WWE 'Smackdown' Up for Grabs as NBCUniversal Moves to Pin Down 'Raw'

WWE Smackdown Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of USA Network

There's a big live-sports rights deal up for grabs.

Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that WWE's Smackdown is being shopped to various networks after NBCUniversal — whose USA Network airs the highly rated pro wrestling matches — declined to re-up its deal. NBCU is said to be focusing on renewing its pact for WWE's Raw, another wrestling franchise, and that deal is expected to close at as much as three times its current value. NBCU and WWE declined to comment on the still-ongoing negotiation. Fox has been speculated as a home for Smackdown, sources say.

NBCU scored rights to Smackdownthe second-longest-running weekly episodic program in U.S. TV history — in 2010. At the time, the company is said to have paid $30 million for rights to 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, which still boasts the sixth biggest audience among cable originals (including news programming), enters the open market as sports and sports entertainment (WWE wrestling is staged) programming has been fetching a premium given the live tune-in that comes with it.

Fox this year inked a massive five-year, $550 million annual deal for rights to the NFL's Thursday Night Football as the broadcast network begins to focus on sports and news. Back in 2012, Major League Baseball, Fox Sports Media Group and Turner Broadcasting entered into an eight-year national media rights deal for postseason games said to be worth $12.4 billion.

Still, broadcasters have questioned whether there is a ceiling for sports rights. Disney and ESPN earlier this month inked their first-ever multiyear deal for digital rights to live UFC Fight Night events in a pact worth $750 million ($150 million annually) starting in January. Those matches will be broadcast on ESPN+, the sports network's OTT platform. But UFC linear television rights are still being shopped by Endeavor, which purchased UFC in 2016 for $4 billion as part of its push into content ownership. (Fox Sports is the linear home for UFC.)