Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the board of World Wrestling Entertainment was investigating a secret $3 million settlement paid by Vince McMahon to an exiting employee in January of last year.
There is so much to say about this, much of which the WSJ has already done, probing into an undetermined number of nondisclosure agreements that involve both McMahon and WWE Head of Talent Relations John Laurinaitis that total in the millions of dollars, and the process by which WWE’s board found out about the $3 million settlement that spurred the investigation.
More Professional Wrestling
- How WWE Reacts When Workers Leave the Job
- WWE’s Behavior of Refusing to Let Wrestlers Quit Their Jobs has a Long, Storied History
- On WWE’s Best and Worst Character: Vince McMahon
What I am and am not shocked about is how unsurprised the whole of wrestling as an industry and a fandom seems to be. Not that McMahon would allegedly commit and try to hide marital indiscretion — his most famous wrestling storyline outside of his feud with Steve Austin was an angle in which he drugged his wife, Linda McMahon, into a catatonic state while making out with Trish Stratus, his employee, literally underneath her nose.
Beyond the realm of the auteur potentially outing himself in his work, McMahon was accused of groping by an employee of a Boca Raton tanning salon in 2006, and of rape by referee Rita Chattherton, WWE’s first female referee, on a 1992 episode of Geraldo Rivera’s Now It Can Be Told, both of which had indicators of cause. That’s without digging into rumors about his relationship with Linda McMahon, their keeping separate houses, and so on.
The lack of surprise that such an investigation was possible is justified.
What’s wild, to me, is how this is a link in a chain of events that was at least improbable if not impossible, how the McMahon family, once secure as the only names that mattered in their industry, found themselves under siege and, perhaps, on their way out of power by a company that has known nothing but the control of a McMahon since Jess McMahon founded the promotion as the Capitol Wrestling Corporation 69 years ago.
It does (and does not) start with AEW.
In 2001, WWE pulled off the coup of purchasing both their biggest ever rival, WCW, and ECW, which had essentially served as an idea incubator for them for the duration of the Monday Night War. Until January 1, 2019, WWE enjoyed unquestioned dominance in the marketplace, as well as in the minds of most wrestling fans.
The early years of WWE’s monopoly were fairly intense in terms of score settling, as the company used its suddenly immense video library to paint WCW as bumbling fools, wrestlers like vain con artists, and the WWE machine as an inevitability. WWE Home Video was indispensable, as was WWE Network precursor WWE 24/7, an on-demand, which produced new programming like Legends of Wrestling, where WWE employees, contracted talent, and alumni having fun while quietly repeating the thesis of the DVDs.
Added to their silent re-working of wrestling history, no promotion between 2001 and 2019 challenged WWE. This is usually where someone says “but what about TNA,” to which I would say, with all due respect, what about them? There is a lot of merit to TNA/Impact Wrestling, but there was no way it was ever going to rival WWE. To do that required a strong start, with deep pockets and production at least comparable to Vince McMahon’s empire.
Impact never got it done. They had the talent, they grew into a capable televised product, but by the time that happened they were already stuck in a permanent little brother mode, somewhere WWE stars went to keep the money rolling in when WWE no longer required their services — the big exception to this being Sting. When the Eric Bischoff/Hulk Hogan version of Impact move to Monday nights in an attempt to trigger another Monday Night War, WWE countered by having an in-ring confrontation and reconciliation between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels.
I don’t know that any promotion has looked smaller than Impact did that day. WWE didn’t just beat them, they salted the earth upon which the Impact Zone stood.
With AEW, things were different. Formed during a period where both Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Elite Wrestling owner and founder Tony Khan entered the world of wrestling with decades of passionate fandom, a wealth of knowledgeable wrestlers in his ear, a television show on one of WCW’s ancestral stations, TNT, and, oh yeah, the backing of his billionaire father, Shahid Khan
WWE, to counter this, promoted their critically beloved NXT developmental brand from one hour on the WWE Network to two hours on the USA Network. They had weeks of lead-in time on AEW’s TNT debut, the wind at their back critically, and a roster that was arguably on par with AEW’s in terms of talent and recognition.
Given that NXT is now NXT 2.0, you can guess how the “Wednesday Night War” went.
