The next time you’re at a sports bar and running low on funds, skip the trip to the ATM and dangle this wager in front of your like-minded pals: $100 says you can’t name the highest-rated show on cable TV. Odds are, no matter what guesses get thrown down, you stand to walk out of the joint with a fatter wallet—and, depending on how insufferable you are while in the throes of victory, maybe fewer friends.
Now, you’re going to want to have a source to back up your claim, so either bookmark this page on your portable time-suck device or print it out and stick it in your wallet. A little gripey pushback is inevitable, and the vigor with which the demurrals are expressed will be proportionate to the number of drinks that have been tossed back, but don’t let that stop you from collecting your rightful earnings. Because you know something that not a lot of other people know, which is that the biggest show on cable is a three-hour wrestling program called WWE Raw.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the long-running grappling showcase is currently averaging 1.83 million viewers on USA Network, which marks a 9% increase versus the first quarter of 2022. More to the point, the weekly telecast this year is averaging a cable-high 695,049 viewers in the all-important adults 18-49 demo, good for a boost of 18% compared to the first 12 Mondays in 2022.
It’s probably worth noting here that the Raw deliveries have soared despite the ongoing erosion of the traditional TV audience. In the first quarter of 2023, overall viewership among the under-50 set plummeted 16% versus the year-ago period, as the escalation of cord-cutting continues to shrink the TV-usage pie. (During the final quarter of 2022, subscriptions to the legacy cable bundle took a historic hit, falling 10%.)
Not only is Raw making short work of the cable competition—the WWE’s signature show more than doubles the deliveries of its nearest Monday night rival—but it also outclasses much of the entertainment fodder on broadcast prime. Season-to-date, the 93 non-sports programs on network TV are averaging 562,851 members of the dollar demo per episode, which makes for a 24% advantage for Raw.
Raw will cede its advantage later this summer, when Paramount’s monster neo-Western Yellowstone returns from its long hiatus. The older-skewing Kevin Costner vehicle last year averaged 8.21 million viewers during the front half of its fifth (and, perhaps, final) season, of whom 1.94 million were adults 18-49.
Since the year began, Raw has lined up an eclectic roster of advertisers, many of which fall into the movies and munchies categories. Per iSpot.tv data, fans of the show are regularly barraged with messages from the likes of Domino’s, Pizza Hut, M&Ms, Dunkin’ and the confectioner Ferrero Rocher. Among the teasers that USA has served up in recent weeks include reels from Universal Pictures (vying for the most problematic double-feature of all time, Cocaine Bear and The Super Mario Bros. Movie), and Paramount Pictures (Scream VI, 80 for Brady). Another of Raw’s top 10 first-quarter advertisers is Kay Jewelers, about which your guess is as good as mine.
If ruling the ratings roost weren’t enough to make Raw a good fit for adventurous advertisers, you can’t beat the price. Year-to-date, the average unit cost in Raw has averaged out to slightly south of $15,000 per 30-second spot, which in light of the going rate for a Monday night broadcast ad ($123,160) qualifies as an absolute steal.
While you’re buying a round for your now somewhat cash-diminished friends (it’s the least you can do), there may be no better time to drop some knowledge re: the status of the WWE’s big broadcast property. WWE SmackDown, a two-hour block that airs every Friday night on Fox, is now averaging 2.36 million viewers, an improvement of 7% versus the analogous period in 2022, while its 776,535 adults 18-49 is up 6%. Now in its fourth season on Fox, SmackDown’s popularity among members of the dollar demo has established it as one of the top 15 shows on the Big Four networks.
According to media buyers, the average cost of a unit in SmackDown worked out to just under $50,000 a throw during last year’s upfront bazaar, making it about 30% cheaper than the rest of the Friday night broadcast lineup. SmackDown’s client base is cut from the same cloth as Raw, as some of the biggest-spending advertisers include Papa Johns, Carl’s Jr., Coca-Cola, Arby’s and Disney+. And yup, Kay Jewelers is laying down its marketing dollars here as well; per iSpot, the brand since the year began has snapped up 45 units of various lengths, plunking down nearly $725,000 for what amounts to 107.5 million targeted impressions.
Aside from serving as useful fodder for bar bets, the WWE’s ratings success is of critical importance as the company embarks on its latest round of rights renewals. As soon as WrestleMania 39 wraps up in Los Angeles this weekend, WWE CEO Nick Khan will throw open the exclusive negotiating window for NBCUniversal and Fox.
The current contracts with its media partners expire in October 2024, and while the WWE would happily re-sign with both outlets, it’s no coincidence that the April 1-2 WrestleMania spectacular is being held in Los Angeles. A whole slew of network and agency types are expected to be on hand for the festivities at SoFi Stadium, and more than a few are likely to bend Khan’s ear while Roman Reigns is grappling with former All Elite Wrestling exec Cody Rhodes.
Behind the scenes, WWE executive chairman Vince McMahon is fielding offers from potential buyers, a cast of heavyweights that includes Liberty Media and UFC parent company Endeavor. Since returning to the WWE in January following a short-lived retirement—in the midst of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and hush-money payouts, McMahon last June stepped down as CEO—the impresario has been looking to offload the company for as much as $9 billion.
It’s a safe bet that McMahon will be touting his ratings numbers as the sales process and rights haggling start heating up.