When WWE signed a deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last year, only the basics of the pact with the Gulf dictatorship were clear—biannual shows, in the kingdom, in exchange for a massive payday. Everything beyond that was difficult to imagine at the time, and became more and more difficult to justify after Saudi Arabia assassinated and dismembered a dissident journalist. And yet it never went away, and over the last week and change, the relationship appears to have entered a new phase.
The second annual Crown Jewel event will take place on Halloween, but the top of the card will look a lot different than those at the three previous Saudi events. The first of those events, Greatest Royal Rumble, was filled with overt propaganda on behalf of its authoritarian hosts and built around the titular 50-man Rumble, the biggest field in the match’s then-30 year history. That was also augmented by the star power of legends like The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, and Chris Jericho. (There was also a sumo, who may have been booked because the royals wanted the long-deceased Rodney “Yokozuna” Anoa’i.) Crown Jewel 2018 was built around Shawn Michaels returning after a nearly nine-year retirement in a blatant cash grab; the result was an embarrassing match in which one of his opponents, Kane, had both his mask and wig fall off his head. The Undertaker then returned for Super Show Down, where a delightful dream match with Goldberg ran aground after the latter concussed himself on the ringpost.
You get the idea. For the most part, returning legends have been the on-paper appeal of these shows, and WWE can easily afford to coax the biggest names of the last generation off the couch given that they’re getting paid about $50 million per show. That’s not what’s happening in WWE’s next Saudi show, though.
While it had previously been reported elsewhere, WWE announced last Friday at a media event in Las Vegas that Crown Jewel 2019 would feature crossover sports stars in events following angles shot a week earlier on the Fox premiere of Friday Night SmackDown. WWE Champion Brock Lesnar will defend his title against the man who defeated him for the UFC Heavyweight Championship, Cain Velasquez; the mammoth Braun Strowman, author of the catchphrase “get these hands,” will catch the hands of lineal heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury, author of ... some less-memorable quotes. Velasquez is seemingly with the promotion for the long-haul, with WWE just capitalizing on the timing by having his first match at Crown Jewel. Fury is another story entirely. According to a report in the Daily Mail—requisite grain of salt, there—Fury will be getting $15 million U.S. for his match. If true, that would likely be the biggest payoff in terms of both dollars and percentage in WWE history. But it makes perfect sense in the larger context of the Saudi deal.
As we’ve previously discussed many times in this space, Greatest Royal Rumble was a lurid, shameless piece of propaganda for the Saudi Royal Family, playing up tourism in the country, hyping the alleged “progress” under Crown Prince MBS, and uh, also the Sunni-Shia conflict. When the MBS-sanctioned murder of Saudi dissident turned U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi became major international news, the shows pivoted. WWE wasn’t about to cancel a lucrative deal, but because the value of the shows to the Saudis was more than just explicit global propaganda, they’ve continued without the old infomercial elements, and increasingly without even explicit references to “Saudi Arabia.” At the media event last Friday, host Michael Cole was clearly taking great pains to not say the name of the country, only referring to the city of Riyadh and thanking Turki Al-Sheik, the head of the KSA’s General Sports Authority—which he called the “General Entertainment Authority,” presumably because “sports” is almost as dirty a word as “Saudi Arabia” on WWE programming. It’s complicated.
Before Khashoggi was murdered, WWE could do a weird Saudi propaganda spectacular without drawing a ton of attention outside its bubble; at the very least, they caught less shit than the publishers of the National Enquirer did for publishing an ad-free, super-glossy propaganda magazine on the nation’s behalf. After Khashoggi’s murder, though, WWE dialed back the kingdom-specific hype and ran mundane shows that were differentiated from the promotion’s norm largely by the setting, the main events, and the fact that they aired live, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, in the U.S.
There’s still plenty of propaganda value for Saudi Arabia even without the explicit stuff. WWE is still giving the country and MBS an air of legitimacy, which is exploited in all the photos and videos that the General Sports Authority puts out around the shows. The big matches at Crown Jewel on Halloween will bring a different element—extra hype on WWE programming that takes the event past the weird “not quite pointless, not quite special” vibe of the last two Saudi cards, and some less-negative media attention thanks to those two crossover performers.
