After days of rumors and weeks of faintly nauseated speculation, World Wrestling Entertainment announced on Thursday that the next show in their partnership with Saudi Arabia, next Friday’s Crown Jewel event in Riyadh, will take place as scheduled. The announcement came as part of guidance for their quarterly report for Q3 2018 and reads as follows:
WWE has operated in the Middle East for nearly 20 years and has developed a sizable and dedicated fan base. Considering the heinous crime committed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Company faced a very difficult decision as it relates to its event scheduled for November 2 in Riyadh. Similar to other U.S.-based companies who plan to continue operations in Saudi Arabia, the Company has decided to uphold its contractual obligations to the General Sports Authority and stage the event. Full year 2018 guidance is predicated on the staging of the Riyadh event as scheduled.
The announcement appears to suggest that critics have taken issue with the fact that there’s a show being run on Saudi soil, when the general gripe has more to do with WWE doing paid propaganda for Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime in the form of wrestling events. (WWE did not respond to an email asking if WWE has a list of other companies doing paid promotional work for the Kingdom that have not pulled out of their deals.) A couple hours later, on the investors’ conference call, Brandon Ross of BTIG asked Vince McMahon to outline the company’s thought process in going ahead with the show. “We’re not going to talk a lot about that,” the CEO said. “It’s a very sensitive subject these days, naturally. I think our statement pretty much said all we want to say about that today.”
About 20 minutes later, Jason Bazinet of Citigroup followed up by acknowledging that, while he respected that the promotion didn’t want to speak further about Saudi Arabia, he still hoped for some guidance on the Saudi deal’s potential pitfalls. “Can you frame what risks, if any, that relate to Saudi Arabia outside your control?” he asked. “In other words, is it the risk of federal sanctions, economic sanctions of some sort that you’d get swept up into? Or is there some other way to frame the risk? Or maybe there’s no risk?”
“I just think the complexity of the situation, as Vince said,” WWE co-president George Barrios replied. “All our thoughts are encapsulated in our statement.” When Bazinet asked if there were “analogues you can point to” about “economic sanctions that have swept up a media company like yourself,” Barrios, a former New York Times Company executive, responded with a flat “No.”
(It’s worth noting that while the vague information in WWE’s Q2 2018 report indicated that the Saudis are paying $20 million to $45 million per show, an analyst cited by Deadline puts the promotion’s profit at a much lower figure. Either is a drop in the bucket compared to the $205 million that WWE got from Fox for SmackDown Live and the $265 million it received from USA Network for Monday Night Raw, a pair of blockbuster deals that will make the company the most profitable it’s ever been when they kick in a year from now. In a bottom-line sense, there is no financial need for the Saudi deal.)
Whether any of the company’s calculus regarding the Saudi shows changed in the last couple days is unclear, but the future of both Crown Jewel and the Saudi deal certainly looked to be in doubt over the last week amid the outrage following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. The first sign of ostensible pause on WWE’s part came on Friday, when Crown Jewel tickets were supposed to go on sale in Saudi Arabia. Without an announcement, ticket sales were postponed until the day of the show, November 2. Two weeks out is already short notice, but the Greatest Royal Rumble show in Jeddah in April had the same two-week timeframe for its on sale date. Given that this is a government backed show with tickets priced cheaply enough that it should be easy to fill the stadium, it was hard to tell, at least initially, if this change indicated some important shift in circumstances, or really meant anything at all.
New information started to trickle out on Monday, when credible reports circulated that the event was in real jeopardy. Barstool Sports’ Robbie Fox tweeted that the show “could be in trouble,” in part because both John Cena and Daniel Bryan are “refusing” to make the trip. (Fox added on Tuesday that WWE is “frantically scouting” new locations for Crown Jewel.). POST Wrestling’s John Pollock and Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer confirmed later Monday night that Cena now appeared to be off the show, but were unable to elaborate on Bryan’s participation. Just before this article was published, Pro Wrestling Sheet’s Ryan Satin, citing sources, reported that Bryan is indeed refusing to work the show because of his personal objection to Khashoggi’s murder. WWE has yet to acknowledge any changes with Cena or Bryan publicly, only telling Satin that “As always, we maintain an open line of communication with our performers and will address each situation accordingly.” Satin added that “we tried finding out if this means Daniel will not be required to work the event, but couldn’t get verification from WWE.”
Meltzer, meanwhile, reported that the promotion was under some kind of governmental pressure to cancel or relocate the event. On Tuesday night, he added on his subscriber-only message board that “There’s a reason tickets aren’t on sale. Because they’ve been told you may not be allowed to go,” with WWE “hoping to get word tomorrow if they can still go.” (Regarding the larger decision, Meltzer wrote that “It’s no longer up to Vince. Vince will never make the decision not to go. He’s too far out of touch now.”)
When reached by Deadspin, a State Department spokesperson wrote that “American companies are solely responsible for decisions regarding events they participate in abroad. We have no involvement in such matters.” State did not initially respond to a request for clarification on Tuesday regarding whether that statement was a denial that the State Department advised WWE to move or cancel Crown Jewel or just a statement that such pressure isn’t under the department’s normal purview. On Thursday, after a follow-up email, a State spokesperson wrote that “As I noted in the comment below,” referring to the previous statement, “we have no involvement in such matters.” Pressed for a yes or no answer as to if State made contact with WWE, its officers, or an intermediary about not putting on a show next Friday in Saudi Arabia, the spokesperson responded with “Off the record: No.” (As is consistent with journalistic standards, a spokesperson or other source cannot unilaterally dictate what is off the record without the reporter agreeing or having an existing relationship that allows for such pronouncements.)
WWE, meanwhile, has yet to respond to multiple requests for comments on Meltzer’s report. The Small Business Administration, which is run by former WWE CEO Linda McMahon, the wife of Vince, declined comment and directed Deadspin to “contact WWE directly.”
The Wrap’s Tony Magilo had reported on Monday afternoon that WWE was expected to make a decision on Wednesday, the day after Turkey was originally scheduled to release its official findings on the murder of Khashoggi. The same article also noted that “for a brief period”—Magilo told Deadspin he noticed it on Friday—WWE.com’s “Tickets and Live Events” page listed the location and start time of Crown Jewel as “tbd,” only to change to 6:30 p.m., in an unlisted location/time zone, after he contacted WWE about it. Magilo’s report also noted that WWE talent has been banned from saying “Saudi Arabia” for the last two weeks, which was a glaring shift for anyone watching the television product. Now that the future of the show is no longer in doubt, it remains to be seen if that ban on saying the kingdom’s name will be lifted in the week before the show.
The big remaining question, though, beyond Cena and Bryan’s involvement, is whether Crown Jewel will be as shamelessly propagandistic as the Greatest Royal Rumble was. Such cheerleading appears to be a requirement of the deal, and the Saudis might be expected to ramp up propaganda efforts to deal with the Khashoggi story. At this point, though, guessing what happens next feels like a sucker’s bet.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.