World Wrestling Entertainment held their annual Wrestlemania show last weekend in Northern California, the culmination of another year's worth of spectacle. According to the company, it was their highest grossing event of all-time, drawing $12.6 million, with an official attendance placing it fifth on their list of all-time crowds for the event. The show was headlined by former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar going up against up-and-coming star (and a relative of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) Roman Reigns.
It comes at a time when the company has embarked on a new way of making money: their over-the-top online programming provider, the WWE Network, where fans can pay $9.99 a month to see programming including what formerly used to cost $45 for most shows and $60 for Wrestlemania. They're one year in now on gambling that enough fans will want the Network that it will ultimately make them more money in the long-term, despite losing that pay-per-view revenue. Wall Street doesn't appear to be buying it — after announcing the day after Wrestlemania that they'd hit 1.3 million subscribers, WWE's stock took a significant loss.
"The point is not whether it's real or if it's staged. The point is, are you entertained by it, or not?" former WWE announcer Jim Ross told KPCC in an interview. WWE is looking for more fans to be entertained enough to plunk down $9.99 for all the pro wrestling content they want.
They're also in a transitional period with their audiences. They've launched a new show that's only on the Network called "NXT," turning their minor league into a program targeting hardcore pro wrestling fans with a different style of show than the more family-targeted "Raw" and "Smackdown." It's also where they groom potential future stars, many of whom seem to break the mold of some of the traditional stars on WWE's main roster.
They're signing up talent that's been getting buzz on the independent circuits, trying to create their own underground movement that hopefully spells money, and taking the NXT brand on tour for the first time. On the Raw after Wrestlemania, several NXT stars made their debut on the main roster. That follows a sell-out crowd (albeit at a smaller 5,000 seat venue) on the Friday night before Wrestlemania for a non-televised NXT show.
Give Divas a chance
WWE also faces cultural forces pushing them in new directions, including a difference in how society deals with gender. When WWE executive Stephanie McMahon, daughter of the famed Vince McMahon, tweeted in support of Patricia Arquette's speech calling for greater equality for women at the Academy Awards, one of their own wrestlers, AJ Lee, responded by publicly calling Stephanie McMahon out on Twitter for not promoting the women in her own company equally and paying them less than the male stars.
Of course, the women in the company aren't given the same prominence as the men in part because it's felt that they won't make the company as much money. Still, it forced WWE's hand and Stephanie McMahon and the company as a whole publicly embraced the idea of giving the women (who WWE brands as "divas") a chance with the Give Divas A Chance movement (and accompanying trending hashtag).
The women have been promoted nearly equal to the men in that underground NXT league, but only time will tell if it continues to trickle upward. Wrestlemania didn't seem to show huge promise of that happening, with the one women's match of the show only getting a few minutes in the ring. However, the show also included a high-profile storyline with UFC female fighter and champion Ronda Rousey alongside the Rock, going up against Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, so there appears to be the room for women in prominent positions when they have the right storyline.
Whether WWE is able to wade through these forces of change to make more money — and perhaps regain some of the cultural currency that they've lost since becoming a monopoly and purchasing their top competition in 2001 — remains to be seen. They've stayed relatively steady despite a challenge from UFC, which many see as being what pro wrestling would be like if WWE didn't present fictional They'll have to hope that giving new stars, including "divas," a chance will take them to another level.