Word broke a few weeks back that Fox and WWE have come to terms on a $1 billion dollar deal that would bring WWE Smackdown Live to Fox and to Friday nights beginning next September. This deal, which sees fox shelling out $200 million dollars per year over a five year span has the potential to have a reverberating impact throughout WWE and throughout the wrestling industry as a whole. Let’s take a look at what we might expect starting next year.
Cross-Promotion and Legitimization
As any person who has been a fan of WWE for at least the last five years can tell you, there is nothing that Vince has wanted more than to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of mainstream viewers. You can see it through the crossover with ESPN that seems to have now passed mostly. You can also see it through the insufferable, now-historic Brock Lesnar Universal Title reign. Vince McMahon is clearly of the mindset that if the product is seen as more legitimate then it will attract more fans, more fans equals more (and better, higher class, higher paying) advertisers which means more money in Vince’s and WWE’s shareholders pockets. So when Rupert Murdoch strutted into a meeting with WWE officials and dropped the gem that NBCUniversal was “embarrassed by the WWE product” and that it would be that way at Fox, one can only imagine how wide-eyed Vince became. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to how much more impact that one quote can have down the line.
First, here are the biggest upsides to WWE having one of their shows on Fox, a major network. First, they get to have their brand promoted during other sporting broadcasts on Fox and its family of channels – think FS1, FX etc. Now, if you didn’t know, Fox landed the rights to Thursday Night Football, which means when millions of Americans are sitting down on a Thursday night watching some shitty awesome football game, they get to be treated to ads for Vince’s Smackdown Live airing the following night. This is a dream come true for Vince – he probably wet the bed at the thought of this. Imagine seeing Braun Strowman show up in the Fox booth on a Thursday or Sunday to talk about football and some upcoming match – or AJ Styles, or John Cena, or Roman Reigns or any other number of guys. WWE gets to shine a national spotlight on its product the day before the product airs on the same network for football season for as long as Fox holds the rights. That’s not to mention the possibility of Braun showing up on Gotham as Bane or on The Gifted as Juggernaut or some other style of interaction. Murdoch’s assertion that Fox will be promoting Smackdown across its channels and specifically via its sports programming is just the type of move towards legitimization that Vince has been craving.
Here Comes the Money
I don’t know about you, but a billion dollars is a fair amount of money. WWE is going from the combination of Raw and Smackdown netting them $180 million per year to the combined new contracts (Raw on USA and SDL on Fox) netting them $500 million per year. That is a boatload of cash flow increase. That is before you even consider the rise in their stock off of the strength of just the news of the new deals. WWE is going to be in the position to do a number of things with all that green – they can hire more wrestlers and pay their current wrestlers more, they can improve their production value and quality, they can pay more (if needed) for special guests etc. etc. etc.
Imagine the talent they can sign with the amount of money they’ll be flush with. Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Jay Lethal, there is legitimately no one that WWE wouldn’t be able to outrageously overbid for in a contract chase. Yes, even the self-declared “done with wrestling” CM Punk. He is not a money guy, but a phone call from Cena or Bryan and a multi-million dollar contract wouldn’t hurt as a starting point. Remember when the NBA salary cap jumped a few seasons ago and teams were dishing out big money contracts like free ice cream cones on Miracle Day? Imagine that ten times over with WWE and it’s talent acquisition.
Imagine the production. If you thought it was ridiculous that the 2017 edition of WrestleMania had a roller coaster built into its stage, I imagine these guys are just waiting to say “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. Here’s to hoping that this also leads to innovation throughout other areas of the promotion as a whole. Does this move allow them to take NXT on the road more often? Does it allow them to possibly air NXT live on FS1? There would seem to be options galore based off of the money increase alone.
Not to be a storyline snob, but imagine the kind of writers they can pay for. We oftentimes complain on OTTB (I promise we’ll be back with new episodes soon) about the mind numbing storyline decisions that are made from time to time in WWE. We often long for days of yesteryear when most storylines tried to make sense and some stories could be done so well that they could run for a year and no one be angry about the time it takes for the payoff to happen. As much as production value and talent acquisitions are important, the potential for WWE to bring in writers with some serious chops that can navigate the weird and wonderful world of pro graps while telling nuanced and diversified stories could be the most important avenue for all this new money to get spent in.
