WWE fans worried about UFC merger


WWE SmackDown World Tour

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World wrestling entertainment and Endeavor-owned UFC are set to merge this year in a deal that will create a sports entertainment giant valued at over $21 billion.

After the deal was announced in early April, WWE shares soared to their highest level in nearly four years. The stock is up more than 50% since the start of the year.

For wrestling fans, however, the story isn’t about those numbers. Rather, the success of the merger depends on what’s actually going on in the ring – and whether it’s worth their time and money.

In a landscape where consumers wield broad economic and political influence, the merger will serve as a test of how strong the collective power of fans can be against corporate giants. And wrestling fans aren’t afraid to share their opinions.

Some fear that a return to a pay-per-view model for WWE’s flagship event, WrestleMania, is on the horizon. Last month, it aired exclusively on NBCUniversal’s Peacock, where it spawned the streaming service highest weekend usage. Although NBCU does not release specific broadcast numbers for the event, only the Super Bowl topped WrestleMania during the most-watched hours of any live event on Peacock, according to the company.

WWE’s exclusive streaming deal with Peacock, which includes WrestleMania streaming rights, is set to expire in 2026.

WWE declined to comment for this article. In late March, before the UFC deal was announced, WWE CEO Nick Khan said the company was keeping fan pricing sensitivity in mind.

“If NBCU came to us and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to take you from where you are now at five times for Peacock, but we have to charge extra,’ we should look into that carefully,” Khan said. « The Marchand and Ourand Sports Mediapodcast. “Most importantly, we don’t want to sell our fans.”

Jerry D’Erasmo, a longtime fan who hosts a wrestling podcast, said he understands why WWE might eventually bring WrestleMania back to pay-per-view. Yet he also thinks it’s one of the few things that could actually turn off whole swathes of the fanbase. He said many fans told him they would tune in to recap podcasts like his instead of paying $60 or $70 to watch a pay-per-view.

How WWE tells its stories and conducts its matches under a new executive regime will also help determine how it spends its money, fans said.

“The biggest concern from a fan’s perspective — not investors, but fans — is creative control,” said longtime wrestling enthusiast and host of Matt Courcelle. The WWE Podcast.

In this case, there’s an elephant in the room, and his name is Vince McMahon. For many WWE fans, whether they will pay for new streaming or pay-per-view services largely depends on whether McMahon, 77, who has controlled WWE since taking over from his father in 1982, will be involved in creative decisions.

Despite numerous settlements with women who alleged sexual misconduct by McMahon, including a rape complaintwhich he denies, he remains at the top of WWE.

“This guy, for better or worse, controlled the biggest wrestling company in the world,” said New Jersey pro wrestling commentator and podcaster Jimmy Baxter. “For that he was successful, but along the way there’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears – and a lot of paid women.”

McMahon isn’t going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. He will be the executive chairman of the new combined company, which has not yet been named, alongside Effort General Manager Ari Emanuel. After 40 years, many fans see him as a permanent fixture, even though he’s not the CEO.

“When the bombs drop, there will be three things left: Cockroaches, Twinkies and Vince McMahon,” Baxter said.

World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. President Vince McMahon is shown during the WWE Monday Night Raw show at the Thomas & Mack Center on August 24, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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McMahon told CNBC last month he won’t be deeply involved in WWE storytelling when WWE and UFC merge – but fans say they need more proof before agreeing his statements at face value.

“Even if they want to tell us he’s not ‘in the weeds’ in creation, there’s been a lot of evidence recently that Vince is,” Courcelle said, including rumors that it was run the Raw backstage show after WrestleMania.

There are also other content concerns.

At the end of April, a former WWE writer filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming she was fired in retaliation for pushing back racial slurs in the writer’s bedroom, according to court documents. The lawsuit lists McMahon and her daughter, Stephanie McMahon, herself a former executive, as defendants, along with WWE itself and other company employees behind the scenes.

“We know what Vince McMahon is; we know what he brought creatively,” Courcelle said. “Over the past five to ten years, it hasn’t been the best it can be, from a fan’s perspective.”

Still, fans keep coming back for more. Anyone who’s shelled out thousands of dollars for wrestling events and merchandise over the years won’t immediately stop watching if the new WWE doesn’t live up to their eyeballs. Some longtime die-hard fans don’t yet know where they’ll land, but they’ll likely stick around to see where things go.

“I love drama,” Baxter said. “I love watching a crazy old man burn down his empire just because he can.”

Disclosure: Peacock is the streaming service of NBCUniversal, CNBC’s parent company.

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