On July 19th 2016, the WWE held its first draft since 2011. This news followed shortly after learning that SmackDown would be broadcast live on Tuesday evenings, rather than the delayed broadcasts of old. The WWE draft is where the two programme brands, Raw and SmackDown, make picks for individual superstars to appear solely on their show and represent the brand for the foreseeable future. As the wrestling community discussed the new lease of life the brand split could bring to SmackDown, all eyes looked towards the first live episode and the draft.
As Raw is a three hour show (SmackDown two hours), it received the first overall pick and had three picks to every two for SmackDown. The draft saw big names move both to Raw and SmackDown, reassuring fans that both brands would be competitive. With two brands competing against each other weekly for viewership, Raw live on Monday and SmackDown live on Tuesday, fans now have the brand war which many had been calling for. This begs the question, how has the WWE draft impacted viewership ratings in the UK?
Prior to the draft, Raw’s UK TV audiences were 49% higher than SmackDown’s. Raw was typically promoted as the main brand. Each week, if anything significant happened, be it in storylines or one off appearances, it was on Raw. With little happening on SmackDown to affect storylines, viewers had a reason to miss episodes. In addition, fans would see the same superstars and similar performances twice a week across the two shows.
Following the draft, UK viewership for the two shows changed dramatically. SmackDown’s post-draft average for 2016 increased by 17%, while Raw suffered a decline of 16%.
The most-watched episode of Monday Night Raw for the whole of 2016 came before the draft, in the final episode before the following Sunday’s WrestleMania, the biggest PPV event of the year. Viewership for this episode was 51% higher than the most watched episode of SmackDown pre-draft, highlighting the gulf in audience between the two shows.
Following the draft, UK viewership for the two shows changed dramatically. SmackDown’s post-draft average for 2016 increased by 17%, while Raw suffered a decline of 16%. SmackDown now features stars such as John Cena, Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles performing once a week exclusively on the show. Fans of these individuals will be tuning into SmackDown to watch them, and perhaps neglecting Raw programming as their favourites are now on the blue brand. Post draft, Raw still had a higher average audience than SmackDown, however this was only 29% higher, compared to 49% before the draft took place.
In addition to the increase in average audience for SmackDown, we also saw a change in viewing minutes (one viewing minute = one person watching for one minute, or two people watching for 30 seconds.) The viewing minutes for Raw in 2016 were 42% higher than SmackDown. However, episodes of Raw are three hours, while SmackDown is two, indicating a less-than-proportionate return in viewership from the additional hour of programming. The transition from delayed episodes of SmackDown to live episodes increased VMs by 16% despite the greater number of delayed (29) than live episodes (24) in 2016. This shows the increased interest in SmackDown since the draft, a trend highlighted in the first week following the draft, when SmackDown exceeded Raw in the UK ratings for the only time in 2016.
Viewership Behaviour Post-Draft
This overlap has meant that while the reach for Raw remained roughly constant pre and post-draft, and SmackDown’s increased by 24%, the tighter overlap of viewership bases led to a smaller net reach for WWE as a whole.
The unique reach of combined WWE programming has fallen post-draft, due to the overlapping of both brands’ viewership base. This overlap has meant that while the reach for Raw remained roughly constant pre and post-draft, and SmackDown’s increased by 24%, the tighter overlap of viewership bases led to a smaller net reach for WWE as a whole, as SmackDown’s later start time is now less accessible for the casual fan or channel-surfer.
One reason that SmackDown’s post-draft reach has increased is because fans of Raw are now able to watch the show live or shortly after without seeing spoilers. Before, it was easy to accidentally stumble across spoilers when searching wrestling pages on the internet (and sometimes even WWE posted spoilers themselves!). The net effect is that despite some pre-draft SmackDown viewers being pushed out by the less favourable start time, this is outweighed by an increase in new SmackDown viewers from the existing Raw viewership base.
The below data from Google Trends shows the interest for each programme through search volume in the UK throughout 2016. This data is in line with the TV audience data, with interest in Raw spiking just before WrestleMania, and the interest in SmackDown peaking as the draft approached. Reflecting TV audience trends, the average interest in SmackDown was 33% higher post-draft than pre-draft.
A Fan's View
As a fan, I see the brand split as a positive move by the WWE. The unique rosters provide a reason to watch both shows, as my favourite superstars only appear on one or the other brand. As a fan of Kevin Owens (Raw) and AJ Styles (SmackDown) I always watch both Raw and SmackDown so I can see both perform.
The two shows are distinctive, with SmackDown focusing heavily on the wrestling element, giving a lot of underused superstars the opportunity to show their worth, attracting the hardcore wrestling fan. By contrast, Raw is still heavy on entertainment. This gives us two different shows which we can enjoy, rather than duplicated content, which was on offer before the draft. Further to this, it creates an increased buzz when the two brands come together for certain PPVs, such as Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble. Seeing the two brands clash only a few times a year makes it feel more special and creates added interest in these events.
The short-run impact has been a 37% reduction in post-draft unique reach across combined WWE content, with average viewing minutes per episode increasing.
The brand split and draft represented a significant restructuring of WWE properties, in turn impacting on how fans watch WWE. The short-run impact has been a 37% reduction in post-draft unique reach across combined WWE content, with average viewing minutes per episode increasing. The next significant checkpoint for WWE in the UK comes at the end of 2019, when WWE’s existing broadcast rights agreement with Sky Sports is up for renewal. In addition to Sky Sports coverage, WWE also operates its own dedicated OTT platform, the WWE Network, which live-streams WWE pay-per-view events (PPVs). Currently there are 370k subscribers outside the US, with WWE projecting subscription growth in 2017. At £9.99 a month, this represents far better value than the £19.95 per event price tag of a typical PPV. This means the most cost-effective way for a dedicated WWE UK fan to watch all content is via a WWE Network subscription and Sky Sports subscription. The performance of these two channels alongside UK PPV revenues over the next three years will largely dictate WWE’s next move in 2020.