At the heart of professional wrestling is art imitating life. Now WWE’s real-world drama itself is turning into something akin to Succession. On Tuesday night, reports and rumors swirled that the world’s largest professional wrestling company was set to be sold to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the same entity that heavily invested in Formula 1, launched a takeover of Newcastle United in the Premier League, and more recently started LIV Golf.
Reports of the sale arrived a few hours later Stephanie McMahon has announced that she is stepping down as CEO of the companyand THIS news was precipitated days earlier when Vince McMahon made a shock return to the company to resume his role as chairman, less than six months after stepping down amid a money and misconduct investigation sexual.
Already feeling overwhelmed? I don’t blame you, because this whole situation went from 0 to 100 as soon as we hit 2023, and it’s not over yet. So let’s take it slow, let’s discuss what the hell is Actually what’s going on, and what it means for the future of professional wrestling – not just in terms of WWE, but for the industry as a whole.
WWE has not been sold at the PIF … yet
We can put the brakes on sell-off reports right now, because it’s not something that can happen overnight without significant regulatory hurdles to clear. WWE is a publicly traded company, which means a sale must have notice to shareholders, filings with the SEC, and a public offering price that dictates the price at which the shares will be sold.
It’s a process that takes weeks, even months, not hours. This was clarified on Wednesday morning when reports surfaced that someone had jumped the gun saying it was a done deal.
Well, I finally got something a lot firmer.
A high rank #WWE A source with knowledge of the situation tells me that reports of a sale or deal at this time are “completely untrue.”
— Jon Alba (@JonAlba) January 11, 2023
The phrase “right now” is key to all of this, and probably where the meat of the sales pitch lies. The truth is, Vince McMahon’s return was designed to usher in a sale. In company filings with the SEC announcing McMahon’s return was a change in the company’s bylaws, which gave Vince, and Vince alone, full control over the sale of the company — and to whom the business was sold.
Many entities are believed to be interested in buying WWE if the company is put up for sale in an open bidding process, including Comcast which has a broadcast deal with WWE for both. Monday night raw on the USA Network, as well as the deployment of the WWE Network in the premium tier of NBC’s Peacock streaming service. It has also been speculated that Disney might have an interest in acquiring WWE.
Why would Saudi Arabia want to buy WWE?
It boils down to one simple word: Sportswashing.
It is the process by which a nation uses entertainment, primarily sports, as a vehicle to reform a public image. Significant investments, often well above market “accepted” rates, are made in a team, league or sport as a whole – with the expectation that in return the recipient will help carry out public relations for the Saudi Arabia.
We’ve seen it with LIV Golf, it’s happened in Formula 1 with the expansion of racing in Saudi Arabia, and WWE itself has been happily involved in sports washing since 2016, accepting exorbitant sums of money for organize twice a year WWE Crown Jewel shows in Saudi Arabia. Complete with a host of wrestlers speaking on camera about Saudi Arabia’s beauty, the friendliness of the people, bragging about the country’s cleanliness and telling a mostly Western audience what a wonderful place it is to visit.
Of course, this is designed to distract from the fact that anyone found to be LGBTQ can be tortured, sentenced to life imprisonment, or subjected to chemical castration. Women’s rights activists are routinely tortured and silenced. Let’s not forget that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Sportswashing has been a Saudi priority in recent years as a way to soften the nation’s image in the west, with the end goal of diversifying the national economy. Mohammed bin Salman presented his “Vision 2030” plan in 2016, saying the country needed to reduce its dependence on oil revenues, look to more foreign investment, attract more tourism and try to make Saudi Arabia more attractive to expatriates, in the hope that they could return to live in the country.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is an estimated $600 billion slush fund earmarked just for such investments. The amount of money dwarfs the assets of any potential media buyer, making him an extremely logical choice as a potential buyer, especially for an immoral billionaire like Vince McMahon.
A sale at the PIF would maximize the amount of money for a sale, with the added benefit being that as a buyer they would be much less likely to scrutinize the finances or worry about making a return on investment. The goal of the PIF isn’t to make money or run a successful business – it’s to win minds. Everything else is secondary.
A sale of WWE to Saudi Arabia would be devastating for the professional wrestling industry
Anyone suggesting that Saudi Arabia buys WWE is either a non-issue or a net positive for pro wrestling is ignoring the forces at play. Within that, there are three major issues that directly impact the industry as a whole.
