Meltzer's long write up on the Network:
The entire economic future of World Wrestling Entertainment will change in 2014, with the development of the new digital network and television rights fees negotiations both domestically and abroad.
It’s the former that is getting all the publicity this week, but it’s the latter that is, certainly short-term, the key to the company financially. It’s the rights fees that are the hedge in case the network doesn’t meet projections.
The WWE had an elaborate announcement party to announce the launch of the network on 1/8 in Las Vegas, hosted by Michael Cole, with presentations from company executives Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, Michelle Wilson, Paul Levesque and Perkins Miller along with talent Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin and John Cena, along with Major League Baseball’s Bob Bowman.
The presentation, carried live on the company’s web site, came from the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, and garnered the company tremendous publicity as part of the CES convention, with the idea that they are the company ahead of their time. In reality, both the NBA and Major League Baseball have already pioneered a streaming service, baseball going back a decade, and UFC just launched a less elaborate network less than two weeks earlier. WWE’s is different in the sense a pioneer in that none of those services were as much of a gamble to the core business, and it is also programming the digital network as if it is a television station, with a 24 hour, seven day per week schedule. The rest produced programming and events that were televised elsewhere and also streamed for those who couldn’t access them otherwise. WWE is actually putting a full-time television channel on the Internet.
The WWE Network, which debuts with a one week free trial on 2/24, will be a $9.99 monthly service, although the minimum subscription term is six months at $59.94, starting in March. There is no ordering the channel in April, getting WrestleMania, and then canceling. After the first six months, all subscriptions will remain for a six month minimum turn at $59.94 unless there is a price raise at that point. In comparison to UFC Fight Pass, announced in a far more low key way on 12/28, a few miles down the road at the MGM Grand Garden Arena’s press room, a service that allows fans to see all the UFC events that are not on television or PPV, and which is believed to allow month-to-month purchases, that is essentially aimed at the fan who wants to see every event.
The WWE Network is aimed at every fan, both current and even those who no longer watch the product. And their optimistic projections for subscriptions show it.
The UFC Fight Pass is projecting 100,000 subscribers at $9.99 per month, worldwide by the end of 2014. The WWE Network is projecting between 1 million and 2 million subscribers in the United States (the 50 states and Puerto Rico, the only places it will be launched at first) by the end of 2014. They project in the U.S. alone, they will have 2 million to 3 million subscribers by the end of 2015.
Even at those lofty numbers, between the start-up costs and the cannibalization of PPV, a WWE SEC filing stated that the company was expecting profits to be lower this year than last year.
“We expect the network will reduce OIBDA and net income in 2014 as the initial ramp in subscribers and revenue is not likely to be sufficient to offset both the foregone pay-per-view revenue and the incremental, direct expenses associated with a network launch, such as programming, marketing, customer service and content delivery costs,” wrote WWE’s Chief Financial Officer George Barrios.
Long-term, based on the U.S. market, they project in 2015, when there are no longer the start-up costs, that the network would break even with 1 million subscribers, earn $50 million in OIBDA (pre-tax profits) with 2 million subscribers, and earn $150 million in OIBDA with 3 million subscribers.
They are projecting that the network will, in the U.S., cannibalize about $60 million annually in money that had previously been taken in, largely in PPV and DVD revenue. They expect another $15 million annually in cannibalization of those revenue streams for 2015 when the network expands internationally. The costs per year right now are budgeted at $65 million, of which about $20 million is earmarked for programming.
Essentially, for 2015, they need $140 million in revenue to the company to break even. While that would figure to be 1,167,000 on a worldwide basis, because of splits in revenues, depending on what percentage use outside streaming devices, it would really be a number somewhere between 1.17 million and 1.67 million worldwide subscribers
The plan is to launch the network outside the U.S., in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Nordic countries in Europe, either at the end of 2014 or early 2015.
After the initial launch, they are projecting with 250,000 subscribers outside the U.S., they can break even on international revenue. With 750,000 subscribers internationally, they can hit $25 million in new OIBDA and with 1,500,000 subscribers internationally, they can hit $85 million in new OIBDA.
Are those numbers viable? Many have jumped on the bandwagon to say, at $9.99 with all that content available, they’ll hit the goals easily. Others who have studied the concept and marketplace, have projected not being able to come close to those numbers. The truth is, nobody will have a clue because this has always been a shot in the dark. The only comparison is with Major League Baseball’s network. Given MLB.tv has 3 million worldwide subscribers, and baseball is far more popular than WWE, that would make the 3 million figure seem optimistic, but break-even numbers wouldn’t appear to be out of reach. Others, using research that shows the number of people who watch Raw, the number of homes that have Internet, and the percentage which at this point have already shown the proclivity to pay for a streaming service, have estimated numbers nowhere close to the needed mark.
