WWE’s International Dreams Risk Premium Problems

Drew McIntyre holding Scottish flag WWE

WWE might be about to back itself into a strange corner.

Professional wrestling is booming. For anyone willing to drag themselves from the cesspit of petty tribalistic point-scoring on social media, it’s clear. AEW is in the midst of another huge summer coming off a blockbuster Forbidden Door. The annual cross-promotional show featured talent from AEW, NJPW, Stardom, and CMLL and then there’s the small matter of All In at Wembley Stadium in August. Meanwhile, a short hop across wrestling’s great divide, WWE continues to ride high on a wave of fan goodwill, breaking records at every turn. The Triple H-led concern has even been getting in on the cross-promotion party, working with TNA, AJPW, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and Marigold.

It’s almost beyond cliche at this point, but 2024 really is an incredible time to be a wrestling fan. If you can’t find something to enjoy somewhere on the wrestling landscape, maybe this great sport isn’t for you.

The job of any promotor, company president, or booker is to ride that wave as long as possible. At some point, the business will dip. After all, no one in entertainment does boom or bust quite like pro wrestling. But a downturn doesn’t have to mean disaster if the right foundations are laid when the sun is shining. For the first time in longer than anyone can remember WWE is planning years into the future. But some of those plans could be something of a double-edged sword.

WWE’s Global Expansion

WWE’s big dream is to become as international as possible with its Premium Live Events — but only up to a point. Back in April, company President Nick Khan publicly outlined for the first time the desire to take all events outside of the “Big 5” away from the United States and Canada. Although things had been trending in that direction, this was the first time the company had laid its cards on the table. Interestingly, this hasn’t stopped speculation WrestleMania could land in Saudi Arabia, or even the UK.

This year WWE has held or is planning to hold events in Australia, France, Scotland, and Germany, on top of its two pre-agreed shows in Saudi Arabia. This comes after trips to Wales in 2022, and England and Puerto Rico in 2023.

For the most part, the international PLEs have been a huge hit with fans, and a big boost to WWE business. Each of the shows mentioned above has played out in front of raucous crowds, giving several Superstars special moments they’ll never forget. Zelina Vega was moved to tears by the reaction from fans at Backlash 2023 and on the same card Damain Priest and Bad Bunny were cheered to the rafters. At Elimination Chamber: Perth, Rhea Ripley’s homecoming was treated like the return of a deity and Drew McIntyre remains beloved by British crowds — as does Bayley who has become something of an adopted Brit going back to her NXT days.

Even fans watching at home have come to love the different atmosphere at international events, where everything is treated like the biggest thing in the world. The shows have also been a massive boost to WWE’s business. Clash at the Castle: Scotland set the record for the largest arena gate in pro wrestling history, with estimates putting the figure at around $4 million. This broke the record set by Backlash: France a month earlier, which stood at $3.2 million. And that’s before factoring in the surge in merchandise sales that comes with the event.

WWE Success Comes At A Price

However, if WWE is going to continue with its policy of international PLEs it needs to tread carefully. In the lead-up to Clash At The Castle: Scotland there was significant criticism of ticket prices, which had rocketed from previous events. The backlash even made its way to BBC News, with fans upset at being charged a minimum of £300 ($380), with premium tickets for SmackDown and the PLE going for a staggering £2000 ($2536).

To add to the frustration there are issues with the cards being too predictable. Returning to Backlash 2023, although Zelina Vega enjoyed her moment opposite Rhea Ripley, there was no way she was going to win. The same can be said for Ripley’s own Australian homecoming at Elimination Chamber where she faced Nia Jax. A little over a month out from WrestleMania, fans knew their favourite wasn’t going to lose.

The issue really came to the fore at Backlash: France which was one of the most predictable cards in recent memory. It was clear from the outset that all the champions would be retaining the titles, bringing the action all too close to being a glorified house show. Although the event featured the re-debut of Tonga Loa, his arrival was nowhere as big of a deal as the subsequent debut of Jacob Fatu on SmackDown.

International events are still bigger than regular WWE TV, but they risk becoming missable. At Clash At The Castle: Scotland, Sami Zayn retained the Intercontinental Title by beating Chad Gable, and the break-up of Alpha Academy was held off until Raw. Fans could take an educated guess that neither Cody Rhodes nor Bayley would be losing which left the main event.

In this case, the match did produce a surprise. Drew McIntyre was screwed out of the World Heavyweight Championship (again) by CM Punk. And while the result was shocking, it was a storyline device to build to a match at one of the “Big 5,” as well as angering fans who saw McIntyre lose the main event in the UK for a second consecutive show. At least this time, Tyson Fury wasn’t waiting in the wings to do some karaoke.

There’s been a lot of talk about WWE’s popularity and comparisons made to the Attitude Era. But for better or worse, that period was always unpredictable. In 2000, Kurt Angle pinned The Rock at No Mercy to win the WWF Championship for the first time. Fast forward nearly a quarter of a century, and it seems unthinkable a rising star in the mould of Angle would beat Cody Rhodes for the Undisputed WWE Title at an event like Bash In Berlin.

A Sad Reality

Between 1997 and 2003 the company held regular pay-per-views in the United Kingdom, but against a backdrop of falling PPV buy rates, predictable cards, and diminishing fan interest they were dropped. WWE didn’t return for a PPV event again until September 2022. During this period the company even managed to screw over the hometown hero (The British Bulldog) in the main event after he dedicated the match to his sister who had cancer. The less said about the Mayhem In Manchester debacle the better.

One of the regular criticisms leveled at AEW is that their weekly TV shows don’t matter, as the big events always deliver. In its own way, WWE is risking falling into the same cycle. International events might be fun on the surface, but if nothing of consequence happens, and ticket prices keep rising, the novelty for fans will quickly wear off.

Yet, the biggest problem for fans in 2024 is that to WWE, none of this really matters.

With the announcement that SummerSlam will be moving to two nights, the “Big 5” will be getting bigger and bigger. And as the events grow, WWE will continue to give fans “moments” to make them seem as special as possible. Furthermore, by casting its net wider than ever, if one international market slows, there’s the opportunity to jump somewhere new.

Tie that in with a media rights model that makes the success or failure of PPVs and buy rates all but irrelevant, and the company has become essentially bulletproof.

After all, this is the same sports entertainment giant riding out a sexual abuse scandal with all the tension of a John Cena STFU. It’s also planning to expand its agreement with Saudi Arabia — a deal that no one outside the company and the kingdom wants.

No matter the discontent from fans, the juggernaut will roll on as long as the money keeps flowing.

Then. Now. Forever.