Gerrit Meier does not call his wrestlers “fighters”. He calls them “superstars”.
The president of the most famous wrestling organisation, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Meier is broad-shouldered and towering — easily mistakable for one of his men. And though he is not a fighter, he just might be a superstar. At forty-something years old, the blue-eyed German took over one of the world’s largest sports entertainment companies in 2013 and has since made it bigger and better.
Under his leadership, the wrestling firm known for its sensationally scripted shows has grown revenues by 46 percent in non-US markets alone. It now produces 90 shows annually, up from 50, has 8 billion YouTube views and 3 million followers across its social media platforms, and puts on 300 events a year in its US home base.
WWE’s popularity has soared so fast under Meier it has become the second-largest sport-related page on Facebook, with more than 31 million likes.
The most impressive part? Meier did not know the first thing about wrestling when he agreed to join WWE.
He was more in tune with the music industry, having worked with digital music service Spotify and Clear Channel Media & Entertainment for almost 20 years. Sport was unchartered territory. But WWE is not a sport — it is entertainment — and Meier knew his entertainment.
“When the conversation first started about WWE, coming from a different background, I was not familiar with it. But I have three boys — twelve, ten, and five-year-old boys — and when the conversation started about WWE, I saw the reaction in their eyes. It is something that they find highly fascinating, highly engaging. So if you have an opportunity to work for a company whose mission is to put smiles on people’s faces, I find that very compelling,” Meier says.
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And he is not the only one.
Founded in the 1950s by professional wrestling promoter Vincent James ‘Vince’ McMahon — father to the firm’s current CEO Vincent ‘Vince’ McMahon — WWE was the first show of its kind to hit the US after World War II, when the development of television saw a gamut of new programmes developed.
Initially the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, the company was twice renamed before settling on WWE. In the 1960s, it dominated professional wrestling in the US’s most populous areas such as Baltimore, New York, and New Jersey. But unlike his son, Vince disapproved of wrestlers branching into other forms of media including acting, and, in 1982, he sold his company to Vince junior.
WWE’s 2015 revenue increased 21 percent to $658.8m — the highest in the company’s history.
In a bid to take WWE international, Vince junior focussed on cross-promotions and collaborated with various personalities outside wrestling. He completely revamped the role of wrestlers, turning them from unknown street fighters to celebrities with skyrocketing payrolls. Such celebrities include Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and John Cena, whose annual salaries today are more than $3.5m and $2.5m, respectively.
From then on, WWE’s reputation only grew further. And it continues to grow.
“All we have seen in previous years is growth for the popularity of WWE. So the question is how do you measure that? Obviously revenue is always a good indicator and we had our highest revenue as a company last year. We’re [also] looking at audience numbers across television and attendance to our live events, which has been increasing internationally,” he says.
One of the places it has been increasing is the Middle East, specifically Dubai — where the firm holds regular 'Live Dune Bash' wrestling shows.
“The fact that we have a local office [in Dubai] is a very good indication that it is a strong market for us,” Meier says. “We’re very fortunate that we’re seeing growth internationally. Anything outside the US is accelerating drastically. The third [international] office we opened was Dubai. We strongly believe that the Middle East, in its broadest form, across 20-plus countries, can really provide a growth path for years to come.”
With profit and popularity in the bag, Meier has little to worry about when it comes to WWE’s success. And he plans to keep it that way.
“You need to keep evolving. The world is changing around us and technology changes consumer behaviour. I think WWE has done a really good job in not standing still. [For example], we haven’t fought technology, we’ve embraced technology. We’re trying a lot of different things. The biggest success stories from the last few years have come through technical innovation on the WWE network and social media,” he says.
WWE is one-of-a-kind. Not quite a sport in the traditional sense, it has little direct competition. “This is where we’re in a very fortunate position because we consider ourselves sports entertainment,” Meier says.
“In the US... we run on sports channels, but we allow our fan base to decide how they want to look at us. If they want to look at us from a more athletic sports perspective, that’s great. If they want to look at us from a story-telling, entertainment perspective, be our guest. We’re here to entertain. We’re unique in that way.”
Meier says the secret lies in the scripts.
WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon has created a global sports entertainment empire, featuring superstars such as The Rock and John Cena.
“WWE has always been built upon the good versus the evil, the ongoing storyline of telling a story that’s never really ending and it allows fans to be constantly engaged all year round. So you might like this person, but you might dislike the other person. And that’s okay; we like the people who cheer and we like the people who boo. We like anyone who reacts. What we don’t like is anyone who is quiet about it,” he says.
“So the business rationale is that the storyline really drives the engagement. So if you see the difference between the WWE match, which is built into a storyline that you see on television, versus a match that does not have a storyline, the reactions from the audience are very different. If I just say it’s the two of you against each other but there is no real context because I haven’t built up a story, the reaction is still there but it is not as strong as the reaction you get from a storyline we’ve been building for weeks, [such as], are you really now for me or are you now against me. And that is really what the fans react to.”
However, the often shocking scripts also have attracted plenty of criticism for promoting violence, a notion Meier is quick to refute, arguing the show is less concerning than violent video games and action movies.
“The live action that we see today in our live shows compared to the violence we see in action movies and video games is probably harmless,” he says, adding that the show requires professional athletic talent. But he admits some of the most violent aspects have been removed in more recent years.
“We are now blood free, except for some accidental blood,” he says. “The physicality in our shows is no match to the brutalities that kids are being exposed in video games, for example. I think now we are at a point where the argument that we provide violence is not a valid argument any more.
“I think one has to understand how these matches work and what great athletic talent should be there. There’s less injury, there’s less violence than you see in a lot of the other things that kids are exposed to. There are many other things that I would rather have my kids not watch and WWE is definitely not one of them.”
Family-friendly WWE shows also have been added to further expand the firm’s viewership.
“We have moved into a more family friendly storytelling which brings the whole family together. It is really to keep growing that element where it is not just traditional fans, young fans, but families to enjoy the shows,” he says.
Meier may not have come from a long line of wrestling promoters and, unlike the company’s CEO, is not a retired professional wrestler. But when it comes to fans, the German knows a thing or two. He knows how to entertain them.