Analysis: The Meaning Behind Roman Reigns' YouTube Popularity

A recent study I did showed Roman Reigns performs better than most when it comes to video views on WWE's YouTube channel.

The news generated a lot of comments as Reigns is a polarizing figure for many.

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How one felt about the study results seemed to be heavily influenced by how one felt about Reigns in the first place.

Some, with or without irony, used the study to celebrate the emergence of apparent hard facts that Reigns is a bonafide "draw". They believed they finally found evidence that Reigns is a legitimate top star; haters, be silenced.

Others discounted the significance of the study since it measured YouTube views, and, for one reason or another, those don't really count.

The truth of course is somewhere in the middle. As discussed in the original article, the relatively low economic value of YouTube views shouldn't be conflated with what these views reflect about interest in each WWE talent.

The revenue YouTube videos do or do not generate aside, the views nonetheless give us insight into which stars are connecting. The study collected a large set of data. We collected view counts of all videos uploaded between January 29 and July 10. That's 2,260 videos from a period of just over 5 months.

Unlike TV ratings we usually see published, the YouTube data weren't just from fans who live in the U.S. The running counts on YouTube views are for views worldwide. At the least, the YouTube data gives us a different insight than whatever insight traditional TV data gives us.

The YouTube data is more insightful than traditional TV data in at least one sense: while minute-by-minute or quarter-hour data may be recorded by Nielsen, they're not reported publicly by any media outlet. Even if they were, an analysis of minute-by-minute or quarter-hour data would be complicated by the biases that come with certain timeslots. For example, the top of any hour is thought of as a favorable position to be in for gaining viewership. The third hour of RAW is almost always the least viewed, for another example. An analysis of minute-by-minute or quarter-hour viewership would need to adjust for talents who appear at the top of the hour more or less frequently than most, as well as for those who appear in the third hour of RAW more or less frequently. YouTube views, removed from the linear format of traditional TV, shouldn't have that problem.

There are further pros and cons in this case.

WWE is a global company that sells distribution rights and puts on live events worldwide. Though founded in the U.S., still its largest market, the company aims to gain wider international fandom. Jinder Mahal winning the WWE Title in an apparent appeal to the 1.3 billion people in India is just one example of WWE trying to widen its base of fans in other countries.

WWE Chief Financial Officer George Barrios has acknowledged on multiple occasions that about 75% of WWE's social and digital engagements (such as YouTube video views) are from outside the U.S. Meanwhile the inverse is the case for the company's revenue.

The TV viewership and ratings that are reported publicly following each episode of RAW and SmackDown are for U.S. viewership only. The majority of attendances we can study are for events in the U.S. as that's where the company runs most of its events. In contrast studying YouTube metrics gives us a more worldly view of how people around the globe are receiving WWE.

On the other hand, 74% of the company's revenue last year came from the U.S. and Canada, probably the vast majority of that 74% coming from the U.S. The most lucrative of WWE's TV deals is its deal with NBCUniversal for U.S. rights. So even though YouTube metrics might give us an insight into what a more global WWE fan is interested in, and even though it wants to break into new markets as quickly as possible, most of the company's money continues to come from the U.S.

"Cena is still the strongest draw when it comes to TV and attendance"

Cena was inactive in WWE for three months between WrestleMania and July 4. Despite that he still had the second-most million-view videos, behind Reigns, for the period between January 29 and July 10. Reigns was active throughout that period. Arguably if Cena had been active the entire period, he would have been ahead of Reigns for million-view videos.

Among active wrestlers, Cena is surely still WWE's most recognizable name and face in mainstream culture.

Evidence suggests Cena was a strong house show draw during and before 2015.

From 2009 (and probably earlier) until 2015 John Cena was a clear positive difference-maker for WWE's U.S. and Canadian house show attendance, based on a market-to-market analysis I did. He was more of a difference-maker to domestic house show attendance than anyone else during that period.

In 2016 and so far in 2017 however, while he's worked fewer house shows, Cena has been less of a positive difference-maker.

I looked at average attendance from 2008 to 2016 for each city WWE ran house shows in in the U.S. or Canada, calculating averages both with and without Cena, then I took each given attendance from 2015 to present and tested it against the 2008-2016 averages.

In 2015, attendances were higher than average when Cena was on the card. In 2016 and six months into 2017, the effect has dissipated.

However when eliminating Monday house shows the SmackDown crew has been tasked with since the brand split, which are at a disadvantage as they are on a weekday and go head-to-head with RAW airing on TV, Cena appears to make a positive difference in 2017, albeit a smaller one versus years prior.

2015 to 2017 is a period where average attendance declined for all U.S./Canadian house shows (although total attendance remains stable). Still, if Cena were a significant difference-maker we would expect to see a substantial difference between his performance and that of the rest of WWE, which we do see in 2015. Against the market average for shows without him, shows with in the market did 16% better.

In 2016, in the 12 U.S./Canadian house shows he appeared on, Cena didn't make an effect similar to the effect he made in 2015. Even versus non-Cena averages, his attendances were suffer worse than those of WWE overall.

