World Wrestling Entertainment’s third-quarter earnings conference call proves that the company has to make a pivot to their product. WWE had a net gain of 31,000 subscribers, but 286,000 of the total subscribers are new. The 4% increase is still a positive, but the issue behind that increase is a serious lack of retention. To regain lost subscribers and/or retain current subscribers, WWE must change their product and make the network more of a network as opposed to a library.
WWE has stamped itself as sports-entertainment with the emphasis in recent years being an entertainment. Obviously, since the outcomes are predetermined, entertaining characters and storylines cannot disappear from the product. Recently, the storylines in WWE have lacked long-term planning, logic, intrigue, continuity and relevance. WWE’s Attitude Era will not be returning due to its PG television rating and handcuffing by sponsor sensitivity.
The company needs to pivot more to the sports aspect of the product. Though competition and combat are simulated, the “combatants”, commentators and corporation need to sell competition to the audience.
- “Combatants”: The wrestlers need to stop wearing neon fabric/shiny fabric tights with exorbitant logos. Their in-ring attire needs to match the character and look like something a modern-day athlete would wear. If a degree of flamboyance is needed, then take a page from what Nike had done with college football uniforms and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks’ jerseys. The aforementioned athletic attire is sleek, simplified yet modern. This style can be adapted to trunks, singlets and pants. John Cena can wear long dark cargo shorts with a dark cross trainer or high-top tennis shoes. Their microphone time needs to be more about being better and being the champion with some serious competitive fire, than being the “face” and/or “future” of WWE. The top athletes are more concerned about taking the crown in their respective, not being a poster-child. A wrestler not only needs to say he/she is better, but say why he/she is better (see UFC Countdown interviews).
- Commentators: The Monday Night Raw announce team consists of three veterans; Michael Cole, Jerry Lawler and John Bradshaw Layfield (JBL). Cole can provide the emotion, psychology and background of the match being called. Lawler and JBL are both retired wrestlers. Lawler can be a hybrid between discussing the story of the match and describing the significance of wrestling maneuvers. JBL can discuss the damage of maneuvers, an opponent can defend like UFC commentators and what strategies a wrestler can use to defeat his/her opponent. Whoever is instructing them to plug their network, their app, hashtags and other things not relevant to the in-ring action needs to stop.
- Corporation: There layers to the corporation improving the product long-term. WWE Chairman Vince McMahon is a master-manipulator with words being used on television. He needs to manipulate the audience into thinking that the top spot is determined by who is the champion. Competition never dies, just look at the sports with exciting competition with a degree of showmanship. McMahon needs to have a talk with his clothing design department and add some kid-friendly yet modern T-shirts that an adult would be proud to wear at any time. The merchandise on WWE’s website is strictly designed for kids to wear in public, not adults. Even though wrestling is not as popular as it once was in the late 1990s, it can still be a respectable entity in the realm of clothing and apparel. T-shirts designs must mimic that of mixed martial arts shorts or NFL concept T-shirts. And they need to branch off and add fully functioning workout gear. Workout gear would include, but is not limited to nylon shorts, compression shorts, shin guards and variations of Under Armor like shirts, tights and protective gear small logo placement. This will diversify merchandise and show that young and full-grown adults are an important demographic to WWE.
As for the WWE Network, it needs a lot of work on the existing content and production side. This will be crucial as the network continues to roll out into foreign markets.
- Existing content: Whenever there is a holiday, noteworthy special event (i.e. SummerSlam, WrestleMania, Royal Rumble, etc.), moment in history or a historical figure’s birthday, the post-production staff needs to put together video packages to feature. They can be better matches in full, moments or even promos, even if a full documentary is not feasible to shoot. Also, the video library of special events needs to be kept up to date.
- Production: If WWE pivots to the sports side, it will be wise to produce a weekly video podcast akin to ESPN’s First Take or Mike & Mike in the Morning. Strictly talk, reviewing Raw, NXT and maybe Smackdown. The reviews are still in the storyline. It can discuss matches, finishes, improvements wrestlers need to make in the storyline, injuries in the storyline, in-ring strategies and predictions. The show should be two hours, air live and on-demand on the network, featured as a podcast on the WWE App and have certain video clips on their YouTube channel. They can produce the show at the corporate offices with all the space left over from the massive layoffs. WWE needs to also add training features and vignettes on the network leading up to special events and matches. Not every video has to fit into a half-hour or an hour. Short-form videos work well online. The matches need to feel special to the audience or they will not care to watch or pay a subscription.
WWE may not regain its late 1990s popularity, but it can do a lot better in terms of appealing to a broader audience. Pivoting to competition opens the door for more subscribers, retains long-term interest from fans, sells more merchandise and most importantly to McMahon, shareholders and sponsors keeps the product PG. WWE needs to start this shift immediately or no later than the end of the fourth quarter.