Vince McMahon appeared on WWE Smackdown yesterday hours after revealing he has temporarily stepped back from his role as Chairman and CEO of the company in the wake of bombshell revelations that he's being investigated by the board for paying $3 million to a former employee following an affair, with the investigation reportedly uncovering additional payments and non-disclosure agreements over misconduct allegations by women involving McMahon and head of talent relations John Laurenitis. Stephanie McMahon, who very recently announced a leave of absence from the company, has stepped into the temporary role of CEO in her father's absence, but Vince retains his role as head of creative in WWE and quickly followed up the announcement by promising to appear on WWE Smackdown last night in his "Mr. McMahon" character.
He did just that, opening the show by strutting to the ring to the cheers of the crowd (perhaps unnecessarily sweetened by fake crowd noise) in Minneapolis, most of whom sang along to his theme song. "It is a privilege as always to stand before you here tonight, the WWE Universe," he told the adoring crowd. "It's especially a privilege to stand here in this ring in Minnesota. I'm here simply to remind you of the four words we just saw in what we call the WWE signature. Those four words are 'then,' 'now,' 'forever,' and the most important word is: 'together.' Welcome to 'Smackdown!'"
Many people would likely try to stay out of the limelight while weathering a massive scandal, but McMahon, perhaps the carniest carny the world has ever seen, wasn't about to miss an opportunity to score a massive ratings boost for WWE Smackdown. But there was more to it than that.
McMahon may be out of touch with modern audiences in a lot of ways when it comes to booking storylines, but one thing he clearly understands is that this latest battle is one that will be fought largely in the court of public opinion. Consensual relationships with one's employees, under certain circumstances, may not be illegal, but few would argue they're morally correct. The WWE Board could terminate McMahon, the company's largest shareholder who controls an overwhelming portion of voting stock, over the scandal, but publicly traded corporations don't make decisions based on morals. They make decisions based on what is likely to result in the most profit for shareholders, which means the only way WWE will terminate Vince McMahon is if it's more financially viable to do so than to keep him on board.
With that in mind, McMahon's appearance on Smackdown was more than just a ratings grab, though it was also that. It was a rallying of support and a demonstration of his popularity with WWE's fanbase, serving also as a warning to the board that to terminate Vince McMahon would risk upsetting WWE's entire customer base and therefore negatively affect profits in a major way. The reaction from the crowd, broadcast clearly on network television to a likely larger-than-usual viewership, demonstrates that McMahon holds the advantage in the battle for public opinion, and in a post-Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial world, the benefits of that advantage are obvious. The only thing that truly matters is whether your supporters are willing to back you up and whether you have enough of them to drown out your detractors. In defiantly reveling in scandal rather than shying away from it, McMahon also takes influence from a WWE Hall-of-Famer: former President Donald Trump.
Things could change, depending on what details are revealed by the investigation or subsequent reporting, and there's another battlefield that may be even more important than public opinion: that of television rights deals that supply the majority of WWE's revenue. If advertisers are uncomfortable with McMahon remaining in charge, that could set off a chain reaction that sees the board view ousting McMahon as the preferable option. But WWE Smackdown, as the announce team told viewers immediately after McMahon's speech, was still sponsored by Progressive last night. As it looks right now, with the McMahon family firmly in control of WWE voting stock, shareholders long inclined to view the profitability of the company as tied to McMahon's leadership, and Vince McMahon retaining the devotion of the WWE Universe, he appears destined to regain power and perhaps become even more untouchable than he was before the scandal broke.