SummerSlam Hits Brooklyn, and WWE Network Takes Over the World

CTO Rajan Mehta says the key to success lies in listening to the fans

SummerSlam takes place Sunday night, streaming live from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. When it’s over, we’ll know whether Brock Lesnar or Roman Reigns has won the Universal Championship, and the WWE Network will have one more successful live event under its (championship) belt.

The WWE Network will celebrate its fifth anniversary in February, and, as one of the most successful sports-video services to date, it’s the embodiment of “go big or go home.” Take SummerSlam, for example: the WWE is producing not only a night of elbow drops and piledrivers from Barclays but also four days of activities that include NXT TakeOver, Monday Night Raw, and Smackdown Live. And subscribers to the $9.99 per month WWE Network don’t get just exclusive live events; they also get a library of more than 10,000 hours of WWE excitement on demand. Some media critics thought the WWE was crazy in 2014 when it moved away from its $80 million legacy pay-per-view business, but it has turned that into a $200 million streaming business with 1.8 million paying subscribers around the world.

According to Parks Associates, WWE Network was the second-biggest sports SVOD in 2017, behind only MLB.tv. Besides new events, the service offers original documentaries, reality shows, and lots of classic matches.

Although the WWE values its broadcast partners (including USA and NBCUniversal), WWE Network subscribers get a rich experience that includes live streams in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, German, and Hindi (and events are available on demand in French soon after they’re finished).

Subscribers also get an always-on linear feed for a lean-back TV experience. Even non-subscribers will be able to tap into the SummerSlam Kickoff two-hour preshow Sunday night, with the WWE putting it on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. For the first time, the kickoff will be streamed in VR: the NextVR app (supported on Oculus, Google Daydream, HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, and PlayStation VR) will offer a 3D VR stream, and Oculus Venues (available on Oculus Go and Samsung Gear VR) will offer a 2D VR stream. That’s a smart way to entice customers to pay for the full event.

One key to the WWE Network’s success has been listening to fans, iterating content, and A/B testing, says Rajan Mehta, EVP/CTO, WWE.

WWE’s Rajan Mehta: “We’re focusing on year-over-year growth, super-serving our passionate fans with new program features, and more archival on-demand content.”

“We do test a number of things. We tested various promotion offers from a subscription-management perspective. We test out various features. We do user-experience testings with our fans, so there’s a lot of things in the hopper for us,” he says. “Next year is our five-year anniversary, and we focus on new or resubscriber growth and how we can help improve that and continue to grow the network, how we super-serve our fans. [As for] where WWE is going, we think localized content is going to be a big aspect of what we need to do. As we look at multi-language and currency and features along those lines, those are some areas that I’m spending some time taking a look at.”

WWE will capture Sunday night’s matches with a little help from PSSI Global Services, a broadcast-solutions company it works with frequently for satellite delivery. The Switch will provide fiber for video and data from Barclays. WWE will also partner with Encompass on origination and BAMTech for streaming and transcoding. Content is produced at the WWE facility in Stamford, CT, and global distribution is left to multiple CDNs, including Akamai, Limelight, and CenturyLink.

Subscribers are getting more demanding in what they expect from a streaming service, and the WWE has kept its base happy by focusing on key issues like buffering and discoverability. Mehta studies rebuffering ratios closely to ensure that they’re as low as possible. No matter where viewers are in the world, they should get a quick start time, he believes. It’s a challenge at the WWE: although most streaming services focus on one or two geographic areas, the WWE’s fans are global.

Discoverability is key for any subscription service, especially one with more than 10,000 hours of bouts. Making sure subscribers can easily find the video they want is critical. To pull that off, Mehta overhauled and enhanced WWE Network’s metadata.

As the WWE Network prepares for its anniversary, look for it to keep growing its offerings, and that means bringing fans even more of the action they love.

Says Mehta, “We’re focusing on year-over-year growth, super-serving our passionate fans with new program features, and more archival on-demand content.”

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