There’s an assumption made by some pro wrestling fans that WWE's television audience skews young. It's not an absurd assumption to make considering WWE's insistence on a PG television rating for a traditionally violent and intense form of entertainment, the anti-bullying campaign directed towards school-aged children, John Cena’s gimmick and continued reign as the company’s top babyface, goofy angles and skits, and the overall direction of the product. While it's not an absurd assumption, it is an incorrect one.
What many might find surprising is that 53% of WWE's television audience is over the age of thirty-five.
This breakdown comes straight from WWE's corporate site, accessed January 2013:
- 24% under 18
- 23% between 18-34
- 23% between 35-49
- 30% above 50
Your first response might be that the older audience is comprised of parents watching with their children, but that doesn't seem to be the case. From WWE's third quarter earnings report, only 6% of WWE's active and lapsed fanbase is made up of "Fan Parents", or adults who only follow the product because of their children.
Let's compare these numbers to the earliest similar breakdown (I had) available, from a May 2004 Wrestling Observer Newsletter. The WWE TV audience at that time looked like this:
- 24% under 17
- 29% between 18-34
- 24% between 35-49
- 23% above 50
Certainly a younger crowd, but not strikingly so. Compared to 2013, the 2004 audience is 6% more 18-34 year-olds, 7% less 50+-year-olds, and 47% of fans are older than 35, instead of 53% in 2013.
The difference is more pronounced when you compare 2013 to the wrestling boom period of 2000. The same edition of the Wrestling Observer has 37% of the television audience under the age of 17, and the average viewer being 24-years-old.
The average WWE viewer from 2000 would be 37-years-old today, 2004's average viewer would be 42. Today's average WWE viewer hovers around 38 (again, according to the Observer).
The trend since the turn-of-the-century boom period is that the television audience continues to grow older and older.
What that's showing us is that the theory of the PG Era existing to hook young fans and "flip the switch" to a more mature product as they grow older is hogwash. You could interpret the current trend towards family-friendly wrestling and introduction of Saturday Morning Slam as an attempt to capture younger fans to help skew the demographic closer to the under-35-year-old range and hook younger fans on the product, but the most successful way to hook fans at a young age has proven to be with a hot product regardless of its family-friendliness.
Is it WWE trying to be more responsible? The answer might be yes, but most likely because they think it makes business sense.
It’s possible that WWE’s insistence on running a cleaner product is tied to TV rights fees making up more and more of its bottom line. The numbers below have been adjusted for inflation to 2011, and are accessible on WWE's Investor Relations site.
Domestic TV rights fees revenue:
- $9,000,000 in 2000
- $56,900,000 in 2004
- $80,300,000 in 2011
Remember that the product was fairly cold in the mid-1990s, so a low rights fee in 2000 shouldn’t be too shocking. Not to mention the general trend of rights fees for live sports shooting up in recent years.
Compare that increase in TV rights fees to a drop in PPV revenue:
- $137,200,000 in 2000
- $122,900,000 in 2004
- $78,300,000 in 2011
Professional wrestling has historically been a good TV product because it’s cheap to make and able to consistently pull in a lot of viewers. But the downside has been advertisers offering up less money than a scripted show getting equivalent ratings. Much of that has to do with its perception as a low-class product. The Attitude Era didn’t help matters, and a lot of non-fans would likely still identify the WWE scratch logo with that type of crude product.
I would argue the current family-friendly product is a play to attract more advertising money for NBCUniversal and other international partners (resulting in a higher TV rights fee contract for WWE) and more sponsorship money for WWE itself.
The downside is the current product has resulted in a demographic averaging older than the lucrative 35-and-under range, fewer PPV buys, and less consistent live attendance. As these revenues shrink, it means the growing TV rights fees make up more and more of WWE’s revenues, turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. TV rights fees are more stable than most other revenue streams, but WWE’s most lucrative year in terms of wrestling came from the 2000-01 fiscal year, bringing in $108,000,000 in profit (again, adjusted for inflation). Compare that to $52,000,000 in 2011. Profits were lower than that in the mid-2000s as wrestling cooled off, so it seems the family-friendly product is a way to insulate themselves from a cold period. The problem is that insulation seems to be preventing WWE from heating up again.
Whether cleaning up the product to appear more desirable to sponsors and change public perception of wrestling will work remains to be seen.
What many might not realize is that the Attitude Era was largely an anomaly in the history of McMahon Jr.'s tenure as the head of WWE/F, a response to their backs up against the wall with stiff competition and the company losing money. Until WWE sees a similar scenario, I wouldn't expect to see anyone slicing a salami on WWE television. That may not be a bad thing.
The problem is the "PG Era" encapsulates more than stripping the crudeness out of the product. It's also resulted in a sterile, over-written, under-planned product usually lacking in drama--things that have nothing to do with excluding nearly-bare breasts and cursing from the product. But so long as WWE keeps consistently making money, and TV rights fees for live sports continues to make a mad dash higher and higher, don't expect anything to change.
If you have any older or more detailed numbers for WWE's viewing audience, feel free to leave them in the comments below.