The traditional television viewing audience for pro wrestling is aging faster than that of any other sport.
An article in SportsBusiness Journal reported the results of a study that found the median age of the pro wrestling TV audience has jumped from 28 in 2000, to 33 in 2006, to 54 in 2016.
The 21-year median age difference from 2006 to 2016 for pro wrestling was the highest for any sport studied. UFC (that company specifically named, not MMA in general) ranked second behind pro wrestling. UFC's median age difference went from 34 to 49, an increase of 15 years, from 2006 to 2016.
Boxing is aging more slowly, with median ages of 45 in 2000, 47 in 2006 and 49 in 2016.
WWE nor any other wrestling company was specifically named in the article, so it's not clear if the study looked at WWE only or whether it included the audiences of other wrestling programming on national TV in the U.S., such as Impact, Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground and New Japan Pro Wrestling.
The aging of the traditional TV audience for pro wrestling is meaningful to the advertisers. If pro wrestling is less valuable to advertisers due to an aging audience (which is debatable as an older audience may imply higher incomes), networks like NBCUniversal may be less willing to pay companies like WWE high TV rights fees for programming, although there's not yet good reason to think NBCUniversal won't give WWE a higher or comparable rights deal in their next round of negotiations in 2019.
That besides, I doubt this study reflects an aging of the actual wrestling audience. I suspect the actual wrestling audience hasn't aged much over the last several years and that the aging seen in the traditional TV audience is amplified as younger people resolve to follow the wrestling promotions they care about more and more via other means, whether that means watching on Hulu (in the case of WWE), highlights on YouTube, viewing full programming pirate sites or catching up from written or audio reviews of shows or simply getting the gist via social media.
Despite continuous TV ratings declines and an aging traditional TV audience, other metrics like attendance, merchandise sales, overall revenue and Google trends don't show a corresponding decline in interest in WWE. Ring of Honor too is doing some of its strongest attendances ever. New Japan, granted in another country, is having a resurgence and is about to make its first serious play in the U.S. market. And when you look around at a wrestling show, the median age certainly appears to be well below 54, maybe somewhere closer to late 20s or early 30s, although attending doesn't necessarily indicate viewership, traditional or otherwise.
As we've studied before, the younger you are the less likely you are to do a lot of traditional TV viewing. However this study in the SportsBusiness Journal shows pro wrestling is being hit harder than any other sport in that respect. SportsBusiness Journal cites a quote from Brian Hughes, the senior vice president for the company that performed the study: “There is an increased interest in short-term things, like stats and quick highlights... That availability of information has naturally funneled some younger viewers away from TV.”
Viewing wrestling highlights is a rather new phenomenon compared to other sports. While other sports have been included on newscasts and highlight shows like SportsCenter for decades, the mainstream sports media has never and still doesn't take wrestling seriously enough to highlight it (Pete Rose tombstones and the like notwithstanding), largely due to the fact the matches are predetermined.
It turns out pro wrestling is especially conducive to viewing via highlights. This is beared out in how popular WWE's YouTube channel is. While the wrestling audience is aging faster than any other sports, WWE's YouTube channel is far more popular than any other sports' channel, both in the U.S. and worldwide: facts that may be related. No other sports channel even ranked in the top 50 for last week; WWE rank #6 in the U.S. and #14 worldwide.
Multiple clips from RAW or SmackDown each week break 1 million views. WWE has said 20% to 30% of its YouTube views are from the U.S. So the most-viewed videos are probably being seen by about 200,000 to 300,000 Americans. To compare, the most viewed hour of RAW last Monday on the USA Network was viewed by 3,113,000 people. So YouTube accounts for a significant section of WWE's fandom, however it doesn't alone account for the year-over-year declines we've seen in ratings.
I think WWE is consumed on YouTube more than any other sport because its programming is so segmented. While other sports may have three or four periods, the action and talent isn't very different across those segments or between its commercial breaks. When you watch a basketball game, a major star like LeBron James plays for most of the game. In the NFL, Tom Brady is on the field about half the time. While other sports games may become more exciting at certain moments, like the closing minutes, few others present relatively short segments focusing on a variety of talent, and therefore few other sports are so ideal for consuming via a discrete series of videos such as those offered on WWE's YouTube channel.
Even though WWE is booked with much parity, there are still segments that draw far greater interest than others. This can be seen weekly in the public view counts on WWE's YouTube highlights of each segment of RAW and SmackDown: some get over 1 million views, some get just over 100,000.
RAW's three-hour run time probably only further tests the patience of the remaining young viewers of that program, and unsurprisingly the third hour is almost always the least viewed of the three.
None of this is to skirt pro wrestling bookers, like Vince McMahon, from responsibility. WWE's programming feels very missable. Little seems of consequence. Wins and losses seldom matter. Personalities on screen seem forced as they recite scripted dialogue. WWE could do something to address all this and make its shows more compelling in hope of re-engaging the younger audience, making them feel like they need to watch live on the USA Network, but as long as the company remains so profitable and no serious competition emerges, McMahon has no incentive to change from what is, financially, a successful-enough strategy, and WWE will continue to set the example for others in the industry it dominates.