11/16/20: WWE’s Dunn talks about the company’s success with WWE ThunderDome

 

 

Medias First Morning Read
Monday November 16, 2020

The uncertainty brought about by the pandemic clearly demonstrated the old adage, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”, as broadcasters and leagues scrambled to find new, engaging ways to deliver competition to fans. Blazing its own trail, of course, has been WWE, which initially had to deliver a WrestleMania without in-venue fans and resume weekly production without live audiences, until August, when the company unleashed WWE ThunderDome. The production initiative features state-of-the-art set anchored video boards that showcased over 1000 virtual fans as well as pyrotechnics, lasers and drone cameras. The ThunderDome has since been home to every Monday Night Raw on USA Network, Friday Night SmackDown on FOX and WWE pay-per-view event.

Cynopsis Sports caught up with Kevin Dunn, WWE Executive Producer & Chief, Global Television Distribution to discuss the innovation, lessons learned, and post-pandemic plans.

Dunn on producing live events at the onset of the pandemic: In mid-March when sports leagues began to postpone and cancel events, we quickly got to work on a plan to continue delivering in-ring content to fans. We were a few weeks out from WrestleMania, our biggest event of the year, and we ended up going from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay with more than 70,000 fans to a two-night event at our Performance Center via closed set with no one in attendance. We continued to produce Raw and SmackDown from the Performance Center for the next several months. Throughout that time we were constantly tinkering and experimenting with new production techniques and cinematic style matches to bring added excitement to our shows.

On the genesis of WWE ThunderDome: During months of testing and learning and listening to our fans, we were experimenting with new ways to add more energy into our live shows. We looked at what other leagues were doing, but we ultimately wanted to do something that was right for us and right for our fans.

We knew we had to innovate, think outside the box, and recreate the in-arena atmosphere and interactive experience that is synonymous with WWE events. But do it virtually. Our world-class WWE TV production team had a specific vision, and designed and executed WWE ThunderDome, which launched on August 21, in advance of SummerSlam. A state-of-the-art set, video boards, pyrotechnics, lasers, cutting-edge graphics and drone cameras. A true spectacle. To date, nearly 300,000 WWE fans from around the world have registered to be a part of WWE ThunderDome. It’s the hottest ticket around.

On lessons learned and surprises: I think the biggest challenge was just trying to reimagine our weekly flagship programming with a new technology that, we believe, has never been implemented before at this scale. Everything had to be reassessed as we were planning to launch ThunderDome. In testing, traditional camera shots were making the virtual fans look flat. Our entire lighting and production design had to be reimagined from the ground up.

We have a great team that had to reinvent themselves, and their day to day responsibilities, in order to come up with something as innovative as WWE ThunderDome.

On partnerships: From the beginning we realized that the ThunderDome and its technology was going to be valuable for our partners, and we have been able to successfully activate with a number of brands. One partner, Cricket Wireless, was impressed with the interactive element of their integration, which immediately led to a positive reaction across social media. We have also worked with Mars Wrigley to promote their new Treat Town mobile app in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and Hyundai who used the ThunderDome to drive awareness for their Hope on Wheels initiative during childhood cancer awareness month.

On moving forward: If you asked me a year ago, I’d have said there is nothing we haven’t done from a production standpoint, but during this process, we’ve learned a lot and innovated in so many ways that I’d say anything is possible. Our goal is always to create the best possible experience for our fans. So, we are exploring a number of ideas and new shooting techniques, and in a post pandemic world I would expect to see our live shows draw heavily from our ThunderDome learnings.

PROGRAMMING

ESPN landed a new multi-year agreement with The Heisman Trust to remain the exclusive home of the Heisman Trophy Ceremony where ESPN will now televise the 86th annual Heisman Trophy Ceremony Presented by Nissan on Jan. 5 at 7p. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Heisman Ceremony will originate from ESPN’s Bristol studios for the first time. For the 27th straight year, Chris Fowler will host the one-hour telecast, joined by reporters Tom Rinaldi and Maria Taylor. All Heisman finalists will appear via satellite from either their homes or schools. In addition, several Heisman Trophy winners will appear virtually.

