WWE once again finds itself at a crossroad. In an era where digital streaming is expanding more and more by the day, rights fees for sports franchises are an overfilled bubble that seem ready to burst at a moment’s notice.
WWE’s television deal with NBC Universal, which expires in Sept. 2019, reportedly pays the company about $180 million per year. Last night, according to a report from Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports executives and on-air talent were in attendance for a WWE SmackDown Live taping at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. WWE and Fox are rumored to be in the middle of a courtship, with Fox potentially losing the UFC when its deal expires later this year.
According to ESPN, UFC is eyeing a deal near $450 million per year, while Fox made an offer of $200 million at the end of 2017.
If UFC and Fox part ways, Fox will be looking for a new franchise to fill programming on the Fox Network as well as Fox Sports 1. In attendance at SmackDown Live last night were Fox Sports president Eric Shanks, Fox Sports producer Jacobs Ullman and on-air talent Colin Cowherd.
One report at the end of last year suggested that, if WWE came to an agreement with Fox, the Fox Network would air Monday Night Raw from 8-10 p.m. on Monday nights, reverting the show back to its two-hour format (most local Fox affilliates air local news at 10 p.m.). SmackDown Live and other WWE programming would air on Fox Sports 1.
Fox should also have a lot of cash at its disposal. The company is in the process of selling off film property to Disney, which leaves a lot of money on hand to spend on sports franchises, which is the rumored plan for the company.
At the same time, WWE is dabbing in streaming media. Of course, the company owns its own streaming network, but WWE is also in the middle of a trial run with Facebook Watch, airing a weekly Mixed Match Challenge show, where mixed tag teams are competing in a tournament to win money for their favorite charities.
The likelihood of WWE moving all of its television properties to WWE Network is slim, because they would be walking away from loads of cash from a television partner (probably in the neighborhood of about $1 billion over a five-year period).
That’s what makes this negotiation with NBC and potentially Fox a huge deal for WWE. If they sign a five-year deal with a new partner for around $200 million per year, and the sports rights bubble bursts inside of that window — some analysts believe that’s a likely scenario — then this could be the last big television deal for WWE.