By MICHELLE CHAPMAN
AP Business Writer
WWE, an organization that is already king of the ring on social media, will attempt to expand its online presence this year with the $6.5 billion sports entertainment company hinting that it may put itself up for sale.
WWE surpassed 20 million followers on its flagship TikTok account during its most recent quarter, the first sports league to do so, and it’s launching three international TikTok accounts after the WWE Español TikTok handle reached nearly 2 million followers in its first year, according to the company.
WWE’s presence online is already broad and it does not appear to be slowing down.
The company’s YouTube channel topped 92 million subscribers in the fourth quarter, making it one of only 10 channels on the platform to surpass the 90 million subscriber mark, according to Paul Levesque, the company’s chief content officer and director who wrestled under the name Triple H.
To put those numbers in perspective, the National Basketball Association has 19.8 million subscribers, the National Football League has 10.6 million, and Major League Baseball has 4.05 million.
Part of the reason is that, unlike the NFL, NBA and MLB, the WWE has no off season. It churns out new content from television shows and premium live events all year long and its fans eat it up.
The online presence of the company is so pervasive that it seeps into the social media posts from some of the world’s biggest athletes.
After defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and MVP Patrick Mahomes posted a photo of himself on Twitter holding the Vince Lombardi trophy in one hand, and a WWE belt in the other.
That photo has been viewed more than 23 million times and that number keeps rising.
Constant innovations that are blended with entertainment sets WWE apart on social media platforms, said Christopher Zook, chairman and chief investment officer of CAZ Investments.
“It has consistently found ways to generate interest and stay ahead of the growing changes in consumer behavior,” Zook said. “The viral, fan-service nature of their content is how they have built so much staying power.”
Increased sports viewership has put a premium on the value of organizations with a large following and that moves WWE to the front of the line for companies looking to expand into new areas, said Zook, particularly when seeking to reach key demographics willing to spend.
And the platforms on which the WWE is focused increasingly attract a crowd with discretionary income to spend.
Among those between the ages of 18 and 29, 95% say they use YouTube, according to a Pew Research Center survey on social media use by U.S. adults in 2021.
TikTok is expected to overtake Facebook next year as the most-consumed social network among U.S. adults over the age of 18, according to Insider Intelligence. The research firm expects 18-to-24-year-old TikTok users in the U.S. to spend an average of 1 hour on the platform every day this year.
And WWE has been quick to partner with people that have a massive following on social media platforms, most recently the social media personality Logan Paul.
Three months after signing a contract with WWE last year, Paul took out a cell phone and filmed himself jumping from the ropes and onto Roman Reigns. That video garnered more than 40 million views across Paul’s and WWE’s social platforms in less than 24 hours, according to Levesque, topping all social media posts for the Stamford, Connecticut, company last year.
A midair collision in the ring last month between Paul and the wrestler Ricochet racked up another 26.5 million views across all platforms.
The company is also pushing digital programming like a weekly show called “The Bump,” which can be viewed live every Wednesday on all of WWE’s digital and social media platforms.
“Look for us to launch more digital original programming in 2023, as it has proven to be an effective platform to pilot new shows and test creative, all while creating new programming for our sales team to sell against,” Levesque said in a post-earnings conference call this month.
The test will be how potential buyers value WWE’s social media presence and that potential going forward.
However, Wall Street already appears to be very optimistic about the entertainment company.
In the last 12 months shares of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. have jumped 50%, a period when all major U.S. stock markets have fallen into a serious funk.
Rumors of a sale ramped up late last year when WWE founder Vince McMahon returned to the company and took a seat on the board after a short retirement.
In a letter dated Dec. 20, but published in January, McMahon wrote, “Given the rapidly evolving media landscape in which more and more companies are seeking to own the intellectual property offered on their streaming platforms – I firmly believe that the best thing to do for all of WWE’s shareholders and other stakeholders is to undertake a comprehensive review of strategic alternatives.”
Zook, of CAZ Investments, believes potential buyers are aware that social media has changed the equation.
“When you combine the staying power of live sporting events, with the rapid growth in subscription-based content, and an expansive social media presence, you can begin to see why sports franchises like the WWE are becoming a more attractive asset to own,” Zook said.