Wrestle Mania: Grappling with the future of the WWE in Florida
In June 2016, World Wrestling Entertainment, the sports-meets-soap-opera company best known for creating American icons like Hulk Hogan, The Rock and John Cena, announced that it had signed its first Chinese recruit — Bin Wang, a 23-year-old from Anhui, China. A little more than a year later, WWE signed Shadia Bseiso, a 31-year-old television presenter from Amman, Jordan. She was the WWE’s first Arab woman signee. A few months later, the WWE added Kavita Devi, its first Indian woman, and Nasser Alruwayeh, its first Kuwaiti man.
All had followed different paths into pro wrestling, but all will begin their WWE careers in the same place: Orlando. They are among 93 recruits — “superstars- in-training,” the company calls them — who will seek to master wrestling’s physical and theatrical demands at the WWE Performance Center, a 26,000- sq-.ft. complex east of downtown where aspiring wrestlers learn how to safely take “bumps,” perform pile drivers and develop their wrestling personas.
The Performance Center has emerged as a kind of regional headquarters for the WWE — and a vital tool in shaping the future of an $800-million-a-year enterprise that’s become one of the most valuable properties in sports. WWE’s television shows reach more than 11 mil-lion viewers in the U.S. each week. Its live events draw more than 1.8 million people to arenas across North America. And its YouTube channel has generated 20 billion lifetime views.
The problem facing the WWE, which began in the early 1950s as Capitol Wrestling, is that it has already captured the entire segment of male Americans who are likely to become fans. To continue growing, the company is trying to develop a generation of international performers who can one day anchor local programming overseas — shows like WWE Sunday Dhamaal, which launched last year in India, and WWE Wal3ooha, which premiered last year in the Middle East.
WWE also is expanding its women’s division with wrestlers who are athletically gifted and keep the focus on the wrestling rather than just sex appeal. The company last year staged its first “Mae Young Classic,” an all-female tournament that the WWE said drew comparable viewership to similar men’s tournaments. That’s a dramatic shift for a company that once featured a storyline in which Chairman and CEO Vince Mc- Mahon forced the company’s top female performer to get on her knees in the ring and bark like a dog.
WWE appears to have lots of room to grow. Nearly $600 million of the company’s $800 million in sales last year — 75 cents of every dollar — came from North America, according to the company’s regulatory filings. Just 8% came from the Asia Pacific region, 6% from mainland Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and less than 2% from Latin America.
International recruiting has become such a priority that nearly half of the 93 aspiring wrestlers training at the Performance Center are from overseas — up from less than 30% three years ago. Women now comprise nearly one-third of the training center roster, up from less than a fifth a few years ago.
The company hopes a more diverse roster of performers will attract new fans.
“It’s like what Yao Ming did for the NBA in China,” says Paul Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president for talent, live events and creative, who once wrestled under the name Triple H. “People that would never have necessarily turned on basketball, it made them turn it on because they heard about this local guy. And then they fell in love with the NBA.”
|World Wrestling Entertainment earned a record $801 million in revenue in 2017. Here’s how it makes its money:
|WWE Network subscriptions
|Consumer products licensing
The WWE Performance Center is in a small commerce park on the eastern outskirts of Orlando, sharing a building with a company that makes plumbing supplies. The company spent nearly $4 million remodeling a warehouse along the lines of training facilities used by NFL teams; the New York Giants’ Quest Diagnostics Training Center in New Jersey was a specific inspiration. The center has a staff of more than 20, including 11 coaches and a five-member medical team. WWE sends even its established stars to the center for rehab when they suffer injuries, much as Major League Baseball teams send injured players to their spring training facilities to recuperate.
The centerpiece of the complex is a cavernous room with seven 20x20 rings, one with a soft canvas — “a giant pillow bed,” as head coach Matt Bloom calls it — where recruits learn dangerous maneuvers. The center ring in the room is at the bottom of an entrance ramp built to the precise dimensions of the ramp used on “Raw,” the Monday night show that is WWE’s flagship program. A pair of overhead cameras pipe live feeds into the offices of McMahon and Levesque.
Next door is a sprawling weight room run by a strength and conditioning coach that the WWE hired from the NFL’s Houston Texans. There is also a full medical room and an assortment of recording studios and editing bays where wrestlers can work on acting, character development and improvisation. A performersonly lounge and locker rooms are up-stairs, plus a small “mirror room” with a microphone and a camera where recruits can hone their TV personas in private.