Editor’s note: David “The Masked Man” Shoemaker (Grantland’s wrestling guru) and Bill Simmons (35-year wrestling fan) spent the past 10 days digesting the new WWE Network, which launched on February 24 and caused a multimedia riot in the wrestling community. Is this one of the great moments in WWE history? Could you say Vince McMahon stumbled into a blueprint for a new and improved media rights model, as well as a more sophisticated way for the sport to reach its fans? Our boys decided to break it down.
Q: What did you guys THINK this network was going to be?
Simmons: I always imagined the WWE Network becoming available on DirecTV and/or cable, then flicking over to Channel 259 (or whatever) and being delighted to find some random 1980 Texas Death Match between Bob Backlund and Ken Patera. I also assumed it would feature every new pay-per-view, the Raw/Smackdown pregame and postgame shows, reruns of every show WWE has produced and pay-per-views from the past 40 years, and maybe three or four “new” shows that would definitely suck. By the way … what I just described would have been an AWESOME channel. I never saw the Internet-only thing coming.
Shoemaker: Considering it was initially supposed to be an over-the-air broadcast network, I thought it was going to be sort of insufferable. A never-ending stream of mediocre reality television to try to attract mainstream attention with old pay-per-views on late night and hype packages for the current product infiltrating everything — I mean, my life is already full enough of wrestling as it is.
Simmons: The key wrinkle: Wrestling fans were spending about $650 yearly for every pay-per-view (12 in all). That’s a humiliating number for anyone over 30 with a legally sanctioned marriage. I was ordering only the three biggies and that’s it: WrestleMania, SummerSlam and Money in the Bank (the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open of wrestling). But when my son suddenly became a wrestling fanatic last summer, the Simmons House morphed into a 12-PPV family. (I’m not complaining. Guilt-free PPV purchases!) So when the WWE Network announced they were carrying every PPV, I remember being excited to save money there. My expectations for everything else? Definitely low. Not as low as the chances of a good Batista–Triple H match … but low.
Shoemaker: The network seemed too good to be true, and with WWE, we had good reason to suspect it was because they were going to under-deliver. They did not.
Q: Be honest — did you ever think the channel was going to actually happen?
Shoemaker: I have to admit that, no, I didn’t. Or if it did, it would be another flash-in-the-pan Vince McMahon special like the XFL. Or The Wrestling Album. Or No Holds Barred, where his ambition to be more than an ordinary wrestling promoter leads him into a misbegotten punch line.
Simmons: I gave up. When WCW and ECW folded and McMahon bought their wrestling libraries, I thought the WWE Channel was definitely coming. Instead, they started releasing DVD after DVD after DVD after DVD. For years. I actually landed on the distribution list for a while. Every few weeks, suddenly something like The Greatest Steel Cage Matches Ever or Hulkamania: The Complete Collection would arrive in the mail, then my pissed-off wife would hand over the DVD with one of those “I really thought when we got married the whole wrestling thing would go away” frowns. AU CONTRAIRE!
But after watching them crank out the DVD/PPV/Raw/Smackdown routine for years, without ever taking a bigger swing, I just assumed a 24-hour wrestling network was too ambitious, even for Vince. Whoops. I should have known better. He’s the same guy who spent $97 million so his wife could lose two Senate races.
Shoemaker: Never underestimate Vince’s ambition. The way I hear it, he tried to buy G4, then either Speed or Fuel before they became Fox Sports 1 and 2. WWE couldn’t make either one happen. But you’re right about the success of its DVDs, especially when WWE put those same shows on Netflix and had even more success. And their shows were getting traction on Hulu as well. Once that happened, I think they realized a web-based network was a no-brainer.
Simmons: I’m still a little peeved that it took this long. I mean, we have 900 freaking channels at this point. We couldn’t have one wrestling channel? Seriously, how many “I wish there was a WWE channel” conversations did you have with buddies over the years? 100? 200? 500? When Oprah got a channel before Vince, that’s when I started to lose hope.
