At its heart, professional wrestling is about art imitating life. Now the real-world drama of WWE itself is turning into something akin to Succession. On Tuesday night reports and rumors swirled that the world’s largest professional wrestling company was in the process of being sold to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the same entity which has heavily invested in Formula 1, initiated a takeover of Newcastle United in the Premier League, and most recently started LIV Golf.
Reports of the sale came hours after Stephanie McMahon announced she was stepping down as CEO of the company, and THAT news was precipitated days earlier when Vince McMahon made a shocking return to the company to resume his place as chairman, less than six months after stepping down amidst a hush money and sexual misconduct investigation.
Feeling overwhelmed yet? 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 slow things down, discuss what the hell is actually happening, and what this 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 to the PIF ... yet
We can pump the brakes on the sale reports right now, because this isn’t something that can happen in the dead of night without significant regulatory hoops to jump through. WWE is a publicly traded company, meaning a sale has to be reported to shareholders, SEC filings, and a public offer price which dictates how much the shares will be sold for.
It’s a process that takes weeks, if not months — not hours. This much was made clear on Wednesday morning when reports indicated that someone jumped the gun in saying it was a done deal.
Well, finally got something much more firm.— Jon Alba (@JonAlba) January 11, 2023
A high-ranking #WWE source with knowledge of the situation tells me reports of a sale or agreement to sell at this moment are “completely false.”
The phrase “at this moment” is pivotal to all this, and likely where the meat of the sale talk resides. The truth is: Vince McMahon’s return was designed to usher in a sale. Inside the company’s SEC filings announcing McMahon’s return was a change in the company bylaws, which gave Vince, and Vince alone, complete control over selling the company — and to whom the company was sold to.
It’s believed that numerous entities would be interested in purchasing WWE if the company went up for sale in open bidding, most notably Comcast who has a broadcast deal in place with WWE for both Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, as well as rolling the WWE Network into the premium tier of NBC’s Peacock streaming service. It’s also been speculated that Disney could have interest in acquiring WWE.
Why would Saudi Arabia want to buy WWE?
It comes back to one simple word: Sportswashing.
This is the process by which a nation uses entertainment, predominantly sport, as a vehicle to reform a public image. Significant investment, often far above “accepted” market rates, is made into a team, league, or sport as a whole — with an expectation that in exchange the beneficiary will help perform public relations for Saudi Arabia.
We’ve seen this with LIV Golf, it’s happened in Formula 1 with the expansion of races inside Saudi Arabia, and WWE itself has been a gleeful participant in sportswashing since 2016, accepting exorbitant sums of money to host bi-yearly WWE Crown Jewel shows in Saudi Arabia. Complete with a host of wrestlers speaking on camera about how lovely Saudi Arabia is, how kind people are, bragging about the country’s cleanliness, and telling a predominantly 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 tortured, sentenced to life imprisonment, or be subject to chemical castration. Women’s rights activists are routinely tortured and silenced. Lest we forget that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Sportswashing has been a significant Saudi focus in recent years as a way to soften the nation’s image to the west, with the end goal diversifying the nation’s economy. Mohammed bin Salman put forth his “Vision 2030” plan back in 2016, advocating that the nation needed to lessen its reliance on oil revenues, pivoting to more foreign investment, attract more tourism, and try to make Saudi Arabia more attractive to expatriates, in the hopes they might return to live in the country.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is an estimated $600B slush fund set aside purely for these investment. The amount of money eclipses the assets of any potential media buyer, which makes it an extremely logical choice as a prospective buyer, especially for an immoral billionaire like Vince McMahon.
A sale to the PIF would maximize the amount of money for a sale, with the additional benefit being that as a buyer they would be far less likely to scrutinize financials or worry about making a return on investment. The PIF’s goal isn’t to make money or run a successful business — it’s to win minds. Everything else is secondary.
A WWE sale to Saudi Arabia would be devastating to the professional wrestling industry
Anyone who suggests Saudi Arabia buying WWE is either a non-issue, or a net positive for professional wrestling is ignorant of the forces at play. Inside this there are three major issues which directly impact the industry as a whole moving forward.
