World Wrestling Entertainment: Achieving Continued Growth and Market Penetration through International Expansion

Abstract

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is best known for its
promotion of professional wrestling as sports entertainment. Today, World
Wrestling Entertainment is an integrated media and entertainment company
principally engaged in the development, production, and marketing of television
programming, pay-per-view programming, and live events, and the licensing
and sale of branded consumer products featuring the highly successful
World Wrestling entertainment brand. As the WWE brand continues to grow,
a strategic decision has been made to place a greater emphasis on the
expansion the WWE brand globally. This paper will present an overview
of WWE from its beginnings as the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation)
to its recent decision to capitalize on the significant operating leverage
of its business model through increase in its brand in markets throughout
the world.

Background

Originally named the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation),
then the WWW (World Wrestling Federation), and currently called the WWE
(World Wrestling Entertainment), professional wrestling has come a long
way from its beginnings in the 1930’s. Today, nearly 50 million
fans admit to watching the Monday night WWE flagship television program,
WWE Raw Is War on the USA television network. This is the number one regularly
scheduled cable TV program among young women. Among men aged 12 to 24,
it topped Monday Night Football. More people attend the WWE’s live
shows than attend an average music concert; the WWE’s Website gets
more viewers than either the NFL or the NBA sites (Sully, 2005).

Wrestling was an early favorite of network TV, but it faded
when the Dumont network folded in 1956 (Assael, 2002).

In an October 5, 2005 interview Kurt Schneider, Executive
Vice President of Marketing, provided a macro perspective on the corporation’s
international expansion efforts, outlining four reasons why logic would
suggest that the WWE will be successful in this venture: 1. Unlike major
sports leagues, there are no game “rules” to understand. It’s
just a “Good vs. Evil” premise; 2. Fans do not need to understand
a “language”; 3. Every single country has wrestling (in some
form) as part of their culture; 4. WWE wrestling is seen as a “uniquely
American export” (Schneider, 2005).

The WWE is, in effect, a hybrid of entertainment and sport.

Viewer Profile – Age Demographics

  • 71% male / 29% female 73% are 18 or older
  • 37% are between the ages of 12 and 34
  • 23% are between the ages of 18 and 34
  • 50% are 34 or younger
  • 14% are younger than age 12

Perhaps most importantly, WWE made a conscious decision
to create and develop two distinct brands: Raw and Smackdown! Each brand
is unique and has different story lines and separate talent. This creates
opportunities to capitalize not only on television programming, but also
on highly profitable live event tours, doubling the merchandising revenue
streams. Also, in keeping with its known youthful fan demographic, the
company has fostered and encouraged new media ventures and a heavy internet
presence (Rosner and Shropshire, 2004). The division of the WWE talent
roster into two distinctive and separate entities proved to be a stroke
of genius, reviving a company and sport that had previously suffered sagging
ratings and significantly lowered attendance numbers from live events.
This shift – a change in production strategy – was a necessary
one, and resulted in higher quality for both entities (Lamb, et al, 2005).

Beginning to formalize its expansion process, WWE Corporate
held true to its business model, a model which was highly successful domestically,
which has proven even more successful in internationally. Figure 1 depicts
the WWE model.

Figure one

WWE Expands Internationally

The internationalization of professional wrestling can be
traced back to Japan at the end of WWII, specifically the 1950’s.
Originally, no Japanese wrestler ever won a match, being associated with
being the loser after WWII. In effect, wrestling became a metaphor for
international politics.

The internationalization of wrestling then moved on to the
United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia, its primary markets.

As early as 2002, the WWE had already begun to position
itself within the international market. “WWE provides us with a
global identity that is distinct and unencumbered, which is critical to
our U.S. and international growth plans” said Linda McMahan, President
of WWE. “As WWE, we will launch our further expanded U.S. and international
touring, our international expansion of branded merchandise and licensed
products, and further integration into the film, publishing, and music
business” (Wagner, 2004.)

International expansion represents an important component
of the continued growth of WWE. The broad appeal of its content has yielded
high international demand for its television programs and its live events.
To further nurture this growing demand, WWE plans to continue its international
television distribution, currently available in more than 100 countries
in thirteen languages, and increasing its television penetration internationally
has the potential for increasing the demand for WWE live events, which,
in turn, has the potential to greatly increase the sales of its branded
merchandise. These brands enable WWE to execute its strategy by freeing
up schedules for talent to perform at more events in more countries.

