UFC’s parent company, William Morris Endeavor (WME), has returned a $400 million investment to Saudi Arabia’s government investment fund, according to a report in the New York Times. The deal with Saudi Arabia was inked early last year in order to support the entertainment giant’s expansion plans, which would have included bringing its products to Saudi Arabia as part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030. The move will increase pressure on WWE to abandon its own deal with the Saudi Arabian government, and rightly so.
WWE’s Saudi Arabia deal was a source of controversy from the moment of its inception, due to the numerous well-documented abuses of human rights committed by the Saudi government. Many fans were appalled that WWE would do business with such a corrupt, violent regime. The outrage only grew as it became apparent that women would be banned from performing at any of WWE’s Saudi Arabia events, and reached a boiling point following the murder of Washington Post journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government.
Many, including myself, hoped the murder of Khashoggi would be a breaking point for WWE, but the company went ahead with the Crown Jewel pay-per-view, albeit with all references to the country in which it was taking place scrubbed from the broadcast. Any suggestion that Crown Jewel went ahead because it was simply too late to cancel went out the window when WWE confirmed it would continue to host events in Saudi Arabia, including two pay-per-views planned for May and November of this year.
When the May pay-per-view was announced last month, I wrote an op-ed arguing that WWE’s decision to continue working with the Saudi government demonstrated how contingent and superficial the women’s revolution really is. I went pretty light on WWE, all told, but it was still too hard for some. Many commenters attempted to defend WWE with a tired, false observation that apologists for their actions have been repeating ad nauseam ever since the deal was just announced. “They can’t just not honor their contractual obligations! They signed an agreement and they have to hold up their end of the bargain! I don’t agree with it, but a deal is a deal!”
But, as WME’s decision demonstrates, that’s a load of crap. WME returned almost half a billion dollars of investment funds to Saudi Arabia. By contrast, the estimate for how much WWE would lose if it cancelled its Saudi Arabia deal? $12-16 million. To put that in context, WWE will receive over $200 million per year to air SmackDown Live on Fox, starting later this year. Vince McMahon sold $100 million in WWE stock in 2017 to fund the goddamned XFL and he’s still the majority owner of the company. The cost of breaking the Saudi Arabia deal is a rounding error in WWE’s financials.
Even if breaking the deal required WWE to eat a bunch of penalties, I’d want them to do it. But when it’ll cost them pocket change? It’s more than cowardice, it’s outright contempt. It’s beyond unconscionable. And it’s long past time that WWE nutted up and did the right thing.
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