AP NEWS

As WrestleMania returns, city-based WWE booms

April 4, 2019

STAMFORD — WWE’s biggest stars will face off in the 35th edition of WrestleMania on Sunday, in front of a capacity crowd at the 82,500-seat MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. But those fans will account for only a portion of the event’s audience.

The company’s marquee annual gathering will also be watched by millions more at home, highlighting the power of a brand that continues to expand its presence around the world and increase its reach on digital platforms. WWE is counting on sustained growth, as shown by its recently announced decision to relocate its headquarters within the city — an optimism that appears to be well-founded, if partly clouded by some critics’ misgivings about the company.

“Many times over the years, we have prematurely heard of the demise of professional wrestling, and yet here we are,” said Josh Shuart, chairman of marketing and sports management at Sacred Heart University. “The WWE continues to pro-actively innovate to remain vibrant in the marketplace.”

Ongoing growth

For all of 2018, WWE finished with $930 million in revenues, up 16 percent over 2017.

Among 2018 milestones, WWE signed new five-year deals for its flagship programs, “Monday Night Raw” and “SmackDown Live.” Taking effect in October, the agreements will see “Raw” stay on cable’s USA Network, while “SmackDown” will move from USA to Fox Sports’ broadcast channel.

Financial terms were not disclosed, but the deal with Fox has been estimated to be worth more than $1 billion.

In its latest round of ventures, WWE announced Thursday it would partner with A&E Network to produce five two-hour documentaries under the “Biography” banner about WWE Superstars “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Booker T, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels.

Abroad, it continues to sign new deals, and has clinched broadcast agreements in recent months with partners in Belgium, Greece, Japan, New Zealand and Spain.

On digital platforms, WWE’s annual video views last year increased 57 percent, to more than 31 billion.

Across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, its main accounts have amassed a total of more than 106 million followers and subscribers.

“There are some audiences they will never reach, but, given their effective exploitation of social and digital media, I think they still have some upside,” said Daniel Durbin, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Sports, Media and Society. “They exist in video games, on streaming, across an array of social media, in global broadcasts — and they can produce two to three shows a week. That is an immense volume of media content.”

WrestleMania is critical to the WWE brand. The 2018 edition, held at New Orleans’ Superdome, broke the stadium’s record for entertainment-event revenues and spiked viewership on the subscription-based WWE Network.

Subscribers watched 25.2 million hours during last year’s WrestleMania week — equal to 14 hours per subscriber — up 12 percent from the same period in 2017.

Staying in Stamford

With the headquarters move — scheduled to be completed by early 2021 — WWE would consolidate its Stamford operations in a 415,000-square-foot hub at one downtown site.

At 677 Washington Blvd., WWE plans to use, for production, an entire seven-story pavilion — which once housed a massive UBS trading floor. It is to also occupy four floors in the adjoining office tower.

“We thought the benefit of having everyone in one location was almost immeasurable, especially being right next to the Stamford train station,” said WWE Co-President George Barrios. “So many of our team members are commuting from New York. It will be an amazing recruiting tool to be there, especially since we’re in a competitive jobs market.”

WWE now occupies about 92,000 square feet at its main offices in the “Titan Towers” complex that it owns at 1241 E. Main St. Overlooking Interstate 95, the property has served as the company’s headquarters since 1990. About 500 employees work there.

The company plans to depart and sell 1241 E. Main., leave leased offices at 1266 E. Main St., and “evaluate options” for production studios that it runs at 88 and 120 Hamilton Ave.

Facing criticism

Amid its growth, WWE has not shaken allegations in some quarters that it is exploiting its talent by denying them comprehensive health care and putting them at undue risk in the ring.

“With wrestlers working as independent contractors, in a monopolized industry, largely free from meaningful oversight and able to be fired at any time, you wind up with an environment with huge potential for unsafe conduct,” host John Oliver said this week during a WWE-focused segment on his HBO show.

In a responding statement, WWE said that “prior to airing, WWE responded to his producers, refuting every point in his one-sided presentation. John Oliver simply ignored the facts. The health and wellness of our performers is the single most important aspect of our business, and we have a comprehensive, longstanding Talent Wellness program.”

Durbin likened Oliver’s criticism to David Letterman’s skewering of the then-WWF in the 1980s.

“If someone in the government actually starts to look into the WWE practices, especially how they treat their talent, Oliver’s comments might have some impact,” Durbin said. “If that doesn’t happen, Oliver does, with a much smaller audience, what Letterman did in the 1980s. He introduces WWE to an audience that can now watch the ‘freak show’ and laugh at it through their noses.”

WWE’s treatment of its performers has sparked significant litigation in recent years. Last September, a federal judge in Hartford dismissed the last in a series of lawsuits that alleged the company forced wrestlers into performances that led to brain injuries and then covered up the effects.

“I think fans are well aware of the physical and mental toll that contact-professional sports and entertainment like this have on the entertainers,” Shuart said. “And contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed in the media, I feel that the WWE has consistently done right by the talent. I may be one of the only ones to believe that, but I genuinely feel that some of the criticism on this front is unwarranted and overblown.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott