World Wrestling Entertainment is making big moves to grow its audience, including shifting its flagship weekly live program “Raw” to Netflix next year. But the professional wrestling giant is navigating these changes with the notable absence of its founder, Vince McMahon Jr.
McMahon, 78, resigned as executive chairman of the board of TKO Group, WWE's parent company, after a former employee filed a lawsuit accusing him and former wrestler-turned-executive John Laurinaitis of sex abuse and trafficking. The allegations, which McMahon has denied and Laurinaitis not responded to, overshadowed the company’s otherwise momentous week, starting with the $5 billion Netflix deal announcement and ending with a record-setting crowd at the WWE’s “Royal Rumble” event.
McMahon’s departure places the wrestling business in uncharted waters: For the first time in four decades, none of the four McMahons — Vince; his wife, Linda; and their children, Stephanie and Shane — are at the helm of the company.
While the leadership change poses a challenge and once again focuses attention on sexism within the WWE, which the organization has tried to combat, some professional wrestling insiders and academics who study the industry see this moment as an opportunity for the company. With new executives in charge and the move to Netflix, the WWE could test more mature themes and reach new international audiences — becoming an even larger cultural juggernaut than it already is.
“This will be the first time we might actually see a wrestling that is progressive — not just in theory, but actually in practice,” said DeWitt King, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied and written about professional wrestling culture. “It won’t be perfect, it’s not going to happen as quickly as people might like, but there’s possibility for change. People have to realize that wrestling was always on a different timeline than other sports.”
The WWE has long faced criticism that it overly sexualized female characters, included derogatory scripts about women and discriminated against female talent. Yet, it has evolved. The WWE expanded its women’s division — which it stopped referring to as “Divas” in 2016 — and hasn’t held a “Bra and Panties” match in years.
The WWE, which claims 90 million fans domestically, has said women now account for nearly 40% of the fan base.
While McMahon’s departure may provide an opportunity for the WWE to become more progressive, it also presents some serious obstacles.
On Monday, MoffettNathanson, a prominent Wall Street analyst firm, argued that the new lawsuit against McMahon — who remains the company’s largest individual shareholder — poses “brand and legal risks” for TKO Group, the parent company of the WWE and Ultimate Fighting Championship. TKO said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in September that its business could take a financial hit due to heightened scrutiny of McMahon as long as he was on the board. The filing also disclosed federal law enforcement agents had executed a search warrant and served a federal grand jury subpoena on McMahon, but it did not provide additional details.
A representative for McMahon declined to comment for this story and referred NBC News to a statement issued last week. In the statement, McMahon denied the allegations in the lawsuit, which included graphic text messages that he is accused of sending to a former employee describing violent sexual encounters. “I intend to vigorously defend myself against these baseless accusations, and look forward to clearing my name,” he said in a statement last week.
TKO said in a statement that the company’s leaders take the “horrific allegations very seriously and are addressing this matter internally.”
A company spokesperson said that after McMahon’s payouts became public, the WWE enacted new policies, updated its code of conduct and conducted mandatory training for all employees. The company said in an SEC filing that its internal review of McMahon’s payments concluded the organization’s financial reporting protocols were ineffective and revised its financial statements.
Eric Bischoff, who ran World Championship Wrestling, the chief competitor to WWE at the turn of the century, sees difficulties ahead.
“This is going to be painful, this is going to be ugly, it’s going to be a massive distraction for everybody involved — but WWE will survive,” he said.
For decades, McMahon was the preeminent leader of the professional wrestling industry, buying the organization that would become the WWE from his father in 1982, and subsequently absorbing competitors and running them out of business. The company produced megastars such as Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, John Cena and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who just joined TKO Group’s board.
Over the years, McMahon survived numerous scandals that threatened his reign. The first female referee in the company, Rita Chatterton, accused McMahon of rape in 1992; he disputed her accusation and reached a settlement with her last year. He also faced federal conspiracy charges accusing him of orchestrating steroid use among WWE wrestlers; he was found not guilty by a jury in 1994.
In 2022, The Wall Street Journal revealed McMahon had agreed to pay millions of dollars to four women formerly affiliated with the WWE for nondisclosure agreements to suppress claims that he engaged in sexual misconduct and extramarital affairs. McMahon resigned and the company opened an internal review of the payments. The WWE later said in an SEC filing that McMahon had agreed to more than $14 million in payments to address misconduct allegations from 2006 to 2022, which should have been recorded as business expenses.
McMahon returned to the company and became board chairman in January 2023. Stephanie McMahon, his daughter, who had become co-chief executive in her father’s absence, left the company upon his return.
Linda McMahon, a former chief executive of WWE, left the company in 2009. She served as head of the Small Business Administration under President Donald Trump and is currently chair of the America First Action, a pro-Trump political spending group. The McMahons have donated to Republican candidates and organizations for decades.
The board made a risky move bringing Vince McMahon back last year, said Bischoff, a WWE Hall of Famer who in 2019 directed its “SmackDown” program, and is not currently involved in the company. But now that he’s gone and his legacy is ruined, Bischoff said it presents an opportunity for Paul Levesque, WWE’s chief content officer, who may have more freedom to make changes.
“If I was an analyst, my advice would be to not be worried at all about the fact that Vince McMahon is gone,” Bischoff said. “In fact, I would be more bullish because of it.”
McMahon’s absence is unlikely to bother the WWE fan base, said Sean Oliver, who has produced professional wrestling videos for decades. Oliver said older fans are ready for new leadership, while younger fans already see Levesque — who wrestled as “Triple H” until his retirement in 2022 and is married to Stephanie McMahon — as the figurehead of the company.
“They’re gonna take what Vince McMahon built and they’re gonna move it forward for the next 50 years,” Oliver continued, “hopefully free of salacious texts and wildly unprofessional behavior that nobody in a corporate setting should be committing.”
But the decision to allow McMahon back into WWE leadership last year still needs to be accounted for, said Lisa Banks, an attorney who represented sexual harassment victims who worked for NFL teams and the U.S. Coast Guard. The WWE needs to acknowledge that it made mistakes by not cutting McMahon loose sooner, she said, and ensure the corporate culture doesn’t signal that the organization condones such behavior.
“You have to have strong policies in place, you have to have strong training in place, and you have to be willing to have consequences for people who engage in sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Banks said. “For decades, WWE executives have decided to turn the other cheek or to look the other way, and that’s not acceptable.”
King, the UC Irvine scholar who also previously trained as a professional wrestler, said that many women, queer people and people of color who are fans of professional wrestling have long had a complicated relationship with the portrayals of people like them. He said the leadership change is a perfect moment for the WWE to embrace demands of younger fans for better representation.
“People ought to be able to find pleasure in it without having to feel guilty,” he said.
CORRECTION (Feb. 1, 2024, 4:41 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the board Vince McMahon Jr. resigned from. He was the executive chairman of the board of TKO Group, WWE’s parent company, not the chairman of WWE’s board.