The WWE Network appeared to be Vince McMahon’s white whale. Turns out it was merely a trout.
The culmination of nearly three years of self-promotion, rumors, dreams and promises about the WWE Network came Wednesday night at CES 2014. In the end, the WWE Network isn’t even a network at all.
If you missed the particulars, the WWE Network costs you $9.99 per month and includes access to WWE’s vast video library – every WWF, WCW and ECW pay-per-view ever, for example – as well as every current WWE pay-per-view, including WrestleMania.
Those two bits of news had hardcore wrestling fans practically dancing in the street for joy. They did the math. They know that ordering every WWE show in 2014 would have cost them close to $700. Now, that number is down to a mere $120. They’ve just saved $580! And they get every pay-per-view ever!
If the goal of the WWE Network was to appease hardcore wrestling fans, then the announcement Wednesday was a success. Or was it?
The network, the WWE said, would be available on “every device” and listed out every mobile and computer contraption one can imagine. Thank God, too, because I’ve wanted to watch WrestleMania V on my cell phone for years!
“Every device” is not true though. It is missing one relatively important device – your television.
Yep, the WWE Network has agreements with a grand total of zero cable carriers. Sure, you could hook up your Roku or laptop to your television, but it’s not the NFL Network or the MLB Network or ESPN. The WWE has essentially created its own YouTube and asking you to pay $10 a month for it.
Vince McMahon used to proudly proclaim his, um, ahem, were the size of grapefruits. Apparently, the WWE chairman has been castrated.
There is no other explanation for the WWE rolling out the wussiest version possible of their network on Wednesday.
The reasons are obvious. They have pumped the network to investors and stockholders and advertisers for so long that eventually, something had to be produced.
When the idea was first floated in 2011, the network appeared to be the WWE’s attempt to jump on board with America’s professional sports league and create its own cable channel. In its infancy, there were grand ideas – from WWE sitcoms to even purchasing live sports rights.
Those grand ideas, obviously, never came to fruition.
Even by WrestleMania time in 2013, the idea was still to create a true television network, albeit one that resembled HBO as opposed to ESPN. As this April 2013 Variety article points out, the WWE wanted to air all pay-per-views on television for subscribers – akin to the boxing model used by HBO and Showtime. In boxing, only big events like Floyd Mayweather fights make it to pay-per-view. In wrestling, WrestleMania would act as Money Mayweather.
Even those plans never came to fruition. That fall 2013 launch date came and went like so many others before it.
In December, the WWE made it known that they were going to aggressively pursue a new television rights deals for its weekly live programming – namely Raw and Smackdown.
And this is where the WWE messed up. It is why the WWE Network will never be on your television and why it will eventually peter out and fail like so many other WWE ventures.
The NFL Network is a powerful brand because it airs an NFL game every Thursday night. The league turned down what would have been absurd rights fees – how much would NBC pay for the NFL on NBCSN or Fox on Fox Sports 1? – to take a risk and build up its network. The NFL Network now gets $1.13 from each of the 72 million homes that get the network every single month.
That would mean just about a BILLION dollars every year for the NFL. Sorry for the all-caps, but it was necessary.
Monday Night Raw isn’t Thursday Night Football, but it’s not that far off. In a world of fractured audiences and copious viewing options, WWE programming remains among the most valuable in the cable landscape. The USA Network is the most watched cable network in large part due to Raw. SyFy’s largest audience each and every week is SmackDown. Why else would you watch ION except for WWE Main Event?
The opportunity was there for McMahon and company – move the shows to your own network, turn it into a basic cable channel and print money for the rest of time.
Instead, the corporate WWE lacked the guts – the grapefruits, if you will – to do it. Vince McMahon was afraid. The same man who tried to create a bodybuilding league, the same man who dared to take on the NFL, the same man who fought the U.S. government and won – he did not want to risk everything again. This is not the same man who bet his life on the first WrestleMania. Nor is it the same company.
The WWE mantra, both behind the scenes and on-camera, has become “play it safe.” That’s why Daniel Bryan never gets his chance. That’s why CM Punk’s historic WWE title reign ended in such a depressing manner. That’s why John Cena and Randy Orton remain main eventers despite fan apathy.
What did the WWE announce on Wednesday? In essence, nothing. There is zero risk. There is also a minute chance for success.
WWE has already been providing classic content on-demand for nearly a decade through its WWE Classics on Demand service, originally called WWE 24/7. I had it through Comcast for a few years. They aired a lot of old matches and original shows. It cost about $7 a month. It was alright, but I moved on.
They have also been providing classic content on-demand online for nearly the same amount of time. They also have put matches – full-length matches – on YouTube for several years.
The only change is the fact the live pay-per-views are on the WWE Network and that’s where the devil lies in the details.
Maybe I’ve buried the lead again, but it is literally impossible for the WWE Network, as currently constructed, to work.
Most casual fans buy one WWE show a year in WrestleMania. If you sign up for the WWE Network, you have to commit to six months at $9.99, essentially the same price as WrestleMania. They want to rope you in for a whole year, so that casual fan gives the WWE $120 per year instead of $60.
The problem is that the casual fan will likely have no interest in the WWE Network. 14,000 hours of programming available on-demand is a fun number to throw out there – but do you have 14,000 hours to sit around and watch wrestling?
The ones that will be drawn to the network, as stated above, are the hardcore fans that buy multiple pay-per-views per year. The WWE, in a bizarre move, is actually submarining their own revenue in an effort to show off their shiny new toy.
It’s a corporate move as old as time. Revenue will go down from pay-per-views but the WWE will point to the subscriber numbers as if that will appease investors. If you’ve ever been in a conference room with investors, you’ve seen this charade play out. It usually doesn’t work long-term.
After three years of bluster, the WWE had to produce something. They did the best they could. They shined up the poop real good. They made a big splash. They got Twitter talking. They are likely slapping backs today in Stamford.
Deep down, though, they know. This is not what they wanted. An on-demand library? They already tried to sell that – and no one bit. The WWE 24/7 service attracted 115,000 subscribers in 2007 – bringing in a whopping $1 million in revenue, not exactly the $1 billion the NFL Network brings in.
They are now throwing every pay-per-view and WrestleMania on top in a desperate attempt for relevancy.
Wednesday night’s announcement was the corporate equivalent of a Hail Mary. The ball will be in the air for the next 47 days until the WWE Network – in reality, just a streaming service – is launched. The WWE will plaster ads for it everywhere and anywhere until then.
By including WrestleMania, the subscriber numbers will look good. The investors will nod. The hardcore fans will be overjoyed with the available content. It will appear to be a success.
Do not be fooled. By Feb. 24, 2015, the WWE Network will take its rightful place next to the WBF, the XFL and The Marine 3 as spectacular failures.
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