The news of World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship show Raw staying on USA Network was a huge story last week. Today’s news only adds to the celebration that must be taking place by Vince McMahon and WWE’s executives today. That’s because it was reported by The Hollywood Reporter that FOX is paying WWE a reported $1 billion for five years of Smackdown. The story was broken earlier by ESPN’s Darren Rovell, who noted it was a massive deal but didn’t reveal the actual dollar amounts. It was also reported by The Wrap that Smackdown will be out of the Tuesday night time slot that was in on USA Network and it will move back to Friday nights where it used to be.
Smackdown has been a show that has moved a lot in its 19-year run on television. Smackdown started as the second major primetime WWE television show in August of 1999, six and a half years after Raw started in January 1993. WWE’s flagship show celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this year.
Smackdown began on UPN and aired on the network from August 1999 to September 2006 on Thursday nights, taping on Tuesdays nearly every week. Smackdown was rebanded as Friday Night Smackdown and moved to The CW in September 2006 when UPN and The WB folded into each other, lasting there until September 2008. Next up was MyNetwork TV, which had Smackdown from October 2008 to September 2010.
Syfy (owned by NBC Universal, like USA Network) was next from October 2010 to December 2015 and during that run, Smackdown was moved back to Thursdays in November 2014. On January 2016, Smackdown moved to USA Network just like Raw. In July 2016, Smackdown became a live show every week on Tuesday nights and was rebranded as Smackdown Live following WWE’s draft lottery and brand split. Based on this new deal, it appears Smackdown is moving back to Friday nights.
There have been 978 episodes of Smackdown heading into this week, so look for a big 1,000th episode celebration later this year.
Smackdown’s audience in 2017 is around 2.5 million viewers that watch it live, while Raw’s live audiences averages around 3 million viewers. There are peaks and valleys depending on the competition, including the NFL, NBA, or whatever other shows might be on that particular night.
What we don’t know yet is if Smackdown will be a live show on Fox, though it likely will air between 8-10 PM ET since Fox primetime only has a two hour window. I assume it will be live because I doubt Fox would pay WWE $200+ million a year for a taped show. Keep in mind that the rights fees for Raw on USA Network are expected to be around $240 million per the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (available via subscription) last week.
That means WWE is getting paid approximately $445 million per year from USA Network and Fox for Raw and Smackdown. Let’s not forget that there are other TV deals in other countries too, so they are killing it as a television product right now, even though television ratings have plummeted since the beginning of the decade. Networks like live programming, and WWE is great providing live shows.
There are a lot of thoughts about this deal, so I figured I would cut it down to five angles that will affect WWE and us as television viewers.
1. Smackdown airing on Fox’s broadcast network is a huge positive
I listed all the names of the channels that Smackdown has aired on during its nearly two decade run on television. UPN? The CW? MyNetwork TV? Syfy? It’s not exactly a murderer’s row of networks. However, going to Fox is a massive upgrade because it’s a channel that most Americans with a television set will get.
Think of all the crossover advertising as well. Fox is the home to NFL games on Sundays and they just got the NFL on Thursdays as well, so you can count on Fox pushing Smackdown a lot during those broadcasts that have four or five times the audience that Smackdown gets. There’s also Major League Baseball, which airs on both Fox’s broadcast network and FS1. Fox also airs major college football and college basketball games. For WWE to be able to get Smackdown on the same network that airs those major sports should lead to more people checking out WWE’s blue brand.
There is also the potential for a WWE-UFC crossover if UFC stays on Fox, since UFC’s Fox deal expires at the end of the year.
I assume that during the month of October when the World Series is taking place, Smackdown may have to air on FS1 for a week or two because Fox wants the World Series on the main network. Wrestling fans will complain about it, but it’s not a big deal and it makes sense for Fox to air baseball because they are paying more money for that than they are for WWE and the World Series viewership will dwarf that of Smackdown.
Make no mistake about it though – the biggest positive or negative to this deal is WWE landing on a major television like Fox. It is a massive coup that should be celebrated by wrestling fans, and it’s also why WWE’s stock price is surging today.
What’s going to be interesting as well is if the Vince McMahon-owned XFL will get a TV partner in Fox Sports or FS1. The XFL (version 2.0) is set to begin in 2020, so there’s plenty of time to consider that. That’s another topic for another day.
2. If Smackdown is a live show on Fridays, then WWE’s travel schedule will change
Moving Smackdown back to Fridays as a live show could be a logistical issue for WWE. The reason it has always been a Tuesday show is because the TV trucks are already on the road for Raw on Mondays (and Sundays if there’s a PPV), so it made sense to tape or go live on Tuesdays.
The travel schedule for most main roster wrestlers right now (in a normal week without a PPV event) is something like this…
- The Raw crew flies out for a show on Friday morning: Friday live event, Saturday live event, Sunday live event, and Monday is a live Raw. Whether a wrestler is on Raw or not, they must attend Raw. On Tuesday morning, they fly home and then are back at it the following Friday. There are exceptions for different tours in foreign countries.
