The most important person in WWE outside of Vince McMahon since The Rock and Steve Austin retired as full-time, regular performers in 2003 is neither John Cena or Roman Reigns. Not Randy Orton. Not Triple H. Not Becky Lynch. Or even Charlotte Flair. In fact, this person hasn't even been a character on TV.
That person is WWE President & Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan, and he is the biggest hire the sports entertainment-pro wrestling industry has seen in years, unquestionably in the last 20. Khan is the Number 2 man in WWE for 15 months as of this writing and the company's biggest liaison to the mainstream entertainment industry.
This post is not going to be a ringing endorsement of Nick Khan; rather it is a discussion about what led to his hire and his impact on WWE business. While I don't dislike WWE, I do not consider myself a WWE fan and I have no personal attachment to or animosity towards the company. However, I am writing this piece to encourage fans to (a) think more about the corporate side of pro wrestling and (b) prepare fans for how much Khan is going to play a role in their fandom going forward.
Vince McMahon always saw himself as an entertainment executive. He always felt, correctly, that WWE could make more money selling itself as an accessible entertainment brand that just so happened to have pro wrestling matches rather than be another Northeastern promoter just like his father. For all of McMahon's faults as a businessman—and believe me, there are plenty—his conclusion has held up.
Even the lay person knows what McMahon is looking for: for one, he wants his performers to be regarded in the same light as other TV actors and actresses are; for two, he still wants to put on competent in-ring performances. That's why the WWE style is extremely formulaic, with a mix of run-of-the-mill transition moves and recognizable signature moves that are unique to each performer.
While Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, and Andre The Giant were major parts of the success WWE enjoyed in the latter half of the 1980s, another major component doesn't get talked about enough: television. McMahon's WWE was keeping up with television trends in the late 1980s; in other words, the quality of WWE programming was more or less on par as to what passed as quality television during the decade.
Obviously, we know what happened next: an enormous steroid scandal diminished the popularity of pro wrestling and led to an industry-wide decline starting in 1992. While McMahon would launch a weekly television show the following year in Monday Night Raw and was still putting on 200-300 shows a year throughout the New Generation era, WWE's ink couldn't stay in the black. Even worse for the company at the time was Ted Turner's pocketbook luring big money talent away from WWE with offers Titan Towers couldn't match.
By late 1996, McMahon's calculus had changed. Maybe it was intentional or maybe it was a bit of serendipity, but McMahon decided to pivot his TV presentation to a much more mainstream feel with a counter-culture look. McMahon modernized WWE programming, incorporating more adult themes. This creative change in direction, mostly inspired by trends occurring in daytime television—saucy soap operas and trash talk shows—worked. By 1998, WWE was outpacing WCW in viewership growth and by the end of 1999, WWE's lead over WCW in viewership was higher than any lead WCW had during their 84 consecutive weeks of victories.
The key to WWE's victory was that Vince McMahon kept up with TV trends. This testosterone-fueled masculine soap opera was a winning formula; WWE Raw is War and later Sunday Night Heat and Smackdown became prime time soap operas. The in-ring product was back to being less about artistry and more about character distinction and plot development. This peaked in 2000, when WWE enjoyed the highest level of positive press and mainstream exposure it had up to that point, despite suffering slight audience declines due to the absence of Austin.
WWE, despite being seen as low rent entertainment considering the economic demographics of its viewership, was a hot product. Four years earlier, WWE was dead; at the end of 2000, WWE was a major force entertainment.
At least, that's what WWE thought.
You're probably wondering, "Thanks for the history lesson Hollywood, but what the f*ck that has to do with Nick Khan?"
Simple: everything that transpired after the company's peak in 1999 and 2000 led to Nick Khan's hire in August 2020.
For 20 years, McMahon and WWE tried to find its footing as an entertainment company in the wake of the success of the Attitude Era. The track record could be best described as successful in some aspects and comically embarrassing in others. WWE evolved very little after the Attitude Era, and despite adding an additional 100 shows per year and getting back into stadium-size extravaganzas for Wrestlemania, the financial performance was not overwhelmingly impressive. WWE once again fell behind where television was going and started to develop a strange relationship with its own fan base.
The company formed WWE Films (now WWE Studios) in 2002. The company would produce B-movies starting in 2005 featuring various WWE stars, all of which were critically panned. WWE would initially cross promote some of their films with TV angles, such as See No Evil starring Kane and, nauseatingly, The Marine featuring John Cena. It's hard to say WWE got anywhere with this and while the films slowly started to improve in quality, it was still straight-to-DVD material.
WWE had a hard time developing media-savvy stars after 2003; massive voids were left as The Rock and Steve Austin ceased being full-time in-ring performers by April of that year. The company would get behind Cena starting in 2005; unfortunately, he became a divisive act as audiences rejected the idea that he was a worthy successor to The Rock and Steve Austin as the company's standard-bearer. The only other crossover act developed during this time was The Miz; but the Miz was already a slightly-known commodity given that he previously appeared on MTV's long-running reality series The Real World.
The company's relationship with MTV, which aired Sunday Night Heat, fizzled out by 2003. Later, the company would feature various B-list and C-list celebrities as part of its Monday Night Raw guest host shtick. McMahon's good friend and future politician Donald Trump would participate in an angle that served as a loose cross promotion with another NBC property, The Apprentice. The company was seemingly trying anything and everything to boast its "entertainment" credentials, much to the chagrin of a significant chunk of the audience that demanded a bigger emphasis on the in-ring product.
