By Chuck Carroll
Normally, the biggest news week of the year for professional wrestling is the seven days leading up to WrestleMania. That’s when headlines speculating on what surprises are in store for the show are splashed across the internet. Meanwhile, WWE’s reach extends well outside of the internet wrestling community, as the company’s highest profile stars take over sports networks, the New York Stock Exchange, and dominate headlines in mainstream media. Even the economic impact of WWE is covered by major news outlets and trade publications around the world. For that week, the WWE brand is inescapable and whatever stigma still surrounds pro wrestling fades away.
Here we are almost two months later, and every one of those headlines pales in comparison to what happened this week. In the span of four days, the landscape of wrestling has been completely reshaped. WWE is on the cusp of a major television shakeup while a former wrestler is getting revenge in shocking fashion. And as icing on the cake, Ronda Rousey is getting her first title shot in the squared circle.
WWE Reportedly Shopping SmackDown
Don’t expect Monday Night Raw to go anywhere. But the Tuesday night sister-show, SmackDown, is another story.
Record profits are spurring WWE stock to record heights. But it’s not just quarterly reports that have investors flocking to the Stamford, Connecticut-based company.
Despite steady viewership challenges across almost all live sports, television rights fees for major professional leagues are reaching astronomical levels. The NFL’s Thursday Night Football package recently sold for $550 million per season for the next five years. UFC has experienced steep declines, but is well on the way to more than doubling its current income for broadcast rights.
All of this bodes very well for WWE, which is expected to cash in on the recent trend in a big way. The anticipation of such a windfall alone is part of the formula that’s been driving stock prices to never-before-seen levels. And it appears the speculation is going to pay off for investors.
WWE is closing in on a deal to keep RAW at its current TV home, according to The Hollywood Reporter. When the ink is dry on the contract, WWE could see its television rights fees for the flagship show as much as triple.
However, in an unexpected move, the rights to SmackDown are up for sale. It’s unclear what a network shift will mean for SmackDown’s ratings. However, it does mean that WWE will receive a positive economic influx on top of the huge boost it’s receiving from RAW. According to the report, WWE is currently being paid $30 million for the Tuesday show. It is widely expected that any new deal will exceed that amount.
Although WWE’s current broadcast deal doesn’t expire until the end of September 2019, the executives have been working for months to secure the future of the shows. The company expects to announce the television rights deals by this fall.
WWE did not respond to a request for comment.
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The Revenge of Rhodes
Cody Rhodes felt as though he was WWE’s garbage prior to asking for his release. The two-time Intercontinental Champion and six-time tag team champion had seen his stock plummet in 2016. Relegated to the role of Stardust, Rhodes found himself losing an increasing number of matches, carrying zero momentum, and didn’t see his fortunes turning around in the company at any point in the future. Unwilling to continue on as a low to mid-card character, he asked for and was granted his release.
And that’s when it all changed for Rhodes. Over the next two years, he shattered the ceiling for former WWE talents now carving out a career for themselves on the independents. He put no limitations on himself and quickly became one of the hottest wrestling commodities in the world. His stock reached unprecedented heights, and he did it his way and on his own.
His involvement in Bullet Club, Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling have been well documented. He crisscrossed the globe many times over, building a name and reputation for himself that now rivals his legendary father, Dusty Rhodes. Everything he did over the last 48 months culminated in an earth-shattering moment last Sunday.
Rhodes, along with his Bullet Club brethren and real-life friends, Nick and Matt Jackson (aka The Young Bucks), managed to pull off what was unthinkable. Their self-promoted show, All In, sold out the Sears Centre in Chicago in less an hour. About 170 seats were sold per minute until all of the 10,000 that were available were gone. To put that into perspective, WWE is averaging 5,300 fans for North American shows so far this year, excluding WrestleMania.
The card is stacked with the largest attractions outside of WWE auspices, including Kenny Omega. After it was announced that CM Punk would be holding an autograph signing that weekend, rumors began swirling that he will be involved in the show. If true, it would mark Punk’s first appearance in a wrestling ring since unceremoniously exiting WWE in 2014. The wrestler turned UFC fighter has been locked in a bitter dispute with WWE since his departure and is fighting a $1 million defamation lawsuit filed against him by the promotion’s doctor.
Having Punk on the show would be considered a major coup for Rhodes and the Jacksons.
All In is a fitting name for the show. The three Bullet Club members pooled their money to self-finance everything, essentially going “all in” with their bank accounts. To generate a larger buzz and ensure a solid return on investment, a major four-day expo known as Starrcast is also expected to draw large crowds. It’s akin to WWE Axxess, which occurs prior the company’s biggest pay-per-view shows of the year. Like WWE’s version, Starrcast allows fans to shake hands with the legendary names in the business. But Rhodes and The Young Bucks took the idea a step further by adding live podcast tapings, Q&A sessions, and a boxing-style press conference with weigh-ins — seldom seen in wrestling — to the schedule. And like the main show, the hotel where the multi-day event is being held is also sold out.
WWE hasn’t seen this level of competition since its bruising battle with World Championship Wrestling during the Monday Night Wars era of the late 90s. But what should make the company nervous is the fact that a former talent is spearheading the show. Rhodes has proven that talents don’t need to be chained to the largest promotion in the business to earn a living. They are able to break free and thrive on their own without the support of “the machine.”
While the success of All In may not lead to a major full-time promotion to rival WWE, it will serve as a blue print that will be used again in the future. Maybe it will be a 20,000 seat arena that sells out next time. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s nearly four times as many fans that file in to watch RAW live each week. And if you think WWE isn’t paying attention, you’d be sadly mistaken.
Chuck Carroll is a former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality who now interviews the biggest names in wrestling. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.