Say what you will about WWE, but whether it’s in the ring or in real life, they know how to keep people on the edge of their seats and wanting more. Since Thursday, the company has lost over a billion dollars, were again heavily criticized for being a gleaming travelogue for an authoritarian regime, had most of their staff held essentially hostage, and put on one of their best shows in years. Wrestling fans always love the blurring of lines between kayfabe (wrestling speak for the characters and storylines that they operate under) and real life, but none were as starkly dramatic as the events of late last week.
Trouble in the wrestling universe started in the late hours of Wednesday night. In afterhours trading, WWE’s stock started to slip even more noticeably than it had over the past 8 months. It was only a year ago that, upon striking multi-billion dollar television deals with Fox and the USA Network, their stock had kissed the 100 per share ceiling that was never thought attainable, especially for a company that had spent over a decade being publically traded at around ten dollars per share.
Optimism had dimmed since that point though, and the stock was starting to tumble on a fairly consistent trajectory. The share spent most of the summer trading around 75 dollars per share. The fall had to do with a number of reasons. Interest had begun to fade for the organization’s product. They weren’t selling tickets in smaller cities, and were failing to sell out in traditionally wrestling heavy cities like Chicago. TV ratings were going down at a consistent enough level that there were rumors (in the world of wrestling, there are always rumors. 99% are garbage, written by “too smart for their own good” fans who like to think they are experts) that Fox had already soured on the deal enough that they were going to move Smackdown, the sister show to wrestling mainstay “Monday Night Raw” over to Fox Sports network, which is carried by a fraction of potential viewers on cable packages that would otherwise be able to watch it on Fox.
Other issues included a seeming inability to cultivate stars and the negative press they had gotten when they signed a deal a couple years ago to start running shows in Saudi Arabia. The former is relatively easy to explain as A: wrestling fans have so many options in this day and age that their opinions have a wider range than, say 1988, when it was Hulk Hogan, and if you lived in the south, Ric Flair. On top of that, the organization does have transformative crossover stars in Roman Reigns, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch.
The latter issue is at the crux of the entire rest of this story. At this point, many of you have probably seen the skewering WWE received at the hands of Last Week Tonight host John Oliver. For those unaware, the basics are that WWE signed a massive contract with the Sports Ministry of Saudi Arabia to run multiple shows there every year. While nobody has seen the extent of the contracts, one thing became painfully obvious almost immediately. WWE was essentially creating shiny, pristine tourism videos for the Saudis. They talked up how great it was there, and how well they were treated, along with HD videos of the exotic land that would have made Anthony Bourdain blush.
It was gross on its own as it showed that, to coin a phrase from Ted Dibiase, “Everybody has a price.” It was double so though, as Saudi Arabia is well known for, well for lack of a better term, human rights atrocities. WWE had gotten into bed with a country that had a history of treating women poorly and murdering dissidents.
Then the Jamal Khashoggi murder happened.
While Saudi Arabia continues to claim that the people who acted on this murder went rogue, nobody with half a brain who isn’t actively being paid by Saudi Arabia believes them. Saudi Arabia had a journalist who had criticized the regime murdered and dismembered in a Turkish consulate. This is around the part where WWE die hards will jump in and say that “WWE has nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone does business with Saudi Arabia. Are you going to boycott Coca Cola?” The difference is, other companies weren’t making travelogues to show how great the country was.
There were many calls for WWE to pull out of their contract with the country. Virgin Enterprises pulled out of a billion dollar deal with the Saudis in the wake of the Khashoggi murder. WWE wouldn’t do it, though. They had blood all over their hands, and they weren’t comfortable with cleaning it off.
After the murder, WWE did noticeably turn down the propaganda from the previous shows when it came time to promote the next one. They even quit saying that they were having the show there. It was implied, and everyone knew, but they didn’t say it specifically because, hey, out of sight, out of mind. The show seemed to go off without a hitch. There was the same pomp and circumstance that was required of them by contract to do. What happened next shows what many people with common sense already know: if you get in bed with a government that murders anyone who stands in their way, then they are probably not the most trustworthy people.
