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“You can't think traditionally in a non-traditional world.” - a quotation cited to WWE founder Vince McMahon earlier this year in response to the global outbreak of Covid-19. 

It’s only a few days before SummerSlam, arguably entertainment brand WWE’s second most important annual event, being staged this year in Orlando, Florida with one huge change – this year, it will have no fans present as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Unusually, tickets haven’t been sold for the event this year and there is a level of secrecy hanging over it all, especially the ThunderDome set which is expected to feature fans virtually, similar to that of the NBA’s recent introduction of courtside virtual fans. John Brody WWE’s executive vice president of global sales and partnerships is giving little away about what is to be expected from the ‘state-of-the-art viewing experience’ when The Drum speaks to him.

“We had to move all of our events into our Performance Centre in Orlando and we had to create an environment where we could shoot content, but we could also do it in a way that was safe, that was also relevant and that kept the storyline going. And that was still giving our athletes the chance to be athletic. So you put all that together and it's a pretty challenging undertaking.”

Despite all of the hurdles thrown at WWE since March when lockdowns began, just prior to its premier event WrestleMania taking place, it has continued to meet its commitments to broadcasters from all around the world, including Fox, NBC and Channel Five. It has even secured further agreements with new partners, such as ESPN to provide content in order to meet demand on fans from all around the world.

“The show didn't just go on, the show expanded and really took on a special feeling. Our tagline was ‘too big for just one night’ and it was true; WrestleMania was the spectacle that WWE delivers. It was massive, but it was different. It was in our Performance Center and we were able to create that special connection with our fans, which is what we do… we're excited because we're going to again create that spectacle for our fans and we've remained open for business throughout this time,” he explains proudly.

Within that, WWE Network, the subscription-based television app run by the company has seen a “pretty significant” growth in subscribers of 5% year on year. WWE opened it up to viewers for free, after they had registered their details, of course, with a free version still available for fans at the top of the subscription funnel. That allowed viewers to reminisce over classic matches featuring Andre The Giant, Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and hundreds more while getting up to speed with modern-day storylines being produced.

“That's why our partners have stayed with us and that's why our partners are so global and that's why we don't have a US business, we don't have a UK business,  we don't have a Germany business - we have a global business because we have fans all around the world,” he outlines, emphasizing how strong that worldwide engagement has become.

It’s not only broadcast commitments that WWE had to meet, although Brody claims that there was a desire to entertain fans rather than simply meet its contractual obligations and that performers were given the choice to appear rather than forced, there were also the sponsors which include Unilever, Hyundai, Hulu, Applebees, Cricket Wireless, 2K, Nestle and World of Tanks (see SummerSlam tie in trailer above.)

“Some of the partners who are joining us for SummerSlam; we have Nissin Cup Noodles, one of the most revered brands in Japan and we have Wargaming which is a global gaming company based in Cyprus and we have Unilever which is a truly global brand and I think that speaks to the appetite for WWE and our superstars all around the world.”

To fulfill sponsor expectations, Brody outlines some of the activations and solutions that have taken place; “So whether it's doing some recording with one of our superstars; Stone Cold Steve Austin in a different way than we otherwise would have done it or creating virtual gaming competitions rather than maybe doing it another way, those are all part of how we've tried to solve problems for them and create value. Unilever is launching a WWE version of its Good Humor ice cream bars and we're going to have Jon Cena on them, and Becky Lynch.”

He also discusses a deal with Hyundai, which WWE has worked with for three years, led by superstar and partnership spokesperson Roman Reigns, adding that the aim of it all is to make people smile through virtual birthday tours or virtual hospital visits from Reigns.

Discussing other platforms that allow WWE to connect with its fan base openly without subscriptions, he discusses why they run content for free over Facebook, YouTube and even TikTok, despite the threat of its ban by the American government.

“We're in a competition for one thing – time. More of your time. And part of the way that we compete for your time is to give you access to our content. We think our content is amazing, but we want to break down all the barriers for you to be able to enjoy our content. So, if you want to enjoy it on traditional linear television, we want to give you that opportunity. If you want to enjoy it over an OTT service, we want to give you that opportunity. If you want to do it globally, we want to give you that opportunity. If you want to come to a live event, post-Covid, we want to give you that opportunity. YouTube is another for us another way to deliver content to you. We believe strongly that short-form consumption drives long-form consumption. If your content is relevant, and your storylines are good and your superstars deliver, we believe that short-form will bring you into the long-form so you can be a part of that.”

As for TikTok and its future in the US, Brody says WWE is monitoring the situation as it is with Facebook’s recent controversies that drove major brands to abstain from advertising on the platform earlier this year.

“You have to be nimble, and you have to be prepared. If you asked me six months ago, what our plan was if we got into a global pandemic, I think I would say that our plan was to lead with passion and entertain people. How we're going to do it, I don't think we knew. But we knew that we had an ability to entertain and ability to divert the attention away from the challenges, and that's what we're focused on doing.”

SummerSlam, which takes place on Sunday 23 August, is likely to throw up its own surprises when it does take place, but after the last six months, it is also the latest event set to teach the team at WWE just how it can continue to entertain and further engage with its worldwide fanbase as the lack of a live audience continues for some time to come.