There are some parallels between modern WWE and Manchester United during the post-Ferguson years. In both cases, strong commercial performances and record-breaking TV rights' deals have somewhat masked the obvious decline in quality of their core product - much to the bemusement and, at times rage, of their long-serving fanbase.
Vince McMahon doesn't have an obvious comparison among the United hierarchy. His role at the top of WWE in recent years has aligned more with late-stage Arsene Wenger at Arsenal; the genius responsible for building it all, who has stuck around long enough to become the only person unaware that he is now the problem.
But just imagine if after finally leaving Arsenal, Wenger had later maneuvered himself back into the fold as Chairman of the Board a year later, before lining up a sale of the company to Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, with the intention that he would remain in charge under the new ownership. Then this arguably tenuous wrestling-football analogy might actually make perfect sense.
WWE Boardroom Power Struggle
2023 is picking up from 2022 with another wild story from the world of pro-wrestling. At the time of writing, here is what we know so far. Less than a year after Vince McMahon stepped down from WWE following an investigation into alleged misconduct, he has now been reinstalled as Chairman by WWE's Board of Directors. It has been widely reported that McMahon leveraged his controlling share to be voted back in, on the basis that he would play an essential role in pursuing a future sale of the company. Initially at least, his return to the board would not impact Paul 'Triple H' Levesque's position as head of WWE's creative output. Follow up reports from Bloomberg state that McMahon is now being sued by a shareholder who alleges that he illegally imposed his will on the board in order to return as chairman.
Meanwhile WWE co-CEO Stephanie McMahon announced that she was resigning from the company altogether, as reports emerged that a deal had been agreed in principle to sell WWE to the Saudi Arabia PIF. This move would restore the company to private ownership for the first time in 23 years and potentially create a scenario which might allow Vince McMahon to resume in power, free from the scrutiny that comes with leading a publicly traded company. At this point nothing official has come from WWE in relation to the potential Saudi deal, and subsequent reports from the likes of Ariel Helwani and Brandon Thurston noted that inside sources claim the initial news of a deal having been already agreed are false.
Vince's December 20 letter to WWE's board, writing he wants to comeback as executive chairman.
"Stephanie, Nick, Paul, and the rest of the
management team have my full and unconditional support..." pic.twitter.com/774gt3v74g
— Brandon Thurston (@BrandonThurston) January 6, 2023
Then. Now. Forever. Together. pic.twitter.com/8dqr5reIiv
— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) January 10, 2023
Contrary to reports stating otherwise last night, there is no deal in place at this precise moment for WWE to be sold to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund or any entity, sources say.
The organization is still exploring all options, I’m told. Developing.
— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) January 11, 2023
For long-suffering wrestling fans, many of whom have been falling out of love with WWE in recent years, the prospect of a Saudi deal is disastrous. WWE's onscreen product had begun to show signs of resurgence with Triple H at the helm, attempting to right some wrongs by bringing back a number of talents that had been squandered and pushed out of the company under Vince McMahon's direction.
WWE being in bed with the Saudis is nothing new for wrestling fans, who have had to endure several major WWE events being hosted there since 2018. But whatever moral dilemma they have faced when deciding whether or not to skip a couple of shows a year, fans could now be forced to decide if they want to continue watching a wrestling promotion that is outright owned by an authoritarian regime with a controversial record on human rights. And that's without even getting into the more trivial aspects of trying to enjoy WWE while 77-year-old Vince McMahon is in charge of creative.
Update, here is what I’ve put together so far:
The deal isn’t completely finalized because WWE must provide notice to shareholders & other parties. There are legalities to go through, as the company is publicly traded. But, again, I’m told a deal has been agreed to in principle.
— Cassidy Haynes of Bodyslam.net (@Casshooole) January 11, 2023
As for the WWE locker room, the optimism that came with McMahon's initial exit and Triple H's new regime is sure to be wiped away pretty fast. WWE's existing relationship with Saudi Arabia has been problematic for a number of performers, with the likes of John Cena, Daniel Bryan and Kevin Owens opting out of appearing there in the past. There are obvious concerns about what this potential sale could mean for the likes of Sami Zayn - the standout WWE performer in 2022, who is of Syrian descent and has never appeared on a Saudi show.
The recent success of WWE's women's division may also come under the spotlight. Having initially been banned from performing on the early Saudi events, WWE's female performers were later allowed to compete only while wearing more conservative ring attire.
— WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) October 31, 2019
At this point, the potential impact of Saudi ownership on the WWE product remains to be seen. Premier League observers will note that if the Newcastle United away kit is anything to go by, the Saudi PIF is not shy in planting their emblems on their commercial trophies for the world to see. Their growing presence in the world of sport with LIV Golf, Formula One, boxing and the Premier League has been controversial to say the least. But outright of ownership of WWE would be earth-shattering within the world of pro-wrestling, with the industry now considering a future where no McMahons are fully in control for the first time in about half a century.
If the rumours prove to be true, many of us can go ahead and add 'Sports-Entertainment-Washing' to our grim list of reasons why it's becoming increasingly difficult to simply enjoy our favourite things.