Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What Happened to WWE Ad Rates?

Vince McMahon got paid, but why?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
It wasn't too long ago that WWE's going rate for ad time was less than optimal. The social stigma on pro wrestling extended to RAW's and Smackdown's viewer base, in that high-end advertisers didn't want to shell out money for prime real estate on Mondays and whatever night Smackdown populated at the time. It's how you got such prestigious, long-lasting sponsors as Stacker 2 and Lugz Boots. It was always one reason why post-World Championship Wrestling ratings babble was so useless. WWE wasn't getting money no matter how highly rated the shows were, yet they were always high enough that really USA Network didn't really have reason not to renew RAW (and was even outbid for it for a short while by Spike TV).

Somewhere in the last few years, something in the point of view changed so that now networks see RAW and Smackdown as gold mines, which I can only assume is a function of advertisers now seeing that wrestling fan money is in fact worth just as much as any other currency. Sports Business Journal's John Ourand wrote the full report, but the quick and dirty summary is that in addition to the already-reported $205 million per year deal WWE is getting from FOX, it's netting $265 million for RAW from NBC Universal. The fuck money Vince McMahon is getting on television rights alone is $2.35 BILLION. That's not even taking into account Network subscriptions, live gates, merchandising, and revenue from other ventures like WWE Films. So yeah, the next time someone asks you to feel sorry for a McMahon for whatever reason, show them those numbers and tell them to shove it where the Sun doesn't shine.

Anyway, the question of how much bores me. I want to know why WWE programming has gone from a "well below market value" of $130 million per year to the levels it's at now. How did those rights fees double? What made the advertisers look upon pro wrestling, or at least WWE's self-loathing brand of it, as something that people with money watched? I have absolutely no concrete idea, but I do have a few educated guesses.

The first idea is that maybe the market for consuming WWE did get a bit more means-displaying, to put it loosely. Either more people with money decided they liked WWE, or more people who liked WWE in secret came out into the open with their fandom. Honestly, I doubt that WWE's push coerced that many adult convert fans, although it's entirely possible, I guess. If I had to pinpoint a moment where it started to become "cool" to like wrestling in public again, it was CM Punk's interview on the Bill Simmons Podcast during Summer of Punk II: Punk Harder. It was the nexus of a cool thing happening in WWE colliding with a famous and, at the time, non-embarrassing fan shining light on said cool thing in an earnest interview that fostered love for wrestling rather than poked fun at it as a sideshow or put on a pedestal as some scientific oddity. From there, the trendy blogs started to take note (note, I am not giving myself credit for this, as TWB is read by like 100 people tops and I have views to the far left and even some to the far right of wrestling fandom that make me the antithesis of trendy) and hire wrestling coverage, some of which still goes on today.

While I wouldn't say the cool kids got into wrestling, because what's cool nowadays anyway. Instead, the right kind of nerd got into it or stopped pretending they didn't like it, not the nerd who subscribes to Rape Apologist Dave Meltzer's newsletter and bitches online about how quarter-hour seven of RAW is the reason why the company is bound for failure, but the kind of nerd who watches every MCU film opening weekend, who buys Funko Pops, whose entire reason for being is to consume, to purchase, to HAVE. They flock to cultural centers. They gentrify areas of cheap real estate just so they don't have to spend as much on rent or mortgage (and end up doing it anyway because they drive up costs) so they can continue to have more disposable income. If any audience was going to come close to replicating the kinds of 20-and-30-something rush to spend cash on pro wrestling that the Attitude Era produced, it wasn't going to be the MMA bros that WWE was so desperately trying to court. When it became clear that that kind of fan was into WWE, perhaps the advertisers started to take notice.

If all of the above is the case, then it's funny how Punk did end up ushering in somewhat of a boom period, though not in the way most people expected him to. While the payoff to his momentous and infamous worked shoot promo was yet another frustrating and masturbatory Kliq Story, and while he left the company frustrated and infected without ever having main evented WrestleMania, the fruits of his labor were harvested, of course, by the people he probably resents the most in this world. It's funny how cruel fate turns out sometimes, right? Unfair even.

Of course, the complete opposite could be true. Perhaps the dark turn this country has taken politically has given advertisers reason to throw money at "lowbrow" entertainment like pro wrestling. After all, the sitting President of the United States is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. Perhaps the stigma around wrestling fans dissipated into the air like the societal apprehension towards allowing Nazis to roam freely in public or assault people of color for no other reason than, I dunno, America. It would be a depressing, dystopian, but absolutely fitting reason why advertisers would flock to the bottom of the barrel to scrape up all the money possible. Honestly, the way late capitalism has progressed, I wouldn't be surprised.

To be completely honest though, it's probably a combination of the two, or just the fact that capitalism doesn't care about how cool you are or how okay it is to be a fascist. It just uses money to grease its gears, and yeah, wrestling's audience is too sizable to ignore. Perhaps it was always just a matter of time before the sheer potential of the purchasing power outran perception. Or maybe network officials never really asked advertisers whether they'd want to put spots on RAW.

While the reasons are still nebulous, the consequences aren't. In fact, they're pretty dire. WWE is going to be getting this tremendous windfall, and if any of it goes towards labor, it'll be to throw godfather offers at some dipshit like Conor McGregor. Wages will still be depressed. Wrestlers will still be classified as independent contractors who won't get benefits like health insurance or paid travel, room, and board. This fuck money is just that — fuck money. The only people who should celebrate this are McMahon, his family, Paul Levesque, and other shareholders and top executives. It's all the more reason why wrestlers need to unionize and collectively bargain for a bigger piece of the pie among other things. Until then, I'm not sure it matters why advertisers suddenly want to throw money at WWE, which makes the above exercise in hypothetical null and void. Then again, what is intellectualism but sometimes training the mind to analyze things that don't matter?