It’s happening again…
World Wrestling Entertainment remains a hot product and the undisputed #1. All the while, AEW tickets sales seem to be declining, there are rumors of multiple talents ready to jump ship, and headcase C.M. Punk seems to be headed back to WWE just out of pure spite for AEW.
But by many measures, Tony Khan’s promotion is still doing well. AEW has three weekly TV shows, one of which (Dynamite) is constantly in the top 5 of all Warner/Discovery network programs. Rumors of a monthly PPV streaming deal with Max are afloat, the product has been on a creative upswing as of late, and with the recent signing of Adam Copeland; this company isn’t in any dire straits.
But as WWE prepares to stack the deck against AEW as NXT is up against a rare Tuesday night Dynamite broadcast — it led me to this thought:
AEW is no longer the “hot” product. McMahon and Levesque smell blood in the water, and history just might repeat itself. It’s a sad history that has seen WWE conquer its rivals for decades — as they believe that they must be the only show in town. As history has shown; WWE doesn’t do what is best for the wrestling business; but only what is best for WWE…
What History Tells Us
On Nov. 26, 1987, NWA would hold Starrcade: Chi-Town Heat, live on PPV. The event was a culmination of the the success of Jim Crockett Promotions up to that point. Even though WWF was the mainstream #1 promotion at the time, not long after the announcement of this Starrcade, Vince McMahon would create Survivor Series to compete.
It was scheduled on the same day; Nov. 26, 1987. Furthermore, McMahon threatened cable companies who aired Starrcade instead of Survivor Series with not being able to air Wrestlemania IV the year after.
It worked. As a result, many cable companies didn’t air Starrcade, and Survivor Series beat them handedly in PPV buy-rates.
This was just another notch in the belt of a “conquer and assimilate” method of McMahon’s ruthless business mentality – much like The Borg.
Oddly enough, WWE Corporate and The Borg share some similarities…
This trend of assimilation became notable when Hogan left the successful AWA in 1983. Patera, Adonis, and Ventura would soon dip out of the then successful AWA promotion as well. Steamboat, the Briscoes, Valentine and Piper would soon leave the NWA to join Vince’s growing conglomerate by 1985.
We can talk about the talent raids of WCW and ECW, and the purchase and assimilation of both. We can talk about WWE reaching into Ring of Honor, TNA/Impact and New Japan, and pulling out lucrative and already-polished talent to mold into their own.
But we’re here today to discuss the alleged coming talent raids of the current #2 promotion; All Elite Wrestling. After Cody’s departure from AEW (in a similar vein to Hogan’s), we now see Jade Cargill essentially brought over. It is assumed that when contracts are up by the end of the year, deals will be offered to the likes of Ricky Starks, Wardlow, and the big one — MJF.
Right out of WWE’s old playbook. Conquer and assimilate. And now for really no reason, in the same vein of Survivor Series vs. Starrcade, John Cena, The Undertaker, Paul Heyman, Asuka, and Becky Lynch are appearing on an episode of the “developmental” NXT brand. By total coincidence on the same night that AEW Dynamite will air one night on Tuesday due to NHL hockey.
Son of a bitch; it’s happening again, isn’t it?
…but it doesn’t have to…
Here are just a few ways AEW can avoid the same fate as WCW or Impact; but in my humble opinion, this needs to be put in motion as soon as humanly possible…
#1 Focus on Your Youth
Wait, AEW already does. Why is this here?
The bulk of AEW’s current champions are all in the late 20s or early 30s. Stars regularly seen on AEW television like Swerve, MJF, Darby, Jay White, Page, Blue, Saraya, Statlander, etc. — are all young in the eyes of the industry. So why does there need to be a focus on youth in AEW?
Because the average viewer is malleable, and marketing works.
AEW needs to be marketed as the future on a consistent basis; to become the Harajuku equivalent of wrestling culture. This is where the true stars of tomorrow perform. I have advocated for the AEW version of the Young Lions Cup; and this needs to become a reality.
“Cody? Jade? Old news. Bidding wars? Who cares — next man or woman up. We have plenty of top-tier talent.”
“NXT has a poor history of main roster call-ups to Raw and Smackdown. You want to see the real future of pro wrestling along with established veterans? Tune in every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights.”
This needs to be the mentality driven home on a weekly basis, along with some slick marketing and youth-driven stories. Of course, youth alone won’t stave off WWE’s attempts at assimilating another promotion’s talent.
We need to address the annoying pests in the ring: “Expert” wrestling analysts.
#2 Beat Jim Cornette and Eric Bischoff
Why? This doesn’t make any sense at all…who cares what some old, out-of-touch veterans think?
It’s because other less-knowledgeable fans soak up what they say on the regular, then regurgitate it on social media. However, admittedly, they are sometimes correct.
Even me, an AEW diehard, was sort of taken out of last week’s Fenix/Jackson match. These are two wrestlers selling injuries in-story and yet they’re still flying around the ring as if they’re both 100%?
While I enjoy the PWG/New Japan style AEW often brings, there is a way to tweak it just slightly so it fits into the box that many mainstream and internet critics wish it to be. I love the Fighting Spirit Japanese style that AEW tends to bring — where finisher-after-finisher just can’t seem to put the other opponent away in many cases.
But there has to be a balance. There needs to be a limit; and sometimes, finishers must be protected.
I believe you can lessen the high spots and outside dives, yet keep the same faster-paced work-rate that AEW fans are used to. The product can still be the in-ring alternative to WWE’s safer, sanitized style. However, I would slow it down just a notch, and increase in-ring storytelling just a notch.