Which brings us to late Wednesday night. The stock started dipping ahead of the WWE Quarter Three shareholders meeting, which was being held on Thursday. When the Q3 meeting happened, WWE announced that it had to lower their income guidance for the quarter significantly. This was caused by an 18% drop in ticket sales and 16% drop in online sales. Worse than that, though, was that they had to drop their full year operating income by as much as 20 million dollars. The shortfall? WWE had already run one show, and were about to run a second show in Saudi Arabia without an actual contract in place. And they hadn’t actually been paid.
Where it gets murkier is if this had always been in place. WWE talked up its massive deal to have shows in Saudi Arabia when it first happened. They ran multiple shows without an issue. But these shows would have fallen under the original deal that WWE spoke of when it was put in place, and there was never any word leaked of a potential opt out clause in the contract, and if Saudi Arabia had opted out, then why did WWE continue running the shows in the first place?
More likely, WWE never had anything more than a handshake agreement of sorts with Saudi Arabia, or they had a working contract with gaping loopholes in it. Either way, WWE was paying out of pocket to have these massive, over the top shows on foreign soil and were not collecting any of the benefit from it. In their quarterly report, they said that they “cannot accurately determine all of the adjustments that would be required” when it comes to their ability to reconcile their fourth quarter or full year guidance. Or put more simply: They don’t know when/if Saudi Arabia is going to pay them.
The stock went even further down after this news, crashing as low as 57 dollars per share (a reminder, it was worth 100 per share around this time a year ago). Oh, and there was still a wrestling event to hold the next day.
“I have balls the size of grapefruits…” was a popular expression of Vince McMahon’s. In reality, or at least in the wrestling world, he very much did. He had taken a regional wrestling company over from his dad and turned it into a multi-billion dollar operation with three traveling companies competing for eyeballs. He had vanquished every enemy to cross his path, from the territories, to WCW, to TNA and everything in between. His standing at the top of the wrestling mountain was forever set in stone. The ballsiest thing he might have ever done, though, was on Friday. As people around the world tuned in to watch “Crown Jewel” live from Saudi Arabia, there was a very specific group of people who weren’t able to watch it: the people of Saudi Arabia. Remember how I mentioned that there was a lot of grey area to the contract that was signed (hand shaken) by the two entities? One of those also included a television deal with Saudi Arabia to bring programming to the country. Up until Friday, wrestling programs were put on tv for the country to see. But without a deal in place, and his company having lost billions due to the fall of their shares over the lack of payment from Saudi Arabia, Vince made the decision to black out the wrestling event in the country.
While people who lived ten miles away from the event weren’t able to watch it, the rest of the world was able to, for the low price of 9.99 on the WWE Network! Streaming services are starting to hit their nadir right now, with Apple’s streaming service coming soon and Disney+ a mere week away, with ready-made programming to drop immediately. WWE Network was an early believer in streaming and ditched their old business model, which was that you built up feuds with the big matches occurring at Pay Per Views, with people generally paying 50-60 dollars to the cable company to watch. Instead, they pivoted to a streaming platform that, for 9.99 per month, allowed you to watch every wrestling event ever, including the formerly 50-60 dollar pay per views. This was a big deal for a couple reasons. For one, the price point is hard to beat for wrestling fans. For another, Vince McMahon was a bit of a Genghis Khan in the wrestling world. When he destroyed companies, he would go through and pillage them and purchase their entire library of wrestling matches. He used to do this, because the footage could be chopped up into documentaries or “Best of” DVD’s. With the network, they up and just dumped everything on to the streaming service, a kind of wrestling nirvana. If you want to randomly watch a Greg Valentine vs. Roddy Piper match from Georgia Championship Wrestling in 1982, all you had to do was log onto the network.
