Six weeks into its existence, WWE Network is just a few days away from the most important weekend it will ever have.
WrestleMania 30 will be airing live on the service, the first of their pay-per-view events to make a move there. It's a radical shift in how they do business, and it's a risk for a number of reasons.
The one that's causing the most consternation among fans is the risk that the stream could go out during the show due to high demand.
Until a few weeks ago, I was thinking that this sentiment was coming more from the most hardcore pro wrestling fans than anyone else. They've been dealing with Internet PPVs from a number of independent promotions in the last few years, and there have been a lot of high-profile failures.
Most notably, Ring of Honor shifted their business model from one built on selling DVDs to one centering on Internet PPVs, with DVDs pushed to a secondary form of content distribution. After a number of their biggest events had major issues with both third-party intermediary GoFightLive and their in-house operation, they just stopped airing the shows live and started offering the shows on demand a few days later.
As best as anyone can tell, a number of things went wrong there, many of which will have no bearing on WrestleMania or any other PPV on WWE Network. Independent promotions have to use the venue's Internet connection or a LTE hotspot device, while WWE is sending the show to a dedicated Internet connection via the satellite feed also used to distribute the show to cable and satellite providers. This means that the building's connection has no bearing on the stream.
That doesn't mean that nothing can go wrong. The order system for multiple PPVs from women's mixed martial arts promotion Invicta FC crashed on more than one PPV with two different stream providers wherein they used a satellite feed and the stream itself was fine.
That probably shouldn't be an issue for WWE either, as the vast majority of viewers should have existing subscriptions. There could be a mad rush of additional subscribers on the day of the show, but it won't be close to the total viewership there would be if WWE was just selling Internet PPVs at the new price point of $9.99 per month.
How do you expect the WrestleMania 30 stream on WWE Network to go?
Now, having said all that, there were some recent high-profile streaming failures of free (or free with subscription) entertainment events that caught a lot of attention from the general public in the way that problems with smaller pro wrestling and MMA events most certainly didn't.
Both the first-ever official stream of the Academy Awards and the HBO Go (traditionally a video-on-demand service) live stream of the True Detective finale went bust. StreamingMedia.com analyst Dan Rayburn cited these events plus WWE's launch day issues as evidence that live streaming isn't 100 percent ready for prime time, because it's not as "reliable or scalable."
While he's the expert, I can't quite agree with that knowing WWE. On one hand, yes, Rayburn is right that it's not as scalable as traditional forms of TV distribution because there are more things that can potentially go wrong. On the other hand, WWE has banked their future on this network, and the company is not run by idiots.
In any year, even if the service was already established, the WrestleMania stream crashing would be very, very bad for WWE. That it's both the first WrestleMania on WWE Network and the first live PPV event on the network would make any kind of failure catastrophic. There's no turning back on both the investment they've made and the perception that PPVs are now worth $9.99 per month with a ton of other content included for free.
When Daniel Kline of Motley Fool addressed this topic a few weeks ago, WWE issued the following statement to them:
Notwithstanding the overwhelmingly positive response to WWE Network, we want to ensure subscribers have the highest-quality experience watching WrestleMania 30 and all our programming, and thus have put in place significant quality assurances. These steps include increased capacity to handle high volumes of transactions, logins, and concurrent live streams, daily 'stress' testing of all systems over an extended period, and the addition of technology experts to review our plan and procedures. We're confident that we'll be ready on Sunday, April 6.
If I had to guess, I'd say WWE is probably spending extra money, paying for much more capacity than they'll ever need, just to be safe. While both WrestleMania and WWE Network might draw in some lapsed fans who don't watch WWE's new programming every week, the best-case scenario for WWE Network is obviously that everyone who watches Raw will subscribe.
According to F4WOnline.com, that was a 4.38 million viewer average across the three hours this past Monday, with the second hour drawing in 4.6 million viewers. While that number doesn't break down how many households were watching (since a household isn't going to buy more than one subscription), those figures are available to WWE and give them something to work with.
If the future of WWE wasn't at stake, I don't know how I'd feel, but since it is, I find it hard to be anything less than cautiously optimistic.