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WWE embarks on online network

Wall Street may watch WrestleMania 30 as World Wrestling Entertainment advances its Internet project, the WWE Network, a subscription-only streaming video service.

WWE/new york times

Wall Street may watch WrestleMania 30 as World Wrestling Entertainment advances its Internet project, the WWE Network, a subscription-only streaming video service.

NEW YORK — On any list of visionary media moguls in the digital age, Vince McMahon, the professional wrestling impresario, might not immediately come to mind as a likely name.

Yet McMahon and his company, World Wrestling Entertainment, have positioned themselves on the cutting edge of Internet television with the WWE Network, a new subscription-only streaming video service. Introduced in February, the network broadcasts the pro wrestling extravaganzas that were once available only on cable and satellite television.

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And April 6, when the WWE hosts its 30th WrestleMania event at the Superdome in New Orleans — featuring the “Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal” — the entertainment industry and Wall Street will be watching as closely as wrestling fans.

Shares of the WWE, a publicly traded company based in Stamford, Conn., have more than tripled in the last year amid the introduction of the subscription network and takeover rumors. McMahon, 68, controls the company, and his ambitious WWE Network could be his final act in charge, industry watchers say.

“If he changed how pro wrestling and sports entertainment were broadcast forever, I don’t think there’s a better way to go out,” said Brandon Stroud, a wrestling commentator and editor at the sports site With Leather.

With viewers eschewing pricey cable packages in favor of free television on YouTube or monthly subscription services such as Netflix, McMahon decided to move where his customers are increasingly going.

His company has poured tens of millions of dollars into the WWE Network, which offers round-the-clock streaming of its programming for $10 a month. That package includes access to the WWE’s pay-per-view showcase events, which can cost up to $70.

“Owning and controlling your own platform is a sea change for us,” said George Barrios, chief strategy and financial officer at the WWE.

It was also a big change for some of the WWE’s longtime partners, who were not as excited about the new venture. Dish Network, which had sold WWE’s pay-per-view specials, decided not to offer the wrestling company’s “Elimination Chamber” event in February. On its Facebook page, Dish criticized WWE, complaining that it was not willing to adjust its costs for satellite and cable companies, “which is unfair to their customers.”

In part to placate its traditional distributors, WWE will show WrestleMania 30 via cable, satellite, and telecom providers like Comcast and Dish. But the vast majority of the wrestling company’s ads for WrestleMania 30 heavily promote the option of watching the event through its network.

“Realistically, the company needed to untether themselves from the pay-per-view business,” said Bradley Safalow, founder of PAA Research, an independent research firm.

The $10 monthly fee — higher than Netflix’s $8 monthly rate — should appeal to the WWE’s core fans, who now gain access to expensive pay-per-view events like WrestleMania. Diehard fans can watch classic matchups, like 1985’s main event from WrestleMania I, a tag-team battle featuring Hulk Hogan and Mr. T against Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff.

Michelle Wilson, chief revenue and marketing officer at the WWE, said that in addition to those key selling points, the network plans to add programming like talk shows or animated features to entice nonwrestling audiences.

Fans will eventually also get to view matches never broadcast to a national audience.

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