Ok, so let’s circle back to the Rupert Murdoch statement. He more or less hit the nail on the head for smart wrestling fans and crossover wrestling fans (i.e. fans who watch wrestling AND other organized sports) who have been wondering out loud for years now as to why WWE programming isn’t advertised during say Sunday Night Football, which, you know, airs on the day before Monday Night Raw every week from September to December. Both channels, USA and NBC are owned by NBCU and it would only make sense to promote wrestling during that broadcast and vice versa. It stands to reason then, that if Fox starts making advertising SDL a priority across their family of networks, WWE would look over at NBCU and say, “where’s the love?”. This is where WWE having the shows on two different networks could be the smartest part of the whole deal. They get to play the two off of each other potentially leading to even greater benefit in terms of exposure. If SDL shows its value via advertising dollars etc. it could also lead to a legit bidding war in another five years or so. Well, we already know what that means. More fans means more advertising dollars etc. etc. etc.
How well the networks are treating WWE compared to the other is only one component of competition – the other, and perhaps more valuable competition is within the product itself. Does having SDL on Fox automatically make it the ‘A’ show? The general consensus amongst wrestling writers seems to be yes. Imagine with me now, SDL legitimately becomes the ‘A’ show – is Vince not gonna light a fire under Raw to keep up and surpass SDL and to ensure that Raw is still seen as the flagship? Would being on two distinct networks engender a more legitimate competition between the two shows? It’s intriguing to think about – and that is before you even get to Vince deciding which superstars end up where when this all goes down next year. Maybe this means WWE switches its “Superstar Shakeup” to August of 2019 so as to rearrange the rosters just before the jump. Maybe they do another Superstar Shakeup in the leadup or aftermath of this year’s SummerSlam to reposition a more natural annual draft/shakeup week for next year for the same purpose. Know this, Vince will manipulate the separate networks and split in roster and increased dollars to ensure as close as to legit competition between Raw and SDL as possible – and we will be right there to eat it up.
Less Vince Influence
What if, because of the sheer amount of money Fox is throwing at the WWE, there is more outside influence on the product and less Vince influence. This particular issue could cut either way or both ways. There are some who still think that only Vince knows how to manage and shape his roster, his shows and his company. There are others who loudly declare that Vince has too much influence and is not allowing the product to bloom into what it truly could be. I can be of both minds on this issue. Vince’s company has never folded and hasn’t come close to folding since the immediate aftermath of the steroids scandal of the early to mid 90s. So in some ways you can’t argue with the success he has had in growing the business over the years.
On the other hand, you have decisions like Roman Reigns’ push and John Cena’s dominance that people use as exhibits A and B that the old man has lost touch with today’s audience. There could be a little bit of truth to both and thus I definitively ride the fence on this issue. In some ways I cannot deny Vince being a visionary and truly expanding what even his own father thought wrestling could be. Of course, as his age creeps older and older and we’re still subjected to segments with midgets, and black men in drag and disproportionate race representation, there remains the argument that it is well time for the baton to be passed. The jury is out on this one, but this point does make for a clean transition into the potential downsides of the deal.
Now, none of this is to say that this is a perfect situation and that this will all come off smoothly, there are definitely potential pitfalls that present themselves with even an ounce of deep thought on this.
First, can Fox cancel SDL? Being on a traditional broadcast network, is it possible that if SDL’s ratings are too low, Fox could outright cancel it? Or is this deal closer to a traditional sports deal where the length of the contract is the length of the contract barring breach?
What if the split in networks causes the brand split era to end again? What if the only way Vince sees this working is to undo the brand split but keep show champions.
More likely, what if Vince decides that some stars are two show guys and gals instead of being locked into one? You know who I mean, what if we have to watch Roman Reigns forced push twice a week instead of once?
What if Vince decides the best way to sell SDL on Fox is to stick with or bring back part time performers for extended periods of importance? Imagine more of Brock as absentee Universal champion.
Will SDL have the freedom to be non-PG? If so, does Raw just become some outdated kiddie friendly version of wrestling primarily for the kids and families market?
What if Friday night just proves to be a bad night for wrestling, does Fox pull the plug on cross promotion with the NFL?
Wrap it Up
At this stage, given that the deal is freshly announced/agreed to, it is easy and quite acceptable for us to live in all of the positive what ifs that this new horizon presents to us as wrestling fans. Hopefully we get more positives than negatives out of this move and that WWE, and the industry as a whole, enters a new era in terms of production value, writing, wrestling and more. Oh, and if WWE or the website needs some additional writers, feel free to hit me up. I am more than willing to write from home or travel or take a powerbomb off the stage if I can get my hands on even a small portion of that cool billion dollars.