Credit: USA

WWE Will Struggle to Position Itself as Live Sports

NBC Universal Deal for 'Raw,' 'Smackdown,' Expire

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WWE will start shopping its "Monday Night Raw" and "Friday Night Smackdown" programs with TV networks after its exclusive negotiating window with NBC Universal expires.

As it looks to woo distributors, and eventually advertisers for its upcoming digital network, WWE is positioning itself akin to live sports.

"We are undervalued in the advertising community," said Michelle Wilson, chief revenue officer and chief marketing officer, WWE. "It is a strategic priority for us.

"We should be valued like sports," Ms. Wilson added.

Both "Raw," which airs live on USA Network for three hours, 52 weeks per year, and the taped "Smackdown" on Syfy are predominantly watched live, according to WWE. Ms. Wilson notes 90% of viewing for both programs happens live or before 3 a.m. on the day they air, making it attractive from both a distributor and advertiser standpoint.

"From that perspective it is like live sports," Ms. Wilson said. "We have more average total viewers than any sport, except NFL."

WWE also attracts a younger, male audience and over delivers on African-Americans and Hispanics, Ms. Wilson said, calling that a story the company needs to communicate better to advertisers.

There's no question that WWE is a ratings juggernaut, regularly ranking among the most-watched non-sports programming on cable.

"Raw" regularly averages over 4 million viewers, while "Smackdown" is typically watched by nearly 3 million people. That tops USA's originals like "White Collar" and "Suits."

Without "Raw," USA Network would drop down to No. 4 or No. 5 in the cable rankings from its current No. 1 in total viewers, Ms. Wilson said.

NBC Universal declined to comment.

While both "Raw" and "Smackdown" are substantial ratings drivers for NBC Universal, however, they aren't major revenue generators. CPMs, the cost to reach 1,000 viewers, on the programs are low, and it has been difficult for NBC Universal to raise pricing, according to a person familiar with situation.

So while WWE may be looking to price itself like a live sport, both distributors and advertisers are likely to resist.

"The problem is they have 30 years of history," said Jason Kanefsky, exec VP-strategic investments, Havas Media. "Wrestling is considered entertainment. It misses some critical things that make live sports."

One of those things is championship games and finality. "At the end of a season there is a winner and loser and they are real," Mr. Kanefsky said. "WWE won't be able to make the leap from entertainment to live sports."

For marketers like movie studios and video games, WWE offers live programming every Monday night that generates significant social buzz and is consistent week-to-week, said Tim Hill, senior VP-investment media, UM.

"But it is unable to break into other categories because of perception," he said. That will limit how much WWE and its distributor are able to inflate ad prices.

WWE is also limited in the number of new viewers it can attract. "In other live sports they have the ability when something unexpected happens to have a halo effect and reach beyond core team fans," Mr. Hill said.

WWE seeks a new home for "Raw" and "Smackdown" just as the company readies itself to introduce its own 24/7 digital network on Feb. 24. The channel, which will cost subscribers $9.99 per month, will initially not include advertising.

Ms. Wilson said WWE will first look to build its subscriber base before incorporating sponsorship opportunities and 30-second pre-roll this summer.

The 30-second spots will air in between programs instead of breaking away from programming for commercials.

"We are being very diligent in respecting that fans are paying for the service," Ms. Wilson said.

WWE has already begun speaking to advertisers and plan to host an event for the advertising community around the digital NewFronts, which kick off at the end of April.

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