Shoemaker: I was watching the network today, checking out an old episode of Monday Night Raw — the one with the Ric Flair–Mr. Perfect “Loser Leaves the WWF” match, which is incredibly awesome. (And an amazing throwback. If Randy Orton decided to leave WWE for TNA, they’d have him lose some crappy matches to, like, Santino, and then keep him off TV altogether for two months to kill his momentum.) The best part, though, was before the match, when there was a cutaway to “Mean” Gene Okerlund in a studio setting, going over the results of the previous night’s Royal Rumble, SportsCenter-style. He was wearing a blue sportscoat with a WWF logo sewn on the pocket and he was tanned (or made-up) so darkly that he literally looked like he was in blackface. He closed his segment by saying “Stay tuned to the WWF Network for more updates!”
But there was no WWF Network! It was just a thing Mean Gene said to make everything seem more legit! This was 1993, and now, 21 years later, Vince McMahon’s imaginary wrestling network has finally come to life. Somewhere, Black Mean Gene is proud.
Q: What was your reaction when you found out that the WWE Network was Internet-only?
Simmons: Stunned. Confused. Disappointed. I quickly prepared myself for a ton of glitches, lousy picture quality, a half-assed site and a solid failure that fell somewhere between Tiger Ali Singh and the Gobbledy Gooker.
Shoemaker: Whoa whoa whoa. I loved Tiger Ali Singh. You can’t blame WWE that the other wrestlers called him “Taxi Driver” in the locker room and stuffed his turban with trash. Oh wait, you can? OK! Anyway, my first reaction was that it went counter to WWE’s long-stated objective to expand the fan base and to push ever forward into the mainstream. It sounded like they were turning to the Grateful Dead model, where they’d release a new boxed set every year and depend on the same super-loyal fans to buy it.
Simmons: It helped that those fans were stoned out of their minds and couldn’t remember that they had already bought nine other boxed sets. But keep going.
Shoemaker: What I didn’t take into account: how the network has unmoored wrestling from TVs, and, if only metaphorically, released it from the ghetto of teevee rasslin’. Staying home every Monday night to watch Raw isn’t exactly the coolest thing in the world (trust me), but there’s a certain charm to showing your non-wrestling fan friends insane clips at a bar. Or maybe there isn’t, but whatever. It’s still awesome. And I’m five times as likely to mess around on this network on my iPad than if I were trying to remember Channel 1453 (or whatever it would have been on my cable service).
Q: OK, the channel launched, you signed up, you downloaded the app … what happened next? Can you walk us through the first few minutes as you slowly realized exactly what a monster it was?
Simmons: So, I’m watching Raw with my son while secretly following Mavs-Knicks on my iPad without him noticing. They’re plugging the new WWE Network and he gets fired up. Within five minutes, we download the app and sign up … and it was like, “Whoa!” I remember thinking, So I can watch it on my iPad or my laptop, or through Apple TV, or PlayStation or Xbox, or Roku … wait, THEY SKIPPED THE MIDDLEMAN! No wonder DirecTV and Dish were so pissed! Then I found “The Vault” and the rest was history.
Shoemaker: It’s incredibly user-friendly. Almost too much so. One of the biggest handicaps of the network is that it’s so streamlined and simplified that, from the home screen, you hardly get any idea of the breadth of content at your disposal. But then you start using the search function, and — just, wow.
Simmons: You can look up any wrestler, then find any videos on the network that directly relate to him. And there are hundreds of wrestlers. Click on any wrestler and you’ll find extra matches that aren’t promoted anywhere else: Andre, Don Muraco, Vader, Chris Jericho, any Von Erich, whoever. I assume those hidden gems are lurking because they’re still creating the site and haven’t linked everything up yet, but it’s fun to search for them. So even if they launched six to eight months too soon, that godsend of a library will distract fans as the WWE finishes the network. I can’t decide if it was intentional … or if they screwed up and inadvertently stumbled into a superior game plan. But the library bought them time to get everything right.
