The sports entertainment franchise has a rabid and growing fanbase across India. But is that enough?
Towards the end of David Fincher’s Fight Club, the protagonist constantly runs into people sporting bruises and, giving him a knowing (if gap-toothed) grin, and is suddenly struck by how large his little group has become. Something similar is happening in India when it comes to wrestling, particularly, the WWE. No, people have not formed clandestine clubs where they don fanciful costumes, and throw each other off ladders — at least we hope that isn’t happening.
But start looking for fans of the WWE and you’ll find them everywhere. Cab drivers who spend their downtime going over ‘stunning steel chair attacks’ on YouTube, and speak about “Khali”, “Undertaker” and “Cena” with the affection you’d previously thought was reserved only for Sachin, Salman and Virat. On Facebook walls, fans of all ages and occupations, discuss the latest developments in Raw and Smackdown with at least as much passion as the fans of premier league football. Except, the football crowd don’t have to deal with some well-meaning idiot from their friend circle asking “You DO know that this is all fake, right?”
The WWE is a cultural force to reckon with — long before he became POTUS, Donald Trump was a WWE Hall of Famer and the clip of him launching a savage physical attack on WWE owner and CEO Vince McMahon is among the most viewed and meme-fied on the Internet. India has a long history with the sport — from grainy videotapes of Wrestlemaniaevents smuggled in and passed around in the 1980s, to the official launch on ESPN Star Sports that made The Undertaker, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart and The Macho Man Randy Savage household names to perhaps the ultimate symbol of acceptance — cameos in Bollywood. The camp classic Akshay Kumar starrer Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi featured ‘fake’ Undertaker Brian Lee and Crush aka Brian Adams.
Today, both the WWE and its television partner Sony, believe it’s the second most watched sport after cricket in the country. George Barrios, WWE’s chief strategy and finance officer says, “Last year, cricket did 4 billion hours of consumption: how much do you think WWE did? We are around 3 billion. India is a jewel for us.”
In number terms, the Professional Kabaddi League clocks in second after cricket in TV ratings according to media agency folk, but unlike kabaddi, the WWE is a year-round phenomenon. Sony runs 42+ hours of programming weekly on an average according to Rajesh Kaul, president – distribution and sports business, Sony Pictures Network. Its strongest region, the South, accounts for 40% of viewership. The recently concluded WrestleMania 33 was, according to a WWE spokesperson, “the most-viewed in the history of WrestleMania in India. Total reach for primetime repeat across all channels was 67.3 million unique viewers.”
On digital and social, India is the No 1 market for the WWE on Facebook. YouTube views lag only the United States. Says Michelle Wilson, chief revenue and marketing officer, WWE, “We looked at those numbers and said our business, from a revenue standpoint, should be so much bigger from India. What are we missing?”
To find out, the team arrived in India, meeting broadcast partners, brands and social media behemoths. Part of the entourage was Paul Levesque, executive vice president - talent, live events & creative, better known as Triple H. Both Williams and Barrios experienced the WWE’s popularity firsthand as what they assumed would be strictly business meetings were interrupted by lengthy selfie sessions with the WWE superstar.
Through the last year and a half, the WWE has pulled out all the stops in making India a focus. It hired an official merchandise partner, started a special Hindi program called WWE Sunday Dhamaal to buffer viewership in the Hindi speaking markets, is looking to foray into other languages and planning a two-night marquee event in Delhi later this year. In early 2018, it intends rebooting its action figure business.
But perhaps its biggest step to woo India is Indo-Canadian wrestler Jinder Mahal, the current champion for Smackdown. While a heel (WWE-speak for villain) to the rest of the world, in WWE’s Hindi language feed, ‘The Modern Day Maharaja’ is a babyface (WWE-speak for hero) — Wilson claims it’s one of the company’s many experiments. Of the 100 wrestling superstars in training at the company’s centre in Orlando, Florida, 11 are Indian.
Helping WWE along is the increasing importance it’s placing on data driven marketing. Says Wilson, “You can’t get away saying ‘I’m doing some TV’ and when the CEO asks you if it works, you say ‘I think it does.’ The amount of data and analytics is really changing the marketing role.” WWE intends improving its marketing with more than just the “educated guesses” it relied on in the past, with a clear view of who is watching from where and what appeals to them.
However media industry veterans believe any sport wanting to dethrone cricket is quixotic. Ashish Bhasin, chairman and CEO – South Asia, Dentsu Aegis network says, “Some 15 years ago in Lintas, we did a study on spends and found cricket was getting 78%. We figured things would have changed now, with all the leagues, and so did a fairly detailed study recently only to find it now accounts for 82%!” He concedes though that the WWE has an additional attraction since it’s more than a sport, but believes everything other than cricket is niche.
However, if any sport has the required training to pull off a surprise it’s the WWE: where heroes become villains, villains turn heroic and underdogs pull of shocking victories, on a regular basis. It claims to have the views — will the spends follow?