|World Wrestling Entertainment is battling to regain the U.S. audiences it enjoyed at its peak in the 1990s.
The Stamford, Conn.-based WWE attributed a good measure of this year's annual Wrestlemania success to a switch to nontraditional marketing strategies.
The WWE, which reached its peak as an entertainment phenomenon in the late 1990s, has been struggling for years to re-energize its franchise. The company, headed by Chairman Vince McMahon, has been growing internationally, but its popularity in the U.S. is no longer at the white-hot level it was when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson first emerged as a star in-the-making.
$50 million take
But Wrestlemania, the annual event that is the WWE equivalent of the Super Bowl, drew more than 20,000 to the Staples Center in Los Angeles last Saturday, racking up ticket sales of $2.1 million and about 1 million pay-per-views, totaling $50 million.
On the heels of that score, the WWE yesterday announced it just signed a three-year deal to put its Monday night WWE Raw program on NBC Universal’s USA Network beginning in October. The show had been on Viacom’s Spike TV for the last five years and was regularly one of the highest-rated shows on basic cable.
Previously, the company had been negotiating with Spike TV for a new contract, but Spike executives decided not to continue airing the Monday and Saturday night shows. WWE and the network fell out over the issue of a license fee increase, according to executives familiar with the situation.
WWE’s other TV venue, a Thursday night block on Viacom’s UPN, has two more years on its contract. It is the network’s highest-rated weekly show. Ratings for both the Spike and UPN shows are up slightly this year compared to last, but don’t equal the audiences from its heyday.
New marketing strategy
Executives at the WWE attributed last Sunday's strong Wrestlemania turnout partly to its new marketing approach. In previous years, they used traditional advertising aimed at the largest possible audience to promote the live wrestling event. But this year, the company shifted a considerable part of its $5 million marketing budget for Wrestlemania 21 to alternative tactics, including big-screen advertising and mini-movies in theater lobbies, stickers in Blockbuster DVDs, ad-wrapped pay phones, trash cans and promotional paraphernalia in bodegas and hunting, camping and fishing retailers.
Bodegas were specifically targeted to reach Hispanic fans, who account for about 18% of WWE’s audience.
A deal with Mangia Media put Wrestlemania on more than 400,000 pizza boxes, delivery trucks and in-store at independently-owned pizza parlors, while Alta Dena had wrestling-related promotions on 8 million milk cartons.
Wal-Mart, malls and nightclubs
A relationship with Blockbuster blossomed into a week’s worth of in-store events in Los Angeles, drawing in video game publisher THQ and the Coca-Cola Co.’s Sprite. A tour of WWE talent that used to stop in Wal-Mart parking lots expanded to malls and nightclubs in 17 markets.
The WWE's vice president of marketing, Dan Levi, said the goal was "to surround core fans, occasional fans and lapsed fans" with information about the upcoming Wrestlemania.
The WWE, which conducts 12 pay-per-view and 330 arena events per year, has recently reported a better-than-expected rise in quarterly profit -- it earned $10.9 million, up from $8.8 million a year earlier -- spurred by pay-per-views and international growth.
Wrestlemania also serves as an advertising venue for sponsors such as Masterfoods, Subway and Clearasil for Men.
'Dedicated and loyal fans'
The relationship “does an unbelievably effective job of delivering against our target audience,” said Chris Carroll, senior vice president for marketing at Subway, which buys media on WWE’s TV shows and sponsors numerous pay-per-views. “They’re dedicated and loyal fans, and their attention to viewing is higher than the average program.”
This year’s Wrestlemania marketing had a Hollywood theme because the event itself was held in Los Angeles. In-house executives created a series of classic movie parody ads -- with wrestling talent subbing for stars of Pulp Fiction, Basic Instinct and Braveheart -- that ran as cable and satellite TV spots. Those were among the few traditional means, along with major market radio and outdoor, that the WWE used to promote Wrestlemania 21.
Longer versions of the movie parody ads also ran as mini-movies in lobbies of Regal Cinemas around the country, a first for WWE marketing. Some of those spots were shown on the big screen.
The WWE continues its push to rekindle interest in other ways as well. It’s launching its first features under the WWE Films banner, with The Marine and the tentatively titled Goodnight scheduled to hit theaters within months. The company recently signed deals with Cox Communications and other cable companies to carry a WWE 24/7 subscription video-on-demand service. A new merchandising program, dubbed WWE Legends, will focus on wrestling stars of the past, with trendy retro styling.