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What NBC shutting down its Sports Network could mean for WWE

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The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 4 Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

A big media story came out yesterday (Jan. 22) as NBC told its distributors and some sports leagues they plan to shutter the NBCSN cable sports channel at the end of 2021. It’s believed the programming that currently airs on NBCSN will move to USA and NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock.

USA is, of course, the home of WWE Raw and NXT.

Because the National Hockey League is one of the highest profile properties that airs on NBCSN, and because its marquee program is Wednesday Night Hockey, this news has led to increased speculation about NXT’s television future (while Raw might be more susceptible to being pre-empted on occasion, it’s unlikely NBCUniversal will do much to interfere with a property they paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to, and which remains one of the most watched shows on USA).

Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer points out that while NXT and Wednesday Night Hockey’s audiences are roughly the same size, “the NHL is a far higher profile show, reaches a higher income viewers, younger viewers and stronger ad rates than NXT.” So if USA still has rights to both shows in January of 2022, odds are they’d look to move wrestling to a different night of the week.

That probably wouldn’t upset anyone except for the WWE executives who value every viewer the black-and-gold brand can keep from watching AEW Dynamite on TNT... and fans with an unhealthy investment in the ratings “war” between NXT and Tony Khan’s promotion. When they two shows were on different nights at various points last fall, both saw better numbers without head-to-head to wrestling competition.

But will NBC have the rights to both the Wednesday Night Hockey and NXT when they close down NBCSN? Not without new agreements with both the NHL and WWE.

The deal between the NHL and NBC ends after their current season wraps up in July, COVID willing. Melter says the rights to NXT are up in October of 2021. To further muddy the waters, the NHL has reportedly made it known it wants to split its next contract between two TV outlets.

Hockey is the fourth most popular sport in the United States, and will be courted by pretty much every media company. The last round of Raw and SmackDown deals, and TNT’s quick extension of their partnership with AEW, proves that live programming can command a premium price. Fox Sports cable network FS1 was rumored as the home of NXT before the USA deal was announced in 2019, and would probably be in the mix again. But has the past couple years of ratings declines, and NXT’s underwhelming performance on USA, driven down interest in live wrestling programs?

Streaming adds more variables to the mix. NBCUniversal has been more aggressive in adding sports to the fledgling Peacock service than other streamers, including some wrestling content. Some hockey could land there, but it seems unlikely WWE would be interested in putting NXT on Peacock. Not only would it limit the show’s ability to cap AEW’s audience, NXT is already available on WWE Network in the days after it broadcasts on USA, and will always have a home there.

There are more questions than answers at this point. But the situation bears watching, even if you’re just watching it to find out where and when you can watch NXT this time next year.