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Long-Term Storytelling Behind WrestleMania, Women’s CBB Viewership Records

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Long-Term Storytelling Behind WrestleMania, Women’s CBB Viewership Records

WrestleMania XL was WWE’s most watched event of all-time. The spectacle outpaced the company’s previous record, achieved last year at WrestleMania XXXIX, by 41%. 

The two-night extravaganza also set a WWE record for gate receipts. It brought in $38.5mm in ticket sales (+78% YoY and +147% over ‘22).

The positive macro results can be attributed to a series of successful micro transactions (think: the returns of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and CM Punk, Paul Levesque taking over as chief creative officer), and coherent long-term storytelling. Cody Rhodes’ match against Roman Reigns was the culmination of a multi-year story line. The Rock wrestled alongside Reigns in another extended chronicle.

“You get invested in people over time,” Nick Khan (president, WWE) said. 

Long-term storytelling and strong character development drive tune-in and fandom, and can help explain why this years’ Women's NCAA basketball championship finally outpaced the Men’s title game (18.7 million watched the women, 14.82 watched the men).

The game featured current great and fan favorite Caitlin Clark against South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley (an all-time great) and the undefeated Gamecocks.

“Storytelling starts and ends with ‘does the story create emotion with the viewer’,” one well-respected media executive said. “Caitlin [created emotion], Mulkey did [too], as did so many other women in college basketball. Irrespective of which way you were rooting, it mattered who won and who lost.”


It's draft season, which is a great time to be selling, even if you're not on sale with single-game tickets. We've seen engagement rates, measured in shares, likes and clicks, in the two weeks before and after a draft increase by 50% compared to the in-season average.

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We track sales directly through ticketing platforms like Ticketmaster, Seatgeek and Fevo and provide real-time insights on creative, audience and platform performance to help partners find new fans.

In 2023 we served close to a billion impressions for 50+ teams, and have a set of performance data and best practices catered to live entertainment partners.

40 years ago, Mary Lou Retton, Sugar Ray Leonard, Carl Lewis, and John McEnroe were among the most popular athletes in the U.S. These individual sports stars became household names while capturing Olympic glory.

But according to SSRS, Tiger Woods is the only individual sports star to rank as Americans’ favorite pro athlete over the last 30 years. Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Tom Brady, and most recently, Lionel Messi, are the others to reign atop the quarterly list.

That’s not a coincidence. The NFL and NBA rose in popularity during that era, and both have been historically strong storytellers. 

By comparison, the Olympic movement has seemingly lost much of its relevance outside the three-week Games. Even the most ardent sports fan would struggle to name a handful of individual athletes competing this Summer, and the Opening Ceremony is just three months away.

“Why hasn’t NBC been telling their stories,” the media executive asked. It has “Notre Dame Football and the NFL. Every game this past fall could have had a two-minute piece profiling an Olympian with a chance to medal.”

Those last three words are key. Storytelling and character development are necessary for fans to become invested in a sports property and its athletes. But the stars’ performance on the court/field must stand on their own merit. 

American sports fans will only regularly tune in to watch the best compete (see: MLS’ problem).

Clark became the NCAA’s Division I all-time leading scorer this past season. 

Four years at Iowa gave fans a chance to get to appreciate her game and know her story. And that familiarity gave them reasons to root for or against her as she pursued Pete Marovich’s 54-year-old record and the school’s first women’s basketball title. 

By contrast, the men’s college game lacked star power this past season. NBA executives have called June’s draft class ‘the worst ever’.  

And there is little roster continuity on a year-to-year basis. While the best players have long turned pro after their freshman seasons, many more now transfer –sometimes multiple times– during their careers in pursuit of NIL riches. 

It’s hard to get invested in a story when you don’t know who the characters are.

The turbulent men’s collegbasketball landscape has become an NBA problem. Less of the players coming into the league are household names, and fewer fans maintain meaningful connections to them.

The NBA will need to figure out how to make its fans care about the next generation of stars, perhaps for the first time in 30 years.

The NHL and MLB face similar challenges, albeit for different reasons.

Widely showcasing the athletes’ on-field exploits is a logical place for each of these leagues to start. No property does a better job of ensuring its fans can see the biggest plays shortly after they occur than the NFL, and it averaged 17.9 million viewers per game in ’23.

Of course, the NFL also does a great job of ensuring the conversation does not end when the game clock hits 0:00.

“One of the brilliant parts about the latest NFL media rights deal is that fans watch the game Monday Night on ESPN, and then on Tuesday, highlights air across all of the network morning shows,” the media executive said. “Disney clips play across NBC, CBS, and of course, ABC.”

While morning shows no longer hold the significance they once had, there’s still a meaningful number of general market fans tuning in; many of which likely did not watch the NFL game the night prior.

WWE’s scripted nature allows for creative influence. But every league has captivating personalities and narratives.

It’s just a matter of figuring out who and what they are, and where to tell them.

Nationally televised broadcasts can certainly serve as a platform. As can the broad array of digital channels. 

For maximum effect sports properties should avoid distributing storytelling content designed to build fandom behind a cable (or premium cable) paywall. 

Storytelling should extend beyond the 24/7 docuseries that have become table stakes for sports properties. 

“The athletes must become the faces of the sport,” the media executive said.

Clark’s team, along with the WNBA, have done a good job of keeping the hoops star in the limelight since her season wrapped up. She recently appeared on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and the Pat McAfee Show. 

And once the WNBA season begins, 38 out of the 42 games she’ll play in her rookie season will be nationally televised. 

But the league’s storytelling efforts cannot end there. It must let fans and casual observers know when Clark’s games are on, how she’s been playing, and what she’s up to off the floor. 

“Don’t underestimate her dating life,” the media executive said. “All of that is interesting to people.”

While one could argue the fascination with Travis Kelce’s current relationship is that he’s dating the most famous musician on the planet, casual sports have come to know –and formulate opinions on– Patrick Mahomes’ wife Brittany and his brother Jackson. 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk’s wife Kristin was also a regular ‘character’ throughout the ’23 NFL postseason. 

The WNBA must continue telling stories around Clark to fully capitalize on the momentum around women’s basketball. But if it does, there’s no reason the sport’s upward trajectory won’t continue.

“Why can’t it become as big as the NBA? Just because it’s [been] so far behind,” the media executive asked. “If you asked the NFL what its biggest concern is, it’s that in the ‘70s baseball was sitting in the seat it is in now and thought it would be number one forever.”

Of course, storytelling isn’t the only reason the NFL has surpassed MLB and the other leagues. Sports betting and the emergence of fantasy sports have helped, as has the league’s relatively short schedule.

Fans make watching NFL games a priority because of their high-stakes nature.

The WNBA’s 42-game slate should work in its favor.

Purists will certainly argue against cutting down the NBA, NHL, or MLB season. And it’s hard to imagine many owners signing up for the short-term losses that would come with doing so.

But it may be necessary to achieve mamaximize long-term gains.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” the media executive said. “Over time, the league will increase demand and it will result in more television revenue because even though the season has less tonnage, people will be more interested in watching the remaining games so ratings will go up and sponsorship will go up.”

Just look at WWE. 

The company cut down on the number of house shows it does and moved its non-big five PPVs overseas. Viewership for both premium events and televised weekly shows rose.

“Decrease the supply, increase the demand,” Khan said.

And then consistently tell stories about the property’s biggest stars across platforms and channels over an extended period.

It’s really a simple formula.

Correction: A prior version of this article incorrectly referenced LSU as Iowa’s opponent in the championship game. The two teams met in the Elite 8.

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