Flying High

Wrestling is fueling TV ratings, finding viewers and feeding a hunger in American culture

A cavalcade of boos from nearly 20,000 lively pro-wrestling fans rained down from all corners of a packed Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, N.Y., during a recent live airing of USA Network’s venerable WWE Monday Night Raw series, heating up the already electric atmosphere on an otherwise chilly night.

With loud rock music blaring in the background, the target of the fans’ dissatisfaction began to saunter into the squared ring, seemingly soaking up and even encouraging the verbal venom from the audience as dozens of lights hanging from the rafters illuminated her every move.

The antagonist in the ring that night was Stephanie McMahon, who, when not playing the villain in the pro wrestling outfit’s cleverly devised on-air storylines, serves as the chief brand offer of WWE — the consensus, undisputed king of a pro wrestling category that is pinning down audiences across a number of programming genres and distribution platforms.

Related > Q&A: Stephanie McMahon Shows Entreprenurial Moves [subscription required]

Viewers would be hard pressed not to find some version of the high-flying, flashy, athletically enabled and aesthetically appealing “superstars” of pro wrestling crossing every corner of the entertainment landscape.

From WWE superstar John Cena, who hosted ESPN’s 2016 The ESPY Awards last July and Nickelodeon’s annual Kids’ Choice Awards this past March, to former pro wrestler Dave Bautista, who co-stars in the county’s top box office film Guardians of the Galaxy 2, to legendary pro grappler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — who appears virtually everywhere, as arguably the most bankable star in the entertainment industry today — wresting has put its version of a chokehold on popular entertainment culture.

“Wrestling reaches so many viewers and demographics — you could be 18 or 54 and still be a fan of wrestling,” said Daniel Tibbets, president and general manager of El Rey Network, which airs wrestling docu-reality series Lucha Undergound. “It really becomes a unique program to engage with audiences no matter what the platform is — linear, on-air, broadcast, digital, VOD, OTT live or social. We are seeing the success of wrestling everywhere.”

Indeed, pro wrestling’s tentacles reach across all entertainment genres:

• Live programming: WWE offers two weekly live “sports entertainment” programs on USA Network in WWE Monday Night Raw and WWE SmackDown — both serve as the most watched shows on the general entertainment network. Other pro wrestling companies like Ring of Honor (syndicated) and Impact Wrestling (Pop) also offer weekly pro-wrestling series over a 52-week period.

• Reality series: WWE’s Total Divas, which profiles the company’s female wrestlers, has pinned down six seasons and has spawned a spinoff series, Total Bellas, which follows sister wrestlers Nikki and Brie Bella. El Rey’s Lucha Underground, which chronicles the Mexican-based Luche Libre wrestling franchise, is one of the the network’s most watched unscripted series.

• Scripted series: Netf lix next month will premiere GLOW, a 10-part scripted series based on the 1980s women’s wrestling franchise Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

• Theatrical films: WWE, which has released nearly 40 movies through since 2002 through its WWE Studios, has teamed with MGM and Johnson to produce Fighting With My Family, a theatrical film based on the life of WWE wrestler Saraya “Paige” Bevis and her family.

• Documentaries: HBO has tag-teamed with WWE to produce, later this year, the documentary film Andre the Giant, which examines the life and career of the legendary wrestling star.

Pro wrestling, with its mix of flamboyant characters and controlled, one-on-one combat inside a square ring, has been entertaining viewers for generations since the beginning of television. But now, industry executives said, wrestling’s core drama of good vs. evil is resonating.

The dramatic storylines that play out during live, original episodes airing virtually every week of the year are especially appealing to viewers looking for an escape from the realities of modern life, and all the uncertainties and ambiguities that are part of it.

“When you consider the genre of pro wrestling, I like to say that it’s been around since the days of the Roman Coliseum, when the emperor would decide if the gladiator lives or met his unfortunate alternative — the only difference is that we’re involved in scripting the outcome,” McMahon, the daughter of WWE’s longtime chairman, Vince McMahon, said. “When you think about it appealing to the human journey — whether it’s the good versus evil, the notion of overcoming adversity and fighting your way up from beneath — it’s all relatable concepts to our audience.”

Viewers are certainly relating to WWE’s content across numerous distribution platforms, beginning with its long-running weekly USA Network shows WWE Monday Night Raw and SmackDown on Tuesday nights. Raw, now in its 24th season, has averaged a network-high 3.7 million viewers over its weekly, three-hour run in 2017 and consistently ranks among most watched shows on cable every week.

