Rabil: The Fastest Growing Sport in North America, Preview of Final Four


The N.C.A.A. lacrosse Final Four is taking place this weekend in Boston, with Maryland, Duke, Albany and Yale playing for the championship. We thought it would be an opportune time to catch up with pro lacrosse player and entrepreneur Paul Rabil. In a wide-ranging two-part interview, we discuss everything from the growth of the sport to the differences between its two pro leagues. In part 1 (part 2 will follow on Tuesday) Paul talks about the double-edged sword that is club lacrosse, he how collegiate scholarships are allocated and previews this weekend’s games.

JWS: Lacrosse has grown from a niche sport played in two pockets of the U.S. (Long Island and Maryland) and Canada to a game played around the world. Can you briefly expound on the sport’s growth trajectory over the last 15 years?

Paul: Lacrosse has been the fastest growing team sport in America for the past 15 years. We’ve gone from a couple hundred thousand people playing to now 2 million. Moreover, we have 6 million fans; those are people that used to play, they’re parents of kids who play now, people who have touched a stick and watched a game. Ten years ago, we had nine participating countries in the World Games. Fast forward to this summer – the World Games are in July, in Israel – we have 58 countries participating. So, we’re seeing international growth and North American growth.

JWS: The privatization of the sport (see: club programs) has expedited its growth, but doesn’t that strategy hurt the game long-term? 

PaulThe double edge sword is that it (club lacrosse) makes our sport more exclusive of new entrants. What I’d love to see our sport get to, with the assumption that we have enough great coaches in all markets across the country, is a revival of rec lacrosse; so, league fees would sit at $100 versus in some cases $2,500 to $5,000 per season. Right now, 37% of families that have a child playing youth lacrosse are spending north of $1,000/year on fees and travel. That said, there are positives to privatization of youth lacrosse. You get good coaches, players who are competitive and improving quickly, and they’re building team camaraderie and community. 

Additionally, we’re seeing growth in non-profits that are working with and targeting urban market communities to offer playing opportunities for free. They’re usually funded by private ownership groups, or brands like Warrior are coming in and underwriting equipment.

JWS: Help the readers understand why families would be willing to spend upwards of $5,000 for their child to participate in a youth sport?

Paul: There was rampant early recruiting taking place over the past decade and privatized lacrosse or club lacrosse programs were building their stock based on being able to get a player a verbal commitment as early as 8th grade. So, what that was doing was causing this trickle-down effect on families to spend more to try and get their kid into college sooner. Late last year, the NCAA came in and said that recruits must wait until July 1 of their junior year of high school to commit to a school and that you can’t even have contact with a club coach, if you’re an NCAA head coach. That’s allowed us to kind of reset and focus on getting sticks in hands.  

JWS: Parents are spending a fortune on club lacrosse, but of the +/-200 players playing in Boston this weekend, few are on full scholarship. Can you explain how scholarship allocation differs between revenue generating sports and a non-revenue generating sport like lacrosse?

PaulFully funded lacrosse programs get 12.6 total scholarships, designated by the NCAA as equivalency scholarships, meaning they can parse them out however they want. In basketball and football, you’re not given that choice – if a player is on scholarship, it’s called an headcount scholarship, which means it’s a full ride. For equivalency scholarship sports, some players are on 10% scholarship, then there are other players that are #1 in their class, and get a full ride; so, they’re accounting for 1 full of those 12.6 scholarships.

JWS: You mentioned Warrior, but Nike and Under Armour are also subsidizing youth lacrosse. Unlike AAU basketball, where sneaker companies seek to establish an early relationship with future NBA stars, there is no big payday on the back-end if a lacrosse player turns out to be an all-time great. What do the equipment/apparel providers get out of the deal?

Paul: 57% of lacrosse participants are Gen-Z and they’re highly affluent. 63% of families with a child playing lacrosse spend $250/year or more on hard goods. So, if they (equipment/apparel providers) can reach that audience through sponsorship, they can create brand loyalty or brand affinity and it’s more likely the next stick purchase will be with that brand. The brands also know that if they are sponsoring the Baltimore Crabs (example of a local club team), that it’s more likely that the operators of that club will encourage the families (of the players) to purchase their goods from that sponsor. So, there are sales coming in two different ways, through affinity and encouragement of coaches.

