Hulk Hogan, Sting, The Rock, "Stone Cold" Steven Austin, Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Bret Hart -- these larger-than-life names have something in common: They're wrestling draws. However, a larger question can be posed in the current day product, and we need to be honest with ourselves:
Is anyone a wrestling draw anymore? (current wrestlers only)
Let's define what a "draw" even is. For my money, a "draw" is a wrestler, or wrestlers, that you would pay the full price of admission for a 3-4 hour show just to see. During the 90s you may have tuned in to WCW and/or WWF on Monday nights, but you weren't likely doing it for the lower card -- you tuned in for Austin, Sting, Hogan, The Rock, Nash, HBK, etc. A draw is a performer that you make sure to go out of your way to see, no matter how long you have to wait. You know that whatever happens with this talent on your given show of choice will be a big deal.
Before we jump in, let's take a look at merchandise, as your bigger draws mean bigger sales. If folks are going out of their way to watch you, they're probably buying your gear. So with that, let's take a look at some figures:
-As of Dec. 2019, the top wrestler to move merchandise for Titan Towers is Bray Wyatt (no surprise), and it's hard for me to believe that much has changed. Roman Reigns and Becky Lynch come in behind "The Fiend" in that respect, as well as some legends like Austin, Hogan and The Undertaker.
-According to Pro Wrestling Tees and AEWShop, your top All Elite Wrestling shelf-cleaners are Orange Cassidy, Sting, The Inner Circle, and Kenny Omega -- with Freshly Squeezed taking the top spot for the entire year. The Hana Kimura tribute shirt also ranks high on the list, and in my opinion, should be #1.
So now we have our top money-makers when it comes to merchandise sales. The bigger question now becomes "Are these numbers translating into PPV buys and ratings?"
The answer is simply, no -- and there are three reasons for that, and why wrestling draws don't really exist anymore.
1. The Death of the Pay-Per-View
If you were to find the top 10 WWE Wrestlemanias according to buyrates you'll find that the top ever grossing show was held in 2012 with Wrestlemania 28, and the only other two shows that break the top 10 in this decade are Wrestlemanias 27 (2011) and 29 (2013). All three were headlined by The Rock vs. John Cena (if you count The Rock's involvement with the Miz/Cena main event). The Undertaker, Triple H and Shawn Michaels also helped boost these shows, as well as others in the top 10, which all occur in the 2000s.
However, none of these wrestlers are even active anymore, and are likely retired for good (sans maybe a once-off appearance by Cena).
Wrestlemanias that company lap dog Romain Reigns have headlined have fared very poorly, but since WWE Network launched not long before Wrestlemania 30 (Reigns headlined 31) PPVs have taken a steep decline since. The truth is that it's hard to even measure a draw by these numbers.
When it comes to AEW, in their short PPV history (where there is no AEW Network), their largest grossing show was 2020's Double or Nothing (approx: 120,000 buys), headlined by the infamous Stadium Stampede match. The second largest was Double or Nothing 2019, headlined by Jericho vs. Omega. But while these buyrates are good by today's standards, as not too many are keen on paying $50 for a wrestling show anymore -- they still pale in comparison to your Wrestlemanias.
It's hard for me to get behind the idea that anyone is a draw when so few are willing to pay full price for Pay-Per-Views these days, which makes judging who is and isn't a draw based on PPV's so difficult these days.
2. TV Ratings are meaningless (sort of)
There is a reason Chris Jericho touts championing the 18-49 demographic -- because that's who usually spends the most money in this economy, and that's who advertisers want. However, cord cutters are on the rise, and cable subscription numbers have been on the decline for years now. Because of this, rates will need to increase, which will only decrease the number of subscribers when other options are available. While I make sure to have access to TNT for AEW, I don't even have an official cable package -- just a bare bones "choose 10 channels" package to get me by -- which works for most people.
Everyone is streaming now, and soon enough, you'll likely see cable television replaced with $5/month streaming packages per conglomerate. Want the USA Network? You'll have to get NBC Peacock PLUS package for an extra few bucks a month. Want to watch AEW? You'll have to get our new AT&T app (which will soon own Turner Broadcasting) for access to live TNT programming and OnDemand shows. You want AXSTV? Dude, why?