On the ratings front, ESPN’s live telecast of the second round of the 2020 Masters Tournament on Friday averaged 2.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast National data, an increase over the average of 2.2 million that watched Thursday’s first round telecast. Last year’s second round Masters telecast, which aired during the event’s traditional month of April and later in the day averaged 3.3 million. Day one saw an average of 2.2 million viewers.

In football, FOX Sports reports that 12.2 million viewers turned in for Thursday Night Football last week on FOX and NFL Network. The Colts win over the Titans ranks as the most-watched telecast of the day. Across all platforms, 12.7 million viewers tuned in for the matchup.

The National Football League announced the launch of the 2021 1st and Future competition, the annual Super Bowl event designed to drive “innovation in athlete safety and performance.” For the first time, this year’s program will be broadcast in primetime during Super Bowl LV week on NFL Network and will feature two categories of competition – one for entrepreneurs and one for data analysts: “We are thrilled to showcase our innovative efforts to make the game safer and better for the players in a new, primetime broadcast,” said Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President of Communications, Public Affairs and Policy, who oversees the NFL’s health and safety initiatives. “We invite people from around the world to tune in for a behind-the-scenes look at an important piece of our work to evolve the game of football and improve player safety.”

Meanwhile, the NFL is reportedly mulling hosting the postseason inside a bubble, according to the Washington Post. In the report, the story says that potential options call for the players, coaches and staffers to stay at local hotels within their franchise markets for the postseason in addition to possible neutral-location stadiums for both the NFC and AFC title games.

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SPONSORSHIP & PROMOTION

The NCAA released a slate of specific proposals for Division I rules changes designed to address collegiate athletes’ ability make money from the use of their name, image and likeness, beginning Aug. 1. According to USA Today, the proposal allows student-athletes to use their name, image and likeness “to promote … athletically and non-athletically related business activities”’ although the rule would give schools the ability to block athletes from if their deals conflict with any preexisting sponsorship deal that universities have.

The United Soccer League entered into a new partnership with PUMA in a new three-year agreement. PUMA will become the national partner for the new USL Academy League, which will launch next spring with more than 50 clubs across 25 states in the U.S. and provide elite youth talent from across the USL landscape an additional opportunity to compete at a high level. “We are honored to share this opportunity with PUMA,” said USL Chief Executive Officer Alec Papadakis. “With the 2026 FIFA World Cup on the horizon we are entering one of the most exciting phases in the history of North American soccer and are thrilled to align with a brand like PUMA who shares our vision for what the future of our sport in the country could look like.”

Major League Baseball announced a financial grant to Sesame Workshop in support of “Sesame Street for Military Families,” which was established to support military and veteran families with young children through all the milestones of their lives, including experiences and transitions unique to military life. With the funds, Sesame Workshop will expand their resource hub and also build new materials under its COVID-response “Caring For Each Other” umbrella to address the military population.

DIGITAL, DATA & TECH

DraftKings reports that the company beat revenue expectations in its third quarter, drumming up $133 million, up nearly 98% year-over-year while monthly unique players for the company surpassed 1 million, for a 64% uptick over year ago numbers. With the better-than-expected revenue figures, DraftKings lifted its full fiscal 2020 guidance to $560 million from $500-$540 million.

NASCAR reportedly entered into a multi-year national sports betting partnership with WynnBET. As an Authorized Gaming Operator of NASCAR, WynnBET will collaborate with NASCAR to create and promote engaging sports betting experiences for racing fans across the United States. “We’re excited to partner with such a deeply experienced and innovative team to drive engagement and expand our sports betting offerings,” said Tim Clark, NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief digital officer. “Wynn is a trusted and iconic brand and our new relationship advances NASCAR’s position in the rapidly evolving gaming space while delivering fans with yet another live-in race engagement tool.”

