On April Fools’ Day in 2007, Donald Trump competed on ‘The Grandest Stage of Them All’ (trademark) at Wrestlemania 23. In front of a sold-out crowd of over 80,000 people, and a worldwide TV audience of 1.2 million, the future President shaved the head of fellow mogul Vince McMahon before being on the receiving end of one of wrestling’s most famous finishing move: The Stone Cold Stunner. Lying flat on his back in the middle of the ring, his hands still covered in shaving foam and strands of Mr McMahon’s silver mane, few would believe that Mr Trump would go on to become the leader of the free world in less than a decade’s time.
The ties between World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the most successful and lucrative ‘sports entertainment’ brand in history, and Donald Trump cannot be understated. At Wrestlemania and the so-called ‘Battle of the Billionaires’, Mr Trump developed an even greater understanding of his own star power, and the impact of a pent up, largely blue collar, crowd. Such was the influence of this promotion, PBS Frontline even examined it in its feature length documentary on the 2016 Presidential election. The relationship between the President and the McMahon family is close. The McMahons, long-time donors to the Republican Party, are represented in the cabinet- Vince McMahon’s wife, Linda, serves as Trump’s Administrator of the Small Business Administration.
The disappearance of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and suspected involvement of the Saudi government in his murder has sparked world wide condemnation. The scrutiny of the Saudi regime, described by John R. Bradley in The Spectator this week as ‘a mobster state’, has seen focus turn on Western financial and political ties to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. These questions are being asked of WWE. This March, the company announced they had signed a lucrative decade long deal with the Saudi General Sports Authority in support of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s social and economic reform program. In November, at ‘Crown Jewel’, WWE are due to host their second event in the country. With some of wrestling’s biggest names in action, including previously retired Shawn Michaels, and now-Republican Mayor of Knoxville ‘Kane’, it is set to be a bumper pay day for the company and its wrestlers.
But only the male ones. In April, WWE held their first Saudi event, the ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’ in Jeddah. Although Vince’s daughter, and WWE’s chief brand officer, Stephanie McMahon has led the growth and promotion of the company’s female wrestling roster, none of the women were allowed to participate, owing to Saudi Arabia’s restrictive rules on women. It has been estimated that the WWE made $40 million to $50 million on this event alone.
Khashoggi’s death has turned up the pressure. The hashtag #cancelcrownjewel has begun trending on Twitter, with hundreds of fans cancelling their subscriptions to the WWE Network. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, where WWE HQ is based, has said that should the allegations against Saudi Arabia be true, ‘it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.’
So will WWE submit to pressure and cancel? The answer will say much about the price we place on the maintenance of the international rule of law against the gains of exporting our brands.