Netflix from the Top Rope!

Netflix to stream WWE’s Raw starting next year in its biggest jump into live entertainment
Netflix adds WWE Raw after making only a few forays into live programming in its history.

For years and years and years we've heard Netflix say very definitively that they would not be getting into live content, most notably sports. Because the replay value just wasn't there. And Netflix cares only about its catalog.

Well, so much for that.

Netflix, which is trying to drive revenue by cutting down on subscription sharing and pushing viewers toward its ad-tier membership, has made few attempts at live programming in its history. Adding "Raw," which currently airs on USA Network and produces three hours of live programming per week year-round, to its programming lineup will be a boon to the platform and a significant historical shift for Netflix.

I'll say. A "super game changer" as TKO (the excellently named parent company of WWE and various other fighting/combat properties) President and Chief Operating Officer Mark Shapiro put it. He compared this move to Fox's deal with the NFL back in the day. And the eventual move of that league to cable.

I'm not sure if it's that big of a deal, but it is an interesting about-face – one anyone easily could have predicted thanks to Netflix's other recent waffles, notably, of course, with regard to showing ads. Much like Steve Jobs back in the day, everything is stupid and not in the cards, you idiot how dare you ask that, until it suddenly is. Funny that.

This is an interesting element as well:

Netflix has dabbled in sports recently with documentary-type series about Formula One and professional golf, tennis and football. This deal will allow Netflix to tap into WWE intellectual property for similar projects. With WWE permission, Netflix could even develop movies or series around WWE characters, a person familiar with the matter said.

Insert some 'Smelling what The Rock is Cooking' show joke here (a man who, it was also announced, is joining the TKO board today – probably overdue). But this is why I was surprised Netflix didn't go harder after the F1 broadcast rights. They've driven the popularity of that sport with their tangential show, so a part of them has to want to own the whole stack, as it were. Perhaps the WWE was simply simpler to execute now, first. It certainly wasn’t cheaper.

Again, we've been told over and over that Netflix doesn't like live sports.1 And that even the dabbling mentioned above with other sporting events was just that, dabbling. Now it all looks like a test run to ensure they're ready for the millions of viewers which Raw will bring everywhere all at once for these events (Raw is consistently one of the highest rated non-football shows on television).2

Well, ready-ish:

Netflix announced earlier this month it had 23 million subscribers for its advertising tier, which the company launched in November 2022. Matches will be scripted around commercial breaks to satisfy ad-free customers, who will see continued action from live matches that aren't important to the outcome, such as a wrestler in a sustained headlock, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Lol. Premium subscribers get to enjoy the three minute headlock! I guess it beats the "YouTube TV will be right back" screensavers you get on other streaming services trying to make this whole legacy infrastructure and model work. But the ad element is the other key here, of course. Live sporting events will help reduce churn somewhat, but the real prize is that these live events command premium ad dollars. And now that Netflix is in that game, well, they're in this game.

And so can the NFL games on Netflix really be that far behind?

1 And yes, we can argue about whether or not the WWE is actually a sport. It's definitely a performance. And maybe that makes Netflix think there will be longer-lasting shelf value?

2 Don't sleep on the fact that this deal is a global one. Perhaps it's more akin to Apple's MLS deal in that way. Of course, the world's most beautiful game -- thanks in part, I'd argue, to lower ad loads while watching -- has far more worldwide appeal than men (and women) in spandex grappling. But maybe Netflix can move the needle there with that WWE cooking show.