Beyond that, it allowed the WWE to air their pay per views live all over the world. They started to bring in foreign language broadcast teams. Wrestlemania this year was broadcast in something incredible like 22 different languages. One of those countries that benefited from this? You guessed it, Saudi Arabia. Now Vince was biting the hand of the country that was threatening not to feed it.
What happened afterwards is open to interpretation, but here are some of the facts.
Several wrestlers and executives left before the show was even over and boarded private jets. Brock Lesnar, the champion and former UFC legend, had his own private jet and was out of the country before the fireworks had even settled. Vince McMahon had high tailed it out of the country, knowing there would be backlash from pulling the plug on local programming. He took Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, and a handful of executives with him.
When word got out that Vince had done what he had done with the network, several other wrestlers pooled their money together to get a private jet to get the hell out of the country. While it hasn’t been disclosed who, it’s reasonable to think that only the top of the top of the organization could afford to do this on almost no notice.
Every other wrestler, writer and employee (around 175 in all) boarded a chartered jet to fly home. That jet never got off the runway. AAAAANNNNDDDD here is where things get very murky. The chartered jet was delayed before they could get out of the gate. Wrestlers reported military presence around their plane. They were forced to sit on the plane for hours before eventually being pulled off the plane and told they weren’t leaving. WWE reported that the plane had mechanical issues, but that 20 stars had decided to get their own plane and were going to fly home so they could make it home in time for Smackdown in Buffalo New York, which was going to go live only 24 hours after the Saudi Arabia show had ended.
You see, the show always goes on. And forcing your wrestlers to fly 18 hours to Riyhad and 18 hours back a couple days later so they can get off a plane and wrestle again two hours later isn’t a big deal to WWE. But, when your wrestling staff is being held hostage by a foreign government because you blacked out a television program locally, it tends to complicate things.
WWE attempted damage control by saying the 20 who had gotten a private jet were doing so specifically so they could make the show. Not only did they not make the show, this makes no sense logistically. While Saudi Arabia is very oil rich, that doesn’t mean there are just private jets sitting around, gassed up, ready to leave on a moment’s notice. They had known about this in advance, and were safeguarding themselves against something going wrong. Things went wrong, and they got on a private jet, but didn’t manage to land until Friday Night Smackdown had already started.
The 175 wrestlers and crew that were being held in Saudi Arabia weren’t allowed to go home until 36 hours later. There was a feckless apology by the jet charter company about the plane needing to be repaired. There were rumors flying left and right. People who knew people in the company were doing the talking for the wrestlers, who didn’t want to speak out themselves for fear of getting in trouble with Vince, or worse, the Saudi government. Some wrestlers were outwardly pissed about the way the WWE framed the people who took the private jet as “wanting to give the fans a show in Buffalo” which made the stranded wrestlers, who were being held in Saudi Arabia against their will mind you, come off like not caring about the fans.
And the private jet didn’t even get to the show on time, anyway.
So, what happens when nearly your entire roster is either in the sky or being parked in Riyadh? You operate on the fly and somehow put on your best televised wrestling show in a long time.
At Crown Jewel, it was announced that for the upcoming Survivor Series event, NXT, WWE’s minor league would be participating. Survivor Series is a yearly show that pits competing factions against eachother in elimination matches to determine championships and/or supremacy. NXT recently got a television deal with USA network, boosting their visibility, making this announcement very important. With every other brand out of the country, NXT’s biggest stars were flown to Buffalo at the last minute. This was going to be their night.
Also at the show was Brock Lesnar. If you remember, I said he had his own private jet and flew home. WWE pays Brock on a “per appearance” contract, with him making anywhere between 50,000-200,000 per appearance. There is zero reason to believe that at that cost, Lesnar would have been at the show if it was all hands on deck. Also at the show were most of the female wrestlers. The big thing to come out of the Saudi Arabia show was that, for the first time, female wrestlers were allowed to compete. Natalya Neidhart and Lacey Evans wrestled to a monstrous applause at the show. But that still left most of the women stateside to compete on the show. The Miz, the most underrated talent on WWE at any given point, also didn’t go to the Saudi show and was available. They had one more key asset, though, that took this night from good to great.
