In 2022, it’s strange if a major entertainment group, broadcaster or sporting property either hasn’t launched a direct-to-consumer (DTC) platform or isn’t considering doing so. But back in 2014, WWE Network was seen as a risk.
For decades, the world’s biggest professional wrestling organisation had sold its premium live events like Wrestlemania and SummerSlam on a pay-per-view (PPV) basis via cable and satellite television providers.
It was a successful model that complemented its television deals for many years, but World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) sensed that consumer habits were changing. It believed that a subscription service that included these live events and a vast array of original, complementary and archive programming would be more profitable in the long term. WWE Network would allow the organisation to control the relationship with the customer, cut out the cable companies, and offer a product that encourages consumers to pay a fee every month rather than just for one or two pay-per-views a year.
It’s fair to say that a few eyebrows were raised. In the US, the cost of these PPV events was as high as US$50, while WWE Network was less than US$10 a month. Meanwhile, the cable companies offered reliable distribution and a readily available install base, whereas WWE was heavily reliant on the state of broadband connectivity in each market and would have to market its own platform.
Fast forward to 2022 and it’s clear that the move was a success. WWE Network secured 1.5 million subscribers and generated vast amounts of content that made it an attractive proposition for media giants looking to bolster their own streaming platforms. Last year, WWE signed a US$1 billion deal to bring the network to NBC’s nine million Peacock subscribers – of which 3.6 million have streamed WWE programming, contributing to a 42 per cent increase in viewership of live events.
WWE has managed to achieve the holy trinity of revenue, reach, and control through its forward thinking and willingness to disrupt using technology. It’s up to Rajan Mehta, the company’s chief product and technology officer, to maintain that trajectory.
WWE’s Romain Reigns and Brock Lesnar clash at Wrestlemania
Ahead of the curve
“WWE has always been slightly ahead of the curve [with technology], whether it’s in the 1980s when we were a pioneer in cable distribution of programming and then, in my opinion, being a real driver of pay-per-view,” Mehta tells SportsPro. “These were new technologies [back then].
“WWE is one of those places that reinvents itself and uses technology as an enabler for our core business. PPV was successful, but we felt that as the world was shifting, we needed to shift with it [with WWE Network]. So many companies at that time were talking about [going DTC] but no one was taking that leap forward.”
Mehta joined WWE in 2013 as head of digital technology, tasked with leading the technological overhaul required to support the shift to DTC.
One of his early priorities was to create a data platform that could aggregate WWE’s various sources of customer information, including from the planned WWE Network, in order to make better decisions as a company and deliver a superior experience for fans.
“When you look at data that media businesses used back in 2014, it really meant two things: Nielsen research or TV ratings and the stats you had for your website. This was the same for WWE pre-DTC,” Mehta says, speaking to SportsPro ahead of his appearance at the OTT Summit USA. “[Post-WWE Network launch] we were able to put all the lines of business together – including licensing, merchandise, ticketing, first-party and second-party data – into a single platform.
WWE is one of those places that reinvents itself and uses technology as an enabler for our core business. PPV was successful, but we felt that as the world was shifting, we needed to shift with it [with WWE Network]. So many companies at that time were talking about [going DTC] but no one was taking that leap forward.Rajan Mehta, Chief Product and Technology Officer, WWE
“That data strategy and how we take disparate pieces of information and put them together is what we call ‘360’, where the fan is in the middle.
“One of the benefits I had was being able to build this data platform from the ground up. We had the data sources, so we figured out a mechanism to get all that data into what is known as an ‘ingest platform’. We built reporting on top of that. It was definitely a decent amount of work but the benefits of having that 360-degree view [of fans] was great. We’re getting this data in real time whereas previously it may have taken days or weeks to aggregate together. When it comes to making decisions, that’s hugely helpful.”
The result of this endeavour is that WWE can use the insights from this analysis to better understand and predict customer needs and inform content and digital strategies. The data opens the door to new revenue opportunities, assists customer acquisition and retention efforts, and most importantly keeps WWE’s products relevant to future audiences.
Relive the iconic career of The @undertaker following his WWE Hall of Fame induction announcement.#WWEHOF pic.twitter.com/RP2uy26CSv— WWE (@WWE) February 18, 2022
WWE’s technology revolution
As technology became increasingly important to WWE as an organisation, Mehta’s remit increased too. In 2015 he assumed his current position and his role doesn’t just cover mobile apps, streaming and partnerships such as the one with Peacock, but also internal IT operations, including infrastructure, data platform, cybersecurity, and data governance strategy. Essentially, he is responsible for virtually everything the company does from a technological standpoint.
He believes that a more holistic strategy that incorporated both the IT and product teams was the key to digital success as it would allow ideas to flow between every department.
“We had technology in a lot of different areas across the company,” he explains. “We had a corporate technology function, a products function, and a data function, and they were all working well but we thought that we could make it more efficient and scalable. This might be a subjective statement because I’m the person in the role, but I found a lot of benefit of putting this all together.
“An example of this is our internal IT department operation moving towards becoming a more product-focused organisation. In terms of best practices and idea generation, putting this all together made a lot of sense for us.”
One of the big changes in recent years was the migration of WWE Network onto a new platform. The service was initially built with the support of BAMTech, which was spun off by Major League Baseball (MLB) in 2015 and bought by Disney in August 2016. WWE decided it was time to gain control of the technology stack behind the platform and the user experience and revamped the service with partners Endeavor Streaming and Massive Interactive in 2019.
WWE gained a more flexible backend and the ability to roll out new features, while users received enhanced search capabilities, a more intuitive interface, and higher video quality. The platform is still used in international markets where WWE doesn’t have a distribution partnership like the one with Peacock in the US.