The 18-year-old SmackDown franchise is averaging 3.1 million viewers on Tuesday nights, good for third best on the network. NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment president of entertainment networks Chris McCumber said the wrestling shows also serve as strong lead-ins for USA’s other originals. USA’s reality series Chrisley Knows Best — which premieres after SmackDown at 10 p.m. — is the network’s second-most-watched show, with more than 3 million viewers.

The network’s most-watched scripted show, freshman drama series Shooter, also benefited from following SmackDown on Tuesday nights, averaging 2.7 million viewers for its premiere episodes. The series has been renewed for a second season.

“We have this really dedicated, loyal following around WWE, so it gives us the opportunity to provide programming that will make them stick around the network,” McCumber said.

The WWE brand has also had a positive inflence on E!'s reality series Total Divas and Total Bellas, which are both based on the company's female superstars. Total Divas -- the second-longest running series on E! behind Keeping Up With The Kardashians -- is averaging 1 million viewers in its sixth season, according to the network.

"The WWE tie-in has been integral to the long-running success of Total Divas, as well as its spin-off Total Bellas," saidJeff Olde, executive vice president of programming and development for E! "It’s a collaborative, continual conversation with WWE to find the behind-the-scenes moments and stories that deepen the wrestling fan’s interest in each cast member."  

The showsare part of the WWE sports-entertainment juggernaut which generated a record $729 million in revenue in 2016, driven by a combination of its TV business, global live event business and its three-year old WWE Network subscription over-the-top service, which hit the 1.5 million subscriber mark in 2016.

Stephanie McMahon said the network’s tiered content strategy of linear TV, OTT and digital distribution, along with its more than 780 million social media followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, have propelled the WWE brand’s status in the entertainment industry. (For more from McMahon, see the Q&A.)

WWE may be king of the ring but it isn’t the only player in the arena. The network Pop is averaging more than 400,000 viewers on a Nielsen live-plus-seven- day basis for its weekly Impact Wrestling series. Impact (formerly TNA Wrestling), purchased by Canada’s Anthem Sports & Entertainment this past January, is among CBS and Lionsgate-owned Pop’s most-watched shows, providing the network with new, original programming every week of the year.

“For a television business, it’s a good thing to have on the schedule because it gives you a continuing storyline every single week,” Pop president Brad Schwartz said. “It keeps the audience continually interested in what happens next.”

Wrestling’s audience appeal and intricate storylines drew Survivor creator Mark Burnett to team with filmmaker and El Rey founder Robert Rodriguez to produce Lucha Underground, a weekly pro wrestling series that combines in-ring action from Mexico’s famed Lucha Libre AAA wrestling organization with telenovela-style drama, according to El Rey’s Tibbets.

Currently midway through its third season — the 20-episode back end of season three premieres May 31 — the series has found a loyal, dedicated and diverse audience.

Lucha Underground has really set a new bar for wrestling,” Tibbets said. “It’s popular because it has everything wrestling fans love, but it has an added element of tapping into the universal appeal of Hispanic culture and characters. While wrestling is at its core, the show is a drama, and the fans wrap themselves around the characters.”

Other wrestling productions, like Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned Ring of Honor, actually downplay the storylines and let the athleticism of the wrestlers do the talking.

Ring of Honor’s weekly syndicated series reaches 50% of television homes, mostly through Sinclair-owned stations, according to Joe Koff, chief operating officer for the Baltimore-based company. He added the shows are very competitive from a ratings perspective against other broadcast and cable competition but would not reveal specific numbers.

“While others are happy to call themselves sports entertainment, Ring of Honor is an entertaining sport … our athletes are athletes,” Koff said. “They speak the language to the fans in the ring. For the most part, our fans don’t come to see us talk — they come to see us wrestle.”

The company also offers about six pay-per-view events a year through traditional PPV as well as online streaming, where its big events often pin down a good portion of PPV buys after they have aired live.

About 25% to 30% of Ring of Honor streaming buys occur up to a week after the event’s premiere, which is rare compared with the less than 10% of post-event buys for boxing and UFC/mixed martial arts events, according to Michael Weber, chief operating officer of online ring event distributor Fite TV.

Fite TV distributes content from 30 to 40 small, locally based independent wrestling outfits around the country, Weber added.

“They won’t do the number of buys as a Ring of Honor would, but they do generate buys,” Weber said. “People want to buy and watch them live because there is such an interest in the independent wrestling world, where people want to see who the next big stars are.”