If you are even a casual fan of professional wrestling, then you know about the sudden, recent rise of Jinder Mahal and WWE’s new India focus. In the run up to their tour later this year, we take a look at some other challenges WWE India will face.
Jinder Mahal’s rise to the top has certainly been a surprise. Don’t misinterpret that statement. Fans saw the change happening, both physically and in his on air character. Most of us assumed he would be made part of a title feud for the tag titles or the US/Intercontinental Title. But none of us saw his rise to the number 1 contender for the WWE World Championship. He is now expected to feud with current champion Randy Orton – a 13-time champion and one of the most popular wrestlers of all time.
RAW has Roman Reigns who is well over in India. John Cena could have filled that spot from Smackdown, but he is on a hiatus, working on other projects.
Having someone of Indian origin in a top program would help with the India expansion – considering it is potentially their biggest market in the world – but having to do so in a rushed storyline, with a “boring” champion like Randy Orton jeopardizes Smackdown ratings and PPV buyrates globally.
The Indian Network and Broadcast Problem
WWE has the paid network channel for offer in the US and European markets. This ensures a steady revenue stream of regular and PPV programming. The situation in India is markedly different.
They have been present on Indian cable TV since the days of Prime Time Wrestling with Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan. Indian audiences have moved from two week delays in programming to live HD broadcast of WWE, TNA, UFC, and other similar sports programming. This is like other TV deals that WWE has worldwide. But the difference is in the rates: $1 a month will get us WWE RAW (live), Smackdown (live), NXT, Main Event, Talking Smack (live), and all PPVs (live), in HD, with and without replays. All of this is offered in multiple languages and can be TIVO-ed. This is in a cutthroat and notoriously price-sensitive market.
WWE India has to somehow revamp their global revenue model to monetize the market at a tenth of the price.
Understanding the Fan Base
The Indian pro wrestling fan is mostly in the 10-40 year age range. Interest in professional wrestling really grew with the Monday Night Wars era: when programming increased and cable TV rates fell.
Many fans still like the idea of kayfabe, but they may not buy the expensive merchandise that WWE puts out. Urban customers may buy in, but the large semi-urban and rural fan base does not have enough of a disposable income to spare a chunk for wrestling tee shirts or replica belts.
The fan base is also mostly TV reared. TNA and WWE have done small events and house shows here before. TNA had an Indian tour a few years ago. But we have mostly been fed flagship TV programs and PPVs. The Indian fan has to be “converted” into someone who will buy pricey tickets, travel to the show, and spend on other merchandise. That is a tall ask, something the music industry also has not been able to crack in a sustainable manner.
This fan base will also not spend $10 on the network. They will just illegally download and watch content with a small delay. Most of the Attitude Era fans are working now. WWE live programming comes on around 5-8AM IST. So they could set up a download before leaving for work and can watch it by the time they are back home.
Understanding the Indian Business Environment
WWE has hired a senior executive in India. They will need to navigate the unique business environment of India. Local permissions and bureaucracy can be a nightmare for live events. Booking and storylines that may be acceptable in other markets can cause cultural issues in India. This is important because it could cause disruption in live events. Local state taxes can be very high.
The Indian market also is multilingual, and needs to be broadcast to in at least a couple of dozen languages. Unlike the Spanish announce team, which speaks to many countries, the Indian broadcast will remain uniquely India. English alone cannot cut it.
However, there is no competition. TNA is trying to sign a deal with The Great Khali’s wrestling academy but the safe bet is that nothing sustainable will come out of it. This move has made WWE nervous though, accelerating their entry.
Surviving in India is only possible with a long term vision. If WWE is looking to make money within 3-5 years, they might as well not waste time. It will take them 3-5 years to get some idea of the market they are dealing with.
So.. What Can It Mean?
For the WWE, it is the start of possibly the most complex storyline they are involved in. India is a very difficult but very lucrative market to crack. It takes time, and a deep understanding of a finicky, price sensitive customer.
However, the country has a deep history of amateur wrestling and a potential talent base with strong technical fundamentals. The WWE can build on that very smartly through NXT. They cannot however have second rate house show programs. At some point they have to bring in PPVs and somehow make it a success. They also need to be very strategic about movie tie-ins: collaborations with Bollywood will be a lot easier than their attempts with Hollywood.
For Jinder, this is a testing time of his life. He might be in the right place at the right time, but faces many critics. The bulk of WWE’s current audiences do not care much for him, partly due to the rushed storylines. However, like JBL said on a recent episode of Talking Smack, Jinder is in the same place that he was. A mid-carder being given an opportunity of a lifetime, against logic and odds.
Making it a success lies in the hands of Jinder and how well he connects with the WWE universe. After all, the WWE wants to add 1.3 billion more people to that mix!