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‘SmackDown’ Punches Up

Are WWE and Fox a match made in heaven?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been rumored for months, but now it’s being rumored to be true: WWE is bringing its talents to Fox. Or at least those of its SmackDown roster. Per Hollywood Reporter (always a trusted megaphone for pro-wrestling happenings), ESPN, and several other outlets, Vince McMahon and his cohort have struck a deal wherein Fox will shell out north of $1 billion for the rights to broadcast SmackDown Live on Friday nights over a five-year period beginning in October 2019. (Raw will reportedly stay put on USA, where it has lived on and off since 1993 and where SmackDown has aired since January 2016.)

That’s right: Superstars like Daniel Bryan and the Bludgeon Brothers may soon be on network prime time, competing for ratings preeminence with rival network fare like Dancing With the Stars and assorted crime procedurals. Depending on one’s view, this is either WWE’s highest ascent up Pop Culture Mountain since the halcyon days of ’80s Rock ’n’ Wrestling or simply a depressing sign that very little distinguishes contemporary sports entertainment from reality TV.

Either way, we know you have questions about this not-yet-authenticated watershed news, and we’re here to offer credible speculation that approximates an informed set of answers. Having fun yet? Viva la synergy!

What’s Fox’s angle?

The bottom line very much is this: Fox’s parent corporation, 21st Century Fox, is about to have most of its assets devoured by Disney (barring a run-in from Comcast), which already owns ESPN, which has a heavy hand in airing combat sports like boxing and MMA (both of which Fox subsidiary FS1 traffics in as well). Adding wrestling to its portfolio completes the gladiatorial circuit, and even gives the network a counterbalance to NBC’s hit sports-and-entertainment hybrid, American Ninja Warrior. Fox might also be sweetening up Vince McMahon with an eye on his 2020 XFL revival (though that feels like a stretch). But the key stake here is in SmackDown, a relative ratings heavyweight for USA—where it averages around 2.5 million sets of eyeballs each week—that can also fill Fox’s looming dearth of original drama now that its in-house movie studio is Disney-bound. Plus, WWE fans are more than inured to cross promotion, so they probably won’t blink at all those conspicuous come-ons to watch Sunday NFL games and Season 17 of So You Think You Can Dance. They may not blink at all.

Is there any downside for WWE?

Well, no, because, money. But this is also fairly uncharted for WWE, which has flirted with network credibility in many forms (see: Saturday Night’s Main Event, Saturday-morning cartoons, Saturday-morning syndication, etc.) but never been fully accepted as part of the mainstream prime-time community. Of course, the landscape of lower-dial programming has met wrestling halfway over the past decade plus, and as alluded to before, it’s a thin line between, say, Survivor and SmackDown Live. The question may deservedly be “What took Fox so long?”

Won’t this make the Raw roster jealous?

That’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves, but for the sake of discussion, let’s say SmackDown graduates to a new network home in a year and change. It’s far from a stretch to suggest that WWE would simply redisperse its men and women unilaterally across both shows. It’s not as if appearing on broadcast one night and cable the next affects their actual intercity travel. And there’s every chance that the recent switch to cobranded PPVs telegraphed that eventual direction. On the flip side, if rosters remain segregated, who’s to say SmackDown would suddenly assume Raw’s stronghold as the so-called A-show? Fresh off this January’s Raw 25 extravaganza, it’s not as if WWE is doing anything to overtly downgrade its legacy franchise. Moreover, SmackDown might adapt and evolve into something utterly apart from its sister show, perhaps more laser focused on creative story lines and character arcs. Everyone should find their niche, and viewers would get the spoils.

Will traditional sports fans finally embrace wrestling?

That, more than anything, is what both sides of this arrangement are banking on. Since neither Fox nor WWE has commented officially on the news as of this writing, it’s anyone’s guess if Sunday afternoon NFL clashes will be peppered with promos for that coming Tuesday’s main event between Asuka and Charlotte Flair. (Or, at a minimum, promotional appearances by the likes of John Cena.) The actual synergistic aspect of this, in other words, is tenuous. What’s concrete from Fox’s point of view are the dollars and sense of disparate revenue streams. For WWE, which is always eager to make a big splash with shareholders and spur further investments in its global expansion and streaming network, there’s no undervaluing the immediate infusion of liquid assets. So, as far as the premise of this Q, the A is: Does it matter?

If Fox is throwing its lot in with the NFL, Tim Allen, and WWE, who are the most, um, red-state-friendly performers?

Let’s just say Finn Balor might be kept sequestered on Raw, but this could be a huge crossover career move for good old boy and SmackDown leader AJ Styles—and a natural landing spot for “free agent” John Cena, when his Hollywood career allows him time in the ring. There are more than a few Raw stars who might excel in Fox’s environs—Braun Strowman, Ronda Rousey, Mojo Rawley for Gronkowski crossover potential—but we’ll save the fantasy draft for another article.

Is this whole thing an elaborate bit of one-upsmanship by Vince McMahon as part of his and Donald Trump’s ongoing kayfabe quest to be the more badass billionaire?

Absolutely, yes.