Even so, it’s a shot that’s worth taking because the potential rewards are worth the gamble. And with the expected increases in television rights fees that, if achieved, would kick in during the fall, it’s a risk the company will be able to financially withstand. But it is not a sure-fire success. The claim is that it’s the direction chosen because it’s the best direction. In the long-run, it was, because there was no truly viable alternative for the network. Putting most of the PPVs for free was an interesting play, but the original plans called for leaving the big PPVs off the network. Later it was every show but WrestleMania. Then it was WrestleMania on this year but not next year. Based on everything said, the network will carry even WrestleMania every year going forward.
Attempts to launch it as a television station didn’t garner as much interest as they had hoped for, nor was there the enthusiasm by the cable companies as far as adding a WWE network as a premium channel.
In the United States, there are 98 million homes that have cable. With football season over, now in wrestling’s strongest television period of the year, this past week there were about 3 million homes that watched Raw for free, and 1.9 million that watched Smackdown for free, many of which are duplicated.
There are 88 million homes that have Internet, less than the number who have cable. In some of those homes, the quality of the Internet may not be good enough or reliable enough for streaming. The vast majority of those homes do not pay money for any streaming content. Netflix, with 30 million subscribers has grown enough and paved the way in opening up a large customer base, has shown at least one-third of those homes are not adverse to paying for streaming content. WWE officials admitted that a year ago they would not have even considered this approach, but the success of Netflix opened the doors for it.
On a percentage basis, Monday’s Raw did a 3.11 rating among people willing to watch a show that has 20 plus years of being on Monday, for free. Are 1.1 percent of the people who have Internet in the United States willing to pay $9.99 to watch more pro wrestling when they already can see six hours of new WWE programming and two hours of TNA for free each week already? Relatively few even bother to watch TNA or Main Event. To hit two million, you would need more total sign-ups than homes that watch Smackdown for free, even though cable homes exceed Internet homes. To hit three million, you’d need the same amount of homes that watch Raw, even with a smaller total universe where people would have the devices necessary to view it.
Major League Baseball’s streaming service reportedly has 3 million subscribers, at $18.50 to $19.99 per month. That’s encouraging in the sense another sport has done it and shown there is absolutely potential already shown that you can get seven figures of homes with a service like this. Baseball is more popular than wrestling, but WWE is plenty popular, is charging half the price, and will market it like crazy. Hulu Plus has 5 million subscribers.
But WWE does have a significant loyal audience. There is the argument that if they can get 600,000 U.S. homes to purchase WrestleMania, the majority of those at $69.95, in theory, 1 million at $9.99 would seem easy. But 2 million? Nobody knows. And WrestleMania is a unique attraction. Aside from WrestleMania and Royal Rumble, WWE didn’t have a PPV show in 2013 that attracted more than 180,000 homes purchasing in the United States, and Survivor Series in the U.S. looks to have done less than half that. The question becomes whether 20 to 30 times as many homes that ordered Survivor Series at mostly $54.95, would have paid $9.99 to see it. The question is also how many fans from the past are willing to subscribe to a service to be able to stream, at their convenience, PPV content from 1985 to the present.
WWE has wanted its own channel since 2000 when, at the peak of their mainstream popularity, they were turned down in an attempt to get the then-Sci Fi Channel rebranded as their own WWF Network. After popularity nosedived just five years later, the idea of the network came because of how limited the interest was in the television product from cable stations in 2005. After attempting to get a bidding war going with the major cable stations, they were forced to take a television deal with the USA Network far less lucrative in the big picture than their previous deal with Spike TV due to limited interest in the product.
Today, things are different. While ratings are down from 2005, the value of reliable programming that is DVR-proof, as both Raw and Smackdown largely are, is seen as far more valuable within television.
The network has strong momentum because if you are willing to pay for pro wrestling content, the value when it comes to cost is very strong if one is any kind of a significant wrestling fan.
There will be about 1,500 hours of content on the network at the start, a number that will grow over time.
The network will have two distinctive services. The first will be a streaming programmed 24 hour channel offering the current television shows, network exclusive programming, and archived footage from the company’s library of 100,000 hours.
The key programming available besides the monthly big shows on Sundays that used to be PPV shows, will be 30 minute live pre-and-post-game shows before both Raw and Smackdown on Monday and Friday nights, along with NXT, Superstars as well as replays of that week’s Raw (while never said, based on the contract with the USA Network, we were told it would be a 90 minute edited version of the show but that hasn’t been made official), Smackdown and Main Event, as well as Total Divas during its season.