Howie Long-ShortWarrior Sports was founded in 1992 by Dave Morrow, a two-time collegiate All-American and a co-founder of MLL. Back in 2004, New Balance was seeking a growth opportunity (lacrosse was first gaining popularity amongst high-school kids) and acquired the company for an undisclosed amount. At the time, New Balance was competing with Reebok (NOT Adidas, Puma or Under Armour) to become 2nd (behind Nike) in U.S. footwear sales. New Balance is a privately held entity, there are no ways to invest in the company.

Fan MarinoThe NCAA lacrosse Final 4 will take place this weekend in Boston. I asked Paul for a to give us a preview and for his prediction.

Paul: This weekend we have Maryland, who has been there traditionally over the past eight years and has one of the more storied programs in college lacrosse in terms of success and legacy. You have Duke, who is one of the more prominent ACC schools and has been on the rise over the last decade. You have Albany, who is new to the Final Four; the exciting team led by the best freshman in the country – he’s Native American – his name is Tahoka Nanticote. Then you have Yale, an Ivy League school that has been knocking on the door (of the Final Four) for a long time; and they have one of the best seniors (Ben Reeves) in the country. My prediction is a Maryland/Albany final and hopefully an Albany winner – and the reason I say that is because Scott Marr, their head coach, is a Hopkins grad (Editor Note: Paul played at Johns Hopkins).

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Nike, Not Under Armour To Become MLB’s Official Uniform and Apparel Provider


Sports Business Daily reported that Nike, not Under Armour, will be the official on-field uniform and apparel provider of MLB come 2020. Back in December 2016, Under Armour announced it had made a 10-year commitment to replace Majestic Athletic (since acquired by Fanatics) as the league’s supplier of game-day outerwear, base layer undershirts and year-round training apparel. It now appears they’ve asked out of the deal, looking to reduce overhead amidst declining U.S. sales (down -1% in Q1 ‘18, forecasting a mid single digit net revenue decline in ‘18); a decision that will save the company +/- $50 million. Fanatics, which acquired the rights to make and sell fan gear at retail as part of UAA’s 10-year pact, is expected to retain those rights; the company announced a similar product licensing agreement with the NFL earlier this week.

Howie Long-ShortUAA has openly spoken about its intention to simplify operations and run leaner, so the decision to cut back on what equates to a brand marketing expenditure aligns with that philosophy. Investors were pleased to see the talk wasn’t just lip service, as shares closed +2.5% on Thursday; at their highest level since July ’17 ($20.58).

That’s not to say that being the official outfitter of a pro sports league doesn’t bear returns. Analysts suggest long-term agreements could boost sales by “hundreds of millions per year.” That should bode well for Nike shareholders as the company also holds NFL and NBA uniform and apparel licensing agreements through the middle of the next decade. Adidas is the official supplier of NHL team uniforms.

For reference purposes, on May 1 UAA reported a $30 million loss for Q1 ’18 on revenue of $1.19 billion; the company’s second straight losing quarter. Looking for some reasons to believe the company is headed in the right direction? Total revenue grew +6%, apparel was up +7% (to $766 million), international sales rose +27% (now roughly 25% of total revenue) and DTC sales grew +17% (to $352 million, now 30% of total sales) during the latest quarter.

Fan Marino: Did you know that Puma, not Under Armour, is now third in sales among athletic apparel brands? Nike and Adidas hold the first and second spots, respectively.

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ESPN to Pay $1.5 Billion for UFC Broadcast Rights

UFC 200x200

Just two weeks after ESPN agreed to purchase the rights to broadcast 15 UFC events annually for $750 million, the company acquired exclusive linear broadcast rights to the MMA promotion’s cable television package. The newly signed deal, worth $150 million annually, will give fans 27 additional fight cards each year (consisting of 10 new linear cards, 12 PPV prelims on linear, and five new OTT cards); meaning ESPN will pay a staggering $1.5 billion to carry 210 UFC events over the next five years. Earlier this week, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro called the UFC an “ascendant property”, while touting its young and diverse fan base. It must be noted that despite the $300 million ESPN will pay UFC annually, UFC will retain the rights to its 12 annual PPV events (i.e. their best content). 

