Let’s not sugarcoat this:
World Wrestling Entertainment is media conglomerate that produces mass content for a built-in loyal fanbase. The programming is easy to digest, and doesn’t require a lot of attention. If you would ask Vince himself, we would likely refer to his brand as a media giant that makes their real money in stocks, investments, and capital.
Business first, entertainment second, wrestling third (maybe). I say this not to insult, as wrestling can be enjoyed in different ways — but the truth is the truth.
The fact that the new NXT logo looked like it was developed for a kids show on Nickelodeon is telling. However, there is an evil genius behind this, and the future direction of the company. If any fan were to give it some thought, it’s fairly easy to piece together what the future holds for this longstanding household name.
What I will do is reveal just exactly what Vince McMahon is doing, and what this means for the future of the wrestling industry, including AEW. This can be easily split into three sections: The Direction, The Gamble, The Future.
I can tell you one thing. Vince McMahon is not likely worried about C.M. Punk. Perhaps he was a little gutted over Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole, but he’s well over that already. There is a reason why Vinnie Mac and Nick Khan have released so many big contracts over the past year.
There is a reason why an emphasis has been placed on NOT signing Indies talent, as well. This involves a new direction that the company is likely headed from a foundational standpoint while saving money on smaller contracts.
Vince McMahon’s swansong is to start building the next generation of new stars from the ground up.
When McMahon hurriedly signed all the Indies talent he could years ago, he failed to full grasp one major aspect of it: It’s much harder to rebuild a talent that has already been established in the minds of thousands and thousands of Indies fans. For many, Seth Rollins is still Tyler Black, and Sami Zayn is still El Generico.
Indies Stars Do not Equal Main Event in Stamford.
You can go back 10 years through WWE champions and find only 5 names that were already well-known in other promotions before jumping to Stamford: Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose (Jon Moxley), A.J. Styles, Seth Rollins (Tyler Black), and of course, C.M. Punk. Only two still remain with the company.
Sans uneventful reigns from Kevin Owens and Finn Balor, the Universal Championship has seen largely the same results. You can repeat this with other titles on the brand (not counting NXT). There are exceptions, of course, (Matt Riddle, Nakamura, Riccochet, Sami Zayn, etc.)
But if you notice a trend, when it’s time to bring out the big-name main event attractions for the A-shows — it’s usually not a talent from the Indies scene. In fact you see a repeating cast of characters when looking at the main events over 10 years worth of Big-4 PPV main events: (Mania, Summerslam, Survivor Series, Royal Rumble)
-Alberto Del Rio
This means about 20 wrestlers have made up 40 main events (including Royal Rumble winners) over the past 10 years. I don’t care so much about the variety of names — if you’re on top, you’re on top — but look who McMahon deemed worthy of a spot on these major shows:
Only 4 of these names were established or hyped from other promotions before joining WWE. Two are now in AEW, three are no longer with the company, and two more are now (mostly) retired.
The bottom line is that Vince McMahon will rarely trust a talent established prior to joining WWE at a very high and consistent level on the card. And this leads to the gamble…
All Elite Wrestling has the market cornered for the place to be if you’re a hot and upcoming Indies talent. Even if you’re a former Indies talent/former WWE-talent, you can now jump back into the same fanbase you once knew so well. Only this time, there are millions of fans willing to sell out large arenas to see you, and there’s a major network deal to go along with it for maximum exposure.
Punk, Danielson, Cole and Soho didn’t join AEW for the money. They joined for a level of creative freedom they simply didn’t have in WWE. Remember, pro wrestling is an artform, and a craft that is learned over many years. Not everyone wants to play nice in the sandbox for a very corporate-driven company.
But here’s the gamble…
Vince McMahon has rarely been able to create new stars from the ground up in the modern era.
Over the last four decades you have quite an impressive list of homegrown and/or re-branded names. From The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage to Ultimate Warrior, The Rock and Triple H — Vince has a clear eye for talent. But even the bigger names like Hogan, Savage, Hart, Stone Cold, and HBK were somewhat known in other smaller markets (or WCW). They weren’t picked fresh, but simply rebranded.
NXT, the product responsible for creating new stars has done little in this regard. Aside from Roman Reigns, and a successful rebranding of Tyler Black into Seth Rollins, and the successes of Sasha Banks, Alexa Bliss and Bayley, you don’t have much. (Charlotte’s spot was always penciled in the main roster at some point).
