Wednesday, WWE released six on-screen talents: Braun Strowman, Aleister Black, Santana Garrett, Murphy, Lana, and Ruby Riott. In mid-to-late May, WWE gutted their digital content division, firing most of the employees on that team. In the latter half of May, WWE released several of their dedicated color commentators. In late April, WWE also released a large number of in-ring talent.
Every single time WWE holds one of these mass releases, we constantly hear one defense from WWE and their defenders. “Budget Cuts. It is a business and this is the ugly side of the business.” That excuse is easily dismissed since WWE is currently in the midst of their most profitable era ever.
Fox paid more for the rights to air WWE Smackdown than the United States paid France for a quarter of North America (15 million in 1803, valued at about 300 million in modern dollars, which is still dwarfed by the Fox deal.). NBCUniversal probably paid a similarly unreal amount to have the exclusive rights to the WWE Network in the United States. They signed a new TV deal about a year and a half ago to get NXT on the USA Network, which means more cash in pocket. Smackdown is averaging about two million viewers every week, no matter what it is competing with.
(WWE also has penned a TV deal with A&E recently for both their “Most Wanted Treasure” series and their line of biographies on WWE’s most historic faces. It is unclear how much this deal is worth, but it is unlikely that it is under eight digits, however, that is speculation)
The reality is that the WWE is not house because of a sudden budget crunch. WWE’s new president, Nick Khan (brother to the president and owner of All Elite Wrestling, Tony Khan. Imagine those family gatherings), is making these cuts for a specific reason. What that reason is is likely only between him and Vince McMahon, so it is anyone’s guess.
There are two main schools of thought as to what that reason is. The less popular yet less speculative one is that the WWE roster has gotten bloated and needs to be cleaned out. For the last half-decade or more, the WWE has been signing any wrestler it could get its hands-on, and very rarely let them go. It became completely normal for WWE to sign wrestlers, run out of ideas for them, and then just pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars to sit at home and not wrestle for the competition.
Total Nonstop Action, Ring of Honor, and AAA were the most concerning competition when they first started this practice, but since then, it has become more about New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Elite Wrestling and stopping them from profiting off the extremely talented wrestlers that they wasted.
Clearing those contracts off the books is probably saving the company tens of millions of dollars over the next few years, which is nothing to sneeze at, even for a multi-billion dollar company like “The Fed”
The problem with this school of thought, however, is that the level of wrestlers being cut contradicts that idea. Look specifically at this most recent group of releases and you can see it very clear. Braun Strowman was in a world title matchless then a month ago, got new music less than a year ago, and is coming off of a Wrestlemania feud with Shane McMahon. Buddy Murphy has been used heavily for the last two years on Smackdown and was finally in a position to start making solo runs at mid-card titles.
Lana was a part of the already bleeding women’s tag division and given a bit longer to train, may have been able to provide a new face in Raw’s women’s roster that is getting shallow and uninteresting. Ruby Riott was the same way, except she is already good enough to be in the title picture right now.
Aleister Black made his long-awaited return from injury less than a week before being released, after the WWE had spent thousands of dollars preparing video packages and vignettes for Black to use to build a whole new persona and character. According to an interview he had on a Twitch stream, Black said that not only did he have a very positive relationship with Vince McMahon, but his character’s story arch was supposed to actually heavily involve McMahon.
For Pete’s sake, they had gone through the process of creating completely new music for his new character, which costs a ton of money. WWE put more money into Aleister Black in the last few months than most people will see in their entire lives.
(It is worth noting here that Aleister Black keeps raising red flags and not looking right to me. As a matter of fact, most of these releases seem off, but the Black one especially is actively such a poor business decision that it gets me a bit suspicious. I am going to expand further on this shortly in an article, but to put it short, I actually think the Black release, or possibly the whole release block, is a work)
These were actual parts of the WWE roster that were not only consistently contributing but were contributing on the middle to upper parts of the card. High-level talent is hard to create and organically get over, something WWE should know all about, and releasing main event stars is not an acceptable way to clear the books.
This becomes even more true when you think of all of the talents that they could have cut if they were really wanting to slim the roster down (I am not advocating for anyone being released, any wrestler who makes it to this level has to be pretty good and deserves to do what they love). I will guarantee that they are paying Ricochet a ton of money, but clearly have no plans for the former Prince Puma (they never have), so why keep him around?
What is Keith Lee doing? Are you really using Jeff Hardy as an enhancement talent? Do you really need that many mid-card wrestlers in NXT? Do you have space on the main roster for that many mid-card talents along with your already bloated mid-card?
The releases in full context (and yes, it is okay to think that releasing a talent like Braun, who was a world champion less than a year ago, while continuing to pay wrestlers who are doing nothing is a stupid idea, and saying otherwise is a non-starter for conversations) do not line up and make sense if this is really the reasoning behind them.
