It’s been more than four years since Shane McMahon left the family business — the $2.3 billion WWE juggernaut — to launch a video-on-demand company in China. But, as WrestleMania again approaches without him in the fold, those challenges may make being suplexed through a plate of glass feel like a breeze by comparison.
Shane McMahon was 15 the first time he quit the family business. It was his third summer working in World Wrestling Entertainment’s Stamford, Conn., warehouse, stuffing programs, mailing merchandise, learning the business from the bottom up just as his father Vincent Kennedy McMahon had from his dad Vincent James McMahon. But he was barely making a dent in his car fund, and his dad refused to give him a raise. So he hit the pavement.
On his third day of job hunting, McMahon landed a construction gig starting at around $400 a week, triple what he banked at the WWE warehouse. He recalls the look on his father’s face when breaking the news to him. He saw pride.
McMahon soon returned to WWE, initially toiling on the ring crew and as a referee. After college he became a full-time employee working in marketing, production, sales, and at the print magazine. He went on to work in digital, which he launched in 1998, in creative, where he assisted in writing storylines; in international, where he helped expand the company into 150 countries; and occasionally as a wrestler, where he was blasted with Singapore canes and German suplexes and once dropkicked a trash can into his dad’s face.
Seen early on as a possible heir to the throne, Shane, nicknamed “Simba” and “The Crown Prince of WWE” on television, eventually ascended to Executive Vice President of Global Media. But on Oct. 16, 2009, McMahon resigned from WWE, and not to “spend more time with his family,” a stock alibi often trotted out for sudden departures like this one. “I wanted to do it on my own,” McMahon says today. “There was always that one little question: Can I get it done outside of the company? My dad, although I learned so much, he cast a big shadow.”
So big, in fact, McMahon went to China to escape it. As Chairman of YOU on Demand, a video-on-demand company often dubbed “the Netflix of China,” McMahon has found his second act. But he’s finding out — as other sons of great, rich, important men before him — that leaving the nest for your own kingdom is not without difficulties.
And it’s all happening during a historic time for WWE. The recently launched WWE Network — an online streaming service combining traditional programming, 100,000-plus hours of archived footage, and a full slate of pay-per-view events — has tripled WWE’s stock since September making Vince McMahon, once again, a billionaire.
But on the day the WWE Network was announced with a flamboyant presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Shane McMahon was more than 2,500 miles away at Indian Larry Motorcycles, the bike shop he co-owns in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. McMahon seemed detached when informed the big announcement was scheduled for later that day. “Oh yeah, OK,” he says nonchalantly.
McMahon, 44, is at Indian Larry’s to check on his bike, the “Sweet Marissa,” (named after his wife, the film producer Marissa McMahon), a lime green, black, and chrome monster that hits over 130 MPH; his father’s Boss Hoss 502, the “Invincible,” is also at the shop on the disabled list with a broken band. McMahon learned on dirt bikes before graduating to his father’s 1986 Harley Softail. Soon, like most motorcycle aficionados, he got into tinkering with the bikes — taking them apart and putting them back together again. “Remember, I’m a builder,” he says smiling.
Like a lot of businessmen, McMahon calls himself “a builder,” loves using the word “entrepreneur,” and casually, earnestly exudes maxims like, “I bet on myself a lot.” Still, up until now, he’s best known for something his father built. When Vince McMahon bought WWE (then called the World Wrestling Federation) from his father in 1982, it was a regional promotion mostly handling the northeast. Now WWE is a publicly traded company worth approximately $2.3 billion.
McMahon remembers when it was a hustle. He has a way of describing his childhood as strapped, if not Dickensian. He says he fought a lot as a kid because he only had three outfits. “They would always be clean,” he says, “But what I wore on Monday, I would wear on either Thursday or Friday.” The family never starved, but meals were hearty blue-collar grub like chicken pot pie or macaroni and cheese. McMahon looks back at the time fondly even though his father was often traveling for business.
The family — Vince, Linda, Shane, and younger sister Stephanie, six years Shane’s junior — eventually settled in Greenwich, Conn. after Vince bought the company. “My dad said, ‘What would be the last place on Earth that people would think a wrestling company would be?,’” McMahon says. “There were two spots he looked at: Beverly Hills, Calif. and Greenwich, Conn.”
Shane fell in with the jocks at Greenwich High, drove a pickup truck, and did things that teenage jocks with pickup trucks do. “We’d go out, have some beers, and smash mailboxes, just stupid shit, run from the cops,” says childhood friend Pete Gasparino, who wrestled in WWE for a time as “Pete Gas.” “We often joked about if we only put our stuff on video, we could have been Jackass.”
