The evolution of WWE has spanned the globe, immersing itself into homes around the world and endeared itself to generations of fans young, old, and emerging.
In the last decade, the WWE has undergone a major shift in attitude, especially in the women’s division. Gone are the days where the females are there to be objectified, replaced instead by a roster of ass-kicking role models. At the forefront of this paradigm shift has been Stephanie McMahon, Chief Brand Officer of the WWE.
Not Triple H’s wife, or Vince McMahon’s daughter. Stephanie McMahon. Businesswoman, branding extraordinaire and a trailblazer.
Speaking in an Australian exclusive to The Inner Sanctum about the rise of female participation in the WWE, the injection of Australian athletes and what challenges lie ahead for the sport, McMahon, who has grown up in WWE. admits the sport has come a long way.
“I’ve seen our female fan-base grow to nearly 40 per cent throughout time,” she said.
“More families actually watch more WWE programming together than any major sports franchise in the States, the only exception being the NFL.”
“The women’s evolution, where our women are regularly featured as the main events on our biggest programming, little girls are in the audience wearing the merchandise of our female superstars – and little boys by the way!
“So I’ve definitely seen a huge growth in our business, and across multiple different platforms.
“We have The Bellas YouTube channel who have over 2 million subscribers now.
“We also have our first-ever female General Manager in Latin America and we just brought on our first female CFO.”
Not just a business decision to offer a more inclusive product, notoriously obstinate wrestling fans have embraced the women’s division with open arms.
The appetite for female-led talent is at an all-time high and female athletes are not just expected to exist, they’re headlining PPVs, and four Australian superstars are at the forefront of that movement.
Rhea Ripley, Billie Kay and Peyton Royce are leading the charge with the emerging Indi Hartwell joining them, endearing themselves to a legion of fans worldwide, and McMahon is an unabashed fan of what is emerging from Down Under.
“Rhea Ripley is one of my personal favourites right now,” McMahon said.
“Her character, she just comes on, she’s so strong, so badass, she’s just going to take on the world and I have no doubt it’ll be in short order that she regains the NXT women’s championship.”
The IIconics are an Australian tag team duo consisting of Billie Kay and Peyton Royce and McMahon loves what they’re about.
“The IIconics!” McMahon laughed, “and they are, they’re doing just a tremendous job.”
Female representation within the wrestling industry is currently thriving, but this wasn’t always the care.
For years women were not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts in the WWE. In fact, women were routinely objectified and utilised primarily as eye-candy for a majority male audience. Women within the company weren’t taken seriously, their identities smothered as the preference for ‘traditional’ male wrestlers took centre stage and ruled supreme.
Those attitudes have shifted dramatically in recent years, with the WWE now pioneering diversity, inclusion and female representation.
“It’s something I’m incredibly proud of in our business.
“Throughout the years, women’s wrestling, and to your point – it has ebbed and flowed. There was a thought in the attitude area that our women were ‘nice to have’ not a ‘need to have’, they weren’t featured as main events, (instead) they were in various other roles.
“When my husband – known best as Triple H – who is responsible for the training and development of all of our future stars, he started recruiting elite female athletes, as well as men, but he started training the women the same as the men.”
It was evident there wasn’t just a clear shift in direction, but also in attitudes. Women within the WWE were getting more opportunity to train and afforded the same time to hone their skills and develop with the best coaches from across the world.
The WWE also made their female athletes more accessible, but more importantly, more visible.
“Giving them the same amount of match time as the men on television, at our live events, and like anything else the more reps you have, the more practice you have, the better you’re going to get.
“These women, when given the opportunity, absolutely started to steal the show every time.”
As women became a more frequent fixture in various shows and events, crowds began to drive the narrative and WWE took them seriously.
“This is wrestling” was a chant that started to bellow from every sold-out arena wherever WWE took its shows to. However,the sport still had its critics and in 2015, crowds and fans of the sport had reached tipping point.
While the WWE had attempted to put women on the map with its moniker “The Divas Division”, in a match that year that lasted all of 30 seconds in what was a three-hour show, it smacked of contempt and enraged fans.
’30 seconds, is that it?’ Crowds were infuriated. To say WWE was trying to push women to the front was an understatement, in fact, it felt as if they were actively pushing women away.
Perhaps the WWE wanted to just be seen to be doing the right thing, rather than making a bold, more direct attempt and putting a focus on its aspiring female athletes.
Nonetheless, it was a turning point for the sport and a moment in time that forced change that has since catapulted the WWE to its world-class standing in equality it’s known for today.
“It was, unfortunately, the norm,” a reflective McMahon said.
“Our fans had had enough, and they started a hashtag #givedivasachance that trended worldwide for three days, specifically calling for better matches, more athleticism, better storylines, better character development, and we strategically responded in the biggest way we could.”
