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Hardcore wrestling fans worry but enjoy the drama

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WWE SmackDown World Tour

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World Wrestling Entertainment and Endeavor-owned UFC are set to merge this year in a deal that will create a sports entertainment behemoth valued at more than $21 billion.

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

For wrestling fans, though, the story’s not about those numbers. Rather, the merger’s success hinges on what’s actually happening in the ring — and whether it’s worth their time and money. 

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

Some are worried that a return to a pay-per-view model for WWE’s flagship event, WrestleMania, is on the horizon. 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 outpaced WrestleMania for the most watched hours of any live event on Peacock, according to the company.

The WWE’s exclusive streaming deal with Peacock, which includes WrestleMania streaming rights, is set to expire in 2026.

WWE declined to comment for this article. In late March, before the UFC deal was announced, WWE CEO Nick Khan said the company keeps fans’ price sensitivity in mind.

“If NBCU came to us and said, ‘Hey, we’ll take you from where you’re at now to five times for Peacock, but we need to charge an upcharge,’ we’d have to take a hard look at that,” Khan told “The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media” podcast. “Most importantly, we don’t want to price out our fans.”

Jerry D’Erasmo, a longtime fan who hosts a wrestling podcast, said he understands why WWE might eventually shift WrestleMania back to pay-per-view. Yet he also thinks it’s one of the few things that could actually turn off swaths of the fan base. He said many fans have told him that they’ll tune in to recap podcasts like his own instead of paying $60 or $70 to watch a pay-per-view.

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

Endeavor-UFC deal is the next evolution of WWE, says Vince McMahon

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

In this case, there’s an elephant in the room, and its name is Vince McMahon. For many WWE fans, whether they’ll pay up for new streaming or pay-per-view services rests a great deal on whether McMahon, 77, who’s controlled WWE since taking over from his father in 1982, will be involved with creative decisions.

Despite numerous settlements with women who have claimed sexual misconduct by McMahon, including a rape claim, which he denies, he remains at the top of WWE.

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

McMahon isn’t going anywhere, at least not any time soon. He will be the executive chairman of the new combined company, which has yet to be named, alongside Endeavor Chief Executive Ari Emanuel. After 40 years, many fans see him as a permanent fixture, even if he’s not the CEO.

“When the bombs drop, there’ll be three things left: cockroaches, 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.

Ethan Miller | Getty Images

McMahon told CNBC last month he won’t be deeply involved with WWE’s storytelling when WWE and UFC merge — but fans say they need more proof before they’ll accept his statements at face value.

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

There are other concerns about the content, too.

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

“We know what Vince McMahon is; we know what he’s brought to the table creatively,” Courcelle said. “Over the last five to 10 years, it hasn’t been the best it could be, from a fan’s perspective.”  

Still, fans keep coming back for more. Anyone who’s forked over thousands of dollars on wrestling events and merchandise over the years won’t immediately stop watching if the new WWE isn’t up to snuff in their eyes. Some longtime hardcore fans aren’t sure where they’ll land quite yet, but they are likely to stick around to see where things go from here. 

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

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

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