But he had a serious side as well, and McMahon became captivated by the family business. He accompanied his father during summers, even sitting in on production meetings, taking notes, and asking questions afterward. He learned the little details of the business like ring psychology (how to pace a match to maximize drama and storytelling) and booking (another term for creating storylines) from his father’s top lieutenant, former wrestler Pat Patterson. Still, he considered other paths such as architecture, investment banking, and even pro football. “We’ll never know if I could have made it to the NFL,” he says. “Do I think so? Yeah.” But he went to work for his dad after graduating Boston University in 1993 with a degree in mass communications and public relations.
McMahon first appeared as an on-camera personality in the summer of 1998. After debuting as a ringside commentator, he was quickly inserted into the storyline assisting his father’s ongoing battle with fan favorite “Stone Cold” Steve Austin; in addition to his front office duties, Vince McMahon also portrayed the character “Mr. McMahon,” the cruel megalomaniacal owner of WWE.
While the history of the wrestling business is littered with cases of promoters wrongheadedly pushing their sons, Shane McMahon connected with fans. Trained by Al Snow and Dr. Tom Prichard (not a real doctor), he had a fresh act, bobbing and weaving as he walked to the ring, shadowboxing like Muhammad Ali. And though, for the most part, he played the heel, fans appreciated his surprising athleticism, charisma, and most of all, his proclivity for putting his body in harm’s way.
At one point, McMahon shares one of his favorite in-ring memories, the time he taunted his father after “buying” rival promotion World Championship Wrestling from under his nose. (In real life, Vince McMahon purchased the AOL Time Warner-owned money pit, in effect killing his competition.) After he’s finished telling the story, McMahon lifts his arm exposing the outside of his hand: goosebumps.
McMahon sits in a corner booth in downtown Manhattan’s Coffee Shop, a mediocre haute diner with moody model waitresses and a tourist-heavy clientele, reminiscing about his war stories from inside the ring. His look today is corner office casual: fitted navy windowpane suit over a blue shirt with two buttons undone exposing a tanned hairless (perhaps waxed) chest. He has a thick neck, his face is dotted with tiny scars. “I have a bunch up here,” he says brushing a massive paw across his brow. “They kind of pop all over the place.”
McMahon’s best, or at least most infamous, match was at the King of the Ring pay-per-view in June 2001 against Kurt Angle, the 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist. “That’s how I got some of these,” McMahon says once again pointing to his battle scars.
McMahon suffered a concussion during the spot where Angle was supposed to belly-to-belly suplex McMahon through a panel of breakaway glass. It was the “high spot” of the match, the holy shit moment fans paid for, only it didn’t go according to plan, which, in a perverse train wreck kind of way always makes for an even greater holy shit moment in pro wrestling. McMahon bounced off the glass smashing his head onto the concrete floor. By this point, McMahon was loopy, everything, he remembers, sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Still he whispered in Angle’s ear insisting he go through the glass. This time it worked.
Later in the match, Angle grabbed McMahon’s hair and launched him through another partition gashing both men. “Whether he wanted to make himself proud or his dad or his family, I don’t know,” Angle remembers, “But he always went above and beyond the call of duty. Things that you don’t do, he did — things that would end your career.”
It wasn’t lost on the fans as they cheered McMahon even though his character was a heel. Behind the scenes, his father wasn’t as amused. “I was going ballistic as a father and as a producer as well,” says Vince McMahon who watched the carnage from backstage. “I was very, very close to walking out there and just stopping it. I was concerned that my son was putting himself in harm’s way and hurting himself just because he has the heart of a great performer.”
After the match, which Angle won by the way, in the locker room, guys McMahon admired all his life greeted him and Angle with a standing ovation. “The biggest adulation you can get is when you walk back through the curtain and you have all of your peers, all of the boys clap for you,” McMahon remembers. “When you see the who’s who clapping for you, that’s amazing.”
Though only 68, WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon is an almost Murdoch-like figure in that his succession plan has forever been an industry guessing game — in a recent Forbes profile McMahon even hinted he might be willing to sell the company. So when Shane McMahon announced he was leaving WWE, the prevailing theory amongst the wrestling “dirt sheets” and diehards was that he lost an internal power struggle to his sister Stephanie and her husband, the wrestler Triple H, who at the time was transitioning into a front office role; Triple H (real name Paul Levesque) is now Executive VP of Talent, Live Events & Creative and still a part-time performer.