Shoemaker: If they launched too early, it’s a good thing. Better to let the technology evolve in real time than try to assume what wrestling fans want. Assuming what we want is what got us Batista.
Simmons: Poor Batista. He’s gonna take a beating in this piece.
Shoemaker: But you’re right — even when you search by “Owen” (for Owen Hart), suddenly all these names that you probably won’t even know pop up: Jack Owens, Owen Strong, Bob Owens. There’s no content associated with these names yet, but if that’s an indication of the kind of archive that’s on the way, I’m ready to watch Bob Owens matches all day. More importantly, you’ll find more Owen Hart matches than you can count. I just clicked on a random one — it’s Owen and the British Bulldog vs. Doug Furnas and Philip Lafon from In Your House 13 in ’97. Furnas and Lafon are two French wrestlers who made the WWF because they were looking for any spark they could find back then. Midway through the match, two guys from Mexico’s Triple-A promotion wander down the aisle, and I’m like, I remember absolutely none of this. And I’m absolutely entranced, and my night is over — there are enough rabbit holes to follow to fill up the next eight hours.
Simmons: I always wanted to live in a world in which “Snuka on Demand” was a possibility. And now, it kind of is.
Q: WWE is charging $9.99 a month for this channel, with a six-month minimum signup. Is that too high, too low or just right?
Shoemaker: It’s just right insomuch as it lures every possible fan into signing up. I had theorized months ago that it would be $14.99 and wouldn’t include the Big Four PPVs. It’s an incredible price at $9.99, even with the six-month commitment, and you get every PPV. You break even from what you would have shelled out just for WrestleMania in four weeks.
Simmons: I would have charged $14.99 a month to start, and even that would have been a deal. This feels too cheap. I feel like I’m stealing money from Vince McMahon, actually. Wait, I’m stealing money from Vince McMahon!!!
Q: Three years from now, what will they be charging for this channel?
Shoemaker: It depends on how many subscribers they have. Word is they’re aiming for a million subscribers by Mania, which may be a little optimistic. Last year’s Mania drew barely over a million buys, but considering the reasonable price point and that 3 million or 4 million people watch Raw every week, it’s not insane. And if they get there, my guess is they’ll be content to have the network be a loss leader for a while, just as long as it gooses merch sales and live ticket sales, and, probably above all, the stock price.
Simmons: If you look at the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB, those leagues are charging anywhere between $150 and $250 for their “league pass” TV subscriptions — and that’s without WWE’s staggering library and the other original programming included here. So I’d guess $19.99 per month. That comes out to about $240 a year. Seems fair. It’s still 43 percent of what the pay-per-views cost in 2013.
Shoemaker: The marketers I know will tell you that the average WWE fan doesn’t have the financial wherewithal of your average NFL fan, so they had to go low to get people in the door. Otherwise, the network may go the way of the XFL — not entirely, since WWE has too much invested in it at this point, but I can definitely imagine a world where it’s $25 a month and it’s targeted only at super-fans, with a huge archive of old video and minimal new content. I think the sweet spot is somewhere in between.
Simmons: The evil genius move would be (a) taking WrestleMania and SummerSlam off the network and selling them as stand-alone pay-per-views, (b) keeping Smackdown for the network but selling the rights to Raw to USA or whomever, and (c) charging $25 for everything else (including the other 10 PPVs). They’d be pulling in a guaranteed $350 a year from everyone who loves wrestling, plus whatever they fetch for Raw. But I can’t see this happening because Vince McMahon isn’t an evil genius. Oh wait, he totally is! I keep forgetting.
