Working from NHL playbook, Rogers locks down 10-year cable deal with WWE wrestling

Hybrid deal keeps WWE events for cable and pay-per-view, hints at over-the-top Internet service in future



What’cha gonna do brother, when Rogers-a-mania runs wild on you?

While the cable giant’s mammoth $5 billion purchase of exclusive rights to NHL programming last year got all the headlines, Thursday’s deal with World Wrestling Entertainment is equally interesting, especially to fans of the squared circle.

The 10-year agreement gives Rogers (which owns Canadian Businessexclusive broadcast and distribution rights to existing WWE programming such as Raw and Smackdown and pay-per-view events, as well as to its fledgling WWE Network, a dedicated wrestling channel launched in February in the United States. The big difference is that the Network is pretty much like the Netflix of wrestling in the U.S., a $9.99 “over-the-top” internet service that provides subscribers with archival content, new reality shows and access to live monthly pay-per-view events.

In Canada, the WWE Network won’t be available as a standalone service—at least not initially. Fans will have to subscribe to a TV provider to get it, and then pay an extra premium for it.

“This is not about us preventing access or throttling access to the channel. What we plan on doing is exploding access to this channel,” said David Purdy, senior vice-president of content at Rogers, in an interview.

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Rogers will shepherd the channel through the required approval process at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Communications, but until then it will be offered on a special pay-per-view basis starting on Aug. 12. The process will be similar to how the company introduced Setanta Sports, an Irish channel, in 2007 before it ultimately became Sportsnet World. “It won’t be a 24-hour channel, but let’s say it’ll be on air 20 hours a day,” Purdy said.

Both the temporary and permanent forms of the WWE Network, as well as regular programming and pay-per-views, must be offered to other TV distributors on a “fair and equal” basis because of CRTC rules, so subscribers to rival providers—say Bell Fibe or Telus Optik—are likely to get access.

“What we have to do right now, relatively quickly, is engage with all those folks. The deal has just been done so we now have to go out and talk to our other distribution partners across Canada and cut those deals,” Purdy said. “The intent here is to make it available to all Canadian distribution partners.”

Rogers has yet to finalize pricing, but the company is looking to keep it close to the U.S. cost. WWE is currently charging subscribers $9.99 a month if they agree to a six-month commitment, or $19.99 a month with no lock-in. The service has amassed 700,000 subscribers since its launch in February, with many fans praising its value—WWE’s monthly pay-per-views can cost more than $40 alone.

The Network will also be available through Rogers’ various apps, so subscribers will be able to view it on smartphones, tablets and other devices.

Although a subscription to a TV service will be required to access the channel, Purdy did not rule out offering it on a standalone “over-the-top” basis in the future.

“We’re always looking at making products and services that appeal to youth and young adults. We’re going to do whatever it takes to have relevant subscription products for them,” he said. “We’ll make sure there are more people subscribing on a per-capita basis to the WWE service than there are in the U.S.”

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Neither company announced financial terms of the tie-up.

For Rogers, the deal makes sense as it locks in programming that most viewers like to watch live, rather than on DVR or on demand. For the WWE, however, the decision is a departure from its strategy in the U.S., where it has opted to go it alone with the Network as an over-the-top Internet-based service.

While a spokesman for the Stamford, Conn.-based company declined to comment on the change of direction in Canada, the length of the Rogers deal likely had something to do with it.

WWE recently announced a broadcast renewal deal for its programs in the United States with NBCUniversal, although the companies only said it was a “multiyear” agreement. A previous renewal, billed by WWE as a “long-term deal,” was for only four years.

Purdy said Rogers’ offer of 10 years was indeed appealing to the company.

“If it’s a two-year renewal or a three-year renewal, you’re not really making the medium- and long-term investments necessary to grow both businesses,” he said. “If it’s too short, that’s not a partnership, that’s speed dating.”