Last week’s Raw saw WWE enter scarily unfamiliar territory – pulling their lowest rating in almost twenty years. The 2.03 rating was narrowly higher than the 1.9 that WWE drew in February 1997, for a taped episode of Raw from Berlin, Germany – and whilst the excuse of “it was against the NBA finals” holds some water, at some point you have to look at the bigger picture – one that’s showing a longer-term decline.
Back in 1997, Raw was up against Nitro, and although WWE lost in the ratings more often than not, the overall interest in wrestling was at its peak. Jump to 2016, and we’re at a point where wrestling seems to be bottoming out in the mainstream – IF you only look at television ratings, that is. Granted, it’s a widely accepted fact that social media numbers are a junk metric, especially as it’s very rare for any brand’s social reach to shrink, unless you make a massive PR fail.
If you chart Raw’s ratings since the start of 2015, you see an overall downward trend, with the odd spike here and there. The snow-enforced studio show after 2015’s Royal Rumble, for instance, saw the ratings leap, whilst we also saw the expected jumps on the Raw-after-WrestleMania… speaking of, it was last year’s post-WrestleMania Raw when WWE last saw their ratings go above the magic 3.0 number. For comparisons, when WCW was in its dying months, they were struggling to go above a 2.3 – whereas Raw has been below 2.9 since WrestleMania!
Now, I’m not saying that WWE is ever going to disappear overnight. They’ve got plenty of money in the bank, with over a million people dropping $9.99 a month on a streaming video service. However, the real bulk of money for WWE comes in from television rights – primarily from NBC Universal in the States, plus whatever they get from international deals from the likes of Sky, Fox and ProSieben. It’s a little like, say, TNA; if WWE were to lose the money from their US TV deal, WWE would quickly find themselves having to make quick, deep cutbacks.
For the last few quarterly reports, WWE have done their best to accentuate their positives and hide their negatives. Yes, having an increasing number of people paying for the WWE Network is a great thing for their financials, even if there’s no “lock-in” period like they had when the Network first launches. Yes, WWE’s about as profitable now as they were when they had fluctuating pay-per-view numbers – but that’s only good if the money that they get paid for Raw and SmackDown remains the same. Considering that WWE is reportedly getting little – if anything – extra for making SmackDown a live show starting next month, that’s one less card that WWE could play if they ever find themselves in a financial bind.
The television business can be fickle at the best of times. Sure, the advertising revenue isn’t as good as other shows, but many networks would kill to have a television property that consistently delivers the audiences that WWE does. Even when WCW were running on fumes, they only once went below that 2.0 rating, in April 2000. And then, even with the behemoth that was AOL Time Warner behind them, WCW found themselves out of business once Jamie Kellner hammered the nails in the coffin by cancelling their TV deal.
Am I saying that WWE is dying? Nothing like it – however, it goes without saying that without WWE changing their gameplan in and out of the ring, this is the shape of things to come later this year. Historically, the WWE’s ratings don’t take major dents against NBA competition, at least when you compare it to the NFL’s Monday night games. Once Monday Night Football returns in September, the fear will return to WWE on Mondays and Tuesdays – and perhaps, at this rate, we could be seeing WWE sinking below the “magic” 2.0 mark more often than not.