Shoemaker: Actually, even though Smackdown is staying on broadcast for now, this is a real possibility down the road. They already turned Main Event into a WWE Network–first show that replays on Ion TV the next day. Think about this as a model — debuting it on your proprietary network and then selling replay rights. It’s basically the deal they have with Hulu, but for an actual network. (Or whatever you want to call Ion.)
Simmons: I’m prepared for anything. Maybe we’ll see WWE sell the exclusive live broadcast to Hulu or Amazon, then the USA Network or Syfy would get the second re-air the next night for a television exclusive, then all subsequent re-airs on the WWE Network. TRIPLE DIP!!!!!
Q: What are your three favorite things about the channel?
Shoemaker: My no. 1 thing — the video quality. When I was writing my book, I watched more wrestling footage than I probably did during the rest of my life put together. Seeing the difference between your average YouTube video and the average network video’s resolution makes me feel like I wrestled a match with a hand tied behind my back.
Simmons: Ditto for me. The resolution difference is massive — it’s nice to see King Kong Bundy balding in WrestleMania 2 so clearly now. By the way, you’re lucky that you had YouTube for your book — in 2007 and 2008, I had to badger NBA Entertainment to cut me DVDs for the Book of Basketball because barely anything was on YouTube yet. I can’t believe how much has changed in six years. Everything is online now.
Shoemaker: My second-favorite thing — minimal scrubbing. With the exception of some blood, cussing and dead murderers, WWE is doing an admirable job of giving us old footage without slanting it into pro-McMahon propaganda.
Simmons: I love when you make Vince sound like a communist dictator from the 1940s. My second favorite thing — I love checking “The Vault” to see if they put up any new pay-per-views show from 30-35 years ago. That’s secretly the most exciting Internet moment of my day. Last weekend, they randomly threw up a 1984 Toronto show that featured an Andre-Kamala steel cage match. Out of nowhere! Are you kidding me? Right now, they only have nine WWF shows up there from the 1970s and 1980s — in nine months, that number might be closer to 90. How am I supposed to work when I never know when they’ll finally be putting up the 1984 MSG card featuring the Slaughter–Iron Sheik Boot Camp Match? I have like 17 jobs, Shoemaker. I didn’t need this distraction.
Shoemaker: My third-favorite thing — the mustaches from the ’70s and ’80s.
Simmons: Ditto. And don’t sleep on the mullets from the ’90s. I’m looking at you, Mike Awesome.
Shoemaker: It never ceases to crack me up that Shawn Michaels and Kevin Nash were growing out their mullets right in front of our eyes on national television during the heights of their popularity. Like, there were months when they had the sides gelled down like nobody would notice. It’s like watching an American Idol contestant learn that sleeveless flannel shirts aren’t as cool as they seemed back home.
Simmons: Maybe that’s what Batista needs to get fans interested in him again — a mullet AND a mustache.
Shoemaker: But not a long, braided Mohawk ponytail?
Simmons: Can we just start booing Batista at WrestleMania now? Boooooo! BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Q: What was your biggest surprise with the channel?
Shoemaker: How little the channel is promoting the next John Cena PPV match. I know that sounds cynical, but as WWE expanded into more of a broadcasting house, they spent more time on fewer and fewer things. The network is a breath of fresh air. Its first big exclusive show was NXT Arrival, for Pete’s sake — the special event of WWE’s farm league. I’m excited to see where it goes, especially for the lower-level guys on the main roster. The network could allow things like Zack Ryder’s YouTube show to find a wider audience and more time to develop. Really, just to be able to launch promo packages for wrestler debuts there — and to see how the fans respond before putting them on Raw — is a great platform in itself.
Simmons: For me, it was how many matches and cards they had transferred to high-quality video already. (Not easy.) And also, how easily the channel transfers to Apple TV. My son already knows how to call it up and either watch the live content or find an old match. It’s just as easy for him to use as Netflix is. In fact, my daughter has already screamed at him more than once, “NO! WE AREN’T WATCHING THE WWE CHANNEL AGAIN! TURN IT OFF!” When your channel is causing an 8½-year-old to routinely berate a 6-year-old, that’s when you know it’s working.
