World Wrestling Entertainment, which forged an early path in subscription streaming by launching the WWE Network in 2014, has introduced a free version of the service with 15,000 hours of programming.
Weekly show Raw Talk will join the streaming lineup following broadcasts of Monday Night Raw. Recent episodes of Raw, Friday Night SmackDown and NXT will also be on the free version of the streaming service, along with original series Monday Night War, Ride Along, Table for 3, Photo Shoot and Story Time.
Initially, the free tier will not have advertising. Its main strategic purpose will be to help the company promote its lucrative pay-per-view events and flagship broadcast shows.
“The launch of WWE Network’s free version is a key component of our company’s digitization strategy and a new way for all fans to be able to experience premium WWE content,” said Jayar Donlan, the company’s EVP of Advanced Media. “As we continue to reimagine WWE Network’s offering, the free version will serve as an effective way to reach a broader group of consumers and allow them to experience the history and spectacle of WWE.”
After peaking in 2018 with 2.1 million subscribers, the $10-a-month version of the WWE Network now has about 1.5 million. Originally built by BAMTech, which is now known as Disney Streaming Services, WWE Network is now powered by Endeavor’s streaming tech unit. Compared with the landscape of 2014, it faces a dramatically more crowded field of streaming competitors.
WWE in general has seen its fortunes shift in recent months, with CEO Vince McMahon parting ways with the two longtime co-presidents of the company in January. He also saw his investment in the XFL — a revival of a pro football network aiming to give the NFL some competition — wash out when the league’s season was cut short by COVID-19. The virus has also wreaked havoc on the company’s balance sheet, necessitating cost cuts and furloughs even though the company was able to continue staging matches in Florida after having them declared “essential services.”
Streaming is an area where many investors see promise and financial upside given the WWE Network’s standing as a pioneer. In April, on a conference call with Wall Street analysts, executives said they had come close to firming up a deal with a partner for the streaming network, only to see negotiations go sideways due to the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 stuff caught everybody with their pants down,” McMahon said. “We had a number of individuals who are very active in our network and of course, and just when you think you’re getting close, the bottom fell out. Very close with a number of individuals that really want our network.”
For the time being, the company will continue to operate it as a solo venture, but it is continuing to explore alternatives, McMahon said. “If something happens with someone else after COVID-19 is over and they look at our balance sheet, etc., then that will happen too.”