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By Mike Johnson on 2020-01-31 09:33:00

Perhaps the most shocking World Wrestling Entertainment news of the last year came yesterday with the announcement that WWE Co-Presidents George Barrios and Michelle Wilson had been bounced out of power and would be leaving the company. 

After all, they were part of the WWE team who were in the room where it happened - something Vince McMahon was not - when the company struck their milestone FOX TV deal and now, just a few months after WWE Friday Night Smackdown migrated there, Barrios and Wilson are each departing the company.

The importance of that departure cannot be overstated.  Until yesterday, should something unforeseen have happened to Vince McMahon where he could not run WWE, Wilson and Barrios would have been tasked with that responsibility of that from a corporate perspective.  Triple H would have run the creative, but the business, corporate side would have fallen on Barrios and Wilson's shoulders.  They were the number two and three most important employees of the company, right under Vince McMahon.  The only way this could have been a bigger departure is if every McMahon left WWE at once.

Yesterday’s announcement came in a fashion so dramatic that it may as well have been a plot twist on Raw.  Wall Street’s response: WWE’s stock took a post-stock market closing nosedive of over 24%, bringing the company to the point its stock will open today at just a little over $45, its lowest number in 18 months.  Investors don’t like turmoil and it remains to be seen what happens today as the market opens. 

WWE making the move with a week to go before they reveal the fourth quarter and complete earnings for 2019 makes it clear that Vince McMahon wasn’t happy with how things were heading for the company and that he felt it was time for a change.  There's a very small circle who know exactly what went down and chances are that the full view of how it transpired won't be known for a long time, especially with corporate non-disclosures and severance packages factored in.

While there has been some conspiracy theories about the exit of Barrios and Wilson (which we will touch upon below), we are told that the primary reason they are gone is that McMahon and his Co-Presidents had completely different visions as to how the company could generate revenue, new and existing, going forward and as one staffer joked, “It’s never going to be Vince who loses that argument.”

“I would like to thank George and Michelle for their 10+ years of service and contributions to the organization,” said McMahon in a statement released as close to the end of the workday as possible yesterday. “I am grateful for all that was accomplished during their tenure, but the Board and I decided a change was necessary as we have different views on how best to achieve our strategic priorities moving forward.  We have a deep team of talented, experienced and committed executives across the organization, and the Board and I have great confidence in our collective abilities to create compelling content, engage our global fanbase across platforms, increase revenues, and drive shareholder value.” is told that an internal announcement released by the company to its employees was even more direct, alluding to irreconcilable differences in the company’s strategic priorities.  Barrios and Wilson had one vision and Vince McMahon had another.  Vince’s vision will always win.  He’s Vince McMahon.  The end.

Within WWE, the reaction among employees we have spoken to was pretty much complete shock.  If there was something brewing that was leading to yesterday’s ouster, it was kept extremely quiet and was not something being spoken about openly within WWE’s Stamford offices.  Given that the news wasn’t held for the weekend (when most companies would dump negative news, hoping it’s forgotten by the time the work week begins) and was announced out of nowhere, that would be an indication that something happened that led to an immediate blowup and departure.

One WWE employee, speaking under condition of anonymity, stated that when the news was announced internally, all work that they were aware of pretty much “ground to a halt” as everyone was stunned by the news.   Another staffer claimed it was the most shocking day they could remember since “that horrible day in 2007”, a day where WWE fired 10% of its workforce. 

There was a lot of feelings of “what happens now” with projects and strategies that were already underway, including the planned tiered launch of the WWE Network that had been earmarked for the first quarter of 2020.  Others, however, tempered that worry, noting that if the company “lived on” after Linda McMahon left and Shane McMahon’s 2009 resignation from the company, that the “machine” that is WWE won’t stop for anyone’s departure.

As with everything in professional wrestling, there have been some interesting conspiracy theories floated in the last day, none of which, are told are true. 

Shot down theories include a story that Wilson and Barrios were pushing for a WWE sale to a larger corporation (think a FOX or a Disney) which Vince McMahon was against.  Another story passed around was that this is due to some sort of fallout of the pair pushing back against the relaunch of the XFL, which would be silly, given that Wilson worked on the original incarnation of the football league as Vice President of Integrated Marketing and that the time period to actually push against it wouldn’t be within days of the league’s official relaunch next week.

The reality of the departures is that working for Vince McMahon is an extremely hard job, one that is nearly impossible if he’s personally aware of your work and not happy with your results.  There are a long line of executives who have risen in WWE’s ranks over the years and once they are in a position to report directly to McMahon, the clock began ticking on their tenure.  It’s an unenviable position inside a pressure cooker if McMahon isn’t happy.  This was the latest example.  It just turned out to be a shocking one, because of who the departed were.

A number of entertainment industry trade publications have pointed to the early success of All Elite Wrestling, that subscription numbers for the WWE Network have plateaued and that the FOX deal, which a massive moneymaker for the company, has seen viewership numbers that aren’t all that far off from where the series was on cable as reasoning for the exits of Barrios and Wilson.  While certainly those may be factors, at the end of the day, it comes down to Vince McMahon having expectations and a vision as to how those expectations are to be met.  It doesn’t matter if you are a wrestler getting a big push or an executive who is poring over data.  If McMahon doesn’t have his expectations met, it’s a just a matter of time before the guillotine falls.  With WWE's reducing their financial guidance for the year, Barrios and Wilson ended up under it.

Barrios had been with WWE for close to 12 years, coming over from The New York Times.  He had been the leading voice during WWE stockholder conference calls and regularly made appearances at financial talks and gatherings to tout WWE’s importance as a global, multi-media beast.  He was very much the face of the financial and corporate side of the company.

Wilson had been with the company for a little over 11 years, having come over after a seven-year-plus run as the Chief Marketing Officer for the United States Tennis Association.  She was extremely involved with changing the perception of the company among advertisers over the last decade, bringing big money advertisers to the fold.

While each had their quirks, both were well liked within WWE and thought of as a calming presence against the larger than life personality that is Vince McMahon, especially within a media landscape that is changing faster than ever before.

The belief is that each will leave the company with a nice seven figure severance package.

When WWE holds its earnings call on Thursday 2/6 for the financial media, it will be the first time in memory that Barrios and Wilson won’t be in the lead position fielding answers.  In fact, their departure and the state of World Wrestling Entertainment in the wake of their exit may be the most fascinating questions to be asked.  The only question that could be more fascinating is this: if the pair that helped bring WWE to their greatest TV rights fees ever didn’t have the vision for the future, what IS the right vision going forward?

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