For many years now, WWE has been at the center of the wrestling world. Ever since Vince McMahon started his national, and then global expansion in the 1980s, his company has been the industry leader and has driven most of his competition out of business. The NWA gave birth to WCW, which gave Vince a run for his money for a few years, but he won that war. ECW was never the competitor revisionist history tries to make it out to be. Impact (then TNA) tried to go head to head with Vince on Mondays and that company has never been the same since. Today, there’s AEW who are making waves and putting forth an exciting product with big names, but it’s still way too early to make any assertions about their long term impact yet. Vince McMahon has set the trends in the industry and everyone else has either followed or tried to find a way to be different but everything ultimately comes back to WWE.
Which is what makes the times we’re living through so interesting. Last year, the WWE, like everyone else, was impacted by the global pandemic. They made a staggering amount of roster cuts, which caught a lot of people by surprise. Why fire all of these performers while nobody is on the road making any money? It seemed cold, considering how much money they were still making as a company but it also wasn’t surprising knowing WWE. Over the last year, WWE has continued to make cuts. They’ve released over 70 wrestlers in the last year and that’s not even counting the in-office staff that was let go. WWE Studios has been slashed. They went from having four graphics departments to one. The WWE Network staff has been gutted and several other departments too. The WWE, in one years time, has severely reduced the number of people that work for the company. The question remains: Why?
To Sell or Not to Sell?
There’s a rumor all over the internet, everywhere you turn in fact, that the WWE is positioning itself to sell. It’s hard to not take that as a credible possibility. Look at the entertainment world. Amazon has bought Lionsgate studios and MGM. Discovery is taking over WarnerMedia. Disney bought large parts of Fox last year. Even NBCUniversal bought the distribution rights in the US to the WWE Network. As the cable era dies and the streaming era kills both it and physical media, the industry giants are looking to buy whatever they can to firmly plant their feet in the sand of the new entertainment reality we are living in. If you aren’t a giant, make your company look as profitable as possible so a giant will buy you for extraordinary amounts of money. I previously wrote that I thought Vince was a genius for taking the Network to Peacock. It was a brilliant business move to partner with a giant. Is that what Vince and his new right-hand man Nick Khan are preparing to do now, only with the company as a whole?
What else is there for Vince to do in the wrestling world? He’s literally taken the industry from smoke-filled arenas and made it as mainstream as this business can ever get. There are no mountains left to climb. Make a cool billion dollars from Peacock for the Network, trim the company to make it as slim as possible and sell to one of the other titans of the entertainment industry for what would likely be several billion dollars? Set your family up for generations and maybe as part of the deal, have a provision where the McMahon family (Triple H included) get to stay on in a position of authority, the way Dana White has after the UFC was sold? If Vince was ever going to consider selling, it would be now, while companies like Amazon, Disney and NBCUniversal are trying to gobble up as many assets as possible.
Our New Reality
Another less discussed yet equally valid option is that Vince and Nick Khan aren’t gearing up to sell at all, but rather planning for a post-COVID-19 future. It’s no secret that WWE house shows weren’t drawing well for years now. The cost of going on the road was high, both monetarily as well as the toll it took on talents. More matches per week mean high rates of injury. More travel means more physical wear and tear, as well as burnout. It is not out of the realm of possibility at all that while impacted by the pandemic, decisions were made to scale down live event operations and to refocus elsewhere.
Less live events mean less talent needed and maybe, just maybe, Vince has other ideas in mind. After all, it’s always been sports entertainment and not just wrestling to Vince. Sure, the WWE Studios division was gutted, but it’s not unlikely to think that new President Nick Khan is going to rebuild that with his people—a move new Presidents of companies always do—or that WWE will try to work with an outside company on those projects so they don’t have to assume the financial burden of producing them. Why have a WWE Studios when you can say to Amazon that they can use WWE superstars, who are larger than life, to build their own Marvel-like franchise of films? It’s a win/win for Vince. He gets to build beyond wrestling without having to do all of the heavy lifting himself and make a ton of money doing so.
If fewer live events and new projects outside of the ring are part of WWE’s plans, it would explain why they let over 70 talents go. Less live events mean fewer wrestlers needed. New projects outside of the ring mean they can abandon the old mentality of keeping everyone under contract so the competition can’t have them. Let AEW have Allister Black and Impact build the best women’s division in the world. We’re going to partner with Amazon and have Roman Reigns star in a seven-film franchise. AEW isn’t our competition; The Avengers is.
