WWE in search of new landmark TV rights deal

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Ed Note: AA is pleased to welcome one of the best WWE bloggers on the web, Arda Ocal, for coverage of the squared circle. 

On Tuesday Marc Graser, a senior editor with Variety, published a detailed look at WWE's television rights and how the next few months could shake down.

Looking into the points in this in detail, we see some interesting key talking points.

First, Graser notes that all of WWE's television properties expire at roughly the same time, a first for the global entertainment brand. This includes RAW (USA), Smackdown (SyFy), Main Event (ION), Total Divas (E!) and other programming scattered across various channels. WWE is now in a leverage position, being able to negotiate all of its properties to one network.

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Currently WWE receives $139.5 million in the United States for its programming. This past summer, NASCAR secured a 10 year, $8.20 Billion dollar agreement with NBC and Fox, pocketing $820 million annually. NASCAR's ratings are comparable on whole to that of WWE, as Graser compared:

"Combined, the shows air 156 episodes a year that average a 2.2 household rating. Nascar airs 154 races and averages a 1.38 household rating among viewers, who are 92% white and over 50. WWE’s audience is far more diverse and broken out fairly evenly among age groups. A selling point is that 44% of them are under 34."

Another key difference here is live viewership – due to second screen experience on the WWE App (currently at over 8 million downloads as noted by WWE's lead voice Michael Cole two weeks ago on Monday Night RAW) as well as a massive presence on Twitter, WWE remains strong live destination programming with an engaged audience – another key selling feature to networks hungry for live television.

Let's take a closer look at the networks listed in the piece that WWE has either touched base with or have met with, other than NBCUniversal, which currently airs a significant amount of WWE content:

A&E

Perhaps not the first thought as it pertains to hosting WWE programming, but the joint venture of Hearst Corporation and Disney-ABC Television Group has a healthy roster of lifestyle-oriented channels such as A&E and Lifetime. WWE Movie titles could pop up on LMN, DVD releases to Bio and/or History. WWE would be a big coup for this network and would join popular franchises Duck Dynasty, Sstorage Wars and Breakout Kings.

Disney

A strong family of networks both in lifestyle and in sports, Disney could provide to be a very appealing option for WWE. ESPN has WWE/pro wrestling ties – in fact according to the 2011 tome ESPN: Those Guys Have All The Fun, AWA pro wrestling (which incidentally WWE now owns the footage of) was aired on the station's very first night of broadcast. Former WWE announcers Todd Grisham and Jonathan Coachman are members of ESPN's on air roster. ABC would be a wide reach network for special events (such as the annual Tribute to the Troops special, airing on NBC before the end of the year, and the yearly Wrestlemania special which typically airs in August). ABC Family recently aired Christmas Bounty, a holiday film starring WWE Superstar The Miz. The Disney family certainly has the stable of channels to handle WWE's diverse programming needs.

Viacom

This would be an interesting scenario if WWE were to land here. Viacom currently owns Spike TV, the only other network (when also previously known as TNN) that WWE has aired Monday Night RAW exclusively other than USA network, from September 2000-October 2005. What makes things more interesting is that Spike TV currently airs the largest pro wrestling alternative in the United States, TNA Wrestling. The Panda Energy International Inc. owned company has been with Spike since October 2005, exactly when WWE left to return to USA Network. The past would suggest that both companies would not be able to co exist on the same airwaves, unless WWE were to purchase TNA; Vince McMahon dismissed the idea in a 2011 conference call, but there is speculation that TNA is for sale. Viacom also handles Nickelodeon, which would be a prime landing spot for a program such as Saturday Morning Slam, a kid-geared WWE program, packaged with less physicalit). WWE has also had a consistent presence at Nickelodeon functions.

21st Century Fox

Fox might prove to be an aggressive player for WWE given the recent launch of Fox Sports 1 and how the ratings rub would be welcome to the new national sports channel. FS1 currently owns the rights to the UFC and there might also be questions about whether the two brands can co exist, since they are consistently compared in the media and by analysts. They do in Canada – Rogers, through acquiring The Score Television Network last year scooped up its largest license, WWE. Rogers was already the UFC rights holder and now, The Score, rebranded SportsNet360, is currently the home in Canada for both WWE and UFC – airing virtually all WWE and UFC related programs. Stateside, Spike TV aired both WWE and UFC at one point, as the UFC launched “The Ultimate Fighter” in January 2005, using Raw's strong rating lead in to help boost popularity in the show. WWE talent and former ECW leader Paul Heyman explained the surroundings of that deal to MMA reporter Ariel Helwani.

NBC Universal

The key things that NBCU has going for it is longevity and a long standing established relationship – WWE Chairman/CEO Vince McMahon and NBCU Senior Advisor and former Sports Pres Dick Ebersol are friends and decades-long business partners, notably working on the successful “WWE Saturday Night's Main Event” series which debuted in 1985. Other than the 5 year hiatus on Spike, RAW has been on NBCU's USA Network since January of 1993, with over 800 episodes aired. SyFy airs Smackdown and E! Has Total Divas, WWE's other two key properties in this deal.

This all doesn't even include the rumoured impending announcement of the long-awaited WWE Network, which will primarily serve as a gateway for other programming and breathing life into WWE's 120,000 hour tape library.

In terms of favorites at this juncture, I would speculate that NBCU remains the leading candidate to welcome all of WWE's programming given how RAW is consistently their #1 program on USA and top 1-3 in all of cable regularly on Monday nights. I would peg Fox as the likely #2, given that they might chase after WWE as ratings centerpiece for a property like Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2 or even FX.

Overall, the future looks bright for WWE and the product they offer in the television space. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a massive increase in their rights fees and a landmark deal announced by March, before Wrestlemania 30.  

Arda Ocal is a columnist with the Baltimore Sun and an award winning broadcaster. Follow him on Twitter@arda_ocal

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