No. 1: Satisfaction of the wrestlers
Vince McMahon is unquestionably one of the worst employers in the United States when it comes to the rights of its workers. WWE talent is presented with the opportunity to earn huge amounts of money, but their future and success are entirely dependent on the creative powers beyond their control. It is not uncommon for talent to disappear after being faced with terrible creative choices or buried following an injury.
All of this is coupled with a Dickensian understanding of what it means to be an “independent contractor”, which allows WWE to keep its stars on business-friendly terms, offer no perks, and prevent its talent to work for other companies, which Actually making it an independent contractor, rather than using the term solely for tax purposes.
Yet he is far from suddenly becoming an employee of a country with a long list of human rights abuses. Some talent might not care, but for people like Sami Zayn, who recently re-signed with WWE and has been openly critical of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Syria, a number of open members of the LGBTQ community in the locker room, or the wide array of talent in WWE’s women’s division, working for Saudi Arabia is a whole different ballgame.
There have been several wrestlers who told me they would leave WWE if the company ended up being run by Saudi Arabia.
I’ll have more on https://t.co/jy8u4a8usI today, as well as on List & Ya Boy at 3:00 PM EST.
— Fightful.com’s Sean Ross Sapp (@SeanRossSapp) January 11, 2023
It openly hurts company employees to sell to Saudi Arabia, which would take WWE private, rather than a publicly traded media company.
#2: How Long Will Saudi Arabia Care?
It’s a sprint, not a marathon for Saudi Arabia. They want to implement “Vision 2030” and see it achieve its goal – which, if you count, means they are looking seven years ahead. What happens after this point?
Do you really think there is a fervent interest in producing a high quality wrestling product? Is there particular value in generating creative stories for talent or investing in a sustainable wrestling future by cultivating young stars? That’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is no.
The goal is to get Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, Goldberg – whoever will come out of retirement and the woodwork to get a day’s pay in exchange for a few wrestling matches here or there, while touting the virtues of Saudi Arabia.
This is what is often overlooked in the discussion of PIF-owned entities. The finish line is clearly ahead, and once we reach that point, there is a very real chance that unprofitable entities will dissolve. This is not a good position for WWE, which has only been profitable in recent years thanks to legacy media deals and supported by live Saudi broadcasts.
Chances are WWE will simply be abandoned or forgotten once the 2030 Vision is achieved.
No. 3: The history and legacy of wrestling is tied to WWE
For archivists and historians, a sale to Saudi Arabia would have incalculable ramifications for how we preserve and document professional wrestling. Over the past 40 years, WWE has cemented wrestling under its umbrella, first acquiring the wrestling territories in the 1980s and then again in 1999 when WWE purchased its competition by acquiring WCW.
This places the vast majority of wrestling history, from the advent of television cameras, into WWE’s vast library of tapes. Some of this is made public through the WWE Network, but the amount of archival footage that WWE has in-house from these acquisitions really tells the story of pro wrestling as a whole.
For all the criticism you might throw at the McMahon family, there’s no doubt that they truly loved and honored professional wrestling. A sale at the PIF would not perpetuate this legacy. You would basically have the story of a sport under the lock and key of an owner who really doesn’t care.
Sure, you could say “well, maybe someone would rush out to buy the footage”, but in what scenario is that realistic? When you’re talking about a $600 billion entity, what number would make them even want to put in the effort to sell the library?
The end result is that we would likely lose the greatest repository of professional wrestling history on earth, which is heartbreaking for those who study professional wrestling as a performance art dating back over 150 years.
No one should be happy about all this
If a sale of WWE to the Saudi PIF is finalized, there is no one but the McMahon family who benefits. Even if you’re a dyed in the wool All Elite Wrestling fan who hates WWE, it’s still not great to see the competition dissolving – let alone an entity with no passion or respect for the business.
It would be a dark cloud over the entire industry for years to come, and that’s before we even get into speculation about how far the PIF could go after sale to try to consolidate more wrestling companies, more talent, expand its reach to accelerate Vision 2030 as quickly as possible.
The only hope is that the hasty report of a potential sale to Saudi Arabia will put enough pressure on the deal to cause one or both parties to back down. It’s not a done deal yet, but he appears to be on the ropes – and the future of wrestling could be very scary if this is finalized.