WWE Chairman & CEO Vince McMahon, interim Chief Financial Officer Frank Riddick, and SVP Financial Planning & Investor Relations Michael Weitz hosted a First Quarter 2020 Earnings call today from WWE headquarters in Stamford, CT this evening. You can check out coverage of this afternoon’s press release at this link. Below are highlights from the call:
We start 6 minutes late as they were “assembling the audience” for the call. Weitz gives the standard introduction and disclaimers. The replay of the call will be available on the WWE Corporate website later.
Vince said good afternoon and touted the strong Q1 performance, exceeding their rescinded guidance. He said COVID-19 really had a significant impact on them, despite being for just a few weeks, but they made changes to adjust and will continue to produce compelling content, which also serves as a diversion during these times. WWE is generally family friends and Vince thinks that will help them considerably during the pandemic. Vince says “we’re there” after touting moving forward with TV plans. He acknowledged the ratings decrease, and said there really wasn’t much of a difference from where they were. Vince said this is obviously a challenging environment, but they’ve got to take advantage of that and somehow make it as good as you can, but also make it special. Vince said they will be getting out of the current environment some, doing “mini-movies in essence” like they did at WrestleMania 36, referring to the cinematic matches. Vince said they will also be doing many other personality profiles, which they can do a whole lot better, and will do better.
Vince touts how digital and social numbers were up for the quarter. He said that is certainly a great barometer along with TV ratings. Digital video views were up 25% to 9.6 billion hours. He continued to tout their video consumption and said he doesn’t know any other platform that does what they do. He said WWE NXT, RAW and SmackDown all make this big wheel move.
Vince mentioned WrestleMania 36, despite being out of the quarter, and said it was “off the charts” and that gives them a good idea is where this is leading. He touted viewership at 960 million video views during WrestleMania period, a record up 20% from the previous period last year. Vince touted this being the most social WrestleMania in history with more than 13.8 million social media interactions across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Vince said their WWE Network subscriber additions were the highest in history, with 2.1 million total. WrestleMania was a huge success over both Saturday and Sunday night, Vince said.
Vince said we are now living in an evolving environment. He mentioned the COVID-19 business update issued on April 15, which included the company-wide cuts. Vince said they are getting ready for whats to come and the new normal, and he’s not sure if he or anyone else knows what the new normal is, but WWE is flexible and can adapt so quickly, to what they can do safely, what the government allows them to do, and what the fans want. Vince said there are lots of factors that go into the new normal, but WWE’s growth prospects remain strong all across the board. WWE thinks that live sports rights are strong for the most part, they just need to get back to what they were doing in the country, and open it up at least some. He’s optimistic about the future, whatever that may be. He turned the call over to Frank.
Frank mentioned a low impact from COVID-19, but said they saved a good amount of costs by filming at the WWE Performance Center. Vince at one point referred to the Performance Center as their new studio. Frank touted more numbers and stats from the press release. He said WWE has come up with creative opportunities for content and marketing during these uncertain times, including extra content deals with FOX Sports and ESPN to show older programming, granting free access to WWE Network content for a limited time, and more. Frank said they have adapted to continue safely producing in-ring content, other content and marketing their brands. Frank talked more about the numbers and we turn the call over to investors for the Q&A.
They were asked about low RAW and SmackDown ratings. Vince said in terms of why the rating are down, it goes back to the product itself. He agreed with the investor that they are the only live sport entertainment right now, but it’s a completely different feel than the show is when it’s in front of a live audience. Vince said they are doing really well beyond anyone’s expectations, by doing the show with no audience. He said everything WWE does is about the audience, and they are figuring out ways to do some things that we haven’t seen before. There are advantages and they can go outside of that set environment, not stay in the same setting for 3 or 4 matches. Vince said you need some relief during the show from that environment, the closed set. They are figuring it out, what they can do here and there, what resonates with fans. He said this is brand new for WWE and everyone else. He said no audience makes it a completely different show. He thinks they will get there and take this negative, already turning it into somewhat of a positive.
Regarding SmackDown ratings, Vince said there’s virtually no change there, very little. RAW suffered but not necessarily due to the environment, but because they’ve brought in a lot of new talents and it takes a while to get them over. He said they no longer have Brock Lesnar, but they have a new WWE Champion. He did not name Drew McIntyre. He said they have a lot of new performers on RAW and that takes a while to get them over. Vince believes RAW ratings will bounce back considerably.
They were asked about the Saudi Arabia deal and the TV rights deal in the region. Vince said he’s not too sure if Saudi Arabia will be able to give them the OK to perform in November or December due to the pandemic, but the Saudis really want them to. He said the good part about this is if they don’t put on another Saudi event later this year, then they can just tack that event on the backside of the contract they have with the Kingdom. He said they will not lose the money from the potential event. He said everyone is dealing with the pandemic in one way or another, but WWE is fortunate that they can just move a nixed event on the other side of their 10 year deal with the Saudis.