The first series exclusives will be Legends House, a show taped years ago where WWE stars from the past like Roddy Piper, Gene Okerlund, Pat Patterson, Howard Finkel, Jimmy Hart, Jim Duggan and others shared a house together. Based on the previews, this did not look promising. When the network got delayed for so many years, attempts to sell it to television never worked out. A second announced original series will be WrestleMania Rewind, where each WrestleMania will be covered featuring interviews with the stars talking about their feelings on the show, along with never-before-seen footage from the shows.
A third is WWE Countdown, a show where each week there will be a topic, like Best Talker, Best Match, Best Entrance Music, Best whatever, and fans will vote on them.
A fourth is The Monday Night War, a continuing series with comments from the participants and airing footage of Raw and Nitro shows between late 1995 and early 2001.
Plans are also for a daily studio talk show, perhaps starting by the summer.
Another unique feature is you can push a button and pick your favorite program and you will get an automatic text sent to you just before the show is scheduled to air.
There will be roughly five to ten hours of archived television shows per week on the network, similar to Classics on Demand.
Numerous other ideas are being talked about since Legends House, the Countdown show and WrestleMania Rewind have limited numbers of shows they can produce. Other ideas include a “Where are they now?” type of show, as well as reviving Tough Enough.
Besides the live stream is a video-on-demand service which will feature all shows that appear on the regular stream, which you can watch when you want, start from the beginning, middle or whatever.
Also available on-demand will be every PPV show from WWF/E, WCW and ECW, which would be roughly 411 shows (279 from WWF/E if the 1999 Over the Edge show where Owen Hart passed away is included as that show has never been released after the original airing), 111 from WCW and 21 from ECW).
In addition, every DVD release will be available. There will also be rotating programming from the company’s vast library, mostly television shows concentrating on old episodes of WWF/E, WCW and ECW programming, which they clearly from the presentation, believed to have the most value to the current audience, and to bring back fans in the late 90s when pro wrestling hit a peak of mainstream popularity.
The historical footage will air mostly uncut. Controversial characters that WWE shied away from putting on DVD releases like Chris Benoit or Mel Phillips will appear, although there will be warnings on shows involving Benoit, or on shows where some of the footage would appear to be controversial, whether due to extreme blood, violence or bad taste.
Commentary by Jesse Ventura, also edited out of a lot of DVD footage over royalty issues, will air as it first appeared, as well as ring announcements by Gary Michael Cappetta, which, for legal reasons, were also edited out of prior releases. Music is a more touchy issue. Perkins Miller of WWE told us it’s a case-by-case basis, particularly when it comes to 80s pro wrestling when a lot of the hit music of the times was used as entrance music. There will be parental controls available for content that is not considered TV-PG.
For people who think you can have access to the entire library, that is not close to the case. Only about 1.5% of the library will be accessible, and very little of it will be old territorial footage. And while they will add new content weekly, they will also remove content.
The highlights of what will be offered are the monthly big shows, which up to this point have been called PPVs. The first show of this type offered will be WrestleMania. That’s the real gamble. Last year WrestleMania on PPV in the United States alone generated approximately $20 million in company revenue and the audience showed it was willing to pay $69.95 for the most part for the show. There is no question that putting WrestleMania on the network is the big hook where you are almost guaranteed several hundred thousand subscribers by the 4/7 date of the show. In doing so, it’s likely to be a huge loss leader. They would need a huge number, impossible to directly say but well over 2 million and perhaps as many as 3 million subscribers in the month of April, to offset the revenue they would lose if the show isn’t on PPV in the United States.
Of course, that in and of itself is tricky. WWE plans to offer traditional PPV for WrestleMania, and every succeeding PPV, while readily acknowledging the numbers of orders will likely decline greatly as subscribers opt for the $9.99 per month charge instead of $44.95 for SD or $54.95 for HD for the standard monthly show, and $59.95 for SD and $69.95 for HD for WrestleMania.
The question is, will cable companies continue to carry WWE shows. On the surface, this seems like a no brainer. Obviously, there are going to be people who aren’t comfortable with trusting a stream, that may want to order PPV the traditional way. Even with the $9.99 per month network, far more people will opt to order WWE PPV shows through traditional means, than TNA’s live PPV shows, which is carried everywhere. A lot of people want to make projections on how many will still order PPV the traditional way vs. how many will stream it for the lower price. But it’s all totally uncharted water. WWE has done extensive customer surveys. But historically, and we’ve learned this but so has every other company over time, doing surveys on a regular basis, that what people say they will buy in a survey and what they will actually do are often very different. When it comes to purchases of wrestling related events, surveys a very days apart will often yield completely different results.
