WWE followers fearful about UFC merger

WWE SmackDown World Tour

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World Wrestling Entertainment and Endeavor-owned UFC will merge this year in a deal that will create a sports-entertainment giant worth more than $21 billion.

After the deal was announced in early April, WWE stock soared to its highest level in almost four years. The stock is up more than 50% so far this year.

For wrestling fans, however, history isn’t about those numbers. Rather, the success of the Fusion depends on what’s actually happening in the ring – and whether it’s worth your time and money.

In a landscape where consumers have broad economic and political clout, the merger will serve as a test of how strong fan collective power can be in the face of corporate giants. And wrestling fans aren’t afraid to share their opinions.

Some are concerned that a return to a pay-per-view model is on the horizon for WWE’s flagship event, WrestleMania. Last month, it streamed exclusively on NBCUniversal’s Peacock, where it generated the streaming service’s highest weekend usage ever. Though NBCU doesn’t release specific streaming numbers for the event, only the Super Bowl overtook WrestleMania for the most watched hours of any live event on Peacock, according to the company.

WWE’s exclusive streaming deal with Peacock, which includes streaming rights to WrestleMania, expires in 2026.

WWE declined to comment on this article. In late March, before the UFC deal was announced, WWE CEO Nick Khan said the company was keeping a close eye on fans’ price sensitivity.

“If NBCU came to us and said, ‘Hey, we’re taking you from where you are now five times for Peacock, but we have to charge extra,’ we would have to take a good look at that,” Khan said on the podcast “The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media”. “Most importantly, we don’t want to price our fans out.”

Jerry D’Erasmo, a longtime fan who hosts a wrestling podcast, said he understands why WWE WrestleMania could eventually go back to pay-per-view. However, he also believes this is one of the few things that might actually turn off large swathes of the fandom. He said many fans told him they would tune in to round up podcasts like his own, rather than pay $60 or $70 to watch a pay-per-view.

How WWE will tell its stories and conduct its games under a new executive regime will also help determine how they spend their money, fans said.

“The biggest concern from a fan perspective — not investors, but fans — is creative control,” said Matt Courcelle, longtime wrestling fan and host of The WWE Podcast.

In this case, there is an elephant in the room, and his name is Vince McMahon. For many WWE fans, whether to pay for new streaming or pay-per-view services depends heavily on whether McMahon, 77, who has controlled WWE since acquiring it from his father in 1982, has a say in creative decisions becomes.

Despite numerous comparisons to women who have alleged sexual misconduct by McMahon, including a rape he denies, he remains at the forefront of WWE.

“This guy has taken control of the biggest wrestling company in the world for better or for worse,” said Jimmy Baxter, a professional wrestling commentator and podcaster in New Jersey. “For that he was a success story, but along the way there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears – and a lot of paid women.”

McMahon isn’t going anywhere, at least not any time soon. He will also serve as executive chairman of the newly combined company, whose name is yet to be announced Make an effort Managing Director Ari Emmanuel. After 40 years, many fans see him as an integral part, even if he is not the CEO.

“When the bombs fall, there are three things left: roaches, Twinkies, and Vince McMahon,” Baxter said.

World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Chairman Vince McMahon is introduced during the WWE Monday Night Raw show at the Thomas & Mack Center August 24, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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McMahon told CNBC last month that he won’t be deeply involved in WWE storytelling when WWE and UFC merge – but fans say they need more proof before taking his statements at face value.

“As much as they want to tell us he’s not ‘in the weeds’ creatively, there’s been a lot of evidence lately that Vince is,” Courcelle said, including rumors that he was on the show behind the scenes Raw after WrestleMania.

There are other concerns about the content as well.

In late April, a former WWE writer filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming she was fired in retaliation for cracking down on racist remarks in the writer’s room, according to court documents. The lawsuit lists McMahon and his daughter Stephanie McMahon, herself a former executive, as defendants, as well as WWE itself and other employees of the backstage company.

“We know what Vince McMahon is; we know what he creatively brought to the table,” said Courcelle. “In the last five to ten years, from a fan’s perspective, it wasn’t the best it could be.”

Still, fans keep coming back for more. Anyone who has spent thousands of dollars on wrestling events and merchandise over the years won’t stop watching if they don’t think the new WWE is up to par. Some longtime hardcore fans aren’t sure where they’ll end up just yet, but they’ll likely stay to see how it goes.

“I absolutely love the drama,” Baxter said. “I love watching a crazy old man burn his empire down just because he can.”

Disclosure: Peacock is the streaming service of NBCUniversal, CNBC’s parent company.

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