“From an international standpoint, I don’t think
we’ve done a very good job, quite frankly, of exploiting the international
market like we really should. We’re on television in many, many
markets and do extremely well television ratings-wise, but that’s only
one aspect of what we do. We do licensing; we do merchandising, and live
events, and publications, and DVD’s and everything else imaginable.
And we haven’t integrated all of that in our international platforms,
and (doing that) is one of our goals” (McMahon, 2004).

Regardless of country and culture, the insemination process
at WWE is shockingly consistent and regimented. WWE Corporate Headquarters
adheres to a simple three-step plan when tapping into new markets: 1.
Sell TV programming first; 2. Sell live events tour; 3. Bring merchandise
overseas.

As of 2003, admittedly, the process of expanding internationally
was not overly formal within the company. There were essentially 3 groups:
a) TV Sales (with a goal of disseminating product (ex: Raw, Smackdown),
b. Live Event Touring (many “one off” events), and c. Licensing
(completely dependent on a & b). Shortly thereafter, Jonathon Sulley
was hired to handle the expansion efforts, with an overall goal of integrating
all existent strategies. The new process helps WWE to build primary markets;
while in the primary market, it allows WWE to build a secondary market
and finally tertiary markets (such as Chile, Ecuador, and Panama City
– all places that WWE has never been). WWE has plans of going to
Australia in late 2005, New Zealand in early 2006, and the Philippines
sometime in the near future.

Italy is currently the hottest market, surpassing success
seen even over in the United States. According to company research, the
licensing business is the deepest in Italy, and the WWE phenomenon is
at peak. For Italian fans, pro wrestling is “polarizing” –
you either love it, or you hate it. As Sulley (2005) said in an interview,
“the Italian market is like no other.”

Revenues on the international front have more than doubled
in the last three years, and steadily increased every fiscal year since
2002 – $38.5M (2002), $51.8M (2003), $63.2M (2004), $87.5M (2005). Figure
2 illuminates revenues, both for international expansion, but all in comparision
to domestic revenues, which have steadily declined each year over the
same period.

Figure 2: Comparison of Revenues (in $ millions

Figure 2

Television:

One strategy for the further expansion of the WWE brand
internationally is to duplicate its successful domestic business model
overseas (Figure 1) by building on its already established television
presence in over 100 international markets. One way to continue this market
penetration is through the expansion of its live event touring. The following
figures are representative of its growth in the international marketplace.

FISCAL YEAR # OF TOURS NUMBER OF EVENTS REVENUE
FY 2002 3 tours 5 events $4.3M
FY 2003 6 tours 19 events $13.1M
FY 2004 9 tours 32 events $20.3M
FY 2005 9 tours 49 events $33.0M

Looking toward FY2006, business is expected to move into
emerging markets such as Latin America, Eastern Europe, and China. This
fits the WWE strategy to broaden its international footprint in the following
manner:

Conduct 55-60 international events as compared to 49 in FY 2005
Attract over 1.6 million attendees worldwide
Sell television rights in over 100 international markets
Continue to develop and further pay-per-view distribution internationally
Expand WWE licensing agreements

Television Live Events:

For fiscal 2005, events were held in:

Berlin, Germany Frankfort, Germany
Birmingham, England London, England
Manchester, England Aberdeen, Scotland
Glasgow, Scotland Brisbane, Australia
Melbourne, Australia Sydney, Australia
Perth, Australia Helsinki, Finland
Dublin, Ireland Belfast, Ireland
Seoul, South Korea Nagoya, Japan
Tokyo, Japan Monterrey, Mexico
Florence, Italy Milan, Italy

Additional cities under consideration for future events
include:

Rome, Italy
Bolzano, Italy
Ancona, Italy
Livorno, Italy
Montreal, Quebec Canada
Toronto, Ontario Canada

The WWE Show Stops in Israel

As early as October 1994 the WWF, as it was called before
becoming the WWE, began presenting its live shows in Tel Aviv and Haifa.
The WWF become one of the biggest fads in Israel. The fad is being fueled
by an expensive but effective promotional campaign which included WWF
photo albums being distributed to all six Israeli high schools at lunch
hour, free of charge. The WWF was broadcast on Israeli cable television
once a week, on Friday afternoon when the streets are devoid of teenagers.
Wrestling is enormous, but not all wrestling programs are. Only the WWF
is. As an example, in 1995 the WWF returned for shows in Jerusalem and
Tel Aviv. The prior November saw ticket agencies scrambling for blocks
of tickets to sell and within weeks half the 16,500 seats had been sold.
he best seats, selling for $50.00, were sold within days.

1994 saw many of Israel’s major corporations joining
the WWF bandwagon. The country’s largest confectioner, Osem, sold
WWF snacks, and Israel’s largest sport shoe manufacturer, Gali,
signed a deal to emboss WWF stars on a line of sport shoes. Israel’s
second largest ice-cream manufacturer, Whitman, negotiated for the rights
to put WWF stars on its boxes for the summer season.