Like her brother, Stephanie McMahon, 37, grew up in the industry occasionally getting physical in the ring. Then in the early 2000s, she started working on the creative team, the central nervous system of the company and the department said to be most critical to her father. As she worked her way up to Executive Vice President, Creative, McMahon became known for her decisiveness — one of her father’s marked traits.
”Stephanie would say what she meant and what she thought and if you didn’t like it, too bad, and I think that’s a lot like her dad,” says Kurt Angle, who was released from WWE in 2006 and has since wrestled for Total Nonstop Action wrestling. Rumors have him contemplating a WWE return once his contract ends later this year. “She wanted it the way she wanted it and 99.9 percent of the time she was right. I believe Shane had the same talent but he wasn’t as forward. He wanted to be your friend and your co-worker and when you mix it, you don’t lose respect but it’s like, this guy is my buddy but also the boss, when do I separate it?”
Former WWE writer Court Bauer worked alongside Stephanie McMahon in creative when it became apparent she was Vince’s likely heir apparent. At times, Shane dropped into meetings. “I liked his approach. It was very playful, and really just an exciting, ‘What if we did this?’” says Bauer. “If you went into Shane’s department, it was fun, laid-back, loose vibes. The energy and positivity wasn’t there in creative the way it was in digital. When it came out [in 2009] that he was leaving the company, I spoke to people at WWE, a lot of people were walking around like someone had died. ‘Oh gosh, he’s going to leave us?’”
(As far as Shane’s popularity: Both Angle and the wrestler Kevin Nash, whom I also spoke to for this story, asked me to pass along their contacts and regards. “I’d love for you to throw my number to him so I can take him out to get something to eat next time I’m in New York,” Nash says. “I always liked hanging out with him.”)
As might be expected, Shane McMahon matter-of-factly denies rumors of a family feud with his sister, now the Chief Brand Officer, a lofty position described as no less than the “face of the company.” “No, there was no civil war,” he says. “My sister is still involved in the company now with her husband Triple H. They’re there. My dad is there. Things are moving forward.”
One thing he will admit: Vince McMahon is, to put it mildly, a difficult person to work for, a boss who demands perfection from everyone, especially from his son. “My dad held me to a different standard, without question, sometimes unfairly so and that’s OK,” Shane McMahon says. “It’s tough to bat 1.000 all the time. It’s that one wrong all the time. It teaches you. It definitely teaches you. It’s a way of teaching.”
“When you have family in business, you expect more out of family, same with my daughter, same with my son-in-law, same with my wife, you just expect more from them. I think there’s no doubt I was harder on Shane than a non-family member for sure,” Vince McMahon tells me. He stresses that their relationship hasn’t changed. “We’re close, we’ve always been close and we always will be. Anytime there’s family in business, there is some degree of difficulty but at the same time, you put the business part aside and when you have a relationship with a son and his father, those bonds you never break.”
Bauer, who wrote for the WWE from 2005-07, compares them to a father and son from popular culture. “If you look at Shane McMahon, I don’t think he had that ruthlessness in him that Vince does,” he says. “Have you seen the movie There Will Be Blood? There are so many qualities to that character that I see in Vince McMahon; Shane McMahon does not have those qualities.”
McMahon first became involved with YOU on Demand about five years ago when Marc Urbach, a friend of a friend, and chief financial officer of what was then known as China Broadband, approached him for guidance. Having recently secured a 20-year joint venture agreement with CCTV6’s China Home Cinema, Urbach, admittedly, was clueless on how to run a video-on-demand company. McMahon, with his experience in pay-per-view and global media, seemed like the perfect brain to pick. Best case scenario, Urbach thought, McMahon would invest, maybe even sit on the board. A 10-month dialogue ensued, and when it was all over, McMahon, a fourth-generation pro wrestling doyenne, had left his family’s empire to become CEO of the newly christened YOU on Demand. “We were thrilled. He gave credibility to our business,” Urbach says. “He changed everything.”
Since arriving at YOU on Demand, McMahon has helped secure content agreements with Hollywood studios (of the majors, Fox and Sony are the only holdouts), and roped in new partners while also focusing on infrastructure, marketing and promotion — “blocking and tackling,” as he calls the unsexy grunt work of launching a business.
As an executive, McMahon says he’s a combination of his parents: The enthusiastic killer instinct was inherited from Vince; he learned to rein in that aggression from Linda, who was CEO of WWE from 1997 until quitting in 2009 to launch two failed U.S. Senate campaigns. He also had the benefit of sitting at the same table as Barry Diller, Dick Ebersol, David Stern, Rupert Murdoch, and Ari Emanuel. “That is an invaluable education,” McMahon says. “I pick a little something from everybody.”
