After the Bell: Professional wrestling can’t be fixed because it was never broken
This week, two of the biggest corporate names in fighting and wrestling merged. The companies are Endeavor, which owns the mixed martial arts promotion company Ultimate Fighting Championship, and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), which promotes wrestling.
Sometimes someone makes a comment that is so good, it’s impossible not to use it as a book title. Years ago, a well-known racehorse trainer called Fred Rickaby wrote a book about his life training horses called Are Your Horses Trying? And whenever people asked him, “Are your horses trying?” he would answer, “Very.”
The same applies to US author Bill Apter, a long-time professional wrestling writer. When it came time to write a book about his journalistic career, Apter called his book Is Wrestling Fixed? I Didn’t Know It Was Broken!
Seldom has Apter’s book title been more apt than this week, when two of the biggest corporate names in fighting and wrestling merged. The companies are Endeavor, which owns the mixed martial arts promotion company Ultimate Fighting Championship, and World Wrestling Entertainment, which promotes wrestling.
There are few sports more derided by sports snobs than professional wrestling. Matches often appear to these outsiders — often themselves utterly incapable of even the basics of self-defence — to be thoroughly scripted events. Sadly, I too was under this mistaken impression. But fortunately, I have come to realise the error of my ways.
It’s easy to disdain wrestling, but what you cannot mock is its absolutely enormous popularity. And that popularity rests on a long history of showmanship and occasionally, almost accidentally, some aspect of real life.
Wrestler John Passaro once said that parents send their kids to school for eight hours a day, 10 months of the year, for almost 17 years. The idea is to prepare them for life. But in all that time, they never attend a single course on overcoming adversity, goal setting, sacrifice, perseverance, teammates, or family. “I guess that’s what wrestling is for.”
The remarkable thing about the Endeavor/WWE merger is its value: the new company will be worth around $21-billion. In global terms, it’s not that huge, but that valuation would easily put the company into the top 10 stocks on the JSE.
What is also remarkable is the growth. Vestact fund manager Bright Khumalo points out in the company’s newsletter that WWE was bought by the current majority owner Vince McMahon for $1-million in 1982. He is now 77, which is presumably why he is cashing out, but what a smackdown! (So to speak). He has logged a 9,300-times return over the years.
What is behind this is more than the enduring attraction of manly, or womanly, combat? What is behind the merger are huge changes in how sport is monetised. Sports betting is slowly being legalised across the US. But perhaps more importantly, big technological changes are taking place, mainly with streaming coming to the fore, revolutionising sport in the same way streaming revolutionised the movie industry.
For sports promoters, the crucial event is the negotiations with the big TV companies and increasingly, the streaming services. In June last year, Apple signed a 10-year deal to stream every game played in the US premier soccer tournament, called Major League Soccer. Netflix was at one stage looking at securing broadcast rights for tennis.
The idea behind the Endeavor/WWE merger is to secure better bargaining power in these negotiations. Sports rights negotiations are some of the toughest negotiations ever. It was interesting to see SuperSport announce just six days ago that sadly, it would not be screening the 2023 Indian Premier League (IPL) because “SuperSport could not secure broadcast rights for this year’s tournament”. Three days later, it turned out that, miraculously, it could and did.
And that goes to prove the two golden rules of negotiations: 1) it’s not a zero-sum game and 2) create a credible impression that you could walk away. Clearly, what was going on behind the scenes was a rather brutal discussion about money.
Lots of people say money ruins sport. You can see how the argument holds when yet another sportsman is convicted of match-fixing, as former Lions player Jean Symes was this week. But money’s power also ensures that sport is ever present, as we are seeing now very regularly. DM/BM