- The Smackdown crew flies out for a show on Saturday morning: Saturday live event, Sunday live event, Monday live event (opposite Raw), and Tuesday is Smackdown Live. They fly home on Wednesday morning.
If Smackdown is live, which is what I expect, then that means WWE might change the travel schedule for both brands. Since WWE would want to keep live events on weekends, that could mean that Smackdown talent has live Smackdown on Fridays, then three live events on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. They go home on Tuesdays. If there’s a PPV on Sunday, then the Raw crew is there at the same time. The Raw schedule could remain the same from Friday to Monday like usual or they could push it back a day to make it Saturday to Tuesday. Anyway, the Fox deal won’t take effect until October 2019 (that’s 17 months away), so there’s plenty of time for WWE to figure out the logistics here.
It’s not ideal to have Smackdown on Fridays from a logistics standpoint, but Fox likely figures that they are paying WWE $200 million per year for this show (triple what USA Network was paying), so WWE is going to do what Fox wants. The extra costs in producing a live Friday show will be covered in the new deal.
3. Friday night is a downgrade from Tuesday night, even on a high-profile network like Fox
I understand why Fox wants to put WWE on Fridays. They know as well as most of us that fewer people watch TV on a Friday night. It’s the end of the work or school week, and people like to unwind and/or go out with the friends or family. We all know it and a lot of us do it no matter how old we are. They also know that WWE fans follow WWE’s product closely, so changing nights isn’t going to affect the audience that much.
It will be very interesting to see what kind of numbers Smackdown gets on Fridays. A three-day break between Raw and Smackdown is a good thing because I honestly feel overwhelmed most weeks when I write live reviews of Raw and Smackdown every week on my website. When there’s a PPV week, it’s even more tiring. By splitting up Raw and Smackdown with three days between them, it lets WWE fans breathe a bit. There are probably some fans these days that don’t watch Smackdown because they get sick of wrestling after three hours of Raw. By moving Smackdown back to Friday, those fans could come back.
I don’t think Smackdown will be hurt too much by being on Fridays. The hardcore fans of WWE are going to watch it as long as the brand split is in place, which I assume is the case. If WWE were to get rid of the brand split that would hurt Smackdown because it would feel like Raw-lite. By having the brand split in place, it will lead to viewers wanting to tune in because that’s the only way you can see AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, Shinsuke Nakamura, Charlotte Flair, or whoever may be on the roster in October 2019. A lot of things can change between now and then in terms of the rosters.
4. NXT may be able to get a television deal
When you consider that Raw and Smackdown each got deals that were triple what their old deals were, it makes me think that NXT is going to be next in terms of landing on cable television. Currently, NXT airs on WWE Network and I wrote an article about NXT earlier today covering some of the great talent on that show. When WWE Network launched in 2014, the first live show was a NXT Takeover event. NXT has exclusively on WWE Network since its launch.
What we don’t know is if WWE has ever really shopped NXT to a cable channel or if they want to keep it on the Network as an exclusive. After all, if NXT were to move to cable then that would mean 205 Live is the only show on WWE Network that features in-ring action weekly.
Taking NXT off WWE Network would hurt the Network in terms of some fans being mad that NXT isn’t on there, but does that even matter? Look at how much money WWE is bringing in from the new TV deals. If they can get money from a cable channel to air NXT then they should do it because that’s going to help the NXT brand and the rights fees would offset any cancellations of WWE Network that would come their way.
If I had to guess, I think NXT ends up on cable television in 2019 as well. I don’t know where or how much money, but if you can make money off WWE programming, you have to do it. I doubt it would hurt WWE Network much at all either.
5. Raw and Smackdown are more important than pay-per-view events
It pains me to say this, but it could be argued that the creative aspect of WWE programming will be less important than ever due to these deals. Think about it this way: WWE is getting paid over $400 million to produce five hours of television every week. They have absolutely no reason to take risks or do anything stupid on their shows. It’s going to be the same formulaic stuff they have done for years because they’re going to get that money barring something completely unforeseen and they have no reason to ruffle the feathers of their advertisers.
The traditional way of booking WWE shows over the last 30+ years is to use television shows to build to major pay-per-view events once a month on Sundays. However, now that these deals are in place for massive amounts of money, it makes less sense than ever to build to PPVs. The major positive in it for WWE is that they want to sell WWE Network subscriptions, but the audience that will watch the Network (which has about 1.55 million subscribers) is smaller than the TV audience on major television networks.
I don’t expect the PPV model to change. I think WWE will book their shows the same way. I just think the quality of shows matters way less than ever before. In other words, if you are frustrated with WWE creative right now, it may not get better when these deals are in place.
This deal is massive. It’s a game changer for WWE in terms of having more money than they have ever had. The WWE stock price is at $58.60 right now. A year ago on this date, it was $19.80. Vince McMahon must be doing his strut backstage at Raw today. I’m kidding, but I’m sure he is thrilled and the entire company should be as well.