The WWE Thunderdome hosted weekly programming and premium live events in Florida
Feel the Thunderdome
But WWE’s technological innovation isn’t just limited to how customers receive the content, it’s integral to how it’s produced. High-definition cameras, titantrons and other ringside elements have transformed the WWE ring over the past decade and a half, while more advanced on-screen graphics and cameras offer new creative avenues. WWE is also one of the most influential sports organisations on social media and uses various platforms to engage fans and even influence storylines.
This innovation was never more important than during lockdown. As sporting competitions around the world were cancelled or postponed, WWE continued with its weekly programming from its performance centre in Orlando, Florida. With fans unable to attend, digital became the only way that WWE could engage with them.
An entire Wrestlemania was produced from the facility in 2020 and WWE’s production team helped to compensate for the absence of fans by producing well-received cinematic matches that took place outside the ring. However, it was obvious that the spectacle wasn’t the same without fans, whose participation is a key part of professional wrestling. Eventually, developmental talents were able to provide some sort of atmosphere from behind Perspex screens, but WWE wanted to do more – and technology offered an answer.
“The fans were really missing from our production,” says Mehta. “The crowd is such an important element whether it’s a reaction to a move or a promo – it’s such a key aspect of [WWE]. So, we looked at how technology could address that.”
Other broadcasters had used artificial crowd noise and graphics to help address the challenge of replicating a more normal atmosphere but WWE’s solution went beyond that. The result was the WWE Thunderdome, a bio-secure bubble venue in a full-sized arena that offered as close to the experience and scale as a typical pre-pandemic WWE live event as possible.
The Thunderdome featured a full titantron, pyrotechnic effects and drone cameras, but most noteworthy was that the ring was surrounded by 1,000 LED boards that displayed the faces of fans watching in real time. Fans applied for a ‘virtual ticket’ to watch the event at home, and it was even possible to mix in their audio feed alongside the artificial crowd noise.
“The Thunderdome provided the reaction and engagement we wanted, and technology was such a key part of that,” adds Mehta. “We worked with the Famous Group and a number of partners, including Amazon Web Services (AWS), to put all the screens together and we even had to build the interface so that fans could sign up. We had nearly a million people come and ‘watch’ in the Thunderdome during that period.”
Now. Then. Forever
While no one would argue it was as good as the real thing, fans and WWE were happy with the results and the Thunderdome received critical acclaim as one of the best uses of technology to address the challenges of behind-closed-door sporting events.
It’s also safe to say that no one hopes the Thunderdome ever has to be used again now that pandemic restrictions are being eased, but there are some elements that will be retained moving forward, such as augmented reality (AR) graphics during wrestler entrances.
The pandemic will also have an impact on the live event experience too. Although WWE programming remained in the Thunderdome until last summer, there was one exception – Wrestlemania 37 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida. Local regulations meant WWE had to comply with certain entry and safety requirements and the best way to do this was a mobile app. This afforded WWE the opportunity to experiment with functionality and the application will provide the foundation for a companion service in a post-pandemic world.
“One of the things we’ve always talked about in the past was having a complimentary digital experience at live events using mobile technology,” says Mehta. “[In Tampa] we really had to look at was enforcing safety protocols and we felt this was an ideal time to experiment. Some things were ‘must haves’ like entry [protocols] but we were also able to experiment with digital ticketing like pre-order and pick-up merchandise.
“We’ve been using it at a number of premium live events like SummerSlam and Survivor Series. It’s an area we’re going to innovate in.”
This year’s Wrestlemania on 2nd and 3rd April will take place in front of a capacity crowd for the first time in three years, with more than 100,000 fans cheering (and booing) at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas. Mehta and his team have a few things planned for the event, especially for those who will be in attendance.
“The first thing is that you should definitely watch Wrestlemania because it’s going to be an amazing show in Dallas,” he says, promoting the event as well as any performer in the ring. “On the technology side we’re going to continue to innovate on our mobile app and try and create the best possible companion experience. As each event happens more and more features get added to it.”
Then. Now. 𝑻𝒐𝒈𝒆𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒓. Forever.— WWE (@WWE) April 12, 2021
WWE’s new signature intro is all about bringing the @WWEUniverse back together. pic.twitter.com/oeiY5IeodJ
Looking further ahead, Mehta is excited by many of the same technologies as the rest of the sports industry. And given WWE’s desire to be ‘slightly ahead of the curve’, coupled with the strength of its backend, digital and production capabilities, it’s not inconceivable to think that it will be an early adopter of many of these innovations.
“The one thing that’s always at the top of mind for me is really the evolution of what metaverse becomes, and Web3 specifically, because it’s such an opportunity,” he says. “I think the industry is probably a few years out but there’s an opportunity for WWE.
“[Another opportunity is] gaming. Our gaming app does really well, and we have console gaming covered [with the WWE 2K series]. If I look at consumption of our streaming service, we over index on gaming platforms like Xbox and PlayStation. We have a huge gaming piece.
“We’ve also announced our partnership with Blockchain Creative Labs on NFTs. So, we’ve started looking at this NFT space, we’re in the gaming space and we have this large fanbase that loves what we do and then you have this evolution with what’s happening with Web3 and the metaverse. I think we’re in a position to do well.”
Every WWE broadcast, whether it’s Raw, Smackdown, NXT or a premium live event, begins with a montage of famous sights and sounds from both the organisation’s illustrious history and its present and ends with the slogan ‘Then. Now. Forever’. Technology is as important as anything in ensuring the last word rings true.
Rajan Mehta will be speaking at OTT Summit USA, a two-day event on 8th and 9th March 2022 at Citi Field, New York. You can see the agenda and and find out how to register here