With over 700 million smartphone users and 210 million cable TV subscribers in China, YOU on Demand’s growth potential seems enormous. But there are hurdles unique to doing business in China, a nation where pirate DVDs are a $6 billion industry. But that rampant piracy, McMahon says, proves two things: There’s an appetite for the product and consumers are paying for it. “We just have to change that model around,” he says, cutting into a spinach and feta egg-white omelet. YOU on Demand set a low price point of $1-3 per movie with piracy in mind. “If you are able to just give them a better experience through their TV and make it easier where you click a button and buy it, that’s where you want to be.”
There’s also the dark connections between media and government espionage. Last November, YOU on Demand announced their app YOU Cinema would come preloaded on all Huawei Mate smartphones; Huawei is the world’s third largest smartphone maker after Samsung and Apple. Though it was a huge coup for the company, American officials have long considered Huawei a front for the People’s Liberations Army. In October 2012, the House Intelligence Committee called Huawei a national security threat; a March 2014 report in the New York Times revealed that the NSA had hacked into its networks, and noted that Huawei has “all but given up its hopes of entering the American market.”
McMahon insists that despite government censorship of media, doing business in China is not so different from dealing with any other foreign market. “You just have to play within the rules of each individual system,” says McMahon, who doesn’t speak a lick of Mandarin. “Europe is much more lenient of sex, but they shy away from violence. China definitely controls what content is seen on television. We follow those rules. You aren’t going to see a lot of hardcore [violence], definitely not on YOU on Demand. You won’t see many Richard Gere movies because he is very pro-Tibet.”
Last summer, Weicheng Liu replaced McMahon as CEO. “It was always the plan. Weicheng Liu was our CEO of China. I just took the ‘of China’ part off,” says McMahon, now chairman of the company. “Again, learning a lot from my tenure at WWE, you got to know when something is solid and incubated. Then you have to let others sprinkle their wisdom on it and let it grow.”
Despite the change in leadership, You on Demand hasn’t caught on with investors. Numbers in their public finance reports are not pretty; in all, McMahon has loaned the company $7 million. Things appeared to turn around following the Huawei deal and a February announcement that C Media, a mobile video provider, had pumped $19 million into the company (bringing their total investment to $25 million); year-end 2013 results released in late March showed incremental progress. McMahon insists a breakthrough is imminent and that the company should break even by the end of 2014 or first quarter 2015.
“We are getting close,” McMahon says. “The numbers are so big over there that it doesn’t take much once you hit a little groove. This is a labor of love to create something from nothing. I like it when they say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. There’s no way you can build something like that.’ That’s what fuels me — to pull off the impossible.”
His duties as chairman still leave him time for other investments. In February, it was revealed that the convicted celebrity scam artist Calvin Darden Jr. approached him in his attempt to put together an investment group to buy Maxim magazine. Darden, who was posing as his father, real estate developer Calvin Darden Sr., allegedly swindled investors for $8 million and had targeted McMahon for $20 million.
“Oh yeah, that was a mess,” McMahon says. “I have a team of guys that checks stuff out on all the things I do. The opportunity came up, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Maxim, everyone knows the brand, good brand.’ At the end of the day, it didn’t turn out. Every time I asked the pertinent questions, there’d be no response or no answers. So I passed. Good thing I did.” Darden faces up to 40 years in prison.
Rumors of Shane McMahon’s return to WWE spike every year around WrestleMania. But McMahon will not be involved with WrestleMania XXX on April 6 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans; a recent report stated he would attend. A potential homecoming is still a possibility. “Would I ever come back? I would never count it out because anything can happen in the WWE,” he says parroting one of the company’s slogans.
McMahon is a little more subdued when asked if he would still like to run the company one day. “It’s in my blood,” he blurts before pausing to search for the proper response. “I would answer, if I feel it’s the right time and I could make a significant difference, I would consider it.”
His father is more pragmatic. “It was Shane’s decision to go out on his own,” he says, “and it will be Shane’s decision to come back, if he wished to.”
For now, he’s just a fan. Though he seemed blasé about the WWE Network when it was announced, McMahon subscribed when it launched in February. “I got that for my boys, it’s fantastic,” he says, noting that he introduced his sons to matches featuring his childhood heroes, “Superstar” Billy Graham and “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka. As he goes on, its clear McMahon is also enjoying the nostalgia trips. “When I get everybody to bed,” he says, “I know I’m going to be glued to that thing from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.”
Update: This story has been updated to include mention of the C Media investment announced in February.