Regarding TV rights in the region, the deal is moving slowly as they do in that part of the world. WWE thought the deal would be done by now but it’s not, and there’s some degree of uncertainty as to when that will happen.
An investor asked what the plan for tapings will be in Florida reverses plans and shuts them down. Vince said they do have a back-up plan and a number of other states would welcome them. Vince also said he’s not sure what live audiences will mean anymore after the pandemic eases up, WWE is waiting for the OK like everyone else who runs live events. Vince said if anyone knows how to do it in a safe and exciting way, it will be WWE and there’s a chance they would be one of the first brands to be allowed to do live events again.
Vince said in another response that COVID-19 caught everyone “with their pants down” and they had a number of people interested in the major WWE Network deal for rights. Vince said when they thought they were getting close, the bottom fell out. They were very close to signing a Network rights deal with several potential partners who wanted the Network, but the coronavirus changed that. They will continue to invest in the Network and are open to the Network deal once everything eases up.
Vince also said he’s not sure if WWE will be in the live event business the way they were before. No one can predict but WWE will be ready if allowed. One of the things going forward he believes is that it will take a while before all consumers want to come out and join 70,000 others in a stadium, or 5,000 in an arena. He said it’s a learned behavior that people have now and if anyone can figure it out, WWE will.
Vince said WWE is highly adaptable as we’ve seen over the years. He believes the future will be more content-oriented, heavily marketed, and not in the terms of live events but programming, along with social and digital media. Vince said there are lots of things they can do there. Vince looks at it as a creative environment, and not a problem but an opportunity. They were asked about their TV partner, NBCUniversal and FOX. Vince agreed that they aren’t doing well right now but they all have each other’s backs, and the relationships are good.
Vince commented in another response that he probably shouldn’t comment on what he thinks the future really holds for the country, but WWE will do well. Vince also praised the WWE talents and gave them kudos for working really hard at the WWE Performance Center. Vince praised the talents for getting the job done with no audience, adding that they are stepping it up and really, really working hard. Vince said they are working to produce a great product considering where they are. Frank said the current target date for the tiered WWE Network expansion is some time in the 4th quarter.
Vince was asked if he can guess when WWE’s next live event will be. He said no, not really, but WWE does have holds on arenas, which is standard, and more of a revolving thing. He’s heard people are itching to come out of the house and come see their product, but he’s not sure when it will be allowed or what it will look like when it is allowed, and no one really does. Vince said they are taking it month-by-month, but he has no crystal ball. Frank and Vince both commented on how they are being very cautious and conservative when it comes to budgeting and planning during the pandemic, but they aren’t planning any major purchases or anything like that, just being cautious amid the uncertainty.
Vince was asked about talent morale and COVID-19 testing. He said they are doing everything imagineable and people aren’t even allowed to come on the premises if they have a fever. There’s a form that everyone has to fill out weekly, which asks about potential exposure to the virus and other factors. They are focused on safety and making the environment as good as it can be. These measures go for talent, employees and anyone else at the PC. They are being very careful about how many people are in and out at any time. Talent is also being sequestered at a local hotel, and they are creating in-ring content in groups or waves. They are also changing turnbuckles and ropes in between matches. Vince said they are doing this pandemic cleaning system on a very frequent basis.
Vince asked Triple H to explain a chemical they are using during the outbreak. Triple H said they are working with a company called Allied Bio Science and they have a spray process that clings to surfaces and once on the surface, the coating lasts from 90-120 days. It was described to him as a sword that punctures the cell wall of a virus, or what causes a virus, and kills it on contact. It lasts 90-120 days with one coating, and lasts through the work they’re doing and the other cleaning processes. They have coated the Performance Center facilities, their warehouses, even the production trucks. They are doing all this in addition to the measures previously mentioned. WWE is taking every precaution they have been advised is the best practice to take, and then some.
Regarding the talent morale question, Vince said the WWE talents are taking these trying times as a challenge, almost a duty, which has always happened in WWE. Vince said talents realize people are at home bored. The audio skipped a bit here but Vince said the talents realize that WWE can entertain the people like no other. He praised the talents for rising to the occasion. He did say that a few talents have been unable to come down to the Performance Center due to pre-existing conditions, presumably health issues like Roman Reigns. Vince said the WWE talents are very special people and extraordinary athletes, who love to give. He said that’s what the business is about, giving, and that’s why most of them got into it – to give to the fans and entertain the audience. All in all, he’s so proud of them.
Vince later commented that the WWE fans are robust and will consume the WWE product any way they can. They were asked if the WWE 2K21 video game is in the budget this year. Frank confirmed the recent reports that there will be no WWE 2K game this year.
That’s it for the Q&A. Vince thanked everyone for joining them and Weitz signed off. Stay tuned for more from the call and the earnings report.