Eight months ago*, the issues surrounding WWE’s trip to Saudi Arabia for Crown Jewel dominated the wrestling news. Most of the wrestlers who traveled to Riyadh for the show were delayed getting back after the Oct. 31, 2019 event. That resulted in major changes to the Nov. 1 SmackDown show in Buffalo, reports people were basically held hostage over a monetary dispute between Vince McMahon & Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and vociferous denials from WWE which included a statement from their long-time charter airline & public shaming of talent who shared complaints about the situation on social media.
It’s re-entered the conversation by virtue of a class action investor lawsuit claiming, among other things, that WWE misrepresented their business prospects in the Middle East and damaged their brand with the Saudi partnership.
The first witness, an executive with Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), is potentially more damaging. This person claims WWE had “wildly unreasonable expectations of the revenue it expected from a potential partner,” estimating an over-the-top distribution service in the North Africa/Middle East region could net 100 million subscribers and be worth $80 million per year in licensing fees. Despite coming down from those figures, it’s inferred that the company negotiating from such a ridiculous starting point is why MBC ended up walking away from the table.
The second witness is the one who’s more interesting to us, the fans who follow backstage wrestling news on the internet. Referred to as “CW2” in the court documents, he** is a former WWE wrestler who started with the company in 2012 and left in April of this year. He was one of 20 wrestlers flown back on a separate charter in a failed attempt to get them to Buffalo in time for SmackDown (WWE claimed this group cared so much about making the show they booked the plane themselves, which was another a point of contention with talent who remained stuck in Riyadh).
CW2 largely substantiates reports at the time from Wrestling Observer about what happened:
- Vince, other WWE executives, and “big name talent such as Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan” left the country “in a hurry” while everyone else was ushered off their plane. CW2 said the pilot sounded “distressed,” and he was told by a flight attendant that “it seems someone doesn’t want us to leave the country”.
- Talent was informed it was a mechanical issue, but saw a “ton” of armed men in “militia” garb blocking their exit and “staring at the wrestlers”.
- When Senior Executive Director of Talent Relations Mark Carrano was asked what was going on, Carrano told CW2 that McMahon and the Crown Prince got in an argument about late payments related to July 2019’s Super ShowDown. Vince cut the live feed of Crown Jewel due to the money issue, which made Bin Salman “very mad”.
- Not only did WWE work with its charter airline to deflect any blame from the company, and dismiss public complaints as “laughable” and “conspiracies,” their claims that anyone who didn’t wish to return to Saudi Arabia as a result of the situation were bogus. CW2 alleges that for many who tried to tell Talent Relations they wouldn’t go back, “WWE ‘abused’ their ‘power’ and threatened the future trajectory of their careers if they did not go.”
The whole situation sounds horrible, but also not much we didn’t hear last fall. The new, and potentially problematic for WWE, information is the first-person account of Carrano confirming this version of events. It could put the long-time executive in a position of having to testify about what happened in Riyadh.
We’ll see what happens from here. As provocative as the details are, investor lawsuits aren’t too uncommon. There’s a chance this one gets dismissed or settled, and we won’t hear about this again for a while.
The story isn’t going away, though. Whether it lives on as wrestling lore or legal precedent is the main question.
* It’s a trite observation, but holy crap that was only eight months ago!?!? 2020 has been 17 years long.
** It seems safe to presume they’re a “he” since they left the company in April and the only women who worked Crown Jewel, Lacey Evans & Natalya, are still on the roster.