On the day after Valentine's Day World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE -0.74%) became a television free agent. The company, which airs its flagship "Raw" program on USA Network, its secondary show "Smackdown" on SyFy!, and its reality show "Total Divas" on E!, reached the end of its exclusive negotiation period with Comcast's (CMCSA -0.43%) NBC Universal, leaving it free to talk with other suitors.
"While we were unable to reach an agreement with NBCU during this period, we have certainly appreciated our long and productive partnership," WWE said in a statement released to Variety. "With year-round, live programming that is highly coveted by programmers, distributors, and advertisers, we are extremely excited about our future. We look forward to engaging with potential partners who recognize the value of having the #1 show on cable and live content delivered 52 weeks a year."
This scenario is exactly what WWE wanted to happen as it's the first time rights for all its programs (which also includes "Main Event" on Ion) have come due at the same time. Given the huge rights deals that traditional sports like football, baseball, basketball, and hockey have signed, not to mention the massive deal (by its standards) UFC signed with Fox (FOX), the WWE expects a large increase in the $139.5 million in TV licensing fees it earns each year for its shows, according to Variety.
WWE popular with viewers, not advertisers
Unlike the other sports (and we'll pretend pro wrestling is a sport), WWE does not receive a premium for its viewers from advertisers.
When it comes to collecting premium advertising dollars, however, USA Network earns the lowest CPMs for "Raw" than other programs, sources say. Translation: the ads that air during "Raw" are cheap, wrote Variety's Marc Graser.
In 2013, it was estimated that "Raw," "Smackdown," any specials "Total Divas" and "Main Event" took in about $170 million in ad revenue (which is all kept by its TV partners), according to Wrestling Observer, the leading newsletter covering the business of pro wrestling.
The WWE hopes to bring in $280 million or more in TV revenue from the U.S. with the new deal, according to the newsletter.
"No matter what the ratings, under normal circumstances, it makes no economic sense for NBC Universal to go even to $170 million to keep the deal," the Observer wrote. "The reality is the stations could generate a solid percentage of that revenue in the same time slots even with shows with lower ratings. There are shows they can put on with minimal cost where the profit margin would be higher than for wrestling."
Is WWE programming worth more now?
The thinking goes that WWE is worth more than it has been because its programming is DVR-proof the way traditional sports is. The company has also moved away from being adult programming into offering more PG fare -- something sparked partially by former WWE CEO Linda McMahon's two failed runs for Senate in Connecticut.
The biggest challenge facing WWE -- aside from its history of commanding less in ad fees -- is convincing more than one television network to bid on its rights. To get what it wants WWE needs a competitive bidding process. NBC Universal -- which likely does want WWE programming back at the right price -- is correct to let its exclusive window expire.
Paying the large increase WWE wants might make sense to keep because the wrestling shows pump up the average primetime rating for both USA and SyFy. It makes no sense to pay more however if no other network wants to air wrestling.
WWE has struck out before
When WWE "Raw" left its previous TV home on Spike in 2005 to go to USA, it did so at a lower rate than its previous deal because there were no other suitors. Similarly WWE has seen "Smackdown" fall victim to nobody wanting the show (hence its odd placement on SyFy) and lesser WWE programming that airs overseas has not found anyone to air it domestically. The WWE was also unable to find a TV home for its kids show, "Saturday Morning Slam," which aired for one season on The WB.
"WWE is on record expecting domestic rights fees to double, but I expect them to fall short of that," the Observer's Ben Miller told the Fool. "I believe that WWE will eventually return to USA Network, even if it means accepting less than they'd hoped for. Until they determine the level of success for [WWE's new digital subscription network], I expect them to value broad exposure over immediate revenue from TV rights."
The risk to WWE
If no other network steps up to bid for its package of shows, the WWE will be in a very poor position. With the company essentially moving its pay per views (a large, but dwindling source of revenue) off cable and onto its unproven network, the company cannot afford to take a financial hit.
The question however is exactly who might be willing to bid? The obvious player would be Viacom (NASDAQ: VIA), which owns Spike and MTV among other channels, and Fox for its new FS1 and FS2 networks. The other possible player would be Time Warner's TBS.
Spike already airs WWE's much less successful competitor Impact Wrestling. TBS historically aired wrestling but has not been willing to since it kicked one-time WWE competitor WCW off its airwaves in 2001. FS1 and FS2 are interesting options, but the channels already air a lot of UFC programming and have commitments to run other sports as well.
For WWE the best case would be if another suitor forces NBC Universal to meet (or come close to) its asking price. That is a huge risk as Fox may pass, TBS will almost definitely pass, and Spike/MTV could stick with Impact Wrestling. It only takes two to start a price war, but the WWE may be left standing with only one competitor standing in the ring.