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Vince McMahon’s return casts a dark cloud over WWE’s future

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Here we go, folks. As WWE gets set to dive into the most important few months of programming under the new regime of Nick Khan, Stephanie McMahon, and Paul Levesque (Triple H), once again the ominous presence of Vince McMahon has returned to cast a dark cloud of uncertainty over the future of the company.

The bombshell report yesterday (Jan. 5) that Mr. McMahon was strategically setting up the pieces to orchestrate his return to the company, was quickly confirmed by the former CEO himself.

McMahon, who still holds a majority of voting power within the company despite his retirement over the summer, announced plans to elect himself and former co-presidents Michelle Wilson and George Barrios to the WWE Board of Directors in order to oversee the next media rights deal and potentially even a sale of the company.

The 77 year-old said in a statement Thursday afternoon:

“WWE is entering a critical juncture in its history with the upcoming media rights negotiations coinciding with increased industry-wide demand for quality content and live events and with more companies seeking to own the intellectual property on their platforms,” said Mr. McMahon. “The only way for WWE to fully capitalize on this opportunity is for me to return as Executive Chairman and support the management team in the negotiations for our media rights and to combine that with a review of strategic alternatives. My return will allow WWE, as well as any transaction counterparties, to engage in these processes knowing they will have the support of the controlling shareholder.”

While McMahon did not mention the possibility of negotiating a sale of WWE in his released statement, he did seemingly make assurances that he does not plan to take back control on the on-screen product.

“WWE has an exceptional management team in place, and I do not intend for my return to have any impact on their roles, duties, or responsibilities.”

Those plans quickly came to fruition. This morning, McMahon, Barrios & Wilson officially re-joined the WWE Board of Directors, replacing JoEllen Lyons Dillon, Jeffrey Speed & Alan Wexler.

The Securities & Exchange Commission filing which formalized the move also changed the Board’s bylaws so that Mr. McMahon has full control over any major deals involving TV rights or a sale of WWE to another company.

So what does this all mean? Vince McMahon is back and there’s nothing anyone could have done to stop him.

I’m no legal expert by any stretch of the imagination, but if the controlling shareholder was threatening to pull the rug out from any potential media rights deal unless he’s involved in the process, as The Wall Street Journal & others have reported, then what could anyone within WWE possibly have done other than go along with his demands?

McMahon even smartly positioned his comeback as the most beneficial and profitable for the company’s shareholders ahead of the latest round of media rights negotiations. The optics worked, as rumors of a sale sent WWE stock higher on Thursday.

WrestlenomicsBrandon Thurston did a wonderful breakdown yesterday after the news broke that McMahon was making moves to return to the company. To paraphrase, McMahon could very well just being using the potential of a sale to counteract any negative risks associated with his resumption of power.

McMahon was forced into retirement last year after numerous allegations of misconduct involving hush money payments. In addition, alongside the first word about his return plans, it was reported in December that two women had filed civil lawsuits against the former WWE CEO, accusing him of sexual misconduct.

Former WWE referee Rita Chatterton claims that McMahon raped her decades ago in a limousine and is seeking nearly $12 million in damages. These are accusations that McMahon has repeatedly denied and they were not enough to keep him away.

As an analyst, this move will have very little impact on my work. I will continue to offer my opinions and analysis in a respectful and professional manner, while also shining a spotlight on the incredibly talented people I have the privilege of interviewing.

However, as an admirer of those individuals and a fan of pro wrestling in general, this move scares the hell out of me.

Does anyone believe for one second that Vince McMahon is going to come in, help negotiate a TV deal, pat himself on the back and then go back to playing golf and drinking Mai Tais (or whatever he’s been doing in retirement)?

I do not.

Other than WWE, McMahon’s only other passions in life appear to be power and control. He may love those two things more than money, which is why I & others believe the idea of a sale to a company like NBCUniversal or Disney is just a smoke screen.

He’s pulling the reverse Michael Corleone - just when we thought he was out, he pulls himself back in.

After the new TV rights deal is struck, how long will McMahon sit around and wait for any opportunity to make wholesale changes? A week? A month? Will he even let the ink on the contract dry? Will he even wait until a new deal is struck?

I guess the question also needs to be asked, can he just swoop back in and take control of everything if he wants to? I have to assume the answer is yes. He forced himself back onto the Board against their wishes. What’s stopping him from removing the management team he says has all his support?

If he’s truly coming back just to facilitate a sale, I will gladly eat crow. I’ll slather some BBQ sauce on it while I’m at it. But my gut tells me that the first little decline in ratings, even if it’s just for one week, Mr. McMahon will be right back in the chair he never wanted to leave in the first place. Once again, that according to a previous WSJ report:

“He has said that he received bad advice from people close to him to step down and that he now believes the allegations and investigations would have blown over had he stayed.”

Vince McMahon returning to creative would be a massive step backwards for the company. I’m not saying Triple H’s run as Chief Content Officer has been flawless. Far from it. But he is a man with his eyes on the future. He’s a man with long term plans to improve the on-screen product and build the next generation of pro wrestlers Superstars, which is exactly the direction WWE should be headed right now.

The last thing the company needs is to go back to the days of torn up scripts and endless rematches. A return of creative decisions that turned someone as charismatic as L.A. Knight into a subdued and borderline creepy fashion model manager.

Not to mention the massive impact this could have on the mental health of all the employees and performers within WWE. We’ve heard several reports in the months since McMahon’s retirement that the morale within the company is the best it’s been in years and that there are very few people in favor of his return.

A lot of people can separate the man himself from the legend he is in the world of pro wrestling. There’s no denying what he’s done for the industry and WWE specifically. Celebrate that if you want, but very few people believe he should be in charge of creative decisions in 2023.

The real issue with McMahon’s return to the company is the high probability that mass layoffs are back on the table. Either he strong-arms his way back in control of personnel decisions and returns to his cost-cutting ways, or the company is eventually sold and the new owner decides they need to trim the budget.

Any way you slice it, this doesn’t appear to be great news from the outside looking in. Unless you are a WWE shareholder, or at the very least, the majority shareholder.

My advice? Let’s just all sit back and try to enjoy this upcoming WrestleMania season. That dark ominous cloud is moving in and is almost guaranteed to develop into a massive storm. All we can do is ride it out and hope it’s not as bad as it looks.

What do you think? Let us know in the comment section below. You can follow Rick Ucchino on Twitter and subscribe to the Bleav in Pro Wrestling Podcast Channel for more of his work.

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