But it’s safe to say several hundred thousand homes in the U.S. would like to order WrestleMania this year by traditional PPV means if it was made available to them.
But this puts DirecTV, Dish and inDemand in a quandary. The contracts for PPV shows through traditional means don’t allow the promotion to undercut the PPV price on the Internet. The promotion can put the show on Internet PPV, as WWE and UFC do every month, but it has to charge the same price as television. Obviously, a new deal will have to be signed with WWE, since they are very much undercutting the PPV price.
If they allow WWE, which is a distant third in the U.S. PPV market to undercut the price by that great a degree and still air the shows, what kind of leverage will it give UFC and boxing, which are far more valuable to the companies.
In 2013, WWE did a total of 2.1 million PPV buys in the United States. UFC did about 5 million. Boxing did roughly the same.
If they still broadcast WWE events, while WWE only charges $9.99 per month on the Internet for them, how can they possibly stop UFC or boxing from undercutting the price as well? Let’s just say, in theory, that the UFC averaged $26 in revenue from a $44.95/$54.95 show (most UFC orders these days are HD orders, which again shows that the majority of viewers have no qualms about price because they have the option and most choose the most expensive option). Let’s just say they decide to take the same show and offer it on their web site for $40. Well, of that $40, they keep most of the $40 instead of only getting half. The lower price encourages people to save money and order it on the Internet. The more people who switch, the more money UFC gets while the cable companies on those lower priced orders go from $26 average per order to $0 on the viewers who switched over. The same holds true for boxing.
Is it worth it to those companies to give up the power over the clients they make big money with to keep whatever buys are left from the distant No. 3 group whose numbers are going to dwindle this year, and eventually down to very little? But the argument may be that PPV through television is a dying industry and that in a few years, everyone will order directly from the promotion instead of the cable company. If that’s the case, the cable companies need to understand that and just make all the money short-term they can before that revenue stream dries up.
Even though WWE’s plans were written about here and in other trade journals for weeks, many in the cable industry had no idea that the PPVs were going to be put on the network. Many companies found out the day of launch. A few others found out about a week earlier when one of the other PPV producers informed them of the rumors that were going on in the wrestling business.
The day after the announcement, DirecTV released a statement saying, “Clearly we need to reevaluate the economics and viability of their business with us, as it now appears the WWE feels they do not need their PPV distributors.”
This shot may have been aimed at WWE due to a quote from Michelle Wilson, the WWE’s Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer, who said to the Associated Press, “I’m just not convinced the pay-per-view platform is in it for the long term. It’s not the best consumer experience.”
DirecTV stated that WWE’s popularity on PPV, “has been steadily declining, and this new low-cost competitive offering will only accelerate this trend.”
No other providers have given statements on the record, but reports were that Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, was not happy with the idea that the satellite and PPV companies will be out as much as $60 million in total revenue over the course of a year. Many suspected this would not help WWE get the rights increase at the same time they were pulling millions off the books of the company they are trying to get the increase from. However, if WWE can get other suitors, whether it be FOX or Viacom, interested in their television package, the price for the television package that is a ratings juggernaut is going to rise significantly just based on the laws of supply-and-demand. It was said that WWE pushed to them that a significant percentage of their television audience is over the age of 50, and a lot of them will continue to order PPVs the way they always have.
What is notable is that the lapsed fan they are hoping to re-engage by offering the older historical tapes will, in theory, be the most adverse to signing up because of age. But that’s not the case with people who grew up watching the 1998-2001 boom period, which will be focused on strongly when it comes to archived offerings. They have pushed to the USA Network that they expect Raw and Smackdown ratings to increase with the idea the network will make the brand overall more popular, with the idea the network will bring older fans back to relive the wrestling of their youth, and in doing so, will be exposed to the modern product and regain interest. That’s a wait-and-see, because there are far too many moving parts in place to even estimate that. With many people, wrestling was a phase in their lives that they are past, and are not interested in reliving it anymore than they would be interested in rewatching old NFL games from the late 90s. With others, changes in the product are the reason they no longer watch the modern product. Unlike baseball, football, or basketball, where the game itself looks largely the same as it did 40 years ago, the entire lure and presentation of modern pro wrestling is completely different from prior eras.
Major League Baseball Advanced Media will be the streaming partner. They work with, obviously, Major League Baseball as well as Sony, and have streamed 20,000 live events. They are considered the state-of-the-art when it comes to this service. Most people who have subscribed to their service have nothing but good things to say, but there are exceptions.
