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WWE’s 5-minute matches on X are a radical response

A fan’s life used to revolve around the television. Not anymore. Last year, a survey of 19,000 consumers globally found that social media — not live television — is the leading way that 18- to 34-year-olds consume sports.
Last Updated 22 February 2024, 01:16 IST

By Adam Minter

While the rest of the sports world was anticipating the Super Bowl, Elon Musk’s X announced a deal with World Wrestling Entertainment that could change how fans watch sports. Like other recent sports media deals, X and WWE’s tie-up will be streamed.

What makes it different is that WWE is altering wrestling matches to last no longer than five minutes. The goal is to attract the growing numbers of younger fans who prefer to watch and learn about sports via social media. WWE Speed, as the new weekly series is known, will debut on a weekly basis beginning in the spring.

It’s a radical response to evolving tastes, but WWE likely won’t be alone on the cutting edge. As viewing habits shift, other sports may also be compelled to change how they present themselves to younger fans.

A fan’s life used to revolve around the television. Not anymore. Last year, a survey of 19,000 consumers globally found that social media — not live television — is the leading way that 18- to 34-year-olds consume sports.

On the other end of the generation gap, fans 55 and over engage with live television more than any other medium. But even for them, social media is starting to become an option, with 19% using it to follow sports. Just as important, 18- to 24-year-olds, a generation raised on social media and short videos, prefer watching clips rather than full games.

For now, the established sports leagues treat these shifts as problems that can be solved by hiring young content creators, leveraging video archives and access, and creating social media accounts.

The WWE has figured out that that strategy can only go so far. It’s fitting that the professional wrestling association, long an innovator, would be the first to test out tailoring events for a social audience.

Over the years, wrestling partly prospered because the WWE embraced new mediums and platforms early — willing to go where the fans and technology were heading. For example, in the 1980s, the WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) was among the first sports properties to go on cable television and offer pay-per-views; in 2014, it launched one of the first subscription-based sports streaming networks.

Unlike those examples, the decision to create original wrestling content for X doesn’t seem as early or radical. The site is actively bringing on other video programming (of the news show variety), so exclusive sports programming is par for the course.

But every sport will not be able to easily whittle down their offerings in the same way WWE is planning. Wrestling is scripted, so it’s as simple as changing the script so that matches, which might have lasted 20 minutes, now top out at five, then post them to X. Wrestling fans are accustomed to watching pre-recorded entertainment, so the canned nature of the battles won’t matter much.

Other established sports, with strict rules and clocks, don’t have it so easy. Five-minute tackle football games posted to social media could be fun, but they'd require a change of rules and format and the conservative NFL is unlikely to do that. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine MLB, the NBA, or the NHL doing something similar. However, if a severe drop-off in audience and media rights occurs, they may consider it.

If that day comes, the familiar five-minute sports highlight reels won’t cut it. That footage is made for viewers who are already in the fold, and part of the goal of posting on X would be to gain more returning fans. Those snippets can never replicate the tension and suspense that emerge in an unedited competition — qualities that can turn a casual spectator into a fan.

But the leagues still have options to attract social-centric fans with short attention spans beyond chopping down the size of their current formats. During the weekend, for example, the NBA held its annual Slam Dunk and Three-Point contests. Both events were cut into choppy highlights for social media and YouTube. But they could’ve been serialized into snack-sized live or taped content for X or another social media platform.

Similarly, the NBA’s 5-minute overtimes, or the NHL’s overtime shoot-outs, could be repurposed into stand-alone competitions that are posted exclusively onto X as star-centric games that showcase the skills used in full-length games. Millions of followers ready to scroll, watch, and offer feedback, as well as active participation and posts by their socially savvy athletes, is a combination that could cater to young and old audiences alike.

That’s all in the future, though. For now, the WWE has the ring to itself. As fans migrate to social media and shorter videos, it’s poised to win in a knockout.

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(Published 22 February 2024, 01:16 IST)

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