Stephanie McMahon on the Future of the WWE, ‘Women’s Evolution,’ and Building a Community
Stephanie McMahon believes the WWE can be as big or bigger than Disney.
The professional wrestling company’s chief brand officer says after her father, Vince McMahon, took over the business from his father in 1982, it went from being a territorial venture to a “global media enterprise currently valued at anywhere between $5 billion to $6 billion.”
Today, WWE has made its presence known to its audience on every device and across every distribution channel.
The company produces more than 550 live events a year around the world. WrestleMania 35, attended by 82,265 fans, generated $16.9 million, becoming MetLife Stadium’s highest grossing entertainment event. Its NXT division is growing fast, and impressing with its roster of emerging talent.
There are also the E! reality shows, the André the Giant documentary on HBO, movies, video games, toys, Netflix projects, and a dedicated WWE digital streaming network that will relaunch with a redesign. McMahon herself will host a show for Quibi. By October, Smackdown Live will move from USA to Fox—the first time a weekly WWE show has aired on a major broadcast TV network.
The brand also keeps working on bringing more fans into the fold—especially women, who make up 40% of its TV audience, according to Nielsen.
Driven by McMahon, WWE has been among leaders of what’s being heralded as a women’s revolution in entertainment and sports, turning UFC fighters like Ronda Rousey into WrestleMania headliners and talent like Becky Lynch into stars who grace the cover of ESPN The Magazine.
“WWE has always been a voice for social change and reflecting culture,” McMahon told Fortune, days before SummerSlam, its second-most popular event after WrestleMania. “It's a privilege and a responsibility to reflect society at large. WWE is ultimately a reflection of the world and we need to be representative of all cultures, all people. We just want to give our women equal opportunity.”
Despite its recent successes, WWE does need a boost in some areas, including declining ratings blamed on creative decisions.
“We can always get better,” McMahon admits. “We want to surprise and delight our audience and give them an experience that's worthy of their passion.”
In an exclusive with Fortune, McMahon shares how WWE plans to keep fans engaged while attracting new supporters.
Fortune: How would you describe the current state of WWE?
McMahon: Well, first I’m going to start with what hasn’t changed. It's our mission to put smiles on people’s faces all over the world. Whether we do that with our entertainment or by giving back to the community; that has definitely not changed. The fundamentals of storytelling have definitely not changed. It's still protagonist versus antagonist with conflict resolution. That’s no different than any great storytelling platform. The only difference is that our conflicts are settled inside a 20-by-20-foot ring.
What has changed is that we now have the ability to go, more than ever, direct to consumer. Whether that's through our WWE Network, through digital and social media, it’s allowing us to have the one-on-one engagements with our fan base.
WWE’s SmackDown debuts on Fox on Oct. 4. How big of a potential game changer is this for the brand that will now be promoted alongside the NFL, MLB, and NASCAR?
Strictly from a company standpoint, it more than tripled the value of our content rights. I couldn’t be prouder of that. And we couldn’t be more proud to be a part of the Fox family. Yes, we are an entertainment franchise, but we deliver like sports. It’s exactly where I think WWE should be.
You’re starting to see some more competition from rivals like AEW, which recently made the move to cable.
I think it will ultimately make us all better, I really do.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a major star. His Hobbs & Shaw also features WWE wrestler Roman Reigns. John Cena is also breaking out and co-starred in Transformers spinoff Bumblebee and will be seen in Fast & Furious 9. What’s the ultimate payoff to having your stars cross over to other areas of entertainment?
We always want to grow and reach new people, as well as re-engage casual fans or lapsed fans. The more we can get our superstars exposure outside of WWE programming, the better it is for everyone. The ultimate end goal is driving viewers back in to WWE programming but at the end of the day, the more you are front and center in people's minds the more they're thinking about your product, the better you're going to be as a business.
How do you know whether WWE’s presence across all of these other platforms increases engagement?
