Views From The Turnbuckle: Can The WWE Network Actually Get 4 Million Subscribers?

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The other day, WWE's Chief Strategy & Financial Officer George Barrios appeared on CNBC's Closing Bell to talk about the one year anniversary of the WWE Network. During his interview, Barrios indicated that he believes the WWE Network could very well reach 3-4 million subscribers in the next 3-5 years. As WWE has only recently cleared the 1 million subscriber mark, expecting them to triple or quadruple their audience in the next several years seems like an impossible goal. The only way WWE would ever be able to reach that number is to once again reassert itself as a dominant force in popular culture. Business is not nearly as good as it was 15 years ago, and despite the fact that WWE has pretty much monopolized the wrestling industry, WWE has been trending downwards for the last dozen or so years.

Increasing the Network audience at such a rate wouldn't involve a gradual increase in the popularity of the product, no, it would involve tremendously accelerated growth in the total viewing audience of WWE. Eventually, if they are not close to being there already, the WWE Network will maximize the amount of subscriptions it can get from it's current audience. It is safe to say that pretty much anybody that would even have the slightest interest in subscribing to the WWE Network at least is aware that it exists. They will probably get a boost from Wrestlemania, but realistically, can WWE assume that only 33 percent of potential subscribers are aware of the Network? Is there an additional 2 million subscribers out there that would be interested in getting the Network? Right now, the answer has to be no, which is why for WWE to come even close to that goal, they will need to grow their basic audience, and they need to gain a lot of viewers in a short amount of time.

There is a historical precedent for WWE exploding in popularity. Since the Network is still a very new concept, and for years popularity in wrestling was assessed through PPV purchases, so for a historical perspective, we will look at PPV purchases as a sign of growth. In 1997, it is well known that WWE was slipping far behind WCW and it showed in the PPV buys, as Wrestlemania XIII generated just 237,000 buys. However, thanks to smart booking and the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, in just one year WWE grew rapidly. Wrestlemania XIV garnered 730,000 buys, a ridiculous growth of 308 percent over the previous year! In a single year, WWE tripled their PPV audience.

A repeat performance of 97-98 seems unlikely. WWE caught lightning in a bottle with Austin and they were pushed by WCW in a way that cannot really be replicated today. However, in theory, the answer is still out there. Maybe it comes through by the booking of a new star, or maybe a new marketing strategy. Maybe they don't triple their audience in a single year, but they could grow exponentially in the next few years. The problem is, over the last several years, WWE has not been growing their audience, in fact it has been in decline. The ratings for Monday Night Raw have been aiming downwards since 2006, except for a brief uptick around 2009. Even just a few years ago, it would seem unfathomable for Raw to consistently get below a 3.0, but now a 3.0 is applauded as a tremendous success.

There are probably countless ways in which WWE can improve their audience and halt this decline, and while there are many theories on what they could do better, none of them are proven to work. What is certain however, is that if WWE wants to reach it's big goal of 3-4 million subscribers, it is going to have to try something different.