WWE proves sports and sports entertainment are a perfect match

The lines between sports and sports entertainment are more blurred than ever as we sit here in 2019 — a time when the stories that surround athletic competition are often much more compelling than the action that transpires on the field, diamond or hardwood.

And Paul “Triple H” Levesque loves it.

Levesque, the WWE’s Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative, sees the increasing push for elite athletes to try to build their brand and maximize their exposure as an extension of what his company has been doing for years.

As the WWE launches a new era with the move of its iconic live SmackDown show to FOX (beginning at 8 p.m. ET on Friday night), Levesque believes the timing is perfect. SmackDown on FOX will be positioned at the Friday night heart of a four-day power programming window, starting with Thursday Night Football and culminating in college football and the NFL over the weekend.

“It feels like we are everywhere right now,” Levesque told me in a telephone interview this week. “Being able to spread our brand to NASCAR and college football and the NFL, it feels like a perfect marriage.”

Sports and the WWE have enjoyed a dovetailing of interest in recent years, each bouncing off the other to mutual benefit. WWE Superstars aim to be a mixture of pro athlete and entertainment superhero; extraordinary athleticism combined with attitude, signature moves, and probably a compelling catchphrase or two.

“That is what a lot of athletes want to be — to be the spectacle at the center of it all,” Levesque added. “To be able to criss-cross the two; to be able to trash talk to each other like we do in WWE and come out on top; to wear a belt.

“We want every superstar to be their own brand and own larger-than-life character because it all works for us. We support that completely as a company. It is slightly different for the sports leagues, but that’s what the athletes strive for. So sometimes when they score a touchdown and celebrate like a WWE Superstar, it is them living vicariously through these cool moments that we create.”

WWE shows are a healthy dose of scripted drama driven by a core of remarkable athleticism. The company’s athletes often emerge from one of the WWE’s Performance Centers that develop talent and help injured stars rehabilitate from injuries.

As WWE continues to evolve, its appeal to pro sports athletes increases further. LeBron James is among the biggest and most visible fans, having followed the product since childhood. In 2014, he bought his entire Miami Heat squad WWE Championship belts, adding a personalized inscription to each one. Ray Allen’s belt was made out to Jesus Shuttlesworth, the character Allen played in the movie He Got Game.

Upon his return to Cleveland, James wore an Undertaker shirt when 3-1 down in the 2016 NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors to signify his team was not yet buried — and followed it up with a sublime troll job by rocking an Ultimate Warrior shirt after completing basketball’s most memorable series comeback.

Around that time, the WWE began producing title belts for each of the champions across the four major sports, and Kevin Love rocked his strap everywhere the Cavaliers went on their victory tour. Later, James collaborated with Nike to release a signature shoe depicting his favorite all-time WWE athletes.

In the NFL, WWE moves are often the perfect way to celebrate a sack, touchdown or victory. There is, of course, Aaron Rodgers’ ubiquitous “title belt” pantomime which became adopted into the branded “Discount Double Check,” but plenty of pro football players have been happy to get far more specific with their WWE homages.

Last December, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce lit up social media with his reaction to collecting a touchdown catch from Patrick Mahomes. Kelce rose to his feet and dropped teammate Anthony Sherman with a pre-planned Stone Cold Stunner borrowed from WWE legend Steve Austin.

Chicago Bears lineman Roy Robertson-Harris and Detroit Lions receiver Golden Tate have both used Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s People’s Elbow to highlight key plays. And when San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle paid tribute to The Rock before and after his team’s most recent victory, Johnson responded in kind.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pro athletes showing their love for WWE. (The San Francisco Giants and just about every other sports team in the world adopted Daniel Bryan’s signature “YES” chant for a time in 2014, for example.) Don’t think that love fest is lost on Levesque and other executives in the company.

“The athletes in the NFL and other sports are fans of what we do, just as we are fans of them,” Levesque said. “It’s exciting for us as talent and as a brand. At the end of the day, WWE Superstars are like the athletes in these other professional sports — they just get to be larger than life.”

The WWE makes no secret of the fact that its shows are scripted, but that doesn’t make things any easier for the performers. Levesque said there is a “100 percent certainty” that a WWE star will suffer some kind of injury during their career. The travel schedule is frenetic, with the company putting on events around the world most days of the week.

In addition to the physical toll, stars must remember their lines and planned segments and be able to perform on cue while following the carefully crafted script pieced together by the creative team.

The result is that WWE Raw is American television’s longest-running episodic show, with SmackDown close behind in second place. The storytelling element is designed to appeal to a mass audience, often spanning generations.

“We do it by listening to the fans, by mirroring society in a way,” Levesque said. “We generate and promote athletes as cultural icons, who are every bit a superhero. At our shows you see grandparents with their kids and grandkids; you see families come together to share it. You follow the pulse of what happens in the world. We’ve been PG now for years and years and it’s what works for us.”

Levesque is aware that the move to FOX may open up the WWE to a new audience and that some of those who tune in on Friday may be doing so as a curious newcomer rather than a hardcore fan. He welcomes that opportunity to spread the WWE’s reach.

“On Friday, expect to see a spectacle. Expect to be entertained,” he said. “Expect not to take it too seriously in some manner. We’re here to help you kick back and forget all your problems. Turn on the television for a couple hours and just be excited. Cheer, boo, yell, scream, shed a tear, smile, laugh — the storylines and characters keep you invested.

“We bring the spectacle of live, athletic sport but add that episodic storytelling that brings you back week after week. There’s a little bit of something for everybody.”