It’s been a wild start for WWE over the last month. In late January, the announcement came of a swift and brief explanation exit of two executive board members, stock plummeting over 9% overnight despite beating earnings report, and now reports of changes in PPV rights due to challenges in its WWE Network streaming service revenues.
In just a week into February, the company has lost $1.6 billion in market value pushing shares down to $42.50 compared to $62 before the earnings call. While revenues from their media division increased by nearly 30%, WWE Network subscription revenues faltered 11% in the 4th quarter. Then rumors abound after Vince McMahon spoke on an imminent restructure of their premium PPV content. McMahon also mentioned during the February earnings call that all major providers would be in the running and a final decision could be announced by Q1.
The average paid subscribers fell 10% year over year, estimating to be around 1.35 to 1.50 million paid and another 30,000 free. As the subscriber count maintains below 2 million, the urgency to improve shareholder outlook with the network will need to be substantial, and it seems McMahon and co. are doing just that.
Time to initiate the Streaming War of 2020.
Five potential services all with money to spend on premium content and WWE is a marketable buy. It’ll be interesting to note that, for the purposes of this article, the profitability of PPV licensing going forward might (and very well should) mean the return of a premium pricing structure for individual big PPV events.
Last week CNBC speculated on the potential Bezos’ buyout of WWE content, possibly touting an exclusive licensing and streaming right for all of WWE’s content. If WWE ends up licensing to Amazon, the company would inherit a possible 112 million Prime members with access to Prime Video for an additional reach in PPV buys.
This wouldn’t be the first venture into sports for Amazon. In 2017, the company invested $50 million for NFL streaming rights, a move that initiated a long-term $5 billion interest in live sports rights. In 2019, Amazon dove straight in by adding soccer and tennis, the English Premier League and the US Open in the UK.
As the majority of professional sports league television contracts set to expire in late 2020 and into 2021, expect Amazon to push their chips all in with live sports rights.
This option favors WWE, as a financial impact would provide a substantial increase in yearly media revenues. Core content rights in Monday Night Raw on USA Network and Smackdown on Fox, generated an increased 30% in revenues, a 90%+ increase in domestic rights. If the same applies to PPV streaming rights, revenues could spike over $60 million in year over year growth.
As far as fan interest, speculation that Disney could buy out the entire company isn’t that out of the realm of possibility.
Disney reported their Q1 revenue earnings over $20 billion, a 36% increase, majority from the acquisition of 21st Century Fox in March of last year. With six months under its belt, the new Disney+ streaming service has surpassed 28 million subscribers and plans to grow in original content as well as live sports. Disney is the parent company of ESPN and bundles its sports streaming platform, ESPN+, as part of the $13/month package with Hulu.
ESPN+ would be an interesting situation, considering its relationship with UFC. With over 7.5 million subscribers, it reaches far more viewers as WWE and offers an ever-expanding sports catalog including the MLB, NHL, US Open, NCAA FB.
The UFC in 2018 secured $300 million in rights for UFC fight nights and PPV prelims while charging additional for PPV events. If a similar deal with WWE occurs, PPV buys will have a stronger impact on core content performance toward its media division.
Lastly, there is a potential reach of 60+ million subscribers if you count ESPN+, Hulu, and Disney+ individually. Compared to WWE’s 1.5 million, it’s a favorable option for both business models to expand.
The least viable option of the group, Apple isn’t out of the live sports talk. When Apple announced the new streaming service, Apple TV+, rumors stirred regarding live sports coverage to compete with ESPN and Fox Sports. A report was released late last year regarding talks with the PAC-12 for live collegiate sports coverage.
In addition, AT&T, the parent company of DirectTV, was looking to remove their flagship NFL Sunday Ticket package off of DirecTV. The current contract with the NFL is set to expire in 2020 and DirecTV has expressed little to no interest in negotiating a new deal. Doing so opens up the opportunity for Apple to secure a major live sports package.
If Apple is serious about live sports on its platform, it will need to spend big money and secure long term deals to compete with Amazon, NBC, and Disney.
Apple has $250 billion in cash reserves. With 28 million subscribers on its brand new streaming TV platform, WWE’s possible relationship with Apple wouldn’t be something to take lightly.
Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal, has a target of 30 million subscribers to its new network and hopes to achieve that by 2024. Their strategy includes major expenditures of $300 million for the rights of the longstanding successful series and spinoffs of Law & Order, and over $1 billion on rights of Seinfeld, Friends, and The Big Bang Theory.
NBCUniversal’s new streaming service, Peacock announced live coverage of the Opening and Closing ceremonies from Tokyo for the Olympics. 140 Premier League soccer matches, and full Ryder Cup coverage.
There is potential for NBC to pull content from their regional NBC sports affiliates, but it is unknown at this time whether this will actually happen. NBC and NBC Sports have a plethora of live sports contracts including the NFL, MLS, MLB, NHL, among others.
Peacock’s platform is the most viable for WWE’s PPV rights, as it benefits both sides. If WWE looks to sell content rights to NBC, look for it to be much larger than just PPV events.
Fox Sports PPV
One interest for WWE might be Fox Sports, which is owned by Disney following the acquisition in early 2019. While the discussion was already made for Disney, Fox Sports does have the Fox Sports App which streams live sports coverage of the NFL, MLB, NCAA FB, Nascar, and the NBA. As well as regional sports with their affiliates. Oh, and they hold network rights to WWE Smackdown and WWE Backstage on FS1.
But why Fox Sports? After a $1 billion, 5-year purchase, for the rights of WWE Smackdown, we can assume Fox would want to be a part of any discussions for exclusive WWE content. And WWE will certainly want to be part of a similar deal if money is anywhere near Smackdown’s rights.