Howie Long-ShortWe told you that once the WWE SmackDown Live deal with FOX was completed, UFC’s linear broadcast offering would be the next set of sports rights to fall. What we didn’t project was ESPN (DIS) acquiring them after spending $150 million per year on digital rights for ESPN+ and hearing that Fox Sports had increased its bid to $175 million/year for the package (up from $165 million). UFC may have left some money on the table to do this deal. Experts projected the linear package to draw $200 million and several networks (i.e. Turner, NBC, Fox Sports) reportedly had interest.

$1.5 billion for UFC cards between fighters no one has ever heard of (yes, that’s a bit of hyperbole) does not sound like a great investment. The UFC lacks mainstream star power to begin with and naturally the promotion places its biggest stars on PPV cards (which they’ll retain); meaning the cards appearing on ESPN & ESPN+ won’t include Connor McGregor (or any other mega star) anytime soon. Did I mention Fox Sports’ ratings for UFC events declined double digits in 2017?

Need reasons to believe ESPN made a wise investment? UFC has the youngest fan base in sports (median age 40). Males aged 18 to 34 are particularly valuable to advertisers and at $150 million annually the package is still cheaper than what NBCUniversal and FOX will pay for RAW and SmackDown Live.

Fan Marino: I’m certainly not surprised that WWE content is valued more than UFC content, as WWE has a far better business model. WWE stars headline tentpole events (like WrestleMania) and more than 500 other shows each year, so fans get to see their favorite Superstars on a weekly basis. UFC’s biggest names might fight twice a year and are always one fight away from never headlining another event, either because they’ve lost their sense of invincibility (see: Rousey) or because they’ve made so much money that getting punched in the face for a living no longer makes sense (see: McGregor). UFC promotion can also be limited by the outcome of fights, as the best fighters aren’t always marketable (see: Stipe Miocic). You’ll never find WWE in that situation, as career arcs are decided before the Superstars get to the ring.

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Paddy Power Betfair Acquires FanDuel, DraftKings Launches Sports Betting Marketing Campaign

Paddy-Betfair 200X200

Paddy Power Betfair (PPB) has acquired FanDuel (pending final regulatory approval) with the intention of competing in the legalized U.S. sports betting market. The Dublin-based betting operator will bring its modest U.S. assets (worth $612 million) to the table, as well as $158 million in cash; money that will be used to pay down existing FanDuel debt ($76 million) and to fund operations of the new joint business. PPB will merge its U.S. operations with FanDuel’s immediately and will own of 61% of the combined entity; that percentage will increase to 80% after three years and PPB will assume complete control of the company after five years (via call/put options at market price). The newly combined entity now represents “the industry’s largest online business in the U.S.”

Howie Long-Short: This deal came together quickly once legalized sports betting became reality, with news of the deal first reported just a week ago. It’s a good thing that it did, with competitor DraftKings having launched its sports betting marketing campaign (see Fan below). Paddy Power Betfair isn’t collecting DFS companies for sport (they bought DRAFT in ‘17), they’re using M&A to take market share in a sports betting arms race. FanDuel controls 40% of the U.S. DFS market (1.3 million active users) and PPB believes they’ll be able to convert many of those individuals into true sports bettors. The FanDuel brand also brings PPB some value, as the popular gaming operator (in Ireland and U.K.) lacks U.S. name recognition; despite owning the California based horseracing betting business and digital broadcaster TVG and the New Jersey online gaming site Betfair Casino.

It should be noted that PPB’s U.S. operations and FanDuel both lost money in 2017. Together (including expected synergies) it’s expected that they’ll operate at broadly EBITDA breakeven, before investment in sports betting. Paddy Power Betfair trades OTC under the symbol PDYPY. Shares rose 5% (to $61.75) following Wednesday’s announcement and they’re up 17.5% since word of the deal first broke on 5.16.

Fan Marino: As Howie mentioned, DraftKings introduced its sports betting marketing campaign (billboards etc.) to New Jersey residents this week; noteworthy, if only because they’re yet to announce a land based casino operator as partner (as required by state) and don’t have a proprietary sports betting application ready for use (though, they could operate 3rd party software). We’ve known for a while now that DraftKings intends on pivoting from DFS to sports betting. The company hired a Head of Sportsbook, added +/-300 new employees and opened a new office in Hoboken, N.J. (anticipating they’ll be the first state to legalize) all within the last couple months.