Q: What’s the saddest thing about the channel?
Shoemaker: I’m obligated to say this, I guess, but it’s how many guys are dead. I was watching WrestleMania 6 and it was the saddest procession: Andre, Earthquake, Hercules, Mr. Perfect, Bad News Brown, Sapphire, Randy Savage, Miss Elizabeth, Dino Bravo, Big Boss Man and Rick Rude. You know it’s bad when you’re Googling Nikolai Volkoff and Paul Roma to make sure they’re still working indie shows somewhere.
Simmons: Mine is how boring professional wrestling was before, say, 1978. (That’s right, Brian Koppelman, I said it!) Those 1970s cards are unwatchable for anyone who doesn’t love seeing interminably long headlocks, relentless armbars and fake punches that miss by 9 inches. Flipping that around, the WWE Network’s library made me appreciate how great Snuka, Savage, Santana and Steamboat were — those guys were pioneers who did for wrestling in the 1980s what guys like Julius, ’Nique, Thompson and MJ were doing for hoops. They made the sport vertical. Watch Bruno Sammartino rolling around with Ivan Koloff in 1975, then watch Snuka climb to the top of the cage to leap on Backlund seven years later … it’s like watching two different sports.
You know what else struck me? Those 1970s wrestling crowds were out-of-their-mind bonkers no matter how cumbersome those matches were. You can’t even believe how excited they were — they treated every big match like it was Game 7 of the World Series. Fast-forward to the 14:30 part of this Sammartino-Hansen match from 1976: This is what happens when you don’t have the Internet, video games, computers or cable TV.
Q: Just how much material is buried within the deepest recesses of the WWE Network? Are you still unearthing hidden gems?
Shoemaker: The deepest recesses are the least filled-out part of the network to this point. WWE spent the last two decades buying up the video libraries of nearly every major promotion in the country — WCW and ECW, obviously, but also the territories like WCCW in Texas, AWA in Minneapolis, Florida, Mid-South — getting everything except a few weird cases where rights are disputed and/or film libraries don’t even exist. They’ve done some cool DVDs with them, but those DVDs always seem a little (or a lot) skewed to a specific perspective, and they always leave you wanting more. When I saw the “Legends of Mid-South” DVD, I didn’t finish it eager to see the matches on the other disc. I wanted to see the episodes. I wanted the drama leading up to the big matches. Now there’s a platform for that.
So far, they have two WCCW episodes up, and I devoured them. The more of this stuff they do, the better. Sometimes it seems like WWE is the Death Star, destroying every planet in its path, but (if you’ll pardon the interuniverse metaphor here) I’m sure WWE likes to think of themselves as the Enterprise, careful shepherds and protectors of the universe. It’s time for them to prove it by giving back.
Simmons: Eventually, I believe the WWE Network will carry wrestling’s entire history — anything that’s on videotape, basically. Like the best-organized YouTube channel ever, only with superior video quality and everything vetted for quality. Even now, it’s pretty remarkable that you can click on the “Pay-Per-Views” tab and have access to every WrestleMania, 90 percent of the WWE pay-per-views, a bunch of the WCW and ECW pay-per-views … I mean, on the same day last weekend, I watched the climactic matches in Bash of the Beach ’96 (Hogan joining the nWo) and Survivor Series ’97 (Vince screwing over Bret Hart). Two of the most famous wrestling moments ever. Then, I rewatched 1999’s Mike Awesome–Tanaka ECW match, which was one of my own personal “Holy shit, what the hell is happening???????” matches (it’s just a classic). Having this stuff at the tip of our fingers is just insane.
