NAME: Michelle Wilson
COMPANY: World Wrestling Entertainment
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Helped launch the WWE’s direct-to-consumer subscription service, WWE Network. Spearheaded long-term, lucrative television deals for the WWE’s signature primetime shows Monday Night Raw (USA Network) and WWE SmackDown (Fox Sports).
QUOTABLE: “Don’t be afraid to take risks because it’s OK to fail, and you’ll learn a lot along the way.”
Michelle Wilson was never much of a sports fanatic growing up.
Today, though, she’s one of the highest-ranking female executives in the sports/entertainment business arena. Her career accomplishments span the National Basketball Association to the United States Tennis Association to the defunct-but-soon-to-be-resurrected XFL pro football league.
She’s also made her mark in sports entertainment. As co-president of the WWE, Wilson was instrumental in helping usher the company into the new media space with the 2014 launch of WWE Network — now the No. 2 OTT sports-themed subscription service in the United States behind MLB.TV, according to Parks Associates. In 2018 she also spearheaded negotiations for new lucrative, long-term distribution deals for the WWE’s two ratings-strong, live weekly wrestling series, WWE Raw and WWE SmackDown, the latter of which netted a reported $1 billion to move to Fox.
Not bad for Wilson, who said while growing up in a Philadelphia suburb that she never envisioned herself as a major player in sports and entertainment.
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“When I was growing up, I was very laser-focused on being financially independent,” Wilson said. “I grew up in my formative years with a single, divorced mom that was raising my sister and me, and there were a lot of valuable lessons I got from her about making sure to get a quality education and to put yourself in a position to be financially independent.”
Wilson initially pursued a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, then secured a job at Johnson & Johnson.
Shifting to Sports
Wilson would earn an MBA at Harvard Business School in 1992 in an effort to prepare herself for life outside of engineering. Inspired by pioneering female sports executives such as former WNBA president Val Ackerman, she looked for opportunities in that arena. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t a clear path for women in sports at that time, so I learned the lesson to go into brand marketing and focused on companies that were doing sports-related marketing,” she said.
Wilson would end up working in Nabisco’s brand development department for five years before joining the NBA in 1997 as director of marketing and sales, working to expand the league’s brand domestically and internationally.
NBA president of global partnerships Sal La Rocca said Wilson exhibited the qualities of a corporate leader during her tenure. “Since her time at the NBA, she has grown into one of the best executives in sports and entertainment,” he said.
In 2001, she first went to work for WWE titan Vince McMahon, who had an idea to branch out into pro football with the XFL, but the league folded after only one season. Wilson landed at the USTA, where in eight years as chief marketing officer, she helped oversee the U.S. Open and was part of its first primetime women’s final in 2001. Along the way, she got some mentoring and career advice from Billie Jean King.
In 2009, the WWE’s McMahon would once again turn to Wilson, this time regarding the pro wrestling promotion. “The WWE was moving from the [adult-themed] attitude era of the early 2000s into what we call the family-friendly, TVPG era, and they were really looking for someone who could come in and help the company grow to that next level,” Wilson said.
In her nearly 10-year run at the WWE, she has advanced from executive VP of marketing to chief marketing officer, to chief revenue and marketing officer to eventually being named co-president in February 2018.
“Michelle’s vision and leadership played an integral role in the successful transformation of our business model and put us at the forefront of an ever-changing global media landscape,” McMahon, WWE’s chairman and CEO, said. “Her business acumen, strategic thinking and willingness to take calculated risk will help ensure our company’s long-term growth.”
Wilson led WWE’s charge into new media with the 2014 launch of WWE Network — its OTT direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service, now in more than 1.6 million homes.
The new, long-term TV distribution deals with USA Network for Raw and Fox for SmackDown will also grow WWE’s revenue for its “key content” properties from $235 million in 2018 to $462 million in 2021, according to the company.
Wilson credited McMahon for allowing her to flex her talent muscles within a forward-looking organization. “Vince has an amazing entrepreneurial spirit, and he has a unique vision of what could be in the future,” she said
When she’s not running the WWE or at home with husband John, Wilson is very active in Make-A-Wish Foundation, serving as the vice chairman of the board of the charity’s Connecticut chapter.
Even with such lofty accomplishments, Wilson said she’s set her sights on even bigger goals. “There’s still so much runway at the WWE,” she said. “I really see the international and global expansion of WWE as the next horizon.”
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.