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DAZN Exec Markowski Discusses Unseating ESPN and NFL’s Global Popularity


U.K. based promoter Matchroom Boxing and Perform Group formed a joint venture, Matchroom Boxing USA, to promote 16 fight cards in the U.S. annually over eight years. Perform Group, which has committed $1 billion to the venture (the largest investment in boxing history), will broadcast the events on its digital streaming service, DAZN. JohnWallStreet had the chance to talk with DAZN SVP Commercial and Partnerships Joe Markowski about the company’s approach to entering the U.S. market, its global ambitions and interest in the NFL overseas.    

JWS: Chief Executive James Rushton said his goal was to make DAZN “the largest and most significant sports broadcaster in the world.” Can that be accomplished without unseating ESPN in the U.S. market?

Joe: I don’t think we would say our ambition is to become the number one sports broadcaster in the U.S. We recognize the maturity of the sports broadcast market here and we realize to “unseat ESPN” would require a significant investment and access to rights which currently are not available on the market. We have a defined set of rights we’re working with and we’re very confident we can establish ourselves using those rights here. 

JWS: I’ve seen DAZN described as “Netflix for Sports”. Please explain the comparison, as I see Netflix as an on-demand service – whereas sports are watched live? 

Joe: It’s an easy way to way to describe OTT, because that’s not a widely-known term among consumers; people have become accustomed to OTT via Netflix. We see it as an easy way to describe our ambitions, which are to be the pre-eminent global broadcaster of sports content via OTT.

JWS: It’s been estimated that there are 10 million boxing fans in the U.S., with 3 million identifying as hardcore fans that spend money on PPV fights. The May 12th Lomachenko/Linares fight that aired on ESPN drew 1 million viewers. Considering those viewers get ESPN with their cable subscription (i.e. it didn’t cost them any additional money to watch), is that the ceiling for subscriptions sold within the first year of the deal?

Joe: We don’t look at it through a 12 month lense, we are making an eight-year long-term commitment here. That is consistent with what we’ve done in other markets. Our primary rights relationships in a market will always be long-term (see: 10-year deal with Japanese soccer league in Japan), sometimes with our hand on the steering wheel – where its’s more than just a broadcast relationship (think: board membership); that’s the case here with Matchroom Boxing USA. Of course, there are KPIs, a CEO and investors to keep happy, but for us the most important metrics are three, five, eight years out.

JWS: For the last 30 years, boxing’s biggest match-ups have occurred on PPV. Your model is based on monthly subscriptions sold. Why does the sport’s business model need to be revamped?

Joe: We see the PPV model as underserving the boxing fan. We recognize PPV costs vary, but we think even at $59.99 that’s inflated for a single night of boxing and we’re going to serve the customer in a very different way. If you look what we did with McGregor/Mayweather, we made that available via our standard rolling monthly subscription mechanism, which includes a free first month. It gives the user affordability and flexibility. From a business model perspective, we want to serve you with enough content, engaging content and a schedule of upcoming content that you see value in and you stick around for it; and our price point, when we announce it in late June/early June, will reflect that. 

JWSThere is a perception that while the NBA is a global game, the NFL lacks a following outside of the U.S. You guys carry NFL games (live) and RedZone in several international markets. Do league games draw viewers? 

Joe: The NFL has done a wonderful job of internationalizing their business. We carry that content in Germany and it does really well for us there. We carry NFL content in Japan. It does well for us there, but I’m not going to pretend it’s a top-tier sport as domestic content trumps it. In Canada, it’s a jewel in our crown; you can make the argument that it’s the number 3 sport there. As a guy coming from London, that market is growing YoY. I can definitely see growth across various metrics as a fan and as a league partner (Perform Group) of theirs, across various European markets. As we scale, we see the NFL as a key partner in markets far away from North America. 