Shoemaker: Even in what they already have up there, there’s tons of stuff your average wrestling fan hasn’t seen before. Especially considering so many fans are young kids. I mean, before the network, if your son had asked you for a Roddy Piper T-shirt for his birthday, how surprised would you be on a scale of 1 to 10? A 9? Now that the network exists, does it even chart? Imagine all the kids around the world eager to spend their parents’ money. This thing could be a gold mine.
Simmons: I love that you think the Piper T-shirt moment hasn’t happened already.
Q: Which retired wrestling star did you find yourself watching the most as you surfed through the library?
Simmons: I hate to say it because he’s back under scrutiny in an unsolved homicide … but man, I can’t get enough of the old Snuka matches. So ahead of his time. Wrestling is like music — you gravitate toward the people you loved the most when you were 13. Snuka was my first favorite guy. And yes, I’m still pissed that Backlund moved out of the way.
Shoemaker: I’ve been searching out matches by my favorites who are great in-ring workers — Mr. Perfect, Brian Pillman, Owen Hart — but find myself constantly distracted by the crazy gimmicks revolving around them. I might be too proud to actually type “Bastion Booger” into the search bar, but I’m not going to stop watching if he belly flops onto my screen.
Simmons: I feel the same way about every WCW moment from 1998 through 2001. There were like five different incarnations of the nWo! I think you and I were in the nWo at one point. Holy mother of God was that awful. Here’s an idea for the WWE Network: a 12-hour miniseries called 50 Inexplicable Ways That the WCW Ran Itself Into the Ground.
Shoemaker: Vince would love that. You can basically hear him chuckling under the entire audio track for The Rise and Fall of WCW. It seemed a little self-serving at the time, but now, with the network, fans can see how ridiculous it was for themselves.
Q: For Bill only — your 6-year-old son became a massive wrestling freak about eight months ago. No offense to you two losers, but he’s kind of the target audience here. What does HE think of the channel?
Simmons: Loves it. Checks it out every night. For the most part, it’s an extension of everything he was watching on YouTube (packaged in a much savvier way), combined with the live shows and everything else. Calling back Shoemaker’s point from before, I’m always amazed by how much my son learned about wrestling history from YouTube. For instance, when Batista came back to WWE, my son already loved his music and his signature moves. (Although he can’t seem to grasp the part that Batista sucks now. We really need to have a talk soon.) When Hogan showed up for Raw two weeks ago, my son knew his music right away, screamed out “HULK HOGAN!” and practically had a heart attack.
One of the great things about wrestling — it’s not that hard to catch up on the past four decades. So what if my son is going to take eight years to graduate college, or that he’ll probably be living at home until he’s 40? At least I’ll have someone to watch wrestling with.
Q: For Shoemaker only — you wrote a gigantic wrestling book and know more about the history of this business than just about anyone. What does this channel do for that history?
Shoemaker: The effect will be incredible. There’s a weird feeling among many wrestling experts and especially former wrestlers/promoters that everybody either already has a similar knowledge base or else they don’t deserve to know as much. Until now, there’s been a huge bar to enter into that level of fandom. The WWE Network can change all of that. And it’s not just the library. When they start trying to fill out programming, they’re going to realize that Dutch Mantell and Pat Patterson telling old road stories backstage is better and cheaper than Stump the Miz or whatever they currently have planned.
I’m more intrigued by the future. When I was researching my book, I realized that every major era of wrestling coincided with a technological advancement. The first wrestling boom was in the ’50s with national TV stations, the second was in the ’80s with cable TV, and the third — the Monday Night Wars — had dueling wrestling promotions and the rise of the Internet to boot. If wrestling is ever going to have that kind of cultural relevance again, it’ll be at a time like right now. It’s a little scary and really exciting.
Q: Why has the general reaction to this channel been “It’s so much more amazing than I ever expected”? Why do people keep underestimating Vince McMahon?
Simmons: Shoemaker is still doing it! He just dropped the XFL grenade earlier!