ESPORTS

NBCLX, a new TV and OTT network designed for millennials and Gen Z-ers, is tapping into esports. Beginning today, NBCLX will now showcase esports titles from ESR 24/7 eSports Channel that are set to include holiday-themed video game mini-challenges, competitions and interviews with esports insiders. NBCLX’s esports programming schedule will feature: Thanksgaming, Age of Coronavirus (starting Nov. 22), Holiday Smash (Dec. 11), Toast with the Most (Dec 28), as well as 2021 shows Playing with Words and Kills, Thrills & Chills. “NBCLX is smart to engage the exploding esports audience. Our high-quality but down-to-earth, home-brew entertainment will connect with ordinary gamers and non-gamers, as opposed to flashy shows focused only on elite players,” said Wendy Wang, CEO of ESR

ESL is teaming with communications agency DDB in a move designed to elevate the ESL & DreamHack brands around the world. “For the past 20 years, we have been on the forefront of launching leading brands into the esports sphere, creating game-changing brand partnerships,” said Mark Cohen, Global SVP Brand Partnerships at ESL. “Our cooperation with DDB FTW enables us to introduce their clients to our target audience and develop innovative brand strategies together for esports fans worldwide.”

Dignitas, the esports vertical of New Meta Entertainment Inc., announced a new partnership with Zenni, the nation’s largest online eyewear retailer, through Dec. 31, 2020. Dignitas’ women will wear Zenni Blokz eyewear to protect their eyes from the blue light that emits from digital screens during competition and live streaming. “Partnering with a leading online eyewear brand like Zenni presents an incredible opportunity to level up our female initiatives,” said Heather Garozzo, VP of Talent at Dignitas and former professional gamer. “Both Zenni and Dignitas share similar goals of elevating women in the esports space while striving to create positive counters to online harassment.”

Evil Geniuses is partnering with former ESPN talent Jacob Wolf and producer Thomas Tischio for the creation of a new original live program that goes behind the scenes as League of Legends enters its free agency period. The debuts today with a pre-show with Wolf at 3p, while the main broadcast runs at 4p live and exclusively on Evil Geniuses’ Twitch channel. Jacob Wolf’s [Evil] Free Agency Show presented by AT&T will cover all of the news as it breaks during League of Legends’ competitive offseason. Rallying alongside Evil Geniuses and AT&T, BMW, Buffalo Wild Wings, Razer, Monster Energy, LG UltraGear, and Motorola Edge+ have all additionally signed on as sponsors to support this event.

Liquid Apparel debuted a new partnership with Japanese-inspired lifestyle brand tokidoki. The launch collection—a 16-piece mix of apparel and accessories—brings to life Team Liquid’s adorable mascot Blue in the iconic tokidoki style, alongside classic characters such as Kaiju, Ninja Skater and Salaryman. The deal marks tokidoki’s first foray into esports.

INDUSTRY & ROSTER MOVES

The Miami Marlins announced the hiring of longtime baseball executive Kim Ng to serve as the club’s next general manager. The appointment makers her the first woman and Asian-American person to hold that position in MLB — as well as the first woman hired to the GM position for any team among men’s professional sports leagues in North America.

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On this Day
1969: Richard Nixon becomes the first US president to attend a regular season NFL game while in office.

IN THE KNOW
What is the name of The Undertaker’s finishing move in the WWE? (Email cpursell@cynopsis.com with your answer and be sure to include your name, company and city).

Answer to Our Last Sports Trivia Question
Staple venue anthem “Enter Sandman” was performed by which band? Answer: Metallica. Kudos: John Ferlazzo/London; Luke Watson-Entertaining Concepts/NY; Cory Angerthal-AMC Networks/NY; Paul Crevier-BBC America/NY; Chris Madigan-BZA PR/NY; Brianne Maciejowski-Miles/Sarasota; Matt Laramee-Southern New Hampshire University/Manchester; Larry Kahn-GOLF Channel/Orlando; Michael Narracci-New England Sports Network/Watertown; Joe Lyons-ESPN/Dallas; Andy Pittman-TAMU/College Station; Lexi Betcher- Home Team Sports/Chicago; Creed Heilskov-ImOn Communications/Cedar Rapids; Greg Moloznik-GLM Media/Scottsdale; Dominick Latorre- Sinclair Broadcast Group/Simi Valley Tom Moore-Kalt Productions/LA; David Westberg-SAG•AFTRA Credit Union/Burbank

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