And respond they did.
“We hear you, keep watching” was the message sent from WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, and it triggered what can only be described as the turning point in female wrestling history.
On WWE’s Showcase of the Immortals, over 100,000 people were in attendance at AT&T Stadium to witness history at WrestleMania 32.
Hall of Famer Lita stepped out and introduced the re-branding of The Divas Division, including a new championship belt that was more akin to the men while still keeping its femininity.
“She announced that our women would be known as ‘Superstars’ – the same as the men.”
It was a moment that went down in folklore. It was a paradigm shifting moment that added credibility and authenticity to a division that had long been crying out to be taken more seriously.
“Since that time, our women have been regularly headlining our biggest pay per view shows including WrestleMania.
But the WWE, headlined McMahon’s brilliant marketing and branding didn’t stop there.
The company took their first-ever all-female match to Abu Dhabi, breaking new ground not just in wrestling, but in female professional sport.
“It took us six years to be able to have,” McMahon said.
In what would be a watershed moment for the WWE, what happened at that particular show would set the standard for inclusion and diversity in sport across the globe.
It’s seen as ‘the moment’.
“During that match, the audience of both men and women started chanting ‘this is hope’ which is not your typical WWE chant, and then we had not one, but two women’s matches Saudi Arabia where the chant simply became ‘this is awesome!’”
And awesome it was.
“That’s really where we are today in terms of the evolution of women in our business, and I couldn’t be more proud of them, I couldn’t be more proud of our fans, and of course the WWE.”
McMahon almost wells up in pride recounting the events that took place in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. It means a lot to her. Having started out in WWE as a receptionist, she’s worked her way to the top and has since changed the game, but the work isn’t done yet.
“One of my personal goals is a true parity in terms of numbers. I would love to see the roster become 50/50, I’d love for that really equal representation.”
“When I was a little girl I would always wonder why there would only ever be one women’s’ match if any,” McMahon said.
“This is something I’ve believed in my entire life, and now as the mother of three daughters and I look at the world through their eyes, I want them to have every opportunity and know that every opportunity is available to them no matter what they want to pursue – as long as they’re willing to work really hard at it.
“The opportunity to support all of the women who have ever stepped foot into the squared circle, and represent the unsung heroes – those women we’ll never hear about all over the world who sacrifice and travel, and put their hearts and souls and bodies on the line – often leaving family behind, children behind, just to try and make a name for themselves … this is what it’s about.
“The women on the independent circuits … it’s a passion of mine, and it always will be.”
There is pride and admiration in McMahon’s smile. It’s genuine, it’s heartfelt. But more importantly, it’s a plight she has been inherently passionate about.
The importance of leadership, the importance of communication, the importance of decision making, and of driving forward, staying true to your core values and your mission, while re-imagining your business, they’re the beliefs that McMahon has retained.
But can we expect her to get back into the ring?
“Oh gosh no. The last time I was in the ring Ronda Rousey broke my arm,” McMahon laughed.
“She didn’t really break my arm, it was all part of the plan! It was Ronda who really wanted to finish the open-ended storyline with her and I that had started at WrestleMania 31 when The Rock brought her in the ring – and I slapped him and said ‘get to steppin’, Dwayne! What are you going to do to a woman!’”
“I played the villain, the baddie, and he said, ‘I tell you what, I’d never hit a woman but I know somebody who would!’ and the audience knew Ronda was there and they started to come with this chant ‘Rhonda’s gonna kill you!’ and it couldn’t have been more perfect.”
“But that was about two years before she made her debut in WWE. Ronda had a tremendous impact on our business.”
Rousey, an Olympian and the UFC’s first-ever female world champion brought across a new demographic of fans to the WWE and in doing so elevated the sport to a new level.
“There is nobody who has the athleticism, charisma, and work ethic than Ronda and she elevated the game for all of our female performers – and male performers.
“I can’t wait to get her back, hopefully that happens!
There are still challenges that remain for WWE and it’s worldwide brand, particularly amid a worldwide pandemic.
“The return to live events is our biggest challenge right now. When are we going to be able to get live fans back into the arena?”
It’s something, not even the all-conquering McMahon can make a call on.
But in terms of growth opportunities, greater development in all continents is on the agenda.
“The ability to put our performance centres in key markets all around the world to really develop and grow those localised brands … we really want to create an NXT India, NXT Middle East … we really want to replicate that model and continue to grow internationally.”
One thing is for certain, at the rapid rate Australian’s are finding themselves on centre stage, you can bet there are many more Aussies on the way.
“I’m wondering what’s in the water down there,” McMahon said, “but I want more of it.”
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