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The halcyon days of pro grappling may have ended around the turn of the millennium, but World Wrestling Entertainment has been devising customized promotions with cable and satellite distributors to pin steady buy-rates.

Working with the likes of Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network, WWE officials have developed specific tactics aimed at fulfilling the needs of the carriers while trumpeting their latest pay-per-view event, which now total around 15 per year.

WWE executive vice president of marketing Kurt Schneider says the changes were necessary. Even though WWE is “the No. 1 pay-per-view performer by far, on a month-to-month basis,” the group was losing out on the regular promotional push from operators it had enjoyed over the years, to more “sexy” products like broadband VOD, telephony, HD and the bundle.

He says WWE responded by developing VOD packages, and its monthly subscription video-on-demand service, WWE 24/7, to capitalize on areas in which many MSOs were investing a lot of resources.

“I think some MSOs were willing to let the pay-per-view business go its merry way. By offering video-on-demand and subscription video-on-demand products, we proved we were not just a one-trick pony,” he says. “And the marketing programs have helped keep their products and ours top of mind.”

Marshall Zelaznik, director of event programming at In Demand, says WWE has great product and great promotion, but it “has been smart to build custom promotions to drive business and work with MSO partners’ needs.”

The tactics have been varied:

  • With DirecTV, WWE has developed packages offering discounts encouraging multiple-event purchases.
  • Subscribers to EchoStar’s Dish Network who make a buy receive a gift, typically WWE-related DVDs.
  • For its first-ever live interactive show, “Taboo Tuesday” held in Milwaukee last October, WWE used its talent to help drive a high-speed acquisition offer in which Time Warner customers in the DMA who purchased the event received a free month of Road Runner.
  • To promote digital-cable acquisition in Atlanta, Chicago and Pittsburgh, Schneider says, WWE developed a coupon-book promotion, affording those who signed up for cable up to $150 in discounts over the course of 2005 events.

David Williams, senior director of marketing for Comcast in Atlanta, says the offer has also been used in conjunction with the MSO’s “Ditch The Dish” effort, in which subscribers who switch from direct-broadcast satellite receive $400, plus the WWE coupon book.

Publicity for the offer began last December, when the grappling group’s event in Atlanta was introduced.

“We got some press for it,” says Williams, noting that support has come in the way of cross-channel spots, radio and direct mailings to subscribers who had previously purchased PPV offerings.

In assessing the program, Williams says it didn’t cost much: “A small discount on PPV, which drove incremental buys to the events. It’s been pretty effective [for our goals].”

He says Comcast would likely do it again, but it needs some tweaking because “the book loses value with each passing month. We need to figure out how to make it work harder throughout the year.”

These and other efforts helped WWE generate some 5.3 million buys for 15 events in its fiscal 2005, ended April 30, down 5.4% from 5.6 million the prior year. WWE produces 11 shows that alternately showcase talent from its Raw (Spike TV) and Smackdown (UPN) series, and four that combine wrestlers from both shows each year.

When buy-rate tallying is complete, the 21st iteration of its signature event, Wrestlemania, will push past the 1 million mark for the second year in a row, according to Schneider.

Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, says PPV wrestling started to really pick up in 1998 and the big days were from 1999-2001. But he doesn’t place much stock in those “peak years.”

“They were likely the fluke, something that’s never been in the business before or since,” he said.

The business, according to Meltzer, “fell off pretty significantly in 2002” and has been holding there, at “a slight decline since,” he says, adding that as much as one-third of WWE PPV buys are now occurring outside the U.S. and Canada, compared to about 5% around the turn of the millennium.

He pegs buys for most WWE shows in the 230,000 to 300,000 range, with its big events like Royal Rumble, Survivor Series and Summer Slam garnering upward of 400,000 and Wrestlemania again approaching 1 million or more.

Meanwhile, Nashville, Tenn.-based Total Nonstop Action Wrestling is still searching for a TV partner since its time-buy arrangement with Fox Sports Net for a weekly show at 3 p.m. on Fridays expired in May. Sources say TNA is close to a deal for an 11 p.m. Saturday slot with Spike TV.

Chris Blechschmidt, TNA’s director of affiliate relations and marketing, declined to comment upon TV negotiations. But he notes that the group has been working with Real Networks since June, streaming a weekly TNA show in its previous time slot. Blechschmidt says the first two weeks of the interim deal produced more than 300,000 hits.

The company celebrated its three-year anniversary with PPV shows on June 19 with “Slammiversary.” Since November, the group, which had been presenting weekly shows for $9.95, began offering monthly cards for $29.95, “a model the industry is more accustomed to,” Blechshmidt says.

He reports that TNA has received more affiliate support since the conversion and generated more revenue than under its former approach. Sources place TNA buy rates at 20,000 to 30,000 per month.

Scheduled to hold its “No Surrender” card on July 17, TNA is already gearing up for its 12th monthly card “Bound for Glory” on Oct. 23, via teaser ads on RealNetworks Inc.’s streaming-video services.

Elsewhere, In Demand, which encodes TNA and WWE events for on-demand purchasing 48 hours after their live shows, offers four to eight extreme grappling events per year that appeal to those “who like hard-core wrestling.”

Zelaznick says the buys rates have been “close to the TNA performances. It’s a good little business.”

In Demand also serves up some classic wrestling and legends — current performers in their early days — on-demand. “We like to mix things up a bit, and dip into the library. It makes for a more diverse offering.”