfinity see this with their X1 operating system, which is a hybrid of traditional cable and streaming, allowing subscribers to access streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime, (and their own Peacock service beginning in April), and music apps like Pandora, Amazon Music directly through their X1 boxes.
UFC Fight Pass still exists, with subscribers having access to prelims for PPVs, as well as over 200 live events to the MMA equivalent of wrestling independent, including Invicta FC, GLORY Kickboxing, QUINTET (Team Submission Grappling), Eddie Bravo Invitational, Polaris, and others.
The equivalent for the WWE Network, if any potential streaming partner agreed, would be to have the past WWE PPV and programming library available and to go ahead with what had been planned with EVOLVE and various independent promotions, especially the WWE affiliated European indies, NXT UK, and future NXT promotions which have been suggested in Japan, Germany, Australia, Mexico, and Canada. Whether or not WWE fans would still be willing to continue subscribing remains to be seen.