Shoemaker: I’ll have you know that I am constantly ridiculed as being overly optimistic and a total WWE homer. Anyway, I think the reaction has more to do with the general cynicism of fandom these days. Everybody online complains about everything, and wrestling gets that as much or more than anything else. When the thing first went live, it had a bunch of technical problems — a lot of it was people trying to sign up from unsupported browsers — and then there were a bunch of connectivity issues with Xbox and Roku and those kinds of things. Not surprising. But, of course, a ton of people were mad. By this week, most of those problems had been solved, and everybody seems, above all else, stunned by how cool the network is — or, at least by how cool they suddenly realize it could possibly be.
Simmons: You know who agrees with you? The financial community. WWE’s stock crept up to $30 yesterday after being in the $23-$24 range for the past month. I wonder if it’s being driven entirely by Wall Street dudes who shut their office doors so they could day-surf for old matches on the WWE Network, then realized, “Hey, wait a second … maybe I should buy stock in this thing!” Or maybe they just heard rumors about Stump the Miz.
Q: Does WWE ultimately need the big cable companies and satellite companies (DirecTV, the proposed Comcast–Time Warner beast, Cablevision, etc.) to distribute this channel?
Shoemaker: Nope. The cable companies are the ones losing out so far — their standing deal for PPVs is they take 50 percent right off the top. Last year WrestleMania did over a million buys, and it cost $60 or $70 depending on whether you got HD. That’s $30 million directly into the pockets of guys like James Dolan. You think they’re happy about this? The biggest disaster would be if somehow this came back to bite WWE — like if cable companies refused to air Raw or something, though I don’t see that happening.
Simmons: Yeah, that would be embarrassingly shortsighted, spiteful and stupid. James Dolan isn’t any of those things.
Shoemaker: But the cable providers have to be even more frightened that WWE will establish a market for this kind of thing and encourage other content providers to do the same thing. People always fantasize about a stand-alone HBO GO or whatever, but they make way too much money off their cable deal to risk losing that support. WWE is in the process of renegotiating their deal with NBCUniversal, so they had more attitude — and plus, this is really added value, PPVs aside. The WWE Network should make them even more attractive to Universal.
Simmons: We’re at the 5,100-word mark and we finally got to the key point of this whole damned thing.
Q: Is this a blueprint for a new and improved content-distribution model in the streaming Internet era?
Simmons: In the words of Daniel Bryan …
Again, WWE figured out how to skip the middleman entirely. We didn’t have the technology to pull this off five years ago, or even 18 months ago. But thanks to iPads and Apple TV and Roku and everything else, it’s officially the on-demand generation — our kids are just as likely to watch Netflix, Hulu, iTunes or YouTube as they are to watch cable. Shoemaker mentioned “they” earlier, meaning the cable and satellite companies. Well, “they” are in trouble. And they know it. This new WWE channel scares the living shit out of them.
Think about it: WWE created a world in which you can’t follow wrestling correctly without subscribing to their channel. And it’s going to work! That’s a game-changer. For instance, let’s say the NBA takes League Pass away from cable/satellite providers, makes that package Internet-only and merges it with NBA TV. It spends the next 18 months converting all their old documentaries, shows and Hardwood Classics into a colossal video library, flanked by every Finals game since 1976, MJ’s 100 best games, Magic’s 100 best games, Bird’s 100 best games, LeBron’s 100 best games and the 25 best games of every other NBA legend. In 2016, they announce they’re pulling NBA TV off cable and satellite, then launching a new mega-Internet channel and charging $24.99 a month. That’s $300 a year for every game of the 2016-17 season plus everything else I just laid out.
Here’s the genius of it: The NBA could create that channel and still sell 90 percent of the playoffs and their “premium” regular-season games for billions to TNT, ESPN, Fox Sports or whomever else. Which they should, since live events are more valuable than ever these days (they’re DVR-proof). But also they create the THREAT of just dumping the middleman and hoarding everything for themselves. And that threat becomes another “bidder.” The NBA has a new media-rights deal coming up soon — if you don’t think the league is studying the WWE Network closely, you’re crazier than WWE for bringing back Batista for two years. (Sorry, we hadn’t mentioned him in awhile.)
