Longtime WWE chief Vince McMahon announced his retirement on Friday.
“As I approach 77 years old, I feel it’s time for me to retire as Chairman and CEO of WWE,” McMahon said in a statement. “Throughout the years, it’s been a privilege to help WWE bring you joy, inspire you, thrill you, surprise you, and always entertain you.”
The announcement comes days after the Wall Street Journal reported that he paid more than $12 million to quash sexual misconduct and infidelity allegations over the last 16 years.
The WSJ reported in June that WWE’s board of directors was investigating a secret $3 million settlement with an employee who departed the company. McMahon then stepped back from his executive roles at WWE as his daughter Stephanie took over as interim CEO and chairwoman.
Stephanie McMahon’s “interim” chairwoman tag was removed, as she will serve in the role permanently. She will share the CEO role with Nick Khan, the former president and chief revenue officer, according to a WWE news release.
The move is likely to raise speculation that WWE could go on the selling block. Over the years, the promotion has taken calls from interested suitors but never tried to actively sell. That could change with the iron-fisted McMahon stepping down.
If WWE is interested in selling, one source pegged three potential suitors: Endeavor, Comcast’s NBCUniversal Media, and Liberty Media.
The company that would eventually become Endeavor bought a controlling stake in the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $4 billion in 2016. The Hollywood talent agency subsequently bought out the rest of the mixed martial arts promotion.
NBCU, meanwhile, could bundle WWE content and make it exclusive to its Peacock streaming service. Peacock already has an extensive streaming business with WWE.
It could be argued that NBC was the first true believer in McMahon’s vision of wrestling as sports entertainment, with former NBC mogul Dick Ebersol joining with McMahon to put “Saturday Night’s Main Event” on broadcast TV from 1985 to 1991. McMahon and Ebersol later teamed up for the original XFL, which lasted only season in 2001.
Liberty bought Formula 1 for $4.4 billion in 2016 and helped turn the international race series into sports phenomenon. Billionaire chairman John Malone could envision a similar global strategy for WWE.
In recent years, WWE has also added savvy sports media executives like former CAA sports agent Khan, executive vice president of development & digital Jamie Horowitz, head of global communications Chris Legentil and ex-ESPN content czar turned WWE board member Connor Schell. The new executive blood has raised speculation WWE is prepping for a sale.
McMahon made pro wrestling a national sensation after purchasing Capitol Wrestling Co. in 1982 from his father. With early stars like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, McMahon built a pro wrestling empire and innovative pioneer in the genre of sports entertainment.