HowiePerform Group is a subsidiary of privately held Access Industries. The sports media company counts The Sports News and Goal among its U.S. publications. While you can’t invest in Perform Group, there is one way to play DAZN; Dentsu, a Japanese advertising firm that trades publicly on the Tokyo Stock Exchange under the symbol (TYO: 4324). In late March, Dentsu invested in DAZN as part of a deal “which made the service available to customers of mobile phone operator NTT Docomo.” No information has been released relating to the size of the investment or the valuation placed on the company.

Fan MarinoConsidering NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL rights are tied up into the early part of the 2020s, I asked Joe what else U.S. sports fan can expect to see on the service upon its launch? 

Joe: Our approach to rights acquisition is not going to be in a silo (i.e. fight sports), we’ll make some other announcements soon; this is very much a multi-sport service that will carry premium rights for a number of top-tier sports. Again, we are in this for the long-term; we have engaged and will engage with the big 4. Immediately, you’ll see a broad offering touching on soccer, international sports and domestic content where it’s available.

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“Nike Effect” Working, Shares Sit Just Below All-Time High


Nike’s (NKE) transformation from wholesaler to mobile-first DTC retailers has been successful (+16% YoY in ’17 vs. overall corporate growth +6% YoY) and the company’s market cap ($118.84 billion) continues to rise as a result, despite recent C-level turnover. Dubbed the “Nike Effect” by CEO Mark Parker, the revamped strategy has NKE focusing on just 40 retailers while prioritizing its direct to consumer sales channels (think: storefronts, nike.com, Nike app, SNKRs app). Nike uses the data collected from its 100 million “members” to create a more personalized/rewarding shopping experience on those channels and to identify underserved demographic groups (think: females). Wedbush analyst Cristopher Svezia recently wrote that he expects Nike’s DTC sales to “push overall sales into positive territory in fiscal 2019.”

Howie Long-Short: Nike decision to control the means of distribution has helped the company alter its image with “sneakerheads”, which soured when the company began to overproduce its most desirable lines (i.e. Jordan). The lack of buzz surrounding the brand contributed to the loss of market share it experienced in 2017 (-1.6% to 32.9%). While limited edition drops make up a small portion of Nike sales (+/- 5%), the enthusiasm generated by the company’s most engaged consumers helps the perception of the brand and leads to mainstream consumer sales.

The “Nike Effect” has been validated by a “significant reversal of trend in North America”, growth in DTC sales and improved international sales (+24% YOY in China, +19% in Middle East and Africa) as the company beat analyst expectations (revenue + 7% to $8.98 billion) in fiscal Q3 ‘18.Shares closed at $71.31 on Tuesday, just below their all-time $72.19.

Unfortunately, Nike’s old brick and mortar partners (think: FL, FINL) have struggled to replace the revenue Nike product generated. FINL reported same store sales declined -7.9% in Q4 ’17, while FL reported same store sales were down -3.7% during that same period. FL will report Q1 ’18 financials on Friday 5.25.

Fan Marino: Limited edition Nike sneakers (including Jordans) are distributed through Nike’s SNKRs app (separate from NIKE app), a digital platform that gamifies (including a virtual queue) the shopping experience for company’s most wanted products. On June 23rd, SNKRs will have one of this summer’s most highly anticipated sneaker drops, the Travis Scott “Cactus Jack” Air Jordan 4. While the shoes will retail for $225, the current asking price on GOAT is $2,015; so, unless you have a lot of cash to burn, make sure to download the app, have your credit card information stored and be ready for the alert at 10a on 6.23.

Fun Fact: Prior to being acquired by NKE (in ’16) and rebranded as SNKRs, the community building and shopping app was named “Virgin Mega” and backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Financial terms of that deal were not disclosed.

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WWE Gets $1 Billion for SmackDown Live, Shares Up 33% in Last Week


21st Century Fox (FOXA) has agreed to a 5-year deal worth more than $1 billion for exclusive broadcast rights to WWE’s SmackDown Live show. Effective October 2019, the 6th highest rated original show on cable television will move from USA Network to FOX’s over-the-air TV network. FOXA plans to move the Tuesday night staple to Friday evenings and will continue to broadcast the 2-hour show live. WWE reportedly chose the FOXA bid despite a larger offer, as “new Fox” committed to promoting the show during tentpole sports broadcasts (think: NFL on Sun, NFL on Thurs, MLB, CFB). NBCUniversal, the show’s current rights holder, declined their right to first refusal to negotiate a new contract after deciding to retain WWE Monday Night RAW with a deal worth $240 million annually; that show will continue to air on USA Network. Combined the new deals are worth +/- $445 million annually, a +/- 145% increase on the $180 million/year that the company currently brings in for the 2 prime-time shows.

