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By Jessica Toonkel
ORLANDO, Fla. Dec 8 Three mornings a week,
22-year-old Bin Wang, a native of China's Anhui province, enters
a beige, low-rise building tucked into an office park in
Orlando, Florida, to spend hours body-slamming people.
In a few weeks, the 230-pound (104-kg) Wang, who arrived in
the United States in June, will be joined by seven other Chinese
athletes hand-picked by World Wrestling Entertainment Inc
, in the hope that one of them will become the first
Chinese WWE "superstar."
WWE, the $1.5 billion company known for big personalities
and outrageous story lines, wants its Chinese wrestlers to be
the next television sensation in China, a market where other
U.S. media companies have faltered.
In June, WWE announced it had signed Wang - whose fighting
name is "Tian Bing" - and entered into an exclusive deal with
Chinese online video provider PPTV to live stream its popular
"Raw" and "SmackDown" shows in the country, dubbed into
Mandarin. (See Wang in action on Reuters TV: reut.tv/2hbtlpz
WWE hopes to succeed where others have failed, by bringing
its own WWE Network online streaming service - currently
available in 180 countries - to China, according to George
Barrios, WWE's chief financial and strategy officer.
WWE is looking for a partner, which could be PPTV, so it can
offer WWE Network in China and ultimately live stream events in
China featuring its Chinese talent.
Stamford, Connecticut-based WWE is betting that China, with
a population of over 1.4 billion and an expanding, digital-savvy
middle class, will fuel the growth if its two-year-old streaming
service, which has so-far amassed about 1.5 million U.S.
subscribers at a price of $9.99 per month.
Since 2000, twice as many Chinese citizens as Americans have
joined the middle class, defined as households making the annual
equivalent of $50,000 to $500,000, according to Credit Suisse.
The online streaming video market in China is expected to be
worth $7.85 billion by 2021, up from $2.67 billion this year,
according to Digital TV Research.
Attracting Chinese fans could also help WWE woo Chinese
investors. Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda and other Chinese
firms looked at mixed martial arts franchise Ultimate Fighting
Championship before talent agency WME-IMG bought it for $4
billion earlier this year, industry bankers told Reuters. Wanda
declined to comment.
There are regulatory and political risks. Chinese regulators
can shut WWE's operations down at any time if they deem
them inconsistent with the country's values.
Earlier this year, Chinese regulators unexpectedly forced
Alibaba Group Holding to end its online streaming
partnership with Walt Disney Co just months after it was
launched, to comply with recent regulations limiting foreign
For the same reason, regulators shut down Apple Inc's
online book and movie sales in China.
WWE may also come to rue its close ties with U.S.
President-elect Donald Trump, a member of the WWE Hall of Fame
who used to appear regularly at matches.
Trump used China as a regular punching bag during his
campaign and caused ire in Beijing last week by taking a
congratulatory call from Taiwan's president, breaching decades
of diplomatic practice.
Trump picked WWE co-founder Linda McMahon as head of the
U.S. Small Business Administration on Wednesday, deepening his
connection with the company. Nevertheless, WWE is not concerned
its ties with the Trump administration might affect its effort
in China, according to a source familiar with the situation, who
wished to remain anonymous.
WWE's partnership with PPTV, which is owned by Chinese
conglomerate Suning Holdings Group, may protect against any
backlash because its parent has close ties to the Chinese
government, industry experts said.
The Chinese government does not pre-approve scripts. WWE
does post videos of Wang in training on Chinese social media
sites, so fans can track his progress, said Paul "Triple H"
Levesque, whose is WWE's head of talent and live events.
In June, Levesque went to Shanghai to audition Chinese
athletes to come to Orlando for training.
"The biggest thing we look for is charisma," Levesque said,
on a recent visit to Orlando.
WWE is also keen to find talent with a story that will
resonate in China.
For example, one woman athlete from a rural village in
northern China had not told her parents she was auditioning.
When asked what she would do if she was accepted, she said she
would have to disobey them and follow her dream.
Telling that story to young girls across China, where women
are beginning to chart their own paths, is hugely powerful,
Levesque said. That woman will arrive in Orlando in January.
WWE believes the underlying story line of good versus evil
will translate to China, and it is a matter of helping viewers
there understand WWE's unique mixture of sport and
entertainment, Levesque said: "It's physical theater."
At WWE's performance center in Orlando, there are two
remote-controlled cameras beaming practice sessions to head
office in Stamford. One live streams into WWE Chief Executive
Vince McMahon's office and the other into Levesque's office, an
indication of how important new talent is to WWE.
"I leave it on in my office all the time," Levesque said.
Wang, who stands 6 feet 3 inches (1.9m), is one of the
fighters hoping he will stand out and capture the bosses'
attention, and ultimately, that of his country.
"My dream is for Chinese fans to know I am here," he said.
(Reporting By Jessica Toonkel; Editing by Anna Driver and Bill