POST Media Panel: The WWE’s handling of Crown Jewel and how it will be covered

In the first POST media panel, we welcome three wrestling journalists to share their thoughts on the WWE's handling of this week's Crown Jewel event and the issues raised over the last month.

With the WWE moving forward with Friday’s Crown Jewel event, the company has come under immense criticism following the murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi last month. With details of the events of October 2nd inside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul still emerging, the WWE will stage the second event as part of their 10-year deal with the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia.

We have assembled a panel of members from the media to weigh in on the coverage of the WWE’s Crown Jewel event, the response received from their audience and the effect this show will have on the WWE’s image.

Here is the panel assembled:

Sean Ross Sapp, Managing Editor at Fightful.com

Justin Barrasso, Journalist at Sports Illustrated

Chris Harrington, Co-Host of Wrestlenomics Radio

DO YOU AGREE WITH THE WWE’S DECISION TO RUN THE CROWN JEWEL EVENT THIS WEEK, WHY OR WHY NOT?

Sean Ross Sapp:
From a moral standpoint, no, not at all. Especially given Linda’s place in Trump’s cabinet. Financially, I understand.

Justin Barrasso:
Holding the Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia under the current climate shows a lack of awareness and makes WWE – which is a company that creates a tremendous amount of goodwill – look like they are solely concerned with the bottom line.

Chris Harrington: I believe it is a poor decision by WWE to run the Crown Jewel event later this week.

WWE is an anomaly – the company has refused to distance themselves from the Saudi Arabia government or allow the murder of Jamal Khashoggi interferes with their wrestling show plans.

Stephanie McMahon’s recent comments make it clear that WWE management’s only hold-up with taking GSA/Vision 2030 money is the “heinous act” (they won’t say murder!).

WWE is clearly not concerned with Saudi Arabia’s many human rights violations, treating women as lesser, or escalating killings & bombings of innocent civilians in Yemen or imprisoning activists. As demonstrated during the Greatest Royal Rumble, WWE has agreed to allow their programming to act as propagandists for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They’re not just running shows in the Middle East – they’re advocating for the greatness of the leaders Mohammad Bin Salman and his thuggish aide Turki al-Sheikh.

And why? The comments from the latest conference call underscore how WWE is focused on ensuring that management continues to over-achieve on their executive compensation measures. Taking the Vision 2030 money is one way to help bridge the gap between the current state and the new large television deals starting late next year. It also shows how little WWE learned from the last event where KSA was allowed to exclude talent and company was chastised for even brief glimpses of women during the show.



OVER THE PAST FEW WEEKS, DID YOU EVER EXPECT THE WWE TO PULL OUT OF THIS FRIDAY’S EVENT IN RIYADH?

Sean Ross Sapp: I expected the show to be moved or relocated, but not canceled altogether. I thought WWE would make up the date next year.

Justin Barrasso:
Despite viable options, including moving the card to the Survivor Series, I never believed WWE would postpone or move the show. It’s tricky because the show is sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So, unlike WrestleMania when people complained to Snickers about the Fabulous Moolah being the namesake of the women’s battle royal, there is no direct sponsor to put pressure on WWE to move the show.

Chris Harrington: Given the muted tone of the Trump administration in responding to the outrageous murder of a journalist (who was living in the US on a visa for his “extraordinary ability and achievement”, worked for the Washington Post and has several children who are US citizens), I suspected that WWE would be slow to respond. It was not until Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin announced on October 18 that he would not be attending the Future Investment Initiative summit that I believed there was a possibility WWE would delay or move the Crown Jewel show. Ultimately, it appears that WWE knew their Q3 results would underwhelm and without a blockbuster announcement to distract (i.e. new UK television deal or new India television deal) the company risked further financial pummeling if they decided to change plans for the Crown Jewel show. (The stock has dropped $28, almost 30%, since the beginning the month already). The story of Ari Emanuel’s Endeavor allegedly pulling out of a $400 million Saudi Arabia deal provided an amazing counterpoint to WWE’s decision, though the comparison has not been raised extensively.

HOW WILL YOU AND/OR YOUR COLLEAGUES BE COVERING THIS EVENT COMPARED TO A USUAL WWE SHOW?

Sean Ross Sapp:
The same as always. I’d like to have a female voice on our post-show, since there will be none on the broadcast. (Note: This was submitted prior to the report that Renee Young is scheduled to be part of the broadcast).

Justin Barrasso: The show is significant and needs to be covered. There will be a new WWE Universal champion, Shawn Michaels is wrestling, and we’ll also see Kurt Angle in the ring.