You see what I'm doing here. Again, with so many flipping through Netflix and Hulu instead of flipping through cable channels, it's hard to measure a wrestling draw based on television ratings. Not only do these ratings fluctuate every week based on external circumstances (holidays, sporting events, 2020 as its own reason), but with personnel changing on both company's shows from week to week and year to year. If I didn't see it in a commercial, I would still assume Roman Reigns is on Raw, and A.J. Styles is on Smackdown. To most casual fans, it's all the same WWE to them, red or blue.
This is why your 18-49 demo becomes more important than anything, but at the end of the day, you need to make money. Wrestling draws do not accomplish this as much anymore as does the brand itself. Quite frankly, if Bray Wyatt, Drew McIntyre, AJ Styles and Roman Reigns were huge draws, the ratings for Raw and Smackdown wouldn't be on the continued decline as they have been. It's not their fault -- but they aren't exactly helping boost ratings, either. And yes, you can say the same for Orange Cassidy, Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes, and Darby Allin.
3. Changing Fanbases
I know I'm the outlier here, but as a teen watching wrestling in the 90s, I didn't watch WCW for DDP, Goldberg, and Hogan, I watched for Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, and Raven. Hell, I barely watched WWF through the 90s as is, as I kept my wresting focus on ECW up until around 2000 when Jericho left for the WWF. My point is that while my taste was in the minority, the same can't be said for the fanbases in modern times.
Professional wrestling stars have seen an evolution from your nostalgic main event talent like The Undertaker and Sting to Daniel Bryan and CM Punk, and now the likes of AJ Styles and Jon Moxley. The last four of which were relative unknowns to casual fans before signing with WWE (with the exception of Styles in TNA). The point is that the same fanbase from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s isn't the exact same fanbase that is watching now.
You'll still have your casual fans, and that's great -- you do you, like what you like. But I can argue that there are more fans like me now than there were 20, even 10 years ago. While many casual fans watching Raw or Smackdown aren't judging workrates, picking apart storylines, or watching character development -- fans like me are (or we stopped watching all together).
A lot of the AEW fanbase (fans like myself) HAVE seen Kenny Omega in New Japan, they likely have watched a lot of TNA through the 2000s, they ARE familiar with the Young Bucks, and they DO appreciate the enigma that is Orange Cassidy. Bottom line here is that with the wrestling market split between so many mediums (TV/Internet/YouTube/Apps), that you don't have to cast a wide net to the casual fanbase to make money. All Elite Wrestling has proven that they can focus on a specific sect of wrestling fans and be successful -- and in the process hopefully bring in some new fans with the likes of Sting, Moxley, Miro, and others.
Conclusion: It's all about branding
There are no active wrestling draws anymore, at least not at this moment. Sting brought in some viewers to AEW and sold merchandise because he was a draw in his day, but he isn't exactly getting into the ring to put on 5-star matches anymore. He's there to try to move the needle a little, but it's not going to bring in another million viewers (thought I can see AEW testing this out with a Jericho/Sting main event down the road).
WWE and AEW have two distinct BRANDS, and this is where the true draw lies. There is a certain familiarity and nostalgia that will always exist with WWE for many, and my guess is that you're simply tuning in to see what McMahon and company are up to -- like you have for decades. The company is marketed extremely well, the Thunderdome looks sleek, and while they aren't mainstream draws in the same way Austin or The Rock were, they do have some pretty good talent on their roster. WWE is a finely tuned machine that won't blow you away, but won't do anything so awful that the product won't completely let you down. It's safe, and it makes the shareholders happy.
AEW is branded towards the "smark" who has been watching Indies wrestling and puroresu for a decade or more now, and simply prefers a different style of wrestling and presentation. We also appreciate the 'wink-wink, nudge-nudge' insider terms that are brought to the table at times, and the sometimes predictable, but well-fleshed out slow-burn storylines mixed with high workrates and high spots that we've grown to love over the years. There's a good chance that other wrestling promotions like NWA, MLW, New Japan, ROH, Impact, and Shimmer are on our radar, so cross-promotion is welcomed with an open embrace and not a "who in the blue hell is this guy?" attitude. AEW is the hot spot right now where all the cool kids are hanging out. That may or may not change over the course of the future.
Both of these are truly fine. You can enjoy one or both. But wrestling draws? Not anymore. They don't really exist in the same way they have in the past, and with so many ways to watch pro wrestling now, it's nearly impossible to measure.