You had rebranded names like Samoa Joe and Aleister Black on a hot streak which could have led to bigger and better things on the main roster, but that didn’t happen. Joe (when healthy) was never utilized to his full potential, and Black was poorly misused and is now doing well in AEW.
The boat was seemingly missed with Ciampa, Gargano, and now of course, Adam Cole. Karrion Kross has been mostly a laughing stock on his main roster appearances, Keith Lee has been a bust, and unless you count Big E’s recent anti-climatic (but still well deserved) recent WWE Championship, the brand hasn’t done much for building the next generation of WWE stars.
Can McMahon do it again and recapture his success in the 80s and 90s?
McMahon is doubling down on the idea that most paying casual wrestling fans will turn away from AEW. While Tony Khan is creating new stars along the likes of Darby Allin, MJF, Jungle Boy, Orange Cassidy, Britt Baker, Kris Statlander, Sammy Guevara, Ricky Starks, and a host of others — he also has a large Indies talent pool to pick from over the next decade.
I was waiting for AEW to sign Lee Moriarty and Wheeler Yuta, and I expect more names like Trish Adora, Allison Kay, Warhorse, Kiera Hogan, and Daniel Garcia to become official in the future. Tony Khan doesn’t have to worry about “branding” these talents. They either get over, or they won’t (they likely will).
But McMahon doesn’t have the corporate luxury of letting an Indies talent have free creative reign over their own persona.
Hell, prospect Parker Boudreaux has already been renamed Gunner Harland. U.S. Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson will sign with the brand after completing college, and fellow medalist Tamyra Mensah-Stock has stated publicly that she wants to be in WWE.
If you look at the recent NXT Breakout Tournament, you’ll find a lot of big, beefy boys. While Carmelo Hayes (under 6′) won the tournament, other names like Odyssey Jones, Duke Hudson, Josh Briggs, Andre Chase, and Joe Gacy are all 6 feet and over.
While Kyle O’Reily should win the NXT Championship in the upcoming fatal four-way, (if we’re trying to tell a good story), he’ll likely drop it in the near future to any of the above mentioned names.
The future of the main rosters are a bit grim…
Aside from Big E and Roman Reigns, there’s not a whole lot going on with future main event stars, especially those built from the ground up. Hell, they even botched Bianca Belair’s momentum, and gave the division right back to Becky Lynch without a fight. The current Bliss/Flair debacle on Raw just leads to an unfortunate impersonation of Hard Time Harold on my face…
It’s an aging roster.
Edge, Goldberg, Balor, Lashley, Styles, Miz, Roode, Sheamus, Hardy, Nakamura, John Morrison, Kofi, Cesaro, Orton, and Lesnar are all in their 40s. It makes you wonder how bad Vince will try to prevent Kevin Owens from leaving to AEW at only 37 years old.
Yes, these guys can all still go — but for how long?
Like it or not, the competition is slowly inserting their younger talent into main events with older stars to get them over (win or lose). I can’t say the same for WWE right now.
I fully expect a re-birth of sorts of 1980s WWF in modern times. Big, beefy, boys who throw each other around the ring with larger-than-life gimmicks. But insert celebs like Trey Young and Logan Paul here and there for media exposure, keep your costs and contracts low, and ride the stock market and shareholders to record profits.
But will that work in the modern wrestling era?
Wrestling fans have literally hundreds of wrestling promotions around the world at their fingertips; a far cry from the 80s and 90s. With a multitude of varying types of fanbases, will the casual fanbase that WWE brands their content towards win out?
Yes and no.
I can scoff at WWE all I want as an AEW fan, but there is a specific market for casual wrestling fans, and I need to do better to remind myself of that. But speaking of branding…
Much like Kleenex is a brand name for facial tissue (yet people still refer to both as ‘Kleenex’), many will always refer to pro wrestling as simply “WWE”. When I told my co-worker I was taking a day off to attend a live Dynamite, the response was predictably “Oh, WWE?”.
I believe we’re in a time where both AEW and WWE can co-exist in the industry and adhere to two very different fanbases, and still become very financially successful. WWE tried to “out-AEW” AEW with moving NXT to Wednesdays and signing as much Indies talent as possible.
It didn’t work. So it’s time for the gears to be shifted back to the future, and ride the successful branding that WWE has had established for so long.
Honestly, it’s better this way, and might even open up both fanbases to watch each other’s preferred product because they know they’re getting two very distinct brands. More than anything, I just want WWE to find an identity and stick with it. I think both fanbases would happier this way.