Monday, World Wrestling Entertainment announced an expansion of its deal to hold periodic live events in Saudi Arabia through 2027. It was met with a lot of teeth-gnashing and keyboard smashing, and there are a number of reasons for that:
The deal involves the WWE being paid a boatload of money in exchange for – let’s be completely honest – performing what is essentially a tourism commercial that involves big, sweaty men performing coordinated stuntwork made to look like a comic book fight. Not that the wrestling isn’t entertaining, as long as it’s booked properly, but that’s a discussion for another day. The “Crown Jewel” and “Greatest Royal Rumble” events have been criticized for promoting a “lighter side” of a nation with reported connections to 9/11, a sketchy-at-best situation involving the death of a journalist, and generally treating women like little more than property.
It’s attracted investor blowback in the past, to the point that WWE owner Vince McMahon won’t even talk about it much. We still don’t know just how much money the ten-year deal is worth, but it’s apparently enough for a company that holds an annual Tribute to the Troops and shows off a patriotic side every chance it gets to up and ditch that at the drop of a (money-filled) hat. It sends the message that Americans, at least those with deep pockets, don’t care much about human rights violations as long as their coffers are filled.
The wrestlers performing for the company aren’t faring well, either, after last week’s Crown Jewel event ended with a travel fiasco that left many stars stranded. Rumors fly about the nature of the situation, but the most commonly-heard thread is that McMahon held up the start of the show due to the Saudis’ failure to pay for two prior events. Once payment was received, McMahon and a few of the “bigger” names got the heck out of the country while the rest of the performers finished the show. Then they were not allowed to get on their plane, and the stories vary wildly from there: WWE says it was mechanical issues that stalled the flight for hours upon hours, while many wrestlers instead said they felt like they were being held hostage and swore that not only would they never again do a Saudi show, they “can’t wait” to leave the company. They felt that McMahon, their leader, abandoned them after provoking a country known for doing not-so-nice things to people that upset them.
The good news about the wrestlers wanting to leave is there are plenty of options available, including All Elite Wrestling, which been giving WWE a run for its money in the ratings war, but still the fact that the biggest wrestling promotion in the country has so much ill will between it and its workers (don’t call them “employees”) can’t be good for wrestling, or wrestling fans, in general.
WWE has seen dropping stock prices, an angry and disenfranchised staff, and fans that have at least four other companies to choose from. For its sake, maybe it should stay away from deals involving (allegedly) murderous regimes and stick to imaginary (but still fun to watch!) fights.
As long as they don’t screw it up like they did the ending to the 2019 Hell in a Cell show again.