US wrestling grids loins for Asia

US wrestling girds loins for Asia, by Simon Canning - 20th March 2008
(Credit: The Austrailan)

The World Wrestling Entertainment company, purveyor of brands such as RAW, Smackdown, Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania, has opened its operations in Australia, setting up a beachhead for the assault on the on the burgeoning Asian market.

The publicly listed company, 70 per cent owned by the McMahon family and its patriarch, wrestler Vince McMahon, boasted 2007 revenue of $US485million ($525 million) and has pinned its future on international expansion.

Jonathan Sully, a former executive with toymaker Hasbro in Europe, has set up the Sydney office to leverage WWE events, broadcasts on Foxtel and licensing agreements in the region.

He said the future growth of the business could no longer be conducted from the company's US headquarters.

"We were very successful through the 1980s and into the 1990s running an international business from Stamford, Connecticut," Mr Sully said.

"In 2002 we established our UK office because as our business has grown we have not been able to manage local requirements from Stamford. So our first beachhead towards driving international revenue was the UK beachhead with a full global remit in mind.

"We are a one-brand business, but that brand proliferates across many different areas. So we go from TV, then a subset of TV being pay per view, which is really something that Vince McMahon started. Then there is the live events, and you should view those live events as the heart and soul of our business, so you can't divorce live events from our TV program."

Mr Sully said WWE decided to set up operations in Australia in part because of its strong affiliation with Foxtel.

WWE shows are among the highest rating on Fox 8, while the regular pay-per-view events have become a mainstay of the Main Event channel.

But WWE will not be creating a localised version of the show, with audiences interested in the American superstars, not a second-rate local wrestling product. The first marketing initiative for the new operation is the promotion of Wrestlemania XXIV, which broadcasts on Main Event on March 31.

Last year the live event was bought by nearly 1.2 million households globally, making it the highest earning Wrestlemania in the event's history.

Australia held the only three events outside the US or Europe, and this year the number of international events will rise from 26 to 75-80. Mr Sully is charged with marketing Smackdown, this year's live tour of seven Australian cities.

WWE in Australia also has secured its first local sponsorship agreement with Visa Entertainment, offering cardholders first choice of tickets.

WWE (originally WWF until the company lost its own wrestling match with the World Wildlife Fund) emerged out of regional wrestling wars in the US in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Under the guidance of third-generation wrestler McMahon, WWE expanded into a travelling circus running 52 weeks a year across the US. In the 1990s McMahon entered into a no-holds-barred fight against Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling. WCW was finally pinned by WWE in 2001 when AOL Time Warner sold the business to the McMahons for $US7 million. While some observers are critical of the levels of violence that run through the wrestling shows, Mr Sully said there was a strong moral thread of right and wrong that underpinned the tightly scripted shows.

Indeed, he admitted WWE had largely abandoned any pretence that the action was real, despite the undeniable athleticism of the wrestlers.

"We are the longest running soap opera in history," he said.

"Not only are we a sports brand, we are an entertainment brand, and it is that peculiar hybrid that has sustained us over the course of time. That is why we are a perennial."

On the weekend the entertainment roots of WWE were underlined when McMahon was given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right next to Kermit the Frog.


World Wrestling Entertainment

Vince McMahon