Ever since WWE started doing regular shows in Saudi Arabia, the company has come in for mainstream criticism. There’s almost an irony about the fact that the world’s biggest professional wrestling company have spent years attempting to garner mainstream attention through a variety of publicity stunts, and then finally got their wish when they were mercilessly blasted by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. The criticism wasn’t without merit; the world was still outraged by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The UFC pulled out of a huge investment deal they had with the country. The WWE doubled down and went ahead with their planned ‘Crown Jewel’ event. At the end of this month, they’ll return to Riyadh for ‘Crown Jewel 2.’
Before we get into the reasons why WWE will continue to go to Saudi, we should state for the record that Vince McMahon’s company shouldn’t be singled out for criticism for taking big money to go to the Kingdom. Antony Joshua’s boxing world heavyweight championship rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr will probably be the biggest fight night of the year, and that, too, will happen in Saudi Arabia. As boxing is a ‘legitimate’ sport, as opposed to the entertainment-based spectacle that is professional wrestling, Joshua and Ruiz going there legitimizes the country as a sporting destination far more than wrestling ever could, but the criticism will continue nonetheless.
The reason WWE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia will not only continue, but blossom is all down to one thing; guaranteed money. WWE receives a huge lump sum of cash every time it runs a show in Saudi Arabia, and it doesn’t even have to sell tickets in order to do it. The Saudi shows are what’s known in the business as ‘papered’ – the tickets come for free, and the attendees have been given them by the venue. People don’t buy tickets to go to WWE Saudi events; they simply ask for them or are given them. WWE doesn’t have to promote it or worry whether the proceeds of the ticket sales will cover their overheads. They get the stadium for free, they run their show, and they pick up a huge check when it’s all over.
As much as it occasionally rubs WWE’s fans up the wrong way, making money is all the company has ever been interested in. It’s visible in everything they do. The reason they brought Rey Mysterio back – and are currently pushing Andrade, too – is because they want a viable star to market to Mexico. The Mexican wrestling scene is so huge that it’s crossed over into popular culture. Go to a mobile slots website and count how many casino slots there are that feature Mexican wrestling imagery. The ‘Lucha Legends’ mobile slots game is probably the most popular, but there’s also ‘Lucha Maniacs,’ and ‘Lucha Rumble.’ Just the image of a Mexican wrestler is enough to persuade people to spend money on the slots. A genuine Mexican wrestling star can make fortunes for the company in their native country, and so that’s why WWE will always push one or two.
It was money that was behind Jinder Mahal’s sudden and unexpected elevation to the WWE Championship in 2017. Vince McMahon saw a way to make millions of dollars in India, and so he put his most historically significant championship on an Indian. He hoped it would drive up business revenue and WWE Network sales in the country. When the experiment failed (Mahal barely moved the needle for business in India at all), the title was taken away again, and Mahal was dropped back to the midcard as abruptly as he’d been called up in the first place.
Perhaps most temptingly for McMahon, Saudi money is money that he doesn’t have to do anything for. When WWE signed a big-money deal with FOX to bring SmackDown to their network, it was the largest rights deal the company had ever signed. McMahon and other WWE executives spoke excitedly about how they’d bring viewers to the network, and expand their viewership in the process. It hasn’t worked out that way. After only a few weeks, viewership for SmackDown has dropped by over a third. FOX was doing better with the Friday night programming that they were airing before their billion-dollar acquisition. It will take a long time before FOX gets buyer’s remorse, but if performance doesn’t improve, there’s little chance of the deal being renewed. It’s not even inconceivable that the show could be dropped or bumped to one of the network’s lesser channels.
None of that matters in Saudi Arabia. All the company has to do is turn up, and they get paid. They don’t have to worry about the quality of their product. In fact, the fact that they were willing to throw together a trainwreck of an Undertaker vs. Goldberg match at the last major Saudi event shows you that they’re aware of this. American fans value work rate and quality. Saudi fans – in so much as there are people in the arena who are genuinely engaged with the product – value spectacle.
If things start to become difficult for WWE in the USA, they’ll look abroad for their big paydays. All Elite Wrestling is already comfortably beating WWE’s NXT show in the so-called ‘Wednesday night wars.’ Viewership for Monday Night RAW on the USA network is dwindling. SmackDown on FOX below expectations, and has gone on to get worse. Even house show business – the events the company stage with no television cameras present – is in the doldrums. Simply put, WWE can no longer draw viewers either on television or in person in the United States of America in the same way they could when Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock were their star attractions.
As long as the Saudi government sees value in WWE coming to their country, they’ll continue to pay them to do it. As long as WWE sees that as easy money, they’ll continue to take it. If FOX pulls the plug, or AEW takes more of their domestic market share, don’t expect to see WWE pull out of Saudi to focus on affairs at home. Expect them to run their twice as often instead.