WWE, BSkyB Extend U.K. TV Deal

11:30 PM PST 01/29/2014 by Georg Szalai

The sports entertainment firm also recently struck a richer TV agreement in Thailand and is continuing renewal talks with NBCUniversal in the U.S.

LONDON -- Sports entertainment powerhouse WWE and U.K. pay TV giant BSkyB have struck a new programming deal, extending their long-standing content partnership by five more years.

The news comes as the wrestling company is in the midst of negotiating an extension of its current U.S. TV deal with NBCUniversal. The U.K. is WWE's second-largest market behind the U.S.

The agreement in Britain allows BSkyB, in which Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox owns a 39 percent stake, to continue exclusively airing WWE's weekly flagship shows Raw and SmackDown to more than 15.5 million homes in the U.K. and Ireland through 2019. Under the deal, BSkyB will also add WWE Main Event to its lineup.

BSkyB has faced increasing competition for sports rights from telecom giant BT, making deals for popular content such as WWE programming key.

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Financial details of the BSkyB deal weren't disclosed, but sources say its value is believed to be about three times that of the previous five-year agreement. When the previous deal was announced, it was reported to be WWE's biggest-ever international TV rights deal at the time.

The new BSkyB deal comes at a time when WWE has been focusing on renewing TV agreements in key countries for much higher price tags by emphasizing the popularity of its live content, which top executives say should be treated like sports programming, because it draws big audiences.

"Around the world, there is a land grab for content, especially live content with a built-in audience" amid growing competition, George Barrios, CFO and chief strategy officer at WWE, told The Hollywood Reporter. "We have seen this rising tide of the value of content."

Gerrit Meier, executive vp international at WWE, added that internationally, the firm's partnerships tend to be with more sports-focused partners. "Internationally, we have our anchor within broadcast much more on the sports side than domestically," he explained. "In addition to the live content, we are also seeing a great appreciation for storyline-driven content. Fortunately, we have both. We are live and we are storyline-driven 52 weeks a year. And we have a significant amount of content, which really allows a full engagement of our fans throughout the week and year."

WWE is also working toward a new TV deal in India, its second-largest country outside the U.S., that would start next year. It recently signed a five-year deal with Cable Thai Holdings in Thailand, whose value came in seven times higher than WWE's previous deal in the Asian country, according to sources.

The new U.K. agreement will bring the WWE-BSkyB partnership into its 30th year.

All programming will air in high-definition on Sky Sports, with additional programming available on BSkyB flagship channel Sky 1. All 12 annual WWE pay-per-views will also be available on Sky Sports Box Office.

Britain is a key market for WWE. Barrios said about a quarter of the company's revenue comes from outside the U.S., with the U.K. providing the largest component of that. WWE also does more tours in the U.K. than anywhere else outside the U.S.

"WWE in the U.K. has been such a staple of culture that we have seen continued success across all lines of business," Meier said. "We're proud of our 30-year partnership with BSkyB, the leader in delivering the best in sports and entertainment. This partnership is a testament to the passion our fans have for WWE content and the long-term growth potential for our brand worldwide."

"WWE is brilliant entertainment, and I am delighted to once again extend our relationship with them," said Barney Francis, managing director at Sky Sports. "WWE is hugely popular with our viewers, and now they can continue to watch all the big events and weekly programs with us."

WWE also recently announced that it would next month launch a subscription-based, online-only video network, the WWE Network, in the U.S. It will also become available in select international markets, including the U.K., in late 2014 or early 2015.

Asked if the network caused BSkyB any concern that it could cannibalize the WWE audience, Meier said the company sees it as "extremely complimentary" to other WWE content offerings, such as its TV shows. "We have partners that see it similarly. They see it as a major boost to the brand, the fan engagement and to their own viewership."

The executives wouldn't discuss the state of discussions with NBCUniversal for a new U.S. TV deal.

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai

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