The popularity of WWE merchandise can be seen in the Israeli
example. Distributor of WWE merchandise in Israel, Boaz Dekel has stated
that, “This is the fad of all time, way bigger than even the Ninja
Turtles, The Simpsons, or Dinosaurs.” (Chamish, 1994). The items
he distributes include WWE notebooks, shirts, lunch boxes, and dolls.
Most popular are stickers and cards traded by teenagers. Monthly sales
are reported to be in the area of millions of dollars.

WWE Asia

Wrestling’s reach is not exclusive to Europe. The
Hong Kong free-to-air satellite platform, TVB, acquired 119 hours of wrestling
programming from the WWE. Indonesian free broadcaster RCTI has bought
98 hours of WWE Smackdown, its weekly program that airs on Friday evenings
on USA as well as eight specials to be aired in the next year and a half.
South Korea’s SBS has committed to 208 hours of programming including
the WWE programs Heat, Smackdown! and Raw is War.

From FY 2002 through FY 2005 international revenues increased at a compound
annual growth rate of 23%. The forty-nine international events in FY 2005
attracted audiences in excess of 450,000 attendees.

“WWE provides us with a global identity that is distinct
and unencumbered, which is critical to our U.S. and international growth
plans” said Linda McMahan, CEO of WWE. “As WWE, we launch
our further expanded U.S. and international touring, our international
expansion of branded merchandise and licensed products, and our further
integration into the film, publishing, and music businesses” (Wagner,
2002).

The WWE is now in the midst of a major paradigm shift from
controlling everything to giving up partial control to enter new markets,
such as, in this case, China, where it will partner with local business
ventures to establish a foothold and learn the workings of the Chinese
market.

In addition to live events, further expansion of WWE pay-per-views
in new and additional territories along with increased marketing and associated
sales of WWE licensed branded merchandise is expected.

Always seemingly ahead of other countries in terms of creation,
adoption, and use of technology, Japan and WWE reached an agreement in
2005 for a “subscription video on demand service” via Plala
Networks, Inc. of Tokyo. In essence, WWE will offer its content as usual;
however, the medium will be broadband internet instead of TV, and the
format will be a broadcast titled WWE 24/7. The impact of such a deal
has yet to be assessed, yet it appears to be an incredibly low-risk venture,
given that the Japanese company is actually a subsidiary of one of the
major telecommunications companies in Japan. In addition to driving subscription
sales for Plala, it also positions WWE on the technological cutting edge
in an extremely large international market.

“WWE is a global franchise, and WWE 24/7 was conceived
as salable concept that would scale worldwide for partners and fans,”
said Tom Barreca, Executive Vice President, WWE Enterprises. “Signing
with a leader like Plala is a significant breakthrough for WWE 24/7 internationally,
and we see a great future in contracting with other telephony and telecommunications
providers around the globe” (WWE 24/7).

Wrestling Hits South America

In late 2005, WWE struck a television deal with Latin America’s
FOX station – FX Latin America – to broadcast bilingual (Spanish
and Portugese) programming for the next two years. The station reaches
approximately half of all television homes in the Pan market. Emiliano
Saccone, VP of Marketing for FX-LA, was pleased that professional wrestling
will now be a significant driver of viewership for their network. “We
are thrilled to have World Wrestling Entertainment on FX featuring WWE
Velocity and WWE Experience. FX is committed to offer to its viewers the
best quality in programming. WWE, having been involved in the sports entertainment
business for more than 20 years, is one of the most popular forms of global
entertainment today on FX screen, and will contribute to establish stronger
brand loyalty with subscribers, affiliates and advertisers in all Latin
America” (WWE Signs, 2005).

International Television

It is expected that international television will pay an
important role in WWE’s expansion into international markets. Presently,
7,500 hours of WWE programming are syndicated each year in the 100 markets
WWE serves. WWE programming is currently distributed throughout Europe
and Asia in the following manner:

  • Sky Sports – England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland
  • J Sports channel – Japan
  • TAJ TV LTD – India
  • PREMIERE – Germany
  • CJ Media – Korea

Pay-Per-View

Pay-per-view also plays an important role in the internationalization
of WWE events:

  • Canadian Partners
    • Viewers choice
    • Shaw Communications
    • Bell Express
  • International Partners
    • BskyB – England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland
    • J SPORTS – Japan
    • Premiere – Germany
    • CJ Media – Korea
    • Sky Italia –
    • Main event – Australia

Branded Merchandise

Branded merchandise leverages WWE talent with their television
products. Within the WWE brand, WWE branded merchandise includes:

  • Licensing of books, home video, video games, toys and, apparel
  • Apparel, novelties, and memorabilia sold through events, catalogs, and online
  • Home video of pay-per-view events and feature performer titles sold through retailers and available on VHS and DVD
  • Magazines such as WWE and RAW sold at the newsstand and through subscriptions
  • Digital Media such as WWE’s interactive website: www.wwe.com

All of these are available internationally. Watching his
son Shane play with his GI Joes, McMahan decided that wrestlers would
make great action figures too. In 1984, his wife Linda called Hasbro to
learn the licensing business.