We saw what this would look like just last Friday. The media event at which the top two matches were officially announced was, as far as I know, the first domestic media event for one of the Saudi shows. It also coincided with a previously scheduled media event for the WWE 2K20 video game, which drops this coming Tuesday. That meant that the video game media who always attend those events accompanied a crew of mostly west coast-based boxing and MMA reporters who were there for Velasquez and Fury. Based on the post-announcement media scrum videos available on YouTube, nobody present asked about the Saudi deal, despite the presence of a WWE executive in Paul “Triple H” Levesque.
While Levesque holds media calls at four to six times each year in conjunction with major events from his NXT developmental brand, reporters are generally asked to keep their questions focused on NXT and talent development. Questions about the Saudi deal, though, would not have been remotely out of bounds at a WWE Crown Jewel media event at which scrums were held in front of WWE Crown Jewel logo backdrop. According to a WWE spokesperson who spoke to Deadspin, there were no ground rules for the scrums, either.
(I expressed some bemusement on Twitter that I didn’t get the media alert for the event in spite of otherwise getting the usual WWE media emails that go out to the list maintained by the same sender. A company spokesperson assured me that this wasn’t by design. Instead, per WWE, with the press conference being on such short notice, the email was sent to nearby media and those who had shown a willingness to travel to WWE media events. I have no reason to doubt this explanation, which is why I made a point of including this paragraph.)
And yet in a scrum full of reporters trying to flatter Levesque, only ESPN’s Marc Raimondi and Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer asked questions designed to elicit substantive information on the storylines being advanced in the Saudi shows. (Meltzer also put Levesque on the spot with a question asking what he had learned from the Wednesday night ratings war with All Elite Wrestling, which elicited a non-answer.) Most of the press conference passed with the usual foolishness—Yahoo’s Kevin Iole framing WWE as having made Floyd Mayweather Jr. into a bona-fide PPV draw with his WrestleMania match (Levesque rightfully corrected him on this) and a voice I didn’t recognize flattering Levesque as somehow being a better businessman than a wrestler. The Saudi deal and Saudi Arabia in general weren’t brought up at all, even in a neutral way. Outside of one slip-up by Fury during the match announcements, nobody mentioned Conky’s secret word of the day.
Asking difficult questions is difficult, and would be doubly so in that setting. But it was striking that Levesque wasn’t asked about the promotion’s deal with Fury, for instance. The Daily Mail hadn’t reported a number for his Crown Jewel payoff yet, but given his approximately $100 million deal with ESPN, he clearly wasn’t getting out of bed for less than eight figures. A payout like that, which is so far outside the usual WWE pay structure, is both notable and worth asking about! (Saudi Arabia is hosting a heavyweight title rematch between potential Fury rivals Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua just five weeks after Crown Jewel, too, resulting in a rumored $75 million purse just for the latter, although that number, again, didn’t come out until after the Vegas event.) And yet no one thought to ask it.
If there’s a plan here on WWE’s part, this seems to be it. The main gambit is to pretend that the Saudi relationship is normal, and so unremarkable that it literally doesn’t bear mentioning. Even if not entirely by design, you do get that effect by announcing the top matches for the second Crown Jewel event at a media day originally designed to launch a video game, and in a room filled not just with wrestling and prizefighting journalists but gaming journalists and YouTube influencers” like “TonyPizzaGuy,” who outright said that they were flown in for the event, to boot. (WWE insists that they didn’t fly journalists in for the media day, nor have they ever. As of this writing, 2K Sports has not responded to emails asking if any of the media in Vegas were flown in and/or put up by them, as they have done in the past.)
And then it’s on to the next one, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening at all. It’s not the most clever tactic in the world, but when it comes to keeping scrutiny off a deal that still deserves plenty of it, it’s hard to say that it isn’t working out for WWE so far.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.