One of the recent developments in the world of sports and sports entertainement is the "subscription service." It started on TV with things like the NFL Network and NBA League Pass, but recently and more decisively, the move is being made to online channels and monthly subscriptions. It's a move for modernization, the next step in bringing a product directly to fans, and keeping them invested in "the league." It may, however, carry some unintended side effects.
More than PPV sales, more than TV ratings, subscription numbers create a direct correlation between the decisions an organization makes and fan interest in their product. The WWE appears to be learning this the hard way, as #CancelWWENetwork became a hot trend on twitter, after what most fans felt was a miserable Royal Rumble. Reports of the backlash made it all the way to the Time Magazine's Entertainment blog.
The WWE Network seems to have struggled consistently, after what many felt was a very promising beginning. Stock prices crashed, to the extent that Vince McMahon reportedly lost $350 million in one day. And subscription numbers were reported to be just under 1 million back in November (apparently needed to reach 1.3-1.4 million to offset a lack of PPV revenue). The WWE appears to be living in the margins with their subscription service as one of their principal forms of revenue.
Which means, suddenly fans have a lot closer grip on power over the world's largest pro wrestling organization than perhaps ever before. Getting back to direct correlations, when fans aren't happy with the WWE, they're cancelling subscriptions, and urging others to do so. What in the past may have manifested itself less directly as lower ratings or lower merchandise sales, now has a much more unified voice. "Make us happy, or we'll stop watching."
The WWE has put a lot of eggs in one subscription based basket and the fallout is that they may have given their fans a lot more power than they ever had before. Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to Fight Pass: the UFC's own subscription network.
While it was not nearly as celebrated a product on it's release as the WWE Network, it also has yet to blow back on the UFC nearly as hard. In part, because the UFC has structured a lot less of their financial interest around it (maintaining and expanding their TV deals and PPV schedule). Still, as television and sports entertainment products move to invest more and more in online broadcasting, it's not hard to envision a point at which Fight Pass may be the core of the UFC's business model. If such a move has been in the cards, the WWE's troubles may serve as a big lesson to the UFC about the dangers of depending on their fanbase to support their broadcast platform directly.