WWE holds Royal Rumble with enthusiasm, nostalgia amid questions over its future
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) hosts its 36th annual Royal Rumble in San Antonio Saturday night.
The 30-wrestler battle royal match is one of the most highly anticipated sports entertainment events of the year.
“The city’s excited, we’re excited,” WWE Raw Women’s Champion Bianca Belair told TPR. “Personally, Royal Rumble was the match that started my career and was my road to Wrestlemania.”
Belair won the Women’s Royal Rumble in 2021 and is now longest reigning Black world champion in the company’s history, surpassing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“It’s a change of culture. A time to turn someone into a star and make new stars,” Belair said. “I’m excited to see the surprise entrants. I’m excited to see who will win.”
The company expected a capacity crowd at the Alamodome, which is no stranger to the Royal Rumble. It has hosted three of them, including a crowd of more than 60,000 to see Stone Cold Steve Austin’s first Royal Rumble win in 1997.
More than a quarter-century later, WWE returns to San Antonio at a flashpoint for the company. It is now up for sale.
“I don’t know anything [about the sale],” Belair told TPR. “My job is to go out there and put smiles on people’s faces. I go out there and try to be the absolute best version of myself I can be. I’m on the road almost 365 days a year representing the brand so that’s my focus.”
WWE’s founder Vince McMahon, who is credited with turning a patchwork of regional wrestling promotions into a multibillion dollar public company, is back.
He abruptly retired in late 2022 following revelations of hush money payments to women over the last 20 years along with sexual assault accusations, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
At 77, time for me to retire.— Vince McMahon (@VinceMcMahon) July 22, 2022
Thank you, WWE Universe.
Then. Now. Forever. Together. #WWE #thankful
WWE has since completed a probe into the matter that found the former CEO paid more than $14.6 million to women in connection with the allegations. The company had to revise its financial statements in 2019, 2020, and 2021 to reflect the payments that McMahon had not reported.
Following the probe, the company's board of directors voted unanimously to elect McMahon as executive chairman of the board.
Still the primary shareholder, McMahon said his primary duty will now be to facilitate the sale of the company. Reportedly, there are several interested parties.
"NBC Universal, Disney, even the government of Saudi Arabia," said Bryan Alvarez, a wrestling journalist and host of "Wrestling Observer." "WWE makes roughly $50-60 million per show. And we're talking a one day show. It's likely to be a pretty substantial sale."
Alvarez said McMahon's return signaled that the 77-year-old is here to stay.
"Given that he was the owner and pretty much did everything, the feeling is that ultimately he is going to try to work his way back into that same position," Alvarez added. "And one of the reasons he is probably helping facilitate this sale is to make sure that when the company is sold, he will be allowed into that position."
The WWE remains a top performer on cable television and streaming despite McMahon’s scandals.
"Wrestling is a lot more popular than I think people think it is," Alvarez said. "I mean, it's not what it was in the eighties. There's no Hulk Hogan that every person in every household knows the name of. Really, the only Hulk Hogan is basically Hulk Hogan — maybe The Rock or John Cena. But if you look at how pro wrestling does on television compared to virtually everything else outside of the NFL, it's still very, very popular today."
While the company has stopped relying on one major superstar to propel it forward, Alvarez pointed out that the WWE is full of young talent. And while it is not the same product as decades past, events like the Royal Rumble remain timeless for wrestling fans around the world.
One of the up and coming wrestlers attracting fanfare ahead of the Royal Rumble is Dominik Mysterio, the son of WWE legend and luchador Rey Mysterio.
"A lot of people don't know that I have six godfathers. And they're all wrestlers. All ex-WCW luchardores," Mysterio told TPR. "I'm really thankful for that."
The Mexican-style wrestling known as Lucha Libre is a tradition in San Antonio, home of the 2023 Royal Rumble.
"There have always been great luchadors in the major American promotions," Alvarez said. "But nowadays I think the difference is that in 2023, there is more an expectation from fans that they want to see good wrestling matches and not just the big stars of the eighties and nineties."
News of the WWE's sale has seen the company's stock price rise more than $10 a share. It closed at $84.63 at the end of Friday's trading.