Create a new in-ring style with a King’s Road flare, but with added storytelling, and some Indy-riffic fun sprinkled in. Make your high-spots meaningful, your blade-jobs saved for actual blood feuds, and story and psychology at the fore-front of every match.
In other words, don’t give industry veterans like Cornette, Bischoff, and Nash any room for criticism — at least not legitimate criticism.
Most importantly, you may attract those malleable “casual” fans who may view AEW’s in-ring style as too fast-paced. Those are who you really want to impress, here.
Speaking of “casuals”…
#3 Lean Into Character Work (Even More)
How did Julia Hart become so popular in a short program with a still very over Kris Statlander?
And if you’ve seen Skye Blue and Willow Nightingale recently, they are now adorning the blackened eye Julia Hart once had after she was misted by Malakai Black. It looks as if Hart is forming her own stable.
AEW has increased their character work as of late, if anyone has bothered to notice. “Timeless” Toni Storm is a hit, MJF has come into his own as “Your Scumbag”, Bullet Club Gold are on a hot streak, the Adam Cole/Roddy “Neck” Strong story has delivered some fun segments, and Christian Cage is doing some of the best work of his life right now.
We need Britt Baker back as her old self and some life put into the women’s championship scene. Swerve Strickland needs to become even meaner as he his on the rise. It seems like Wardlow is back and as brutal as ever — good. Start an injury storyline where Wardlow can’t be stopped. Build him as a forgotten angry monster.
Every minute of Dynamite and Collision needs to have a character on-screen that will make the average viewer think “Whoa; whatever this is, I need to keep watching.”
It’s the same logic Paul Heyman applied to Sabu when signing him to ECW. His in-ring ability didn’t matter — here was a dude who came out in restraints, wearing a Hannibal mask, who did crazy shit in baggy green pants.
It’s the same logic as to why Darby Allin is so over.
Build even more characters. More characters = more stories, which equals more investment.
Which leads to…
#4 A Classic ‘Whodunnit’ Mystery
Is Britt Baker back and low-key using novocain on her opponents mid-match to grab wins? She denies it, but who else is it? Maybe her “conspiracy theory” from long ago is true…What caused the ring rope to snap during Max Caster’s finisher, causing him to fall and for The Acclaimed to lose their trios championships? Who attacked and spit black mist in the face of “Hangman” Adam Page? The House of Black denies it; so who did it; and how is The Bunny involved?
These are very random (and possibly bad) storylines — but you get the point.
We have something brewing with the current “who attacked Jay White” segment last week on Dynamite, but it’s too early to tell how this will pay off. Everyone loves a good mystery, and the storyline should be presented as a mystery.
It’s hard to craft a good wrestling mystery story, but having at least one good one per year keeps viewers intrigued on what will happen next. It keeps the unpredictability in an otherwise usually predicable art.
It’s just another reason to tune in…
#5 Expand in Local/Global Markets
It was only the Summer of 2021 that WWE ticket sales were actually behind AEW’s in some markets. While that trend has reversed since; I have to wonder why Khan keeps running shows in the same markets. Attending a wresting show isn’t easy. You have to account for cost, travel, possible hotel stay, and time off of work — and this is harder if you have a family.
Now I’m not sure what to make of AEW’s ticket sales. I have to think that Collision has added ticket sales in place of lost Dynamite sales. If a Dynamite and Collision are in my area, I’d likely lean towards attending a Collision simply because it’s on a weekend (though somehow I ended up grabbing tickets to a Dynamite in late November this year…).
But why not run a show in Tokyo? Why not travel to Berlin, Stockholm, and back to London for special episodes of Dynamite or Collision? Call it a World Tour. Sure, pre-taped results might be spoiled, but make sure that even with spoilers, it’s worth tuning in for.
But more importantly, Khan needs to run in new markets.
Running the same venues into exhaustion isn’t going to ensure that more fans are attending shows. For example, Dynamite has only hit Milwaukee in the state of Wisconsin. Why not aim for Green Bay as well? You can hit Erie, PA weeks after hitting Pittsburgh, but not Green Bay (who has a higher population than Erie)?
This is just one example. From heavier local advertising to new markets — the time is now to expand into new areas.
#6 Become the “Show to Watch”
Can we get Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift at Tuesday’s Dynamite out of Missouri? That would help this cause…
But in all seriousness, AEW is a really good product right now. But so was AWA, NWA, WCCW, CWF, and Mid-South. In the end, it didn’t matter how good they were when they had a more powerful conglomerate in the WWF breathing down their necks in order to conquer and assimilate them.
As a default #2, AEW simply always has to be on fire. It’s not fair, but it’s how a brand can create longevity. WCW was “hot” once — and then they faded away. TNA was “hot” once, and did the same. AEW can’t afford for history to repeat itself in that same fashion.
Is it bringing in hot celebrities, hosting live musical performances from well-known acts, or even promoted vignettes with HGTV stars? (Warner owns HGTV). Everything should be on the table right now.
Every AEW Dynamite and AEW Collision should be seen as a god damn party atmosphere where anything can happen. However, it must still maintain the core element of what made AEW great to begin with — great in-ring wrestling. You can still build all of this to compliment the (tweaked) PWG/New Japan hybrid that most AEW matches are. Build dynamic characters and tell dynamic stories.
But overall, Khan needs to assemble a team to help stay on top of current trends in the entertainment industry, as well as the wrestling industry. If AEW is going to stay on top, they must become “can’t miss” TV in all areas.
If this becomes the norm over years time; it is feasible that AEW could overtake WWE in both TV ratings and attendance. But they must overcome this pivotal part in history right now and stake their claim as the true place to be for professional wrestling.