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WWE close to pinning down a new deal with NBCU

John Jannarone

World Wrestling Entertainment is near a deal with Comcast's NBCUniversal that will allow the media conglomerate to continue airing major wrestling programs on its TV networks, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Dwayne ''The Rock'' Johnson and John Cena in action during WrestleMania XXVIII at Sun Life Stadium on April 1, 2012 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Ron Elkman | Sports Imagery | Getty Images

The deal, which comes after months of intense negotiations, may be announced formally in New York at the USA Network's "upfront" presentation later Thursday afternoon where it showcases next season's lineup to advertisers, the person said. The current deal expires at the end of 2014. NBCUniversal is the parent of CNBC.

A spokeswoman from NBCUniversal declined to comment and a spokesman from WWE said he "couldn't confirm" that a deal had been reached.

The negotiation has captivated investors over the last year because WWE has argued it deserves fees that are more in line with those paid to major sports teams. The cost of sports content has skyrocketed in recent years in part because viewers still tend to watch sports events live, which makes it more valuable to advertisers.

Speculation that WWE would score a big fee increase prompted WWE share to triple over the course of several months. The stock peaked above $30 in January and has since retreated to about $19. But it is up nearly 13 percent this week on speculation that a deal might be close.

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Initial talks with NBCUniversal stalled several months ago, leading WWE to shop its content elsewhere. Another person familiar with the matter said that WWE spoke to other networks including properties of 21st Century Fox in recent months but failed to reach an agreement.

The terms of the new deal aren't known. Analysts expected WWE to secure terms that would more than double the fees it currently gets. A person present at WWE's annual shareholder meeting a few weeks ago said that CEO Vince McMahon promised he would "double" the old deal or he would allow himself to be put in a "hammerlock."

While wrestling is not a true sport, it does have many similar characteristics. Almost all of the viewers on the weekly "Raw" program on USA watch the event live. That program draws more viewers than any other regular show aired on USA, with an average audience of more than 4 million, according to Nielsen. If USA had lost the rights, it may also have lost its status as the highest-rated basic cable network in the country.

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On the other hand, wrestling doesn't have the same value to advertisers as traditional sports events, industry analysts say. That made it unlikely that WWE would secure terms on par with events like football or baseball games.

WWE has sought other ways to boost revenue from its wrestling events. Earlier this year it launch a Netflix-like video streaming service priced at $9.99 a month. The service needs about a million subscribers to become profitable and it is still short of that target, based on the company's latest reported figures.

—By's John Jannarone.