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OK, so the WWE may not be real wrestling (the organization doesn’t even use that term to describe its “performers” or the “sports entertainment” it produces) but it is big business. And that business is shifting thanks in large part to big data.
For many years, the WWE’s highest revenue stream was selling pay-per-view (PPV) events on cable. But in 2013, the company took a huge risk and decided to take its own network digital, creating an Over The Top platform that cut out the cable middleman.
The decision to create and offer OTT programming drew a lot of criticism from people suggesting that it would hurt the WWE’s revenue from PPV events on cable, which typically cost $45-$50 each.
But the WWE saw multiple benefits from offering their OOT subscription service to viewers for $9.99 a month, and one of the biggest was the data. “We can now track when they are watching, what device they are using, how long they are watching,” Michael Wilson, WWE’s chief revenue officer, said at the at the NeuLion Sports Media & Technology Conference.
Before, they could only rely on Nielsen ratings, which only gave them a high-level view. Controlling the content on an OOT platform provides access to a flood of new data about consumer viewing habits and preferences.
A year into its experiment, the WWE reported more than a million active subscribers. Those subscribers produced plenty of data, which showed some interesting trends. For example, 90 percent of subscribers watch WWE programming at least once a week. Two-thirds of the platform’s traffic is for video-on-demand programming (VOD) instead of watching PPV events live. And 36 percent of users access the content via mobile.
“That was an aha moment for us,” Wilson told . “A lot of our fans aren’t going to watch a three-hour pay-per-view if they’re watching on their phones in between their breaks at work. Short form content will play a larger role. I don’t think we would have known that going into this.”
This data has enabled the company to build teams and strategies around providing the content consumers want. The company has turned its focus to creating shorter, more “snackable” content for the OOT platform, more than doubling the hours of VOD programming available in the first year alone.
Overall, the strategy seems to be going well. The platform doesn’t have to cannibalize content from its flagship programs on cable, which are also seeing ratings boosts. Even YouTube subscriptions were up for the WWE in 2015.
In early 2016, the company reached 1.8 million subscribers after a free-trial offer that coincided with WrestleMania. The company also said online video views for the event reached 65 million across social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and YouTube), representing an 87% increase over the previous year. And WrestleMania had a record 10.9 million social media fan engagements.
All this data is a boon for a company that has made its mark by understanding what its customers want to see and delivering.
In fact, reports suggest that the WWE is now also choosing matchups based on consumer data. A second-string character named Goldberg will face star Kevin Owens at the WWE Universal Championship at Fastlane. Some fans were perplexed why a part-time character would get top billing, but analysts suggest it comes down to data: Goldberg’s DVD sales, viewership, and popularity in a WWE video game suggest putting him in a headliner position is good business.
And, since WWE matchups are only loosely based in any sort of sporting reality, they can act on that data and choose whomever they want to go into a championship match.
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