It is hardly the first trip to the Madison Avenue ring for the wrestling circuit. But compared with 2019, the last time the upfronts were held in person, the WWE will be point to even more evidence of its stature as a sponsor magnet engineered for the streaming era.
At NBCU’s presentation to advertisers at Radio City Music Hall on Monday morning, WWE Raw Women’s Champion Bianca Belair and WWE superstar The Miz are both slated to speak. At Fox’s afternoon event at Skylight on Vesey, Universal/WWE Champion Roman Reigns and WWE superstar Charlotte Flair will be two of the five Fox Sports figures in attendance.
The activity follows the company’s strong quarterly financial report earlier this month, which showed a 27% upswing in total revenue as live events returned after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. The WWE’s 2021 licensing deal with Peacock, which integrated programming from the stand-alone WWE Network into NBCU’s service, is also showing signs of traction. While NBCU and parent Comcast keep most of the data close to the vest, WWE execs said 38th edition of their flagship WrestleMania event last month saw a 61% increase in viewership compared with 2021 and was Peacock’s second-most-watched live event after Super Bowl LVI. During WrestleMania weekend, one-third of all Peacock accounts (which would be more than 9 million based on Comcast’s latest tally of 28 million overall) watched WWE content.
WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon told Deadline in an interview that the company’s trademark blend of sports and entertainment offers distinct advantages. “It really is both,” she said. “It’s like athletic theater. It’s the story, that’s why you care …. You’re swept up in the storylines. We can script the buzzer-beater moments, we can script the Hail Marys. We have a leg up on sports. … You may object to what we do, but you’re never going to be bored.”
The Peacock presence builds on decades of chart-topping TV ratings and a 52-week-a-year reliability, a rare combination in a world of secular decline and cord-cutting. NBCU and the WWE first reached a pact in 1993 for Monday Night Raw on USA Network.
In 2019, SmackDown came to Fox in a five-year deal reportedly worth more than $1 billion, while Raw re-upped at USA. The deals for the longest-running cable shows in primetime represented a nearly fourfold increase in rights fees compared with the prior contract, according to WWE.
Telecasts of the Super Bowl are likely to get call-outs during the upfronts. NBCU has shifted the WWE to its sports division as far as sales, a move that gave it extra incentive to promote WrestleMania during last February’s Super Bowl. Fox will air the next Super Bowl in February and is likely to shine a light on its Friday night ratings juggernaut and implement other integrations of WWE talent.
One scripted project in the works involves both WWE media partners. Fox Sports personality Tom Rinaldi, who is familiar to viewers for his many high-profile interviews at major sporting events, is executive producer of scripted drama series Pinned, a behind-the-scenes show about a fictional wrestling promotion. NBCU is developing it, with CSI: Vegas and MacGyver vet Craig O’Neill on board to write.
McMahon said the company has never looked back after deciding to exit the owned-and-operated streaming game and join Peacock. “We were ahead of the curve when we launched WWE Network, and we were slightly ahead of the curve when we decided to license our content,” she said. “As we’re seeing with Netflix and Disney, it’s not an easy business … Content is really king.”
In terms of luring brands, McMahon said the company thrives by being “both in the sports live action business and the scripted entertainment business. People say, ‘Oh, you have to be defined in one bucket or another.’ … But think about ESPN, what does that first letter stand for? Entertainment.”
In addition to traditional ad inventory, pulling off integrations comes more naturally given that hybrid status, McMahon maintained.
“Whenever you watch a game, it’s too cluttered,” she said of general sports broadcasts. “WWE is able to delver differently.”
She cited a partnership with Netflix for 2021 movie release Army of the Dead. “We had zombies surrounding the ring,” she said, in a twist on what is known as a “lumberjack” match, in which wrestlers surround the ring on the outside in order to prevent escapes by the opponent. “Zombies were walking around randomly, it was pretty great,” she said. Similar stunts have been done for Pizza Hut and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, sometimes even trending on social media.
Unlike pro sports leagues, the WWE is structured in a way that favors streamlined dealmaking with sponsors, McMahon said. No players unions, team owners, stadium authorities or agents needing to sign off on activations — instead, a “one-stop shop” available for creative executions. “We own all of the IP,” she said. “When brands deal with us, they just deal with us. We create something together.”