AEW winning feels pre-ordained in retrospect, but what was surprising about the head to head competition is just how much it exposed NXT. Its one hour timeslot on a premium television network had inoculated Triple H, the brand’s head booker, from burning through all of his material at once. Feuds dragged on forever and reached illogical conclusions, and, making matters worse, it was still a developmental brand, which hurts symbolically because the objective of the brand is to leave, and because WWE’s main roster did, in fact, call up talent, often without thinking of how it would leave NXT in the lurch.
But the point is that AEW won, and that AEW was the first wrestling company to beat WWE at anything since Eric Bischoff had an 83-week ratings victory streak over the company from 1997-1998.
Impossible thing #1.
The Dominoes Begin to Fall
Impossible thing #2 came off the back of that, as Triple H, once the Executive Vice President Talent, Live Events, and Creative, was demoted to Executive Vice President of Global Talent Strategy and Development in the wake of NXT’s inability to kneecap AEW.
In September 2021, he suffered a cardiac event and was replaced as booker by Shawn Michaels. While Triple H retains the title of Executive Producer of NXT, Michaels still books the show, separating Triple H from a role he had once executed so well that it had changed his critical reputation for many within and without the industry — at one point, r/squaredcircle, a subreddit that is one of the largest online communities for professional wrestling, sent him an Edible Arrangement. The internet wrestling community coming around on a guy once reviled for “burying” beloved talent was itself an impossible thing, but all things must pass.
While not impossible, particularly given the constant cycle of rumors around a potential sale of WWE to an entity like NBCUniversal or Disney, on January 25, 2021, WWE announced that NBCUniversal had acquired distribution rights to the WWE Network, folding everything (well, not everything everything) into NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service as a premium tier, a five year deal valued at $1 billion.
The bulk of WWE’s earnings come from television and distribution rights fees, whether it be with NBCUniversal, Fox, or Hulu. The “pandemic era” saw WWE make record earnings on those deals through a combination of forcibly ending touring, which restricted WWE to hold events in their own Performance Center or a series of arenas that housed WWE Thunderdome, and by cutting talent — a lot of talent.
WWE has been a pretty dour place to work over the course of the pandemic, to the extent that talent like Cesaro and Stokely Hathaway turned down lucrative contract extensions, and that Sasha Banks and Naomi staged a walkout that, according to The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, has Banks’ lawyers working towards a release. A previous attempt at sitting out for the sake of a release was done by Mustafa Ali, but he went back to the company and currently performs on Raw.
John Laurinaitis, also under investigation for utilizing company funds as hush money, was rehired as Head of Talent Relations in March 2021 and has presided over many of those cuts, but many point to the hiring of former CAA agent Nick Khan as WWE’s President and Chief Revenue Officer as the point at which WWE’s culture truly began to change. More than Laurinaitis or even Vince McMahon, it is Khan who appears to be the figure around which WWE revolves, though Man Jit Singh is the head of the investigation.
End of a Regime?
Last month, Stephanie McMahon took a hiatus from her role as WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, with her duties in the role initially falling to Khan while the company looks for someone to handle the role in her absence. While not as unanimous a choice to take over WWE after her father’s retirement or death as she once was, Stephanie had been the head of WWE creative before her current role, positioning her as someone uniquely equipped to handle two of the most important areas of the company: its television and its branding.
Despite rumors that Stephanie McMahon was pushed out by her father, Fightful reported that people new to WWE in the Nick Khan era said that there were performance issues that needed to be improved upon, but that ultimately the decision to go on hiatus was hers, and that few in her department, ravaged by layoffs last year, were surprised.
Still, if you’re the sort of person who wants to gin up a coup, you’d have plenty of ammunition. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon’s falls from their position come after years of being the assumptive heirs to the throne of the largest company in wrestling history. The founding and growth of a major competitor that would kickstart some of that fall from grace was unthinkable before 2019, as well as the hiring and rapid ascent of an executive who does not share the same sentiments as the McMahons as to their rule over the world of professional wrestling.
And now you have this.
It’s been said by others, but it’s worth restating: this investigation is the biggest challenge to his power Vince McMahon has faced since the 1994 federal steroid trial. WWE was a privately held company at that time, and while a guilty verdict may have sunk the company, McMahon would have gone down with it.
It’s hard to see him stepping down as Chairman and CEO of the company now, but that, too, felt impossible at one time. Now? As the slogan once went, anything is possible in World Wrestling Entertainment.