The Triple H Era Is Over
Whether WWE is gearing up to sell or is doing a corporate about-face, it’s quite clear that the era of global brand building and a traditional wrestling product being told in modern ways is losing this battle. Triple H has done a phenomenal job building the Performance Center, the NXT brands and a new generation of WWE talent. Ask any wrestling fan and they’ll tell you that even if they disliked the main roster, those first few years of NXT especially was some of the best wrestling seen anywhere in years. But like we all knew would eventually happen, Vince got ahold of it, and the stars being born in Florida were crushed in New York, with a few notable exceptions. While still a good wrestling product, NXT’s glory years are behind them and a trail of wasted potential has been left laying for all to see.
It has the distinct possibility to get worse though. With the WWE Network having its staff slashed and its American presence now part of Peacock, how much is Vince willing to invest in growing the brand globally now compared to years past? Will Triple H get to continue building NXT brands all over the world or has that train permanently slowed down? Stateside, a big part of NXT’s success was always based on bringing in top independent names to work with the rising stars. Will a tightening budget allow for that kind of thing anymore or will that component of NXT’s magic be lost due to budgetary concerns? Only time will tell I suppose but it’s hard to look at this corporate makeover as anything but a loss for Triple H.
The Rest of the Wrestling World
WWE releasing as many talents as they have has been a good thing for other major companies. Anderson and Gallows have had a good run in Impact and have also been on AEW TV. Veterans like Christian and Paul Wight have reportedly been huge boosts to AEW backstage, working with younger talent. FTR and Miro are having good runs in AEW. Deonna Purrazzo has been magic in Impact and Eric Young has also been a great addition in his return to the company. There’s a lot more talent that will be in new homes over the next few months, which in theory should make these promotions better off.
This wealth of talent hitting the free-agent market does raise certain questions though. How much more talent can AEW take on? Their roster is huge and even with expanded TV time coming up, there still has to be a limit to how much they can take on. How many big salaries can Impact, NJPW or ROH take on? How many free agents aren’t going to get the offers they want and have to decide between settling for much less or finding a new line of work? Someone like Braun Strowman, who was making seven figures a year with WWE, isn’t going to work for $100 a shot on the indies. We always assume that wrestlers are going to wind up in new promotions but sometimes, the money is elsewhere and getting released from WWE means a career is over.
One good thing we’re seeing is that more promotions are getting in on letting talent work elsewhere. The WWE model, which was shared by WCW and, at times, other promotions, of having talent exclusively signed to your promotion, appears to be going to the wayside for now. Which is a good thing for the business as a whole, the talent and the fans. If ROH can bring in Ruby Riott for their TV tapings and she can still make it to Impact’s TV tapings and work indie shows as her schedule permits, then that’s enabling her to make a decent livelihood, entertain fans from multiple promotions and keep things economically reasonable for promotions who may want these free agents to work for them, but are financially stretched thin.
It’s hard to say what WWE is doing. A few years ago, I never could have envisioned a day where I would be wondering if Vince McMahon would sell his company. Today, I’m not so sure. What bigger feather in his cap could there be for Vince if, in the middle of all these major film studios and TV networks being sold, as we enter a new era of entertainment, he sells WWE for maximum profit alongside them. In a sense, that would be the ultimate form of legitimizing Vince’s life work. But Vince is Vince. For all we know, he could be slimming down because he wants to start acquiring assets in an attempt to compete with the Disneys of the world. This is Vince McMahon we’re talking about, pal.
The only thing I know to expect is more belt-tightening from WWE and new, unique matches on cards outside of WWE as non-compete clauses begin to expire. I fully expect WWE to let more people go. Maybe not names as big as Braun Strowman but they aren’t done yet. Promotions outside of WWE are going to have choices to make. Promotions such as MLW and the NWA may get in the mix more. New promotions may form. An influx of talent to the world of independent wrestling makes for exciting times. Ask anyone who remembers living through 2002. Promotions such as Ring of Honor were born that completely changed the landscape of the industry over the years. Who knows what we’re in store for here but I’m sure there’s going to be a lot to watch, to cover and, hopefully, enjoy.