In the wake of the numerous scandals that erupted in 2007 surrounding performance-enhancing drugs and the murder-suicide of the Benoit family, WWE changed its programming to better appeal to sponsors and to appease investors that may have been spooked by controversies. The PG-era, which started in 2008 and lasted for 10 years afterwards, allowed WWE to regain some mainstream acceptance; but its credentials as a mainstream entertainment company largely went unrecognized.
WWE hoped to rectify that situation with the launch of WWE Network. Originally conceived as a pay TV channel, WWE Network ended up launching as a subscription service nearly 3 years after it was originally announced. Despite high hopes, the company never reached its lofty subscription goals.
In other words, WWE kept having issues getting over that hump—the hump being that they were still, above all else, a pro wrestling promotion. It was shedding the notoriety it had during the 1990s and 2000s as a trashy soap opera for men, but no one was talking about it as being a legitimate entertainment powerhouse. This is true even with the company getting plaudits in marketing industry circles for its success on social media (which was then hammed into the minds of viewers...repeatedly).
Arguably Nick Khan helped them get over that hump to the tune of $3.5 billion in media rights deals.
With more media-savvy performers than in years past, relative maturity as a media franchise (granted they are still miles behind the likes of Marvel), and the promise of 52 weeks of first-run television, NBC and Fox ponied up a combined $2.3 billion dollars over 5 years for Raw and Smackdown. Khan would later help WWE score a $1 billion deal to move WWE Network in the United States to NBC's Peacock streaming service.
I'll also be brutally honest here: if Khan didn't score $2.3 billion worth of media rights fees for WWE, demonstrating that there is still value for wresting-based live entertainment, WarnerMedia would have never given All Elite Wrestling a shot. No, that's not me saying that we should thank Nick Khan for AEW; but Khan did help re-establish pro wrestling as a viable programming asset for cable TV networks even in the cord cutting era. Keep in mind, pro wrestling on cable was rife with instability outside of WWE.
With WWE getting closer and closer to being seen by others as the big time entertainment company it always tried promoting itself as, there was only one thing left for WWE to do: actually hire a big league entertainment executive.
Nick Khan is the biggest entertainment executive to enter pro wrestling in a managerial position since Ted Turner bought Jim Crockett Promotions and turned it into WCW. His hiring was a landmark event in WWE history. If anything, the hiring of Nick Khan showed that WWE was ready to take the next step in its evolution.
Aside from helping WWE solidify its legitimacy as a major entertainment brand, Khan was also brought in to help WWE smooth out its business operations. However, his approach has drawn the ire of fans.
The Nick Khan Era has seen drastic talent cuts as the company reversed its ill-advised decision to hoard talent as a way to stymie upstart AEW. While it has undoubtedly helped the company's bottom line (WWE essentially prints money at this point), it has been a bit of a public relations nightmare—one the company has largely blown off. Fans have been understandably upset that more than 100 performers and backstage personnel have been let go since the start of 2020 with the bulk of the releases occurring after Khan formally started with the company in August of that year.
Khan probably advised McMahon, Bruce Pritchard, and Kevin Dunn to change NXT from a beloved super-indie to a lighter version of Raw and Smackdown. He may have also recommended a change in talent development, opting to rely less on the indie scene standouts and more on recruiting promising college and amateur athletes and molding them into being WWE acts from the start.
The company wants to cultivate media-savvy personalities that could have a cultural reach beyond pro wrestling. While WWE has had performers reach that level in the past, the company realizes they need to grow their audience and consumer base, and they do not feel they can do it with traditional pro wrestlers. WWE is going to continue down the road of treating their performers more like actors and actresses rather than pro wrestlers. Nick Khan is going to be a major part of that effort. Call it the Hollywoodizing of WWE.
Reportedly, Khan has encouraged WWE brass to move away from being so insular about its product. While an exclusive working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling never came to fruition, WWE has apparently established a working relationship with Impact Wrestling. Whether this extends beyond Impact Knockouts Champion Mickie James appearing in the Royal Rumble remains to be seen. Khan isn't stupid—working relationships could be a potential way to keep the TV product fresh.
As I said, Vince McMahon has always felt that WWE has more upside as an entertainment company rather than just another pro wrestling promotion. His conclusion has always proven to be correct, even if his WWE-related ventures, such as WWE Films and the XFL may have not panned out the way he had hoped. However, McMahon always wanted WWE to be seen as a major entertainment brand, and having Nick Khan on board gets him closer to seeing WWE reach that status.
Many fans (and even some analysts) are openly wondering if Khan is there to help WWE improve various aspects of its business structure to make it appealing for sale. After all, former WWE writer and actor Freddie Prinze, Jr. noted on a recent podcast that WWE brass offered to sell the entire company to Fox, which was rejected. Whether it was a negotiating tactic or an attempt to actually cash out will probably not be revealed for years, if ever. However, a sale has been a constant subject of chatter since UFC was acquired by a group led by WME-IMG (now Endeavor) for a little more than $4 billion. As mentioned previously, drastic talent cuts have been a hallmark of the Khan era, even though it was also hard to justify WWE having so many performers under contract.
For WWE viewers, the next 5 years of this company is going to be undoubtedly shaped by Nick Khan. Even Dave Meltzer thinks that Khan is the most likely successor to Vince McMahon over his own daughter and son-in-law.
WWE still has ways to go before it reaches ultimate goal—to be an entertainment company seen on the same level as Marvel. Khan was brought aboard to help the McMahon family fulfill that vision. It is way too early to say they will get to that level, even though Khan gives WWE a level of legitimacy as an entertainment company that it has never had previously, despite the press.
All in all, Khan is the future of WWE. Unfortunately, this may prove extremely alienating to long time WWE viewers and pro wrestling fans, who will have to decide whether watching some of their favorites is worth following WWE down the path it has chosen.