SBJ/December 5-11, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Details on carriage, staffing for WWE channel emerge

Following nearly a decade of successful channel launches by most major sports properties, the WWE is deep into negotiations with In Demand on a deal that would see the wrestling operation launch its cable channel in early spring, according to numerous media and sports industry sources.

WWE executives have told cable and satellite operators that it is expecting to reach 40 million homes for its April 1 launch, an impressive number that would put the channel on par with sports networks like Fuel and Fox Soccer.

WWE generally produces 13 PPV events annually, many of which would go to the channel.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
To achieve that distribution number, WWE would still have to cut carriage deals with more than just In Demand, a consortium of the nation’s biggest cable operators: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Bright House Networks.

Using a blueprint that other sports properties have worked with successfully, WWE plans to seed its channel with live events that previously have been available on pay-per-view. WWE also has expanded its programming search beyond wrestling, sources said. That could include some professional team sports, sources said.

Comcast executives are taking the lead on the negotiations, which have been occurring over the past few months.
WWE has retained Sucherman Consulting Group, executive recruiters with offices in New York and Los Angeles, to hire 200 employees to staff the network.

The company has not named a network head yet, but candidates have been told that reality-show experience is preferred. The company’s chief marketing officer, Michelle Wilson, who also has pay-per-view under her purview, is overseeing the new network’s plans.

WWE has leased additional space in South Norwalk, Conn., that is close to the company’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters.

WWE executives have told sources that they hope to launch the channel by April 1 to coincide with its biggest pay-per-view event of the year, WrestleMania XXVIII.

That timing has led many to conclude that the network will be launched with WWE’s largest annual event, which delivers more than a million pay-per-view subscriptions.

Last week, WWE launched a website, iwantwwenetwork.com, encouraging fans to notify their cable operator of the WWE Network. The website had a countdown clock that was set to expire on April 1, the same day as WrestleMania XXVIII. The site, however, was subsequently disabled. Visitors to the URL as of last Thursday were redirected to wwe.com.

Sources said one of the reasons Comcast is so interested in cutting a deal with WWE is to make sure the highly rated “Raw” series remains on USA, a cable channel now owned by Comcast. In 2009, WWE announced a four-year renewal with USA that will keep the series on the network through the fall of 2014.

The potential success of WWE continues the trend of having leagues and brands launch their own channels. Most recently, In Demand cut a deal to launch seven new channels with the Pac-12 (one national channel and six regional ones). In addition, WWE’s planned launch sends the signal of a welcoming marketplace to other sports entities looking to launch a network.

“You will see this trend continue until a channel crashes and burns,” said media consultant Mike Trager. “I don’t know if you can classify wrestling as a major sport. It is certainly a major entertainment vehicle.”

Citing pending negotiations, WWE’s Wilson would not comment on distribution or programming issues. She also would not comment on if the WWE network had any advertising commitments.

“There are some unique and strong attributes about WWE,” she said. “It’s a 52-week a year season, which makes for a different model. The amount of content we already create puts us in a unique and favorable position as it relates to launching a network.”

The planned channel’s marquee programming would come from most of, if not all of, WWE’s current pay-per-view events. The company generally produces 13 PPV events per year. Most will migrate to the channel. It’s not known how many would remain PPV.

WWE also has looked into running a “SportsCenter”-style show. The network would use the show as a lead-in to “Raw,” which USA telecasts on Monday nights. USA’s Monday night block of WWE wrestling programming typically is among the most popular windows on cable, according to Nielsen numbers.
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