We track all different kinds of metrics. We currently have 60 data scientists employed here at WWE constantly analyzing all different forms of data—social media trends, purchases you make across our multiple lines of business, how you engage or interact, what you click on, stars that you're interested in—because we really want to create that 360-degree experience for our fan base. We want to super serve you and be as customized as you'd like it to be.
You have been a champion for women’s empowerment, and significantly elevated the profile of female wrestlers at WWE. They’re no longer called Divas. They’ve performed in Abu Dhabi. In the past year alone, WWE hosted its first all-woman’s pay-per-view, headlined WrestleMania with a women’s match, and added Renee Young as the first full time female TV commentator. You also just hired former CBS executive Susan Levison to run WWE Studios.
It's important, because, well, women matter. When I was growing up, I didn't have that representation. Women being the main event (at WrestleMania) wouldn't have even been thought of. It would have been laughable, quite frankly. And to now have my three daughters sitting in the front row seeing women headline and be the main event just because that's the way it is—that to me is what this women's evolution is all about. Fighting for what's right.
How did that change at WWE take place?
It really started off down at the WWE Performance Center, in Orlando. We started recruiting elite female athletes, same as the men. We trained them the same as the men and gave them the same match time and opportunities. They started to rise to the top when we started giving these women the spotlight and a true opportunity. Our audience started chanting for women's wrestling. That’s when our women had the chance to showcase what they could do. It created this demand from our fan base that translated into the main roster.
In February 2015, we had a "Divas" match that was a tag match that lasted all of 30 seconds in a three-hour show. Our fans started a hashtag of #GiveDivasAChance that trended worldwide for three days, specifically calling for better character development, longer matches, more athleticism, better storylines. All we had to do was listen.
You’re taking that to another level, joining forces with the U.N. Foundation as part of “Girl Up.”
It provides tools for teen girls all over the world to become effective leaders. Everything from teaching civic responsibility to how to make an impact in their local community. What we have created with them is the “Sports for a Purpose" program to address gender inequality in sports but to also provide opportunity around sports and keep girls in sports. You learn so many critical life skills and build confidence (in sports).
Giving back to your fans has been a big mission for WWE.
Community is so big for WWE. We have this huge, tremendous platform that enables us to help our partners talk about their missions. To talk about Special Olympics or Susan G. Komen and breast cancer awareness, pediatric awareness with Conor's Cure & V Foundation. Partnerships with GLAAD and Boys & Girls Club of America. We've done so much in the community space—we now have an entire team that works on this.
Where aren’t you now that you would like WWE to be?
We have the most passionate fans in the world so wherever they are we want to be. I want to figure out fantasy sports for WWE, e-sports, podcasts, V.R., A.I. We are doing all of those things in different ways, but we can always improve. There's the desire to constantly grow and learn and that's one of the beautiful things about the digital and tech space because you have the chance to test. Our fans will tell us what they like, what they don't like, and what they don't want us to do ever again.
With WWE's global expansion, which markets would you say are growing the most and which have the biggest opportunity?
All the different facets of our business and what we're trying to accomplish here in the U.S., that's what we're trying to do all over the world. It represents a huge opportunity for us.
The biggest opportunity is probably India… and China just from a sheer population standpoint. Of course, the Middle East and Latin America.
What's been the most challenging aspect of all this growth?
I think resources, quite frankly. Resources to keep up. Our company is now nearly 1,000 employees, and if we really want to grow the way we want to we're going to need a lot more people to help us. But we're lean and mean, and it's always been a very entrepreneurial spirit here in WWE, and it's one of the things I feel people love about being here. We all wear many many hats. There's a new challenge every single day. It's constant reprioritization to try and stay on top of everything.
SummerSlam takes place this Sunday, Aug. 11 in front of a sold-out crowd at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, streaming live around the world on WWE Network at 7 p.m. ET.
Correction, Aug. 8, 2019: The headline and text of this article has been changed to reflect an error in the transcription of McMahon’s remarks.
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