It’s the end of an era in professional wrestling, with the news last week that Vince McMahon is retiring as the CEO of WWE. McMahon’s exit comes amid a massive scandal in which the CEO was found to have paid tens of millions of dollars in settlements to women accusing him of sexual misconduct.
According to Front Office Sports, the news has had a surprising effect on WWE’s stock: It has risen considerably. That’s because of speculation that a post-McMahon WWE could be sold, presumably at a premium. And even though McMahon no longer has an executive or board role with the company, he remains its largest shareholder. His daughter, Stephanie McMahon, is now the co-CEO, while his son-in-law Paul Levesque — the former wrestler known as Triple-H — is now the head of creative.
An earlier report from the same outlet had listed Endeavor, Comcast/NBCUniversal, and Liberty Media as potential suitors. WWE, a public company since the late 1990s, is currently valued at over $5 billion, so any buyer would likely need to pay a premium over that.
In an interview with Recode Media, WWE President and Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan said the company is exploring its options. “We’re open for business on anything and everything, and even some of the business plans that we’ve announced recently, I think, are different or unique to what the company has traditionally done,” Khan said. “So we’re open for business. If somebody calls, we’ll listen, but we’re not active. We’re not out in the marketplace trying to change that structure.”
What Might Happen if a Streamer Buys WWE?
A Comcast/NBC Universal purchase would be the most seamless, from a streaming standpoint. Since early 2021, Peacock has been the streaming home of WWE’s monthly premium events as well as its vast archives, after Comcast paid a reported $1 billion over five years to fold the former WWE Network into Peacock in the United States. The WWE has been shown to drive many subscriptions to Peacock.
The Comcast streaming deal runs through 2026, so if WWE found a new, non-Comcast owner, those streaming rights could change hands starting that year. But it also means that any other buyer would likely have to wait four years to put the bulk of WWE on their own streaming product.
Endeavor, while it doesn’t own a streaming service, is also the controlling owner of UFC, so it has experience with combat sports, as well as opportunities for synergies, should it own both companies.
Liberty Media, meanwhile, is the owner of the auto racing circuit Formula One, which has begun to enjoy massive popularity in the U.S., thanks to its Netflix show “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.” Liberty also doesn’t have its own streaming service, although Liberty’s John Malone said last year that he tried to buy Netflix in 2009.
Another possibly intriguing acquirer for WWE is Disney. While WWE has a history of not being nearly as family-friendly as Disney has traditionally preferred, the two companies reached a deal earlier this year for Disney+/Hotstar to take WWE Network streaming rights in Indonesia.
WWE currently airs a block of programming on the A&E Network, which Disney partially owns. Wrestling media reported around the time of the Peacock deal that Disney-owned ESPN had been interested in the WWE Network rights, and was upset not to win them. ESPN.com launched a WWE vertical in 2016; ESPN and WWE, despite both being headquartered in Connecticut, had had little to do with one another prior to that point.
A Disney deal would presumably entail putting WWE archival programming on Hulu or ESPN+, although it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some type of family-friendly programming — a revival of the old “Rock 'n' Wrestling” cartoon, perhaps? — could land on Disney+.
Considering other potential suitors, Netflix is struggling mightily as subscriber growth slows. It’s unlikely they’d burn that much money on an event they couldn’t broadcast right away. Apple has deep pockets like Disney, but their strategy has been more straightforward on the sports side, with deals for MLS and MLB games. Amazon would be an interesting destination; the company definitely has the money. Prime Video already has Thursday night NFL games this season, and the platform has experimented with live concerts. The Prime Video strategy has been hard to pin down, but money is not an issue.
Who ends up owning WWE in the long run remains to be seen. But in the event of a sale, the McMahon family is likely to wind up collecting billions, scandal or no scandal.