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This is as much of a wrestling story as it isn't, in a way.
On one hand, long time WWE fans are wringing their hands—and their fandom—on the inevitable sale to either the Saudi Public Investment Fund, Endeavor, or Comcast. Those are the only three suitors—it is going to be one of those three or not at all.
On the other hand, a promoter—who has never accepted losing (like a good friend of his)—has wrestled back control of the company he grew into a behemoth of live and televised entertainment.
I wrote a couple of years back that WWE was going to fundamentally change sooner or later, and that change effectively began with the company hiring Nick Khan. Khan, now sole CEO following Stephanie McMahon's complete exit from the company, was hired for one reason: to solidify WWE's credentials as a bonafide entertainment brand and premier producer of content.
Despite WWE fans liking the product now with Paul "Triple H" Levesque as the effective showrunner, the fundamentals of WWE's direction has not changed. Management see themselves as entertainment executives rather than promoters of pro wrestling. Wrestling just happens to be the medium of their brand of entertainment. The only difference between Vince and Triple H is that the latter has been far better at balancing the company's aspirations of being a Marvel-like entertainment powerhouse and its pro wrestling roots in its front-facing entertainment product.
Will that be changing? Who knows. Triple H did have a talent meeting—the same type of management that takes place before some really hairy sh*t goes down. What goes down remains to be seen and everyone—talent, journalists, bloggers, and the fans—will probably be on edge until it happens.
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Personally, I only think there are three potential buyers of WWE. In order of likelihood, it is either going to be the Saudis, Endeavor, or Comcast.
The Saudis. Through the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia has been frequently employing the public relations tactic of "sportswashing". Known for its gross violation of human rights, extrajudicial murders, suspect treatment of journalists, and its extremely patriarchal society, Saudi Arabia has been using its sovereign wealth fund in various investments around the world, including the takeover of Newcastle United FC in Premier League and the formation of LIV Golf, a controversial golf tour that competes with the PGA, in an attempt to soften its international reputation.
WWE is a party to the Kingdom's "sportswashing" shtick with its annual Crown Jewel shows. Criticized as "blood money" shows by detractors, it has been an enormous cash boon for WWE. As the company invested more time and thought to the show, the event has become one of the more popular ones for the company as the pragmatism of fandom soon (seeing their favorites perform) overtook any conscientious objection they may have had to the event.
For Vince McMahon and WWE, the Saudis would probably offer the most money, as well as the added benefit of private ownership. Without publicly trading investors or the SEC to answer to, McMahon can squash any additional sexual misconduct allegations aggressively and have a greater hand in day-to-day operations of the company, including showrunning. Understandably fans are unhappy with the idea of McMahon being back involved to that degree and Saudi ownership only compounds the angst. Nevertheless, I still believe that this is the most likely outcome.
Endeavor. If you are a WWE fan, then the company you are probably going to want to root for the most is Endeavor. The Ari Emanuel-led company already has a unique sports portfolio, most notably the UFC. WWE, with Endeavor's existing investments in entertainment, live events, and combat sports, would fit right in.
However, there is a little bit of a problem: Khan. Khan is a former employee of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and was the vice president of their television division. CAA is a competitor to Endeavor and the companies have a WWF-vs-WCW-like feud, only with both companies actually having significant success.
Nevertheless, Endeavor ownership would probably allow for WWE to be more or less what you are already familiar with. As a publicly traded company, Endeavor would not be too keen on having Vince McMahon in power. The company would also be less likely to engage in severe budget cuts after a potential WWE takeover.
Comcast. I expect Comcast to be an aggressive suitor for WWE because of the company's long standing presence on USA Network, its historical relationship with NBC (albeit dormant), and its desire to have Smackdown—a ratings winner for FOX—back under its umbrella, perhaps on NBC. Comcast ownership would allow WWE to keep a degree of familiarity for fans, albeit the company would be more likely to cut costs. In fact, if Comcast does acquire WWE, I would expect it to cut a slew of talent that simply is not getting a whole lot of television time.
I would imagine that the company would be a little bit more heavy handed in terms of WWE's television product. The company only simply groans and makes demands at this point; with ownership, Comcast can dictate the direction of the company's TV product. That might be a good (as in no Vince) or bad (as in Vince) thing for WWE fans.
It just remains to be seen how much of an appetite that Comcast has for an acquisition. Simply Wall Street analysts note that Comcast's profit margins have shrunk (by 8%), the company has a lot of debt, and there has been insider selling. The latter might not be necessarily a bad thing—some in the market think that the stock is undervauled. What does this mean for you, the WWE fan? Comcast will be a player, but they will be quicker to exit a bidding war when it develops as opposed to the Saudis or Endeavor.
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However, this is still a wrestling story.
WWE has been kept alive by the pragmatism of their fans. Contrary to what is believed, the internet wrestling community is, by large, not a complete representative of the entire WWE fan base. The fans that were unhappy—and I mean seriously unhappy with WWE—have moved on to other options.
The overwhelming majority of WWE fans are content with the product and are willing to go down whatever road the company chooses to go down—Saudis included. Fans are attached to performers and if fans can only see their favorite performers in WWE, then fans are going to tune in.
Moreover, WWE has a pop wrestling formula that makes it easily accessible to viewers as compared to the more hardcore or serious pro wrestling fan that is going to prefer the offerings from AEW, Impact Wrestling, or New Japan.
Promoters are proud individuals—you have to have a high amount of pride and ego to make it as a pro wrestling promoter, regardless of the size of promotion. For many years, Vince McMahon was the one that wrote the final chapters of various promoters, whether it is Paul Boesch here in Houston, Verne Gagne up in Minnesota, Frank Tunney in Toronto, or Ted Turner in Atlanta. He wrote the ending, not the other way around.
Then, in the wake of the sexual misconduct scandal, it seemed like the ending was going to be written for Vince McMahon. He resigned in relative disgrace and was going to fade out of the picture. Backstage morale improved. The quality of the shows improved. Wrestling fans began to soften and actually completely reverse their criticism of WWE. WWE was re-establishing a level of goodwill with its audience that had not been seen in years.
But Vince decided he—and he alone—would write the concluding chapter of his career.
So he took back over.
Kicked off board members.
Booted his own daughter out of the company.
Because as much of an entertainment executive that McMahon aspires to be, he is still a carny pro wrestling promoter. Sure, he has successfully rid himself of the stigma of being a promoter. But like many promoters, he will always be true to his own megalomania.
This is his story and he's going to write it. Family be damned. Employees be damned. Talent be damned. Partners be damned. Board members be damned. Fans be damned.
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Whatever happens next is going to be a watershed moment in pro wrestling and in media. This is uncharted waters for pro wrestling fans and pro wrestling itself. What happens next in this real life episode of Succession is anyone's guess. But one thing can be assured:
WWE is going to change.
Will you going to be along for the ride?