Brands

Is WWE Network the Future of Branded Sports Content?

When we think back to the day that branded sports content changed, we may think of Vince McMahon strutting on stage, whipping a crowd of hungover tech geeks into a frenzy.

The big news at CES yesterday was the announcement of the long-awaited WWE Network, a 24/7 digital network that will deliver World Wrestling Entertainment’s 12 annual pay-per-view specials, plus over 100,000 hours of on-demand content, for $9.99 per month.

The network will follow the Netflix streaming video model and be available on desktop as well as the WWE app for Android, iOS and Kindle Fire. It’ll also be available through Playstation 3 and 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and Roku. The twist? It’ll also include scheduled programming, including the live pay-per-view specials. It will also include original programming like “Legends House,” which The Verge hilariously describes as “a show in which eight former stars shack up and yell at each other for various reasons.”

If successful, the WWE could push other leagues to follow in its footsteps and ditch cable for a standalone digital-subscription offering.”

The WWE Network is breaking new ground much like the NFL did a decade ago. The NFL Network was the first league-branded channel, paving the way for the likes of NBATV, MLB TV, and the NHL Network. But the NFL Network was long hamstrung by its decision to launch on cable; the channel was initially available in less than 12 million homes and found itself locked out of major markets during its nine-year war with Time Warner Cable. Conversely, the WWE Network will be readily available to any fans who want it. (In the United States, at least, for the time being.)

That’s the big upside of the digital subscription route for Vince McMahon and the WWE, which had long been rumored to be pursuing its own cable channel but ultimately decided to embrace the digital subscription route. If successful, the WWE could push other leagues to follow in its footsteps and ditch cable for a standalone digital-subscription offering. “I think you’re going to see a lot of other brands like ours be able to make this decision,” the WWE’s Perkins Miller told The Verge.

Other non-major sports brands are already moving in this direction. The UFC recently launched a flawed “Fight Pass” subscription service that pales in comparison to the WWE offering, maintaining separate pay-per-view fees for premiere events.

The WWE told Variety that they’d needed between 800,000 and one million subscribers to break even on the new service; with 15 million viewers each week and social media followings in the tens of millions, that seems likely.

But will their success be enough to convince the likes of the NFL Network, now valued at $5 billion, to break away from cable and introduce their own digital subscription offering?

That’s tough to say. Many fans — myself included — only remain tethered to cable because of sports. If the major sports leagues offered standalone digital subscriptions, fans would love it and sign up in droves, but the leagues would cannibalize the cable ecosystem that’s delivering record TV contracts in the process. For that reason, it remains unlikely, even if the WWE Network is wildly successful.

More interesting is the blueprint that the WWE Network will create for other brands to launch their own networks. What’s stopping Red Bull from creating a digital-subscription extreme sports channel and outbidding its TV competitors for the XGames? Couldn’t Under Armour take advantage of the alternative-sports market and broadcast upstart leagues, like Major League Ultimate?

It’s hard to say what the WWE Network will bring. But it’s destined to be a stone cold stunner.

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Image by THQ Insider / Flickr.com
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