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BT Sport on welcoming WWE to a new home after 30 years at Sky

After 30 years with Sky, WWE marked its migration over to BT Sport with a start-studded PR push around London and a glitzy 'housewarming' party. Here, the channel’s marketing director discusses the strategy behind the campaign as The Drum looks at the challenges it faces in taking on the rights.

What do The Rock’s right eyebrow, Ronda Rousey’s wrestling debut and Ric Flair’s retirement have in common? All three have been aired live exclusively on Sky in the UK.

For the past three decades, Sky has held the TV rights to all of WWE’s flagship shows, such as Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live. However, in June 2019 BT Sport outbid Sky to secure the twice-weekly coverage as part of an “exclusive multi-year” deal, which also includes two-hour programming from WWE’s ‘third brand’ NXT and its UK division.

The world’s largest wrestling company migrated to its new home in January this year, joining the Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, Gallagher Premiership Rugby, MotoGP and UFC on BT Sport.

“It’s the most fun property we’ve ever been given,” BT Sport’s head of marketing Ed Cracknell tells The Drum.

“As soon as the rights were announced we got so excited about the opportunity around it. It’s one of the most powerful and successful sports entertainment brands in the world and it’s different from other content we’ve had on the channel before.

“It’s rich in history and the fans in the UK are so passionate about it, so that was an amazing place to start.”

When it came to the launch, however, Cracknell admits there was a “massive challenge” to navigate.

“In the UK, WWE has been 30 years in the one place and as its new home we had to demonstrate that it was moving and that we’d do it justice.”

So, to mark the occasion, the broadcaster invested a big-budget campaign centred around ‘Moving Day’ on 14 January, with help from recently appointed agency Wunderman Thompson – which also worked with BT Sport on its Champions League coverage in 2019.

A-list talent from the US, including WWE legends and world champions like Ric Flair and Kurt Angle, were flown in for the occasion, alongside chief brand officer and former competitor Steph McMahon. The stars were toured around London in a PR push that involved a giant bus, a takeover of The Sun and visits to the Daily Mail and the BBC organised by Pitch PR.

After meet-and-greets with fans, all this cumulated in a glitzy ‘housewarming party’ at BT Sport Studios in east London, featuring some in-ring action. Activations also ran across Twitter and Facebook in the form of behind-the-scenes content and promoted hashtags.

“It was a simple brief: to raise 100% awareness among fans that WWE is on BT Sport now,” explains Cracknell.

“I’d like to think we’re nearly there,” he says. “The feedback on Twitter already showcases how big of an investment we’ve made in WWE, fans have acknowledged that and respect us for it. So it’s a great place to be.”

More challenges ahead?

The WWE partnership comes as it continues to muscle in on Sky Sports’ broadcast monopoly, and the network will be hoping its WWE coverage gives a boost to its subscription numbers, which currently sit at 2.2 million against Sky’s 8.6m.

But despite the optimism of its marketing team, BT still has its work cut out in convincing fans to make the switch, and also in pulling in eyeballs.

In October 2019, data from Wrestling Observer claimed viewing figures had fallen as low as 3000 some weeks for the WWE Raw slot (which is broadcast in the early hours of the morning).

As well as Raw, SmackDown and NXT exclusively live every week, BT Sport will also be home to pay-per-view events such as Royal Rumble, WrestleMania 36, SummerSlam and Survivor Series, via BT Sport Box Office HD.

However, the broadcaster will be competing against the WWE Network, the wrestling brand’s own online subscription service which charges a flat £9.99 to watch all flagship events. This is something Sky was alleged to have been “frustrated” with given that its own charge of £15 per event was far higher.

Cracknell stresses that BT Sport has made a “real commitment to WWE”.

“As with any campaign, the proof will be seen in the next year as viewing figures come through and everything else, but we’re really happy with the start we’ve made.”

The future for WWE

In 2018, WWE struck a multi-million dollar broadcast deal with Fox and the Comcast-owned USA network. However, at the time its chief brand officer McMahon told The Drum she could “absolutely” see a future where one of its flagship shows like Raw was streamed on a platform like Amazon or Facebook.

In the meantime, it has been doubling down on its own streaming service and as of April 2019, the group reported that WWE Network ended the first quarter of the year with 1.58 million paying subscribers.

Having already worked with Amazon on the 'Premier League Pass', BT would be a natural partner for WWE to experiment with on the platform. However, given the scope of his role Cracknell is unable to comment on whether there are any plans for this.

“I don’t actually sit within that area, so it’s hard for me to comment on but the [Premier League] BT TV proposition is amazing and delivers customers the content they want,” he says.

What he will say is that the appointment of Wunderman Thompson, which has introduced BT Sport’s marketing team to a new, more fluid way of working, has helped BT develop a bolder tone of voice.

On top of the WWE ‘Moving Day’ push, the agency has pushed the brand to be more creative with its ‘Unscripted’ work to promote the Champions League and another campaign which implored the general public to cancel important life events to watch the football.

“We’ve just taken a fresh approach in working with them,” Cracknell says. “And we try and keep it really simple with bold work that’s media agnostic.”

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