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WWE's event in Saudi Arabia puts the 'World' in World Wrestling Entertainment

World Wrestling Entertainment stars AJ Styles, top, and Shinsuke Nakamura, wrestle during their match at the “Greatest Royal Rumble” event in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, April 27, 2018. A previous WWE event held in the ultraconservative kingdom in 2014 was for men only. But Friday night’s event in Jiddah included both women and children in attendance. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

When you think of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, many things might come to mind: Mecca, Medina, oil, and … professional wrestling? Yes, that’s right. Pro wrestling has come to King Abdullah International Stadium in Jeddah as the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) presents the “Greatest Royal Rumble” on April 27. The event is part of the Saudi General Sports Authority’s new 10-year partnership with WWE.

While many people think of WWE simply as a “wrestling company,” it’s a publicly-traded media and entertainment organization with some major economic reach. Even non-fans can name some of WWE’s legendary performers, such as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson, and the company puts on dazzling pyrotechnic and lights displays that rival the Super Bowl’s halftime show. No matter how you slice it, the WWE is big business both in the U.S. and abroad. And the “Greatest Royal Rumble” in Jeddah is just another example of the company flexing its financial muscle.  

In 2017, the company’s revenue topped $800 million, the highest in its history. Year over year, WWE’s revenue saw a 10% increase. The company also continues to be a juggernaut in the digital media arena. WWE’s YouTube channel remains the most viewed sports channel on the platform, and its digital engagement is up 32% from the year prior.

On the global front, WWE has inked distribution agreements in many countries, including Australia, France, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Philippines. The company also has a subscription-based video streaming service aptly named the “WWE Network.” The network has brought in  $197.9 million in revenue coming from an average of 1.53 million subscribers. Every major WWE event can be seen live on the network except for the company’s two flagship TV programs WWE Raw and SmackDown, which both air live on NBC Universal’s USA Network.

Social smackdown!

If the partnership between the WWE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia still seems a bit weird — let’s set the stage. Mohammed Bin Salman, the 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, also known as MBS, has ushered in many reforms, primarily through his Saudi Vision 2030 plan. At its heart, the program is an economic endeavor to grow the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on oil. The crown prince wants to make Saudi Arabia a tourism magnet — and allowing “Westernized” styles of entertainment such as wrestling, concerts, and cinemas (which were banned in the country just a short time ago) could be a draw in the region.

Not all of MBS’s reforms are commercial; many are social, including opening up more opportunities for women. Women were just recently permitted to drive, and in January, they were allowed to attend a professional soccer match—albeit in a separate seating area from men. However, many restrictions remain in place, and the women of WWE will not be in the ring for the “Greatest Royal Rumble.”

That WWE would agree to such a measure seems counterintuitive at best and downright hypocritical at worst. Within the organization, WWE champions what it calls the “Women’s Revolution” — an effort to stop sexually fetishizing female talent and treat them in the same manner as male performers. Women’s WWE matches have received top billing and even been featured as an evening’s main event. WWE has also signed former Ultimate Fighting Championship star Ronda Rousey to a long-term deal.

So why would the WWE turn its back (although only for one night) on this initiative? WWE executive and wrestler Paul Levesque, better known by the ring name ‘Triple H,’ summed up the company line. “I understand that people are questioning it, but you have to understand that every culture is different and just because you don’t agree with a certain aspect of it, it doesn’t mean it’s not a relevant culture.”

Women and children are allowed to attend this historic wrestling event, but they had to be accompanied by a male guardian. So it begs the question: Is the WWE selling out or just buying in? Playing ball with the Saudi powers that be might set up WWE for a major cash grab. It remains to be seen how much revenue the “Greatest Royal Rumble” will generate for the Kingdom and the WWE, but you can bet it will be a pretty penny— as much as $25 million by some accounts. In the battle between money and values, money is usually the victor.