This week, we caught up with Richard Benson a.k.a. Benno of the British Wrestling Experience and the GRAPPL Spotlight podcasts to discuss the major shift in WWE’s television outlet in the U.K. and Ireland.
Benno spoke with us about the shift from Sky Sports to BT Sport, which will commence in January 2020 as the WWE leaves their television home of the past thirty years. Plus, he explains the difference in exposure, the future of professional wrestling on Sky Sports, and where WWE’s popularity stands.
Finally, Benno discusses the tragic passing of Adrian ‘Lionheart’ McCallum earlier this week and his contributions to the scene over the past seventeen years.
POST: Can you explain the difference in coverage between Sky Sports and BT Sport for those unfamiliar? Is BT Sport an expensive package to add-on for those strictly looking to follow WWE?
Benno: Sky Sports is very much the dominant sports broadcaster in the UK, with four times the subscribers of BT Sport, having been around in some form for almost 30 years, with BT Sport joining them in the market in 2013. When comparing one to one, if you’re a wrestling fan who has a Sky Sports subscription only to watch WWE, you’ll likely be better off, with the BT Sport packages being, as a rule, cheaper than Sky Sports’ various bundles across most providers. This will be cheaper still if you are a subscriber to BT’s Broadband Services or lucky enough to receive BT Sport for free with some providers. If you’re also an MMA fan, the WWE/BT deal is particularly good news as BT is also the home of UFC in the UK and Ireland, so you will have both under one roof.
For those fans who subscribe to Sky Sports not only for WWE, but for their various other sports such as their bigger package of Premier League Football games though, this will be tougher news to swallow, with another subscription service now having to be paid for on top of Sky Sports and the WWE Network maybe being too much for many to justify.
How would you characterize the WWE’s popularity in the U.K. and Ireland as compared to five years ago?
It certainly feels less popular. Only a couple of years ago, house shows over here did tremendous business with TV tapings particularly almost being guaranteed to provide sold out, lively crowds. SmackDown TV tapings always somewhat lagged behind Raw, but the last couple of go-arounds, particularly the Manchester sets of tapings there have seen entirely empty upper areas of the arena for both brands, something that would have been very unlikely even five years ago.
The diminishing viewership of Raw on Mondays has been a big story in the US, and rightfully so, but the drop off in viewership in the UK has been even more pronounced, with the show airing at 1 am each week and it’s three-hour run time and diminishing quality being a tough ask for even the most ardent fans. WWE’s strength in the UK has always been built on what has felt like a higher percentage of more hardcore fans than in the US, but my feeling is with the slew of alternatives targeted at that same base and WWE’s weekly shows feeling less and less must watch, those long-suffering fans are either having an early night and catching up on the happenings of Raw and Smackdown the morning after through the WWE’s own official channels and other nefarious means, or just catching up on the headlines through podcasts and other media, with many, myself included, falling out of the habit of watching Raw each week entirely.
Do you see an opening for a group to get on board with Sky Sports, or do you feel Sky Sports out of the professional wrestling genre for the foreseeable future?
With the alarming downswing of viewership for Raw and the apparent determination of Sky’s relationship with WWE after the WWE Network launched, it wouldn’t surprise me if Sky wants out of professional wrestling full stop. WWE leaving though does leave a big gap in their line-up, with at times 40 plus hours a week of WWE content filling the schedules of their numerous off-shoot channels, with classic matches and the like sometimes used as bumper material between other shows.
That space does certainly open the door for a competitor to come in at a cheaper price, but it’s hard to say who would fit the bill. AEW would be many people’s first thought, but with their ties to ITV, this seems like wishful thinking. Past that, the other options seem limited with Impact and MLW already tied up in deals and no British promotions of the size that would likely be on Sky’s radar. Perhaps New Japan’s English content could be an outside bet with the success of Royal Quest this year showing there is a growing New Japan fanbase over here.
Of the major professional wrestling and MMA promotions, which group is the frontrunner regarding exposure, and do you see that changing over the next year?
WWE is still very much the leader in the market and is wrestling to most of the general public. This has remained the case through various other companies being in arguably stronger positions as far as exposure from their own television deals. ITV World Of Sport was on Prime Time ITV drawing between 1 and 2 million viewers for the most viewed episodes in its limited run and even the likes of Rev Pro, Five Star Wrestling and MLW have been available on Freesports over the last couple of years, a channel available in many more homes than Sky Sports, but with much less prestige – with none having ever been perceived as anything other than second rate.
The company that gained the most traction in the UK in the past ten years, Impact Wrestling, is itself, through its pair of deals with Five Star and Fight Network UK, available to many more people than WWE, but long gone are the days that company was filling arenas so comfortably in England and Scotland that it could have had a potential second home here.
If anybody is going to unseat WWE as the de-facto wrestling brand in the UK, it may be AEW, but that will depend on their TV Deal. If they’re on ITV4 with their weekly show, then while they will likely do better viewership numbers than WWE, it won’t be so drastic that they’re seen as anything but another TNA – another number two. If they’re on the main ITV channel though and can avoid the tumbling ratings ITV World of Sport experienced, with a good timeslot for a repeat viewing as well as a live viewing each week, that could be the best chance of a change.
Finally, the wrestling world learned of the tragic passing of Adrian ‘Lionheart’ McCallum this week. What is his legacy in your eyes and what did he mean to the scene in Scotland & England?
The outpouring of tributes across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram from virtually every prominent individual in British Wrestling shows just what an impact Lionheart had in locker rooms up and down the country. He was at the forefront of a generation of British Wrestlers who helped rebuild the scene after a long 1990s and early 2000’s downturn and will be mostly be remembered for his contributions to the Scottish scene both as a promoter in his own right and as a wrestler for the likes of SWA and ICW.
He was also instrumental in the growth of the scene north of England, specifically in places like PCW where, as one of their top villains he had some of that company’s most notable matches with Kris Travis and AJ Styles, as well as a notable run as GM. His legacy will be not only what he did on shows but the clear and obvious impact he had on wrestlers who worked both for and with him.