Chris Harrington:
The focus of Wrestlenomics Radio is about the financials, business decisions, legal machinations and changing media landscape as it pertains to the world of professional wrestling. While watching the show we will be most interested in the propaganda aspect (will WWE do the hard-sell for Vision 2030 again this time?), talent aspect (will anyone else besides John Cena abstain from performing) and the WWE narrative (change & reimagine). Will WWE run another jingoistic and xenophobic angle (and lead to more death threats for wrestlers)? And will WWE provide any additional information on the true financial value of this deal or will they continue to report opaquely with the revenue stashed away in the “Other Media” category alongside Total Divas rights?

DO YOU GET A SENSE FROM YOUR READERS AND/OR LISTENERS THAT THERE IS A MAJOR CONCERN ABOUT THE ETHICS OF THIS DEAL WITH THE GENERAL SPORTS AUTHORITY, AND SPECIFICALLY THE TIMING OF THIS EVENT?

Sean Ross Sapp: Most political issues are about 60/40 towards progression. With this situation, about 95 percent of our viewers and readers were disgusted with it.

Justin Barrasso: The show certainly has an uncomfortable feel, which is no fault of any of the talent, but it is the reality.

Chris Harrington: I hear a broad spectrum of responses from listeners. Most acknowledge the Khashoggi murder is a tragedy, but some don’t believe it’s worth up-ending the entire show over geopolitical events. Others feel the whole Vision 2030 decision was a bad a deal for WWE from the start from an ethically and moral standpoint, but money will always talk when it comes to WWE management making decisions. Some felt that WWE couldn’t risk the contractual damage that would come from trying to exit such a long-term 10-year deal without damaging their stock price, which was something that WWE cared a lot about upholding. Some have employed “whataboutism” tactics comparing WWE’s expansion in China versus Saudi Arabia. As more and more people have learned about the contradictory nature of modern Saudi Arabia, less people can just shrug off WWE running shows there and acting as propagandists for the regime.



HAVE YOU FOUND YOUR AUDIENCE TURNED OFF BY COVERAGE OF THIS STORY OR ENGAGED FROM THE LARGER POLITICAL ELEMENTS BEING DEBATED REGARDING THIS SHOW?

Sean Ross Sapp: Not really. Especially with social media the way it is now, it’s another topic to be engaged in. I was surprised by the attention paid to it considering the stereotypes of the wrestling fanbase — which are often unfounded.

Justin Barrasso:
I can’t speak for everyone, but I do think people who watch the product on a weekly basis will be thrilled when the words “Crown Jewel” are no longer uttered. But there are still a plethora of future shows with Saudi Arabia to promote.

Chris Harrington:
The listenership to our shows, including several weeks of Saudi Arabia-heavy discussion, has been consistent and the number of people supporting our Patreon has actually increased. I’m sure some people are content to ignore the story but I was surprised how much positive feedback a recent tweet praising Last Week Tonight with John Oliver for keeping the heat on WWE over the Crown Jewel garnered. People aren’t tired of the story; they’re sickened by it.

WILL THE WWE’S DECISION TO RUN THIS SHOW PRESENT ANY LONG-TERM EFFECTS WITH THEIR PUBLIC IMAGE, OR WILL THIS BE A SHORT-LIVED CONTROVERSY FOR THE COMPANY?

Sean Ross Sapp: They’ve been so under the radar from a mainstream perspective for so long that really only the steroid trial and Benoit murders gave them a real dent. I don’t think it will affect them long term, but it will give companies and people ammunition to use against them, and rightfully so.

Justin Barrasso:
Wrestling fans are loyal, so I don’t think there will be any long-term negative consequences, at least not yet. And it’s not like you can just voice your frustration by booing the talent, as a considerable amount of the roster feels uncomfortable about going but has little choice but to get on the plane. So, it’s impossible to be upset with the talent. WWE and Vince McMahon, in particular, take the public relations hit for this show.

Chris Harrington:
 I think WWE’s decision to continue with the Crown Jewel show in Saudi Arabia has negatively impacted their public image. It will be a short-lived controversy for fans of the company, but it leaves an enduring nasty taste in the mouth for people who only encounter professional wrestling occasionally. While some sponsors might positively view WWE’s willingness to stand by a partnership regardless of the social consequences, others may feel uneasy working with such a tone-deaf, executive management compensation-focused company which is willing to damage relationships with their fans, talent, and media.

Thanks very much to Sean Ross Sapp from Fightful, Justin Barrasso at Sports Illustrated, and Chris Harrington with Wrestlenomics Radio for participating in our POST Media Panel.