No. 1: Wrestler satisfaction
Vince McMahon is unquestionably one of the worst employers in the United States when it comes to the rights of his workers. WWE talent is offered the ability to make tremendous money, but their future and success is entirely at the whim of creative powers outside their control. It’s not uncommon to have talent vanish from prominence after getting saddled with terrible creative choices, or buried following an injury.
This is all coupled with a Dickensian understanding of what it means to be an “independent contractor,” which allows WWE to keep its stars on company-friendly terms, not offer benefits, and prevent its talent from working for other companies, which would actually make them an independent contractor, rather than using the term solely for taxation purposes.
Still, it’s a far cry from suddenly becoming the employee of a country with a laundry list of human rights violations. Some talent may 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, any number of the open member of the LGBTQ community in the locker room, or the wide breadth of talent in WWE’s women’s division, working for Saudi is an entirely different ballgame.
There have been multiple wrestlers who have told me they'd leave WWE if the company ends up being Saudi Arabia-led.— Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful.com (@SeanRossSapp) January 11, 2023
I'll have more on https://t.co/jy8u4a8usI today, as well as List & Ya Boy at 3 PM EST.
It openly hurts the employees of the company to sell to Saudi Arabia, who would take WWE private, rather than a publicly traded media company.
No. 2: How long will Saudi Arabia care?
This is a sprint, not a marathon for Saudi Arabia. They want to enact “Vision 2030,” and see it achieve its goal — which, if you’re counting, means they’re looking seven years ahead. What happens after that point?
Do you actually think there is a fervent interest in producing a high quality wrestling product? Is there any specific interest in generating creative stories for talent, or investing in a sustainable wrestling future by cultivating young stars? This is a rhetorical question, and the answer is no.
The goal is to get Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, Goldberg — whoever the hell will come out of retirement and the woodwork to get a payday in exchange for wrestling a few matches here or there, while extolling the virtues of Saudi Arabia.
This is what’s often missed in the discussion of PIF-owned entities. The finish line is clearly ahead, and once we reach that point there’s a very real chance that non-profitable entities will dissolve. This is not a good position for WWE, which has has solely been profitable in recent years off the back of legacy media deals and being propped up by the Saudi live shows.
There is a very real chance that WWE is simply abandoned or forgotten about once Vision 2030 is met.
No. 3: Wrestling’s history and legacy is tied to WWE
For archivists and historians a sale to Saudi Arabia would have untold ramifications on how we preserve and document professional wrestling. Over the last 40 years WWE has consolidated wrestling under its umbrella, first through acquiring the wrestling territories in the 1980s, then again in 1999 when WWE purchased its competition by acquiring WCW.
This puts the vast majority of wrestling history, since really the advent of television cameras, inside WWE’s vast tape library. Some of this is made public through the WWE Network, but the amount of archival footage WWE has in house through this acquisitions really tell the story of professional wrestling as a whole.
Despite any criticisms you could levy at the McMahon family, there is no doubt that they truly loved and honored professional wrestling. A sale to the PIF would not carry on that legacy. You would have essentially the history of a sport all under the lock and key of an owner who really doesn’t care about it.
Sure, you could say “well, maybe someone would swoop in to buy the footage,” but what scenario is that realistic in? When you’re talking about an entity with a value of $600B, what figure would cause them to even want to go to the effort of selling the library?
The end result is that we’d likely lose the greatest repository of pro wrestling history on earth, which is heartbreaking for those who study professional wrestling as a performance art dating back well over 150 years.
Nobody should be happy about any of this
If a sale of WWE to the Saudi PIF is finalized there is nobody who benefits other than the McMahon family. Even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool All Elite Wrestling fan who detests WWE, it’s still not great to see competition dissolve — let alone to an entity with no passion or reverence for the business.
This would be a dark cloud over the entire industry for years to come, and that’s before we even get into speculation on what lengths the PIF could go to after sale to try and consolidate more wrestling businesses, more talent, widen its reach to expedite Vision 2030 as quickly as possible.
The only hope is that the hasty reportage of a potential sale to Saudi Arabia will put enough heat on the deal to cause one or both sides to back away. This isn’t a done deal yet, but it seems to be on the ropes — and the future of wrestling could be very scary if this is finalized.