So, it leads people to ponder why the WWE is releasing top-level talent and paying lower card talent to not even show up. This is where the second school of thought enters and begins one of the weirdest wrestling conversations in recent memory.
What if Nick Khan and Vince McMahon are preparing the WWE for a purchase?
It is okay to read that for the first time and think it is completely nutty. Vince McMahon has owned the entirety of the now WWE since Reagan was in office, and before that, his father started it, and in all likelihood, his daughter and son-in-law will have it next. Everything wrestling is today is McMahon’s doing: he fought the territory wars of the eighties, he created Hogan, Cena, Michaels, and Austin, he pushed the merchandise, he beat WCW in the Monday Night Wars, he started the WWE Network. Sometimes he was not the first, but in his prime, Vince McMahon made sure he was the best to do everything.
However, the 90s and 2000s are long gone. 2021 is a completely different beast than anything Vince McMahon has ever seen. The Internet and social media are the most helpful tools and most dangerous weapons ever created by man. Society is changing significantly, very quickly.
McMahon’s friend and business partner, Donald Trump, became the United States president, then the world set itself on fire. We just came out of a year and a half-long pandemic that was so politicized and divisive that, even after the vaccine is released to everyone and we are finally released from that prison, we are still arguing about it. The world Vince McMahon conquered and ruled is long gone, and the new one does not appear to have space for him.
On top of everything else, there’s a new kid on the block, and they are better than any of the others before them. They not only rely on the Internet but can use it to their advantage. They have just as much money, if not more. Their fan base is loyal and hungry, their stars are moving merch, and McMahon underestimated them.
Worst yet: They already won the first fight.
AEW won the first round of the “Wednesday Night War” when they forced WWE to move NXT to Tuesdays, and they look ready to start round two, with AEW Rampage rumored to be moving to Tuesday’s when the brand moves to TBS in 2022. They learned from TNA and WCW before them and are keeping the pressure on McMahon while being smart and keeping from pushing the issue too far. There is no Austin, no Foley, no Rock, no DX, (ironically) no Jericho, no Chyna, and no Taker to save WWE from defeat this time.
And this time, Vince is 75.
This is not to bash McMahon’s age, because, at 75, he looks better than anyone I know and could probably squash my head like a watermelon with his non-dominant hand. It is, however, worth noting that after 75 years of being in the wrestling business, it would be understandable for McMahon to be tired.
He notably does not take many vacations, working through the summer and many holidays to keep the WWE machine churning. A few years of this would be too much for almost anybody, let alone the 39 since McMahon fully took over the company.
If McMahon is ready to hand off his life’s work and finally walk off into the sunset, he has suitors ready with cash in hand. NBCUniversal is the obvious name, having just purchased the US rights to the WWE Network, they would have the most at stake in WWE’s future (the current rumor floating around is that NBCUniversal and the WWE might already have a deal done, with a four billion dollar price tag thrown around).
Disney is a name that gets thrown around for any media acquisition conversation, and honestly, why not? It is a TV-PG program that tends to lean towards family content and could offer Disney even more diversity in programming. The dark horse is Amazon since they just spent four billion to acquire MGM studios, but it’s important, to be honest, and not act like Amazon only has four billion dollars of disposable income.
There are countless reasons for McMahon to want to part with his third child and any company that acquires WWE is going to get a steal. The WWE will see a profit until after the FOX deal is up, and any half-decent businessman can make sure it at least breaks even after that.
The “budget cuts” and the recent restructuring of the company are what make this appear more likely. Cutting top stars is not about trimming the roster, it is about saving even more money and pumping up the projected profit margins. Tens of millions of dollars more in profit every year just increases the number on the WWE’s price tag, and Nick Khan would know this.
The CBA is simple too: take the amount of money a wrestler brings to the company in merch and ticket sales and weigh it against the amount of money saved per year you would save by firing them multiplied by the number of years they have left on their contract. If the first number is bigger, keep them on the roster and get them on TV. If the second is the larger number, well, time to hit them with a “Good luck in your future endeavors.”
That may seem ruthless and cutthroat, and to a certain extent it is, but it is just business. Businesses, and specifically businesses looking for buyers and investors, are about making money and maximizing profits. Buyers want to make sure that they are going to see a positive return on investment with their purchase, and in today’s economy, they want to see that right off the bat. That means the sellers need to maximize the projected profit margins before even contacting buyers.
The signs for Vince McMahon preparing the WWE for a sale are all there, and, honestly, good for him. He has grandkids who I am sure he would love to spend more time with. His wife may finally be done with politics (outside of lobbying and her super PAC), and I am sure he would love to spend more time with her.
No one sits there in their twilight years and just wishes they could have spent more time at work. They wish they would have made more time for family and friends and loved more, and with a sale of the WWE, McMahon would be the first in three generations of his family to make that happen.