Role of the Internet in International Expansion

It is a strongly held belief within the WWE that Globalization
holds the key to its continued growth. It is believed that the Internet
levels the playing field, since anyone can watch from anywhere with a
computer. For instance, in Japan WWE events are broadcast as early as
three weeks after the event has aired in the United States. The Internet,
as a medium, is involving. WWE research has shown that half of the Internet
users who get WWE information are international.

Expansion Efforts by U.S. Major Professional Sports Leagues

NBA

In terms of an international presence, the NBA has had a
history of playing teams from around the world both at home and abroad
dating back to October 23 – 25, 1987 when in the McDonald’s Open
played at the Mecca in Milwaukee; the Milwaukee Bucks played Tracer Milan
and the Soviet National team. This trend of exhibition games continued
throughout the 80s, 90s, and into modern day when several NBA teams played
in such varied locations as Madrid, Rome, Barcelona, Tokyo, Paris, the
Bahamas, Mexico City, Japan, London, Tel Aviv, the Dominican Republic,
and Puerto Rico.

As is the case with the WWE, expansion into international
markets began in Europe. Since 1988, NBA teams such as the Boston Celtics,
the New York Knicks, Miami Heat, the Houston Rockets, and the Seattle
Super Sonics have played exhibition and regular season games in the following
countries: Spain (1988, 1990, 1994, 1996, 2003); Italy (1989, 1994, 1999);
France (1991, 1994, 1997, 2003); Germany (1993, 1996); England (1993-two
games-1995); Russia (1988, 2004).

In addition to Europe the NBA also played exhibition games
in the Middle East (Tel Aviv, Israel on October 11, 1999); Latin America,
where the NBA has staged twenty-two games preseason games (sixteen in
Mexico, five in Puerto Rico, and one in the Dominican Republic); and Asia
(six regular season games in Japan since 1990 and a 2004 game in Beijing,
China).

The NBA, under David Stern’s leadership, has made
a concentrated effort to specifically promote the international players
who have come into the NBA. Stern is credited as being a marketing mastermind
in the international arena, and the effort of the NBA commissioner has
helped the NBA to advance its growth in international markets through
fan identification with players from countries throughout the world. It
has also indirectly altered the face of scouting, drafting, and developing
talent (Stone, 2002).

MLB

Major League Baseball has two prominent internationally
focused baseball initiatives. The most recognizable and recent was the
World Baseball Classic (WBC) which was held in March 2006. Organized by
MLB, the WBC was a tournament styled after the Soccer World Cup, and involved
sixteen nations from across the world. Players were allowed to play for
their “home” countries. Overall, the tournament – won
by Japan over Cuba in the final – was considered a success from a media
standpoint. There are plans to hold future WBCs every four years, starting
in 2009. From this standpoint, MLB is well-positioned to maintain and
grow their presence in other countries, even though the U.S. team did
not finish in the top four in this most recent WBC.

Nearly one-fourth of all professional baseball players have
Latin American roots. Consequently, Major League Baseball has exerted
great effort in scouting and developing the future talent of their league.
Puerto Rico is a hotbed for baseball, and a location that MLB has already
tapped as host to some of the leagues’ games in the last few years.
Almost five years ago, in 2001, the first-ever regular season Major League
Baseball (MLB) game on Puerto Rican soil was played between Texas and
Toronto. Two years later, in 2003, the (Montreal) Expos played approximately
half of all of their “home” games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
And in April 2005, MLB celebrated its annual “Opening Day”
of games by announcing that 25 percent of all players on MLB rosters (204
players) had been born in Latin American countries. This is a significant
increase over the 170 total Latin major leaguers reported by MLB during
the 2000 season, of which, thirty-four were from somewhere in Puerto Rico
(Sanchez, 2005). These figures are astounding and continue an upward trend
of talent migration (Bale and Maguire, 1994) predicated by advanced scouting
techniques, greater global communication, and increased talent development
in these countries.