Howie Long-Short: We noted in yesterday’s newsletter that Fox was among the favorites to land the WWE franchise and should it do so, was likely to air SmackDown Live on its Big 4 network; so, we weren’t exactly shocked by Monday’s news. The deal’s total value had us doing a double-take though, as earlier reports pegged the show’s value at +/-$110 million/year (up from $30 million/year on deal signed in 2010). WWE shares rose again on Monday, closing +12.5% (at $57.86); the stock is up 33% since last Wednesday’s close (RAW deal broke Thurs.) and a whopping 192% over the last 12 months (from $19.80).

The next shoe to drop is likely to be UFC’s linear cable broadcast package, with 20+ live events. FOXA currently pays $165 million annually for exclusive broadcast rights, but that deal expires in December. While earlier reports indicated that FOXA would let the UFC walk if it successfully acquired WWE rights, it now appears as though the company wants to retain the rights and is willing pay an extra $10 million/year ($175 million) to do so. Of course, it’s no guarantee that will be enough, as industry experts have been expecting the UFC’s deal to fetch $200 million+.

Fan Marino: There is the possibility (if not high probability) that SmackDown Live will outdraw RAW during the deal’s duration. While RAW currently draws 3 million viewers (compared to SmackDown Live’s 2.59 million), SmackDown Live’s pending move to FOX will put the show in 30 million additional homes on a night with far less competition in terms of programming.

For those who don’t follow the WWE, SmackDown Live was historically an inferior product to RAW (even taped at one point). However, a 2016 draft split the company’s talent roster, requiring fans to watch both shows to see all their favorite superstars. Should SmackDown Live begin to outdraw RAW (as we expect), look for some of the promotion’s biggest names (think: Roman Reigns, Ronda Rousey) to join Miz and AJ Styles on the SmackDown Live roster; the WWE will want the opportunity to put forward its best product on its biggest stage (i.e. broadcast television).

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NBCUniversal To Sign Monster Deal for RAW, WWE Shares Skyrocketing


It’s been reported that NBCUniversal (CMCSA) intends on retaining exclusive broadcast rights to WWE Monday Night Raw with a deal worth +/- $240 million/year. Under the terms of the proposed contract, RAW will remain on USA Network where it’s resided since ’05. WWE will have to find a new home for SmackDown Live though, as NBCUniversal passed on renewing its expiring deal with the franchise. It’s been rumored that the SmackDown Live package could be worth an additional +/- $110 million/year (worth $30 million/year under current deal), with Fox, Amazon Prime and Facebook Live all considered viable landing spots for the Tuesday night show (6th most watched on cable TV).

Howie Long-Short: The outcome of this deal represents best-case scenario for the wrestling promotion. The value of their broadcasts will double (worth $180 million in ’18) and should Fox (FOXA) land SmackDown Live, it’s possible that they would broadcast the show on their over-the-air TV network; had Fox won rights to both shows, it’s likely SmackDown would have been relegated to FS1 (30 million less households). Should SmackDown Live end up on Fox, the show would have the opportunity to beat RAW in the ratings for the first time since the company split the roster in 2002.

The WWE is projecting record revenue in ’18, boosted the company’s deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (reportedly worth +/- $20 million/year) and with a reduced corporate tax rate, it’s possible (if not likely) the company will set a record for profits too. Combine that rosy outlook with the enthusiasm over the company’s pending TV deals and it explains why shares are up 18% (to $51.42) since Thursday (5.17).

Fan Marino: Hulk Hogan, who has been out of favor with the WWE since ’15 (racist comments), is reportedly in discussions with the promotion about a return. Once the face of the organization, the company was quick to remove all references to the Hulkster following the incident. While purely speculation, WrestleMania 35 (New York City, April ‘19) would seem like an opportune time to bring him back; of course, Hogan and Mr. T faced Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff in the main event at WrestleMania I in 1985.

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