Fox will be the anticipated home of WWE's SmackDown Live in a massive new five-year deal worth more than $1 billion, sources close to the negotiations tell The Hollywood Reporter. The new deal, which is nearing completion and is worth $205 million annually, is expected to begin in October 2019 and will mark a three-fold increase over what NBCUniversal is currently paying WWE to air SmackDown on its USA network.
WWE is said to have had an even higher bid from a third party — and enthusiastic interest overall. But WWE execs are said to have embraced Fox's commitment to heavily promote SmackDown across a robust sports portfolio that includes the NFL and Major League Baseball.
The deal would split WWE programming rights with NBC, which is expected to retain Raw. SmackDown is averaging 2.59 million viewers a week so far this year, while Raw is pulling about 3 million. Both programs currently air on USA. And the WWE had a significant part in the network's May 14 upfront presentation to advertisers with Stephanie McMahon, WWE's chief brand officer, introducing several female wrestlers including former UFC star Ronda Rousey.
The Fox deal dovetails with the Murdoch-controlled network’s anticipated programming pivot in the wake of the Disney acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox assets. “New Fox,” as it has been quasi-officially dubbed, will include the Fox broadcast network and owned stations, Fox News and Fox Sports, which includes cable nets FS1 and FS2 as well as the Big Ten Network. Fox's May 14 upfront presentation to advertisers unveiled a shift away from edgy, urbane fare toward broad programming with appeal beyond coastal confines to middle America. The network will spend more than $3 billion for five seasons of Thursday Night Football and already shells out more than $1 billion annually for its top-rated Sunday NFL package, which runs through 2022.
It’s unclear what effect, if any, the WWE deal will have on Fox Sports’ calculation in renewing its UFC rights package, which expires at the end of the year. The Endeavor-owned promotion recently finalized a $750 million deal with ESPN+, the Disney-owned sports giants’ still-nascent OTT service. And sources close to that deal have told THR that Fox is willing to pay about $175 million annually for the MMA promotion.
NBCUniversal has had rights to SmackDown since 2010; at the time, the company is reported to have paid about $30 million for the franchise. The show began airing that year on Syfy, with corporate sibling USA heavily promoting it. SmackDown moved full time to USA in January 2016, as the cable network home to Mr. Robot and The Sinner aired all three WWE shows: SmackDown, Raw and Tough Enough. It marked the first time that the top three shows were broadcast on the same network. SmackDown started airing live in May 2016, increasing the value for advertising during the wrestling show. At the time, USA aired five hours of live WWE programming a week; WWE programming currently airs two nights a week on USA. (Raw aired solo on USA from 2005 to 2016.)
SmackDown still boasts the sixth-biggest audience among cable originals (including news programming) at a time when programmers are desperate for content that viewers will consume live.
Lesely Goldberg contributed to this report.