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Wrestling TV Product Surging In Value

They say in the television industry that politics and live sports are the only two entities saving linear television from utter irrelevancy. News-talk and the NFL are two types of programming American viewers still choose to watch live, not on-demand via one of the many streaming services.

But football is not the only athletic competition people like to watch in real time. If you survey daily viewership charts, you’ll often find professional wrestling topping the charts.

This week, news-talk is surging with interest following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And as we are squarely in the throes of March, there has been wall-to-wall basketball coverage, between college conference tournaments and the NBA. And still, wrestling is winning the week.

On Monday, the top three rated shows on cable — determined by the 18-49 demographic so coveted by advertisers — were each a different hour of WWE Raw on NBCUniversal’s USA Network. Raw, which averaged 1.7 million viewers, was the only program on Monday to draw over a 0.40 television rating.

Wednesday, AEW Dynamite on TNT won the night by outdrawing cable news and a highly-promoted Suns-Heat basketball game with a 0.40 rating. AEW, an alternative to WWE, has not even been around for three years, yet on Wednesday, people still found its storylines more interesting than the NBA’s. 

Friday Night SmackDown now airs on the broadcast network Fox and draws well over two million viewers a week. This past Friday, SmackDown averaged 2.3 million viewers (0.59).

For reference, the NBA on ABC, ESPN and TNT averaged 1.32 million viewers last year. There are more people watching wrestling than nationally-televised NBA games.

Given its reach and demo ratings, few shows on television are as valuable as wrestling is. So your nephew is onto something with his nerdy obsession with John Cena.

What’s most impressive about wrestling viewers is how well they travel across networks. USA Network’s coverage of the 2022 Olympics — which garnered horrible ratings — preempted Raw to SyFy on February 14. But the people still followed.

Do you have SyFy on your cable package? You probably do, but have never visited it. You have to go out of your way to find SyFy. And yet, wrestling fans did that last month.

Raw averaged 1.6 million viewers and drew a 0.44 rating in 18-49 on SyFy. That won the night on cable. Over the years, Raw has bounced around from USA to TNN to Spike to USA again. And it hasn’t mattered, its viewers have always found it.

At a time when linear networks are scrambling to hang on, professional wrestling comes with expanded value. So expect both WWE and AEW to see increased deals during their next rights negotiations.

Historically, networks have underpaid for wrestling. That’s no longer the case. WWE’s deal with USA Network increased from $150 million annually to $265 million in 2018, and the deal with Fox is worth over $1 billion.

Because of its novelty, AEW’s deal with WarnerMedia comes in at $45 million per year with the option for WarnerMedia to re-sign AEW in 2024 at a higher price. Given that AEW has so quickly surpassed expectations, that number will catapult in 2025.

Moreover, TV networks can use professional wrestling as a gateway between linear and streaming. Media companies have two objectives right now: withstand the decline in traditional television viewing and bolster a complementary streaming service. While some live sports don’t translate well to subscription-based streaming services, wrestling content is tailor-made for a hybrid model.

In 2021, WWE agreed to fold the company-run WWE Network to provide its US pay-per-views and library exclusively to NBCUniversal’s Peacock in a deal worth $1 billion. NBCUniversal is now simultaneously capitalizing on WWE’s reach on USA Network while using Raw to promote and bolster its streaming services.

And now, nearly all of WWE Network’s former 1.1 million subscribers have converted to Peacock, and more than three million Peacock subscribers have watched WWE content since March 2021. Most notably, more than half of those three million subscribers say that they signed up for Peacock “because of WWE.”

WWE has been far more beneficial to Peacock than the NHL and MLB have been to ESPN+.

Industry sources expect AEW to capitalize on streaming next. Most likely, its broadcast partner WarnerMedia will convert AEW content, along with the Ring of Honor library, into HBO Max. Max could use wrestling to offset some of its content failures.

So call wrestling fans goofy and lame and immature. They don’t mind. Nor do their TV partners. The wrestling business is now incredibly lucrative and one of the few products still consistently drawing on television.

Politics and football may be saving linear television, but so is wrestling. “Acknowledge” that, as Roman Reigns would say.

Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack covers media, politics, and sports at OutKick.

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