Once an off-season haven for American big leaguers –
where a winter baseball league was immensely popular – Puerto Rico
gained considerable steam in the world of professional baseball. After
serving in 2003 as the part-time home of the Montreal Expos (a franchise
now known as the Washington Nationals and located in Washington, D.C.),
San Juan, Puerto Rico should have become a bustling year-round sport attraction.
In the winter it hosts a very competitive and popular “Winter League”,
where developing talent showcases for the ever-growing contingent of scouts
and media. However, that has not been the case. Lou Melendez, Major League
Baseball’s vice president of international operations, states that MLB
is now considering assisting the Puerto Rican league financially, and
he admits that an eight year decline in interest and attendance is a concern
(Ortiz, 2006).

MLB is grappling with larger issues surrounding this, as
well, namely: a) The issue of “stacking”. In other words,
as noted by González (1996), despite a healthy on-field Latino
representation, there are still virtually no Latino managers, and there
are an incredibly small number of Latinos in MLB’s team management
offices. b) How can Major League Baseball assess and improve on their
expansion and outreach efforts? Arbena (1992) stated that Governments
have long tried to use sports to promote national unity and political
stability, but often without success. Klein (1997) studied how baseball
contributes to nationalism on different levels outside of US borders.

NFL

In 1991, the World League of American Football was formed,
and eventually became ‘NFL Europe.’ Known essentially as an
NFL-backed and funded developmental league, NFL Europe currently boasts
six teams (Amsterdam Admirals, Berlin Thunder, Cologne Centurions, Frankfurt
Galaxy, Hamburg Sea Devils, and Rhein Fire). The league has thus far been
unstable and unpredictable at best, due mostly to lack of star power and
media coverage. However, other attempts to further expand the NFL’s
brand internationally have been made, most significantly, plans for U.S.
teams to play on international soil. Proposed sites are Mexico, Canada,
the United Kingdom, and Germany. This addresses both of the stumbling
blocks encountered by NFL Europe, infusing existing U.S.-based stars (and
teams) with the proper amount of television, internet, and radio coverage.
“It now gives us a platform to grow the game internationally with
a concept of clarity,” says Mark Waller, head of NFL international
development (Haniman, 2006).

While none of the major professional sports leagues would
appear to be natural competitors for the unique “sport/entertainment”
offering by WWE, the recent move of Monday Night Football to ESPN surely
will impact cable-television ratings, something previously dominated by
professional wrestling (Jones, 2006).

Assessment

Most successful businesses conduct extensive market research
to assess the effectiveness of their efforts. This is of paramount importance
when attempting world domination as the WWE is currently doing in its
expansion throughout various countries of the world. WWE depends upon
four major research streams to keep in tune with its fan-base: 1) Online
research surveys. They use a 900 base method with their fans, hoping to
pinpoint consumer attitudes. Specifically, “What do you think of
this property?” (attributes), 2) Live events. WWE conducts exit
polling at events, with an average of about 10,000 people per event. Goal
is to assess attitudes regarding items such as ticket prices and merchandise,
3) TV Companies themselves. WWE is able to garner information from networks,
which helps to shape their other research efforts. Ex: “how many
people view their wrestling shows?” 4) Licensees/consumers. Some
corporate partners are willing to share some of their information with
WWE.

Conclusion

World Wrestling Entertainment is indeed a unique business
entity that has, thus far, been incredibly successfully as it has expanded
its fan-base into international waters. In fact, the data shows that while
domestic earnings have continued to diminish, they have steadily climbed
each of the last five years internationally. More success is yet to come
as even more countries become partners with the wrestling corporation,
and as new revenue streams continue to develop. Many sport corporations
(NIKE, Adidas, etc.) have expanded into other markets, and have done so
successfully. But Jonathan Sully, WWE’s VP for International Marketing,
pointed out that while the company traditionally likes to totally control
its own Intellectual Property, the key to its success is embracing a fundamental
shift towards more corporate partnering.

Manchester United is a recent case that paralleled some
of what WWE experienced when they first plunged into new markets: increased
bootlegging issues and difficulty tracking revenues in foreign countries,
branded television channels, and tours that bring talent to the consumer
(Grimshaw, 2005). However, as WWE’s domestic marketing head Schneider
pointed out, this brand of professional wrestling is still seen as a “uniquely
American export”, a form of entertainment that essentially has no
direct competition and is so dissimilar from its indirect competition
that it operate on its own cloud. The WWE simply must stick to its plan,
adhering to its business model, and achieve continued growth by continuing
to bring its brand of entertainment to new markets around the world.

NOTES
1SOURCE: http://corporate.wwe.com/documents/WWEPrimerAugust2005.pdf

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