Shoemaker: The only thing standing in the way are TV rights deals. And that’s no small thing. WWE is publicly traded, but the McMahons still own a majority of the stock and can act unilaterally. Imagine what the Buss family or Micky Arison or James Dolan would say if Adam Silver announced he was tearing up the NBA TV deal to start a full-immersion Web-based network. Now try to imagine that with football, where half the owners are in estate-planning mode. UFC’s in a position like that now where they’re trying to build their Fight Pass into a network-type service while they’re under a really demanding contract with Fox. They’re stretching themselves too thin trying to have big-time-seeming content for every outlet. But if any major sports added full video archives onto their existing “season pass” plans and made everything searchable on your iPad, that could be a game-changer.
Simmons: And we didn’t even mention college sports. Oh wait, the NCAA is too messed up to ever consider anything this complicated. Our best bets to emulate this: By 2017, I’d wager anything that the NBA and NFL will have hijacked the WWE Network’s idea with their own versions of the channel. Adam Silver is too smart and Roger Goodell is too greedy. They’ll be all over this. As for baseball and hockey, I’ll be interested to see if Bud Selig steals it … or if he even knows what an iPad is. As for Gary Bettman, well …
Q: Make a prediction — how will this channel be doing three years from now?
Shoemaker: If they can harness the possibilities of interactivity, it could be amazing. There are really effective ways to do the promotional stuff — imagine having every wrestler’s current story line in a 10-minute video package. Who wouldn’t watch those to get ready for PPVs? And by the way, is “PPV” the new “record”? What are we calling these things now that they’re technically free?
Simmons: What about already-paid-per-views? APPVs? Pigpiling on your last point, I’m intrigued to see if the network organically creates a few up-and-coming stars with the Internet-only NXT show — almost like how the NBA uses college basketball to “create” Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. People will either love that show or know nothing about it. That’s a good place to be. There’s definitely some mid-’90s ECW potential there. Of course, that’s a luxury for a network like this — not something that could carry it.
Shoemaker: Unlike the XFL or the World Bodybuilding Federation, where Vince could walk away and still have wrestling to fall back on, WWE has their entire identity wrapped up in this network. (Not to mention their stock valuation.) They’re talking about “success” being defined in terms of unique users as well as breaking even with lost PPV revenue, even though they’ve already sunk more than $20 million into developing it. They’ve also practically given up their lucrative TV PPV market, and royally pissed off Dish Network and other providers in the process.
So it’s a prestige piece for them, but its perceived success will mean more — in terms of stock price, if nothing else — than anything else happening here. The network might change direction, but it will continue to exist in some form or another as long as Vince is alive. Which probably means at least 100 more years.
Simmons: I’m more optimistic than you. In my opinion, Vince stumbled onto something truly significant — a blueprint for blending live content with our never-ending desire to waste time. The WWE Network sucks you into a procrastination tornado, basically. It’s convenient. It’s easy to navigate. It works on every device we have. You can watch things as they happen, or one day after it happens, or 35 years after it happened. If you like wrestling, you will like this channel. If you love wrestling, you will love this channel.
And remember, they’re just scratching the surface with it. Vince spent $97 million on two failed Senate campaigns; he’s cheaping out on this channel. Eventually, I expect better on-air talent, better behind-the-scenes people, better facilities, better shows, better everything … well, except for a better Batista. But Shoemaker mentioned earlier how every major wrestling era has a way of coinciding with a major technological advancement. Doesn’t live streaming, Apple TV, iPads and on-demand-anywhere-anytime entertainment count as a “major technological advancement”? It’s a new era for broadcast content and Vincent K. McMahon is leading the way. God help us.