The content can be streamed though the WWE web site app on virtually every device possible, including Amazon’s Kindle Fire devices, Android devices such as Samsung Galaxy, iOS mobile devices such as Apple iPad and iPhone, Roku streaming devices, Xbox 360, PS 3 and PS 4 and Roku boxes. It will also start this summer being available on Xbox 1 and some Smart TVs, as well as Apple TV.
The revenue split on working with those groups will be about 70/30 in WWE’s favor instead of the 50/50 split with the cable companies. If people stream directly from WWE, there is no revenue split.
To avoid confusion in the marketplace, there will be no sign-ups allowed until 2/24 at 9 a.m, a Monday morning. This is largely to avoid problems because the Elimination Chamber PPV, held the night before, will not be offered on the network. The network will debut, for free, at 11:06 p.m. that night, for a one week tryout. Raw will be strongly pushing the network every week, but the 2/24 show is expected to have nothing but network promotion.
The first live special, held during the free tryout week, will be a Thursday night special on 2/27, an NXT show from Full Sail University in Winter Park, FL, where the show regularly tapes.
The top two matches will be Bo Dallas vs. Adrian Neville in a ladder match for the NXT title and Antonio Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn in a 2/3 fall match in a rematch of what may have been NXT’s best match this year. The impression I was given was it would be a live show from 9-11 p.m., head-to-head with TNA, and produced like it was a PPV but using almost all developmental talent. They will either do a regular NXT TV taping for the weekly show either before the special or the next day. The time slot is at this point not official. If it goes well, the plan would be to do a second network exclusive live NXT special later in the year.
Like with free trials of Netflix, as well as the current free period of the UFC Fight Pass, it’s expected one will have to register with their credit card for the free trial week, and then cancel or they will start getting billed the monthly fee for six months.
Other questions remain unanswered. The increase in TV rights and subscription fees, which are brand related, as opposed to PPV buys and live attendance, which are far more star related, reduces the leverage and power of the stars. One performer noted to us that if the network is successful, any attempts at collective bargaining are dead, although in reality they weren’t going to happen anyway.
There will be some advertising on the network, but they are not counting on significant ad revenue and have stated they want as little ad clutter as possible.
If WrestleMania is not on PPV, and the top stars at Mania have in the past received hundreds of thousands of dollars based on PPV revenue, will this change things? Are there going to be royalties based on network numbers to replace the lost PPV bonuses and perhaps dwindling DVD commissions? That would add to break-even, but none of this had been addressed to talent at press time. A few would talk privately to us about it, but I was told at the TVs this week, nobody was bringing it up because the television portrayal of talent being afraid to cross authority is a shoot in real life. It’s a very different marketplace where there is little in the way of alternatives and the value of stars is less than at any time in pro wrestling history.
Does this remove the incentive to promote PPVs as big because they are not going to be close to the revenue stream they were? Does this remove the incentive to pay big money for people like Dwayne Johnson or Brock Lesnar? In theory yes, but there are no answers because nobody knows how well this will do.
What if these projections don’t hold up and they don’t break even? Is there any turning back and being able to put 12 shows a year back on PPV after establishing their value at $9.99, and then getting people to go back to paying more than five times as much for it? The battles between creating an incredible bargain and devaluing the former monthly PPV shows will be something to look back on. TNA, in a sense, pioneered this inadvertently, in taking all but its big four events from the PPV stage to putting them on Spike TV for free. The reality is they had little value on the PPV market which is why the move was made, and they have even less value now. WWE’s non big-three events, maybe big four including Elimination Chamber (calling Survivor Series big four is being years out of touch) still had considerable value. The others had in a sense been devalued by three hour Raws, and lack of creation of big stars who were true money draws and creating money drawing angles, all of which the current trends worked against. Really, moving them to this network wasn’t exactly the same as the economically forced TNA move, but it wasn’t that big a risk. The move of Mania was another story, taking the brand name built and sacrificing its economic potential to build this network. That’s the risk play here, because they’ve taken the one day of the year with extreme value, and have greatly risked that value by underpricing it.
The key people watching this will be UFC and boxing. If WWE’s network built largely around the PPV shows can generate more money than either of those genres generate from PPV, with big shows with far more consumer power, it would indicate they could learn from WWE’s trial and error on both what to do and what not to do. When all is said and done, the WWE network will probably, like WWE itself, go through a series of phases and changes, whether successful at first or not. Their newer fan base isn’t the slightest bit resistant to purchasing a streaming network.
All programming except the PPVs will only be offered in English. The PPVs will be offered in English or Spanish.