World Wrestling Entertainment is making big moves to grow its audience, including moving its flagship live weekly program “Raw” to Netflix next year. But the pro wrestling giant is managing these changes with the notable absence of its founder, Vince McMahon Jr.
McMahon, 78, resigned As executive chairman of the WWE board last week after a former employee sued accusing him and ex-wrestler-turned-executive John Laurinaitis of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. The allegations, which McMahon denied and Laurinaitis did not respond to, overshadowed another significant week for the company. 5 billion dollars Netflix deal announcement and ending with a record breaking crowd at WWE’s “Royal Rumble” event.
McMahon’s departure takes the wrestling business into uncharted waters: For the first time in four decades, none of the four McMahons — Vince; his wife, Linda; and their children, Stephanie and Shane, are at the helm of the company.
While the management change has created problems and refocused attention on sexism within WWE, which the organization is trying to combat, some professional wrestling insiders and academics who study the industry see the moment as an opportunity for the company. With new executives in charge and a move to Netflix, WWE can experiment with more mature themes and reach a new international audience – becoming an even bigger cultural property than it is now.
“This is the first time we’re going to see truly progressive wrestling — not just in theory, but actually in practice,” said DeWitt King, who researched and wrote at the University of California, Irvine. professional wrestling culture. “It won’t be perfect, it won’t happen as quickly as people want, but there is a possibility of change. People need to understand that wrestling has always been at a different time than other sports.”
WWE has long faced off criticism including over-sexualizing female characters humiliating scripts about women and discrimination against female talent. However, it has evolved. WWE expanded its women’s division — it stopped calling it “Divas” in 2016 — and didn’t hold any “Divas.”Bra and panties” compatibility of years.
WWE, which claims to have 90 million fans nationwide, says it now counts women about 40% from the fan base.
While McMahon’s departure provides an opportunity for WWE to be more progressive, it also presents some serious obstacles.
On Monday, prominent Wall Street analyst firm MoffettNathanson argued that the new lawsuit against McMahon, who remains the company’s largest individual shareholder, poses “brand and legal risks” to WWE and the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s parent company, TKO Group. TKO said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in September that its business could take a financial hit while McMahon is on the board. The document also revealed that federal law enforcement had obtained a search warrant and had served a federal grand jury subpoena on McMahon, but did not provide further details.
A rep for McMahon declined to comment for this story, referring NBC News to a statement last week. In a statement, McMahon denied allegations in the lawsuit, which included graphic text messages he was accused of sending to a former employee depicting violent sex. “I intend to vigorously defend myself against these baseless accusations and look forward to clearing my name,” he said.
TKO said in a statement that company executives “take the appalling allegations very seriously and are addressing the matter internally.”
After McMahon’s payments became public, WWE adopted new policies, updated its code of conduct and mandated training for all employees, a company spokesperson said. The company released information about this SEC filing An internal review of McMahon’s payments concluded that the organization’s financial reporting protocols were ineffective and revised the financial statements.
At the turn of the century, managing WWE’s main rival, World Championship Wrestling, Eric Bischoff saw challenges ahead.
“It’s going to be painful, it’s going to be ugly, it’s going to be a huge distraction for everyone involved — but WWE will survive,” he said.
For decades, McMahon was the preeminent leader of the professional wrestling industry, purchasing the organization that would become WWE from his father in 1982, and later devouring opponents and putting them out of business. The company has produced megastars such as Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, John Cena, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who recently joined the TKO Group board.
Over the years, McMahon has survived numerous scandals that threatened his reign. Rita Chatterton, the first female judge at the firm, accused Rape McMahon in 1992; disputed his charge and reached a settlement with him last year. He also faces federal conspiracy charges accusing him of orchestrating it steroid use Among WWE wrestlers; found not guilty In 1994 by a jury.
The Wall Street Journal in 2022 revealed McMahon agreed to pay millions of dollars in non-disclosure agreements to four women previously associated with WWE to settle allegations that he engaged in sexual misconduct and extramarital affairs. McMahon resigned and the company launched an internal review of the payments. WWE later said in a statement SEC filing McMahon agreed to pay more than $14 million to settle allegations of misconduct from 2006 to 2022, which should have been recorded as business expenses.
McMahon returned to the company and became chairman of the board in January 2023. His daughter Stephanie McMahon, who had been CEO in her father’s absence, left the company upon his return.
Former WWE CEO Linda McMahon left the company in 2009. He served as head of the Small Business Administration under President Donald Trump and is currently chairman of America First Action, a pro-Trump political spending group. There are the McMahons he forgave Republican candidates and organizations for decades.
The board made a risky move to bring back Vince McMahon last year, said Bischoff, a WWE Hall of Famer who ran SmackDown in 2019 and is no longer with the company. But now that he’s gone and his legacy destroyed, Bischoff said it’s an opportunity for WWE chief content officer Paul Levesque to have more freedom to make changes.
“If I were an analyst, my advice would be not to worry about Vince McMahon leaving,” Bischoff said. “Actually, I’d be more of a bull because of it.”
Sean Oliver, who has produced professional wrestling videos for decades, said McMahon’s absence won’t bother WWE fans. Oliver said older fans are ready for new leadership, while younger fans see Levesque, who wrestled as Triple H until his retirement in 2022 and is married to Stephanie McMahon, as the head of the company.
“They’re going to take what Vince McMahon built and carry it forward for the next 50 years,” Oliver continued, “hopefully free of offensive texts and unprofessional behavior, which no one should do in a corporate environment.”
But last year’s decision to allow McMahon to return to WWE management still needs to be considered, said Lisa Banks, an attorney representing the sex offender. rape victims He has worked for NFL teams and the US Coast Guard. WWE needs to acknowledge that it made a mistake by not losing McMahon sooner and ensure that the corporate culture does not signal that the organization condones this type of behavior.
“You have to have strong policies, you have to have strong training, and you have to be prepared to create consequences for people who engage in sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Banks said. “For decades WWE executives have decided to turn the other cheek or look the other way and that is unacceptable.”
King, a UC Irvine scholar who formerly trained as a professional wrestler, said many women, queer people and people of color who are fans of professional wrestling have long had a complicated relationship with portrayals of people like them. He said the change in leadership is the perfect time for WWE to address the demands of younger fans for better representation.
“People should be able to enjoy it without feeling guilty,” he said.