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Who would buy WWE, as McMahon returns to board to pursue sale

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World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Chairman Vince McMahon is introduced in the course of the WWE Monday Night Raw show on the Thomas & Mack Center August 24, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Ethan Miller | Getty Images

Vince McMahon has returned to the World Wrestling Entertainment board of directors to facilitate potential sale talks ahead of the corporate’s media rights renewal.

The notion of WWE selling is not recent. CNBC reported it looked like a sale goal in April and that it appeared only more attractive in July after a sexual misconduct scandal. The rationale is fairly straightforward: WWE is priceless mental property.

Owning IP allows streaming services to exclusively offer content without the annoyance of winning licensing rights in an auction every few years. WWE also has value to supply in merchandising and theme park businesses.

WWE has hired JPMorgan to assist the corporate advise on a possible sale, in keeping with people acquainted with the matter. JPMorgan declined to comment. A WWE spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

If a deal occurs, it could likely occur in the following three to 6 months, said the people, who asked to not be named since the discussions are private. WWE plans to seek advice from potential buyers before it comes to a decision on TV rights renewal agreements.

Facilitating a sale

McMahon’s return should help a sale process go easily, though there could still be hiccups.

The previous CEO and chair is 77 years old and the controlling shareholder of WWE. He stepped down after an investigation found that he had paid nearly $15 million to 4 women over 16 years to quell claims of alleged sexual misconduct and infidelity. Returning to the board will give potential buyers confidence he’s supportive of the small print of any transaction.

“My return will allow WWE, in addition to any transaction counterparties, to interact in these processes knowing they’ll have the support of the controlling shareholder,” McMahon said in a press release Thursday.

McMahon’s return doesn’t affect current leadership. McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, and former CAA agent Nick Khan are co-CEOs. But it surely stays unclear what sort of role, if any, McMahon would want at WWE if he sold the corporate. WWE has told investors that McMahon’s role at the corporate is crucial in “our ability to create popular characters and artistic storylines.” Currently, McMahon doesn’t have a proper say in the corporate’s creative direction.

Mansoor (bottom) competes with Mustafa Ali in the course of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Crown Jewel pay-per-view within the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 21, 2021.

Fayez Nureldine | AFP | Getty Images

Whether a buyer could be comfortable with McMahon taking a more hands-on role at the corporate is unknown. But WWE is McMahon’s life work. It’s possible a sale may only occur with a minimum of some strings attached.

WWE has a market capitalization of greater than $6 billion after rising nearly 17% percent on Friday, buoyed by heightened sale speculation.

There are three categories of likely buyers for WWE — the legacy media corporations, the streamers and the entertainment holding corporations. Here’s who may be interested.

Comcast

Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, is a possible fit as a buyer for WWE. McMahon’s company already has an exclusive streaming take care of Comcast’s streaming service, Peacock, and a cable TV take care of NBCUniversal’s USA Network. Comcast has a market capitalization of greater than $160 billion and might easily afford the corporate — especially with a $9 billion (or more) check coming as soon as January 2024 from Disney for a 33% stake in Hulu.

Comcast can lock up WWE in perpetuity without having to pay upcoming rights renewal increases and might use the corporate’s IP for theme parks, movies and other spinoff series.

Still, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in October “the bar is the very best it has been when it comes to M&A” and has repeatedly said the corporate is not in a rush to pursue an acquisition.

Fox

Disney

Returning CEO Bob Iger may need to make a splashy acquisition as he retakes the throne at Disney. WWE suits Disney in the identical ways in which it suits Comcast. It might bolster Disney’s streaming ambitions (perhaps ESPN+), it could support the linear network business, and it could add some heft to merchandizing and theme park businesses.

Comcast didn’t want Disney walking away with Fox in 2019 and drove up the value by tens of billions by topping Iger’s initial bid. Could Iger see WWE as the following IP battle between Disney and his rival Comcast?

Disney CEO, Bob Iger attends the European film premiere of ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ at Cineworld Leicester Square on 18 December, 2019 in London, England.

Wiktor Szymanowicz | Future Publishing | Getty Images

Warner Bros. Discovery

Netflix

Netflix has long shied away from sports and other live events, but it’s recently turn out to be open to the thought of owning a league outright or taking an ownership stake. Owning a sports league would give Netflix the power to create video games and spinoff series without friction. Netflix found success in its Formula 1 “Drive to Survive” documentary series, giving co-CEO Reed Hastings faith that certain sports properties will resonate with Netflix’s huge global audience. But Netflix doesn’t own Formula 1, limiting its future options.

Acquiring WWE or one other sports league could be a path toward offering live entertainment without renting content — much like Zaslav’s considering.

“We have not seen a profit path to renting big sports,” said co-CEO Ted Sarandos last month on the UBS Global TMT Conference. “We’re not anti-sports; we’re just pro-profit.”

Amazon

Endeavor Group Holdings

Endeavor, run by superagent Ari Emanuel, could add WWE to its stable of assets after agreeing to purchase 100% of UFC in 2021.

Emanuel bought UFC to extend the scope of the talent agency’s business to live events. WME-IMG, now just an element of Endeavor, represents many UFC athletes — in addition to WWE superstars. The UFC deal has been a hit for Endeavor, which paid about seven times 2016’s $600 million revenue in 2016. UFC generated greater than $1 billion in revenue in 2022.

Ari Emanuel speaks onstage in the course of the 2017 LACMA Art + Film Gala Honoring Mark Bradford and George Lucas presented by Gucci at LACMA on November 4, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. 

Stefanie Keenan | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Endeavor’s enterprise value of nearly $11 billion makes WWE an enormous swing for the corporate. The corporate’s relatively small balance sheet would likely prevent Endeavor from winning a bidding war against media giants. But McMahon’s outsized personality may fit with the brash Emanuel and UFC President Dana White.

Selling to a 3rd party would also allow WWE to extend rights renewals every few years. That will or is probably not a positive for the long-term way forward for the corporate because the media distribution ecosystem changes.

Liberty Media

While Endeavor owns UFC, Liberty’s Formula One Group owns Formula 1. John Malone, Liberty’s controlling shareholder, and CEO Greg Maffei, together with Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, have found out the way to globally market the automobile racing league, including cracking American culture after many years of obscurity.

Malone and Maffei have extensive track records at maximizing media valuations and acquiring media assets for lower than $10 billion, including Formula 1, Sirius XM and Pandora. The worldwide success of Formula 1 could provide a roadmap for a future WWE strategy.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

WATCH: Jim Cramer gives his tackle how Disney could perform this 12 months

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