Daniel Bryan is generally one of the most beloved wrestlers of the past decade. His underdog run in the lead up to Wrestlemania 30 is one of the biggest and most important story lines that WWE has ever pulled off. Daniel Bryan had to retire a few years back due to constant neck problems, caused from abusing his body in the ring. He was, though, able to come out of retirement a couple years ago and has since settled in as the reliable wrestler who you know you can get a great match out of with the right competition. Bryan refuses to do the Saudi shows because he, like many others, considers it blood money.
That was pretty much what the WWE had at its disposal, along with the erstwhile Sami Zayn. So the WWE staged an angle where NXT just up and invaded everyone, and beat up everyone in their path. It was great television, and more importantly, great exposure for wrestlers like Rhea Butcher and Keith Lee, who hardcore fans know, but casual fans might not have heard of, yet. Matt Riddle got a huge pop. Shayna Baszler had people out of their seats. The WWE was backed into a corner and was forced to give the fans exactly what they wanted. But they saved the best for last.
Adam Cole is the NXT World Champion. In previous generations, he would have been considered too small to contend for titles, and would have instead been fodder for larger, plodding wrestlers who were more chic back in the day. His years coming up through the indies with other great wrestlers such as Tommasso Chiampa and Johnny Gargano helped him develop a smooth, flowing style of wrestling in the ring that is incredibly fun to watch given the right opponent. On Friday night, Daniel Bryan was the right opponent.
Everyone throws around the term “dream match” a lot in wrestling. WWE has run the concept into the ground, especially at the Saudi shows, where they pay non wrestlers like Tyson Fury, and retired wrestlers like Shawn Michaels, millions of dollars to come out and do their thing and make an event feel special, even though more often than not, these things land flat. Daniel Bryan vs. Adam Cole is an old school dream match. While their paths might have crossed very early in their careers, they were out there as fully formed wrestlers, with individual styles and a great ability to work a crowd into a frenzy.
Beyond that, they weren’t rushed, as too often happens in WWE. See, normally when matches like this are planned and given a week to promote, the match lasts maybe ten minutes and has a false finish (wrestling parlance for a non-clean finish where there is usually a disqualification or interference). Bryan and Cole were introduced to the crowd at 8:25 pm, meaning the last 35 minutes of the show was theirs. Extra time gives wrestlers an opportunity to build to big moves, where things don’t feel rushed. They aren’t trying to pack as much action in as humanly possible. It felt remarkably old school. Beyond that, Cole and Bryan are two of the best wrestlers in the business. The match felt like a big deal. From the moment it was announced that match was happening, it felt like a big deal.
In the end, Cole was able to win cleanly, gaining a pinfall victory of Bryan. The NXT crew all rushed to the ring to celebrate, and HHH, the former Degeneration X member turned head of NXT came out and gave a speech that they were no longer the minor leagues that they were here to stay. We as fans could get on board or get run over. The crowd lost their minds. The scheduled main event was set to be Baron Corbin vs. Roman Reigns, a match that absolutely nobody was excited about. Instead, Buffalo got treated to a glimpse of how good wrestling can be when it’s done right and made to feel important, even if the company has their back against the wall and they don’t even necessarily have the people available to run a show.
And all it took was pissing of the Saudi government. There is no way of knowing if they will be able to continue this momentum, or if WWE will go back to the status quo. What we do know is, is that as more details of the issues with Saudi Arabia come available, the stock continues to fall. Early Monday, the stock hit its 52 week low before recovering slightly. The stock is worth half of what it was worth 12 months ago. There is no telling if the deal with Saudi Arabia will ever be fixed. But what WWE ended up with was a show that felt big, felt real, and felt important. All they needed was to be backed into a corner to do what they do best. Fight.