Through July 7 of this year, having worked 21 U.S/Canadian house shows, the Cena effect is still mitigated. Versus non-Cena averages, his attendances perform an average of 2% better, far from the double-digit differences he made in prior years. Reigns' 2017 record versus past Cena averages is about the same as Cena's, at 3%. The differences between WWE overall, Cena and Reigns when comparing to non-Cena past averages are so close as to probably not be significant.

It's arguable Cena is still an exceptional TV attraction. His return to TV on July 4 of this year did a good rating for SmackDown on a holiday that usually sees the rating decline worse.

More information about how well Cena's segments perform on traditional TV is unknown. Cena was among the top performers for YouTube views, which seems like a strong hint that he'd be among WWE's top performers on traditional TV too, however Reigns edged out Cena in that area.

Cena may be the top merchandise seller in the company. No records on talent merchandise sales are published. The best hint we have are Google Shopping searches, which Cena led in for 2016. For this year, Cena is still decidedly ahead of Reigns.

"TV ratings have declined with Roman on top"

Mind you there's an argument out there that Reigns isn't even a clear top star for WWE.

That notwithstanding, WWE TV ratings (particularly those of RAW) have declined since Reigns was split off from the Shield and become a major singles star.

SmackDown's ratings decline has been softened by the brand split and move to live airings on Tuesday night, which both started in July 2016.

Meanwhile Reigns has been on the RAW roster since the brand split as that show's ratings have continued to decline.

Even if we assume Reigns is not worthy of his push and if someone else theoretically better suited for the position had taken his place, I believe the ratings would have fallen to a similar degree.

Some of the decline, in my opinion, in WWE's ratings is attributable to weak booking and an inability to create new stars (with a few exceptions like Strowman). I believe the decline in ratings is more due to changes in media: aging of the traditional viewing audience in general, the three-hour run time becoming more demanding on an audience that has increasing competition for its time, and non-traditional ways of watching or following WWE programming.

"Don't most of the views come from India anyway?"

Not quite.

A common reply I've read to discount the credibility of WWE's YouTube views is that most of the views come from India, which is an emerging economy where many of the citizens don't have a lot of money to spend on wrestling. The implication is that India isn't a very strong market yet; the majority of views come from India, so there's no reason to take any economic meaning from YouTube views. WWE Network and especially live event business may not be strong there, but WWE's third most lucrative TV deal comes from India. Even if we grant that India isn't a strong market, the premise that the majority of WWE YouTube views come from the country is doubtful in my view.

WWE has publicly said its #1 market for social media is India. As noted, about 75% of digital traffic (to include YouTube) comes from international markets. This doesn't necessarily mean the majority of the traffic is coming from India. I think it's unlikely that's the case. Given WWE's popularity in the U.S., U.K. and other countries, I would expect traffic from India to be less than 50%, at the least.

Furthermore, some have claimed that since such a large portion of the traffic comes from India, which is supposedly the country of origin for many click farms, that much of the traffic isn't even legitimate. I would hope a billion dollar company with a large analytics department would not be fooled by click bots, but stranger things have happened.

"Doesn't WWE promote videos of people they want to push?"

This is plausible, although I'm not aware of any ads WWE runs that directly promote any of its particular YouTube videos.

In fact YouTube has rules in place that's supposed to make it difficult to artificially enhance video views and other traffic.

WWE of course uses its social media platforms to distribute links of its YouTube views, but I'm unaware of any strategy WWE may be using to give preferential treatment to some videos when it comes to number of social media posts promoting the videos or the timing of those posts.

Evidence to the contrary is welcome at [email protected] or @BrandonThurston on Twitter.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

YouTube views, like any wrestling metric, may be suggestive of which stars are connecting with an audience. Likewise single metrics alone are not a final authority that outright validates booking decisions or whether any given talent is a viable top star.

A large collection of YouTube views provides a set of data, generated by people worldwide, which is insightful for getting an idea of who's attracting interest. Those who stand out in attracting YouTube views I would expect to often be those who stand out in any other WWE metric that can be sorted by talent. We should repeat this study over future periods of time to see which talents persist as top performers.

None of this is to say there's no element of self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

I think the creative vision and tone of WWE is dysfunctional, leaving money on the table as a result. The crowd reactions Reigns gets, in my view, are a manifestation of years of WWE insulting its own fans' intelligence.

However the reality in which Roman Reigns is pushed as a top star in a way few others are is the only reality we have the work with. Unfortunately we can't test alternate realities where someone else is pushed instead of Reigns.

When few others are given the type of opportunity to make a difference like Reigns has the last few years, it seems natural he's able to garner interest like few others. Perhaps it's a matter of the rest of the roster being at such a comparative disadvantage. Nonetheless even as he's been loudly rejected by fans in venues all over the world, individual metrics that are publicly available point to Reigns sticking as someone who draws valuable interest above most others, even if he could be garnering more interest if he had been booked more wisely, and even if someone else might be able to garner a similar or higher level of interest had they been given a similar opportunity.

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