T5W Roundtable: Will AEW Always Be At a Disadvantage Simply Because WWE Exists?
Roundtable Discussion: Does WWE’s mere existence put AEW at an ultimate disadvantage?
This is a newer series to help facilitate a larger wrestling dialogue. For this week, I want to dive into whether or not AEW will always be at a constant uphill battle in the wrestling world; regardless of circumstance and quality. I will break down some related talking points, and then like adults, we shall converse about said topic.
The theory is this: Since WWE has such large reach in name brand recognition, does an upstart company like AEW ever truly stand a chance? By WWE’s mere titanic existence, will that always make it that much harder for any competitor in the wresting industry?
And is this what we want?
With that, let’s discuss; both in Disqus, and on social media.
WWE is a Proprietary Eponym
First off; what the hell is a proprietary eponym?
Wikionary defines it as:
A successful brand name or trademark that has come into general use to refer to the generic class of objects rather than the specific brand type,
For example, when someone refers to facial tissue as ‘Kleenex’, even if the brand may not even be Kleenex. Or perhaps you’ve grabbed a ‘Band-Aid’ to put over a cut; even though the box you grabbed it from is a generic store brand; not actually the ‘Band-Aid’ brand.
In the same spirit, ‘WWE’ has become the terminology for anything pro wrestling.
In past conversations with co-workers (not wrestling fans) I’ve mentioned that I’m taking a day off to attend an episode of Dynamite. Their responses were often “Oh, like WWE?” — and then I have to correct them — “No, it’s a different wrestling promotion.” Even at the height of WCW’s popularity, professional wrestling was still engrained in anything ‘WWF’.
Proprietary eponyms are comfortable for the average consumer.
It’s a name brand they recognize, hence, there is immediate buy-in over an off-brand. Quality aside, it’s why many of these exist — from Q-Tips, Velcro, Crock-Pot, Vaseline, Thermos, and even Trampolines — are all brands, and not the product itself.
Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to the reader, but it creates a little thing called over-comparison. AEW will always be compared to their larger competitor — no matter what. Yet it doesn’t work that way vice-verse. Why is that?
Comparison is the Thief of Joy
Every generation wants to believe that their Kung-fu is the best. You listen to the best music, watch the best TV shows, watch the best wrestling — and “back in your day”, everything was much better. Nobody wants to waste their time, right? We all do it in one form or another…
Whether that’s 20 years ago, or last week, this sentiment can take hold on a person. This becomes an extension of Social Comparison Theory in a way. As to say, in order for greater self-evaluation, one must compare themselves to others (or other mediums) in order to lessen their own uncertainty.
That being said, are some doing the same with AEW? We heard this before with TNA when they first debuted many years ago on the Paramount Network, then SpikeTV.
“The arena is smaller, their ticket sales don’t compare”
“I don’t know any of these wrestlers”
“Ha! Look at that WWE-reject in TNA!”
“A 1.1 rating? Ha! Raw just hit 4.5 last week!”
“This is just WWE-lite…”
And so on and so forth…
What killed TNA Impact as a competitor goes far beyond WWE. Between inconsistent booking, an inexperienced owner, and Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff — the promotion was doomed to fail on a national level. But everyone did the same thing they’re doing now in a lot of ways — comparing — nonstop (pun intended).
It’s human nature to compare, but does this keep AEW at a disadvantage? Is it ridiculous for fans to expect a promotion not even 5-years-old to have the same level of branding, recognition, and buy-in as a promotion like WWE?
But WCW Did It!
A predicted response to this conundrum. Yes, WCW competed with Vince McMahon and WWF — and almost put them out of business. WWF simply “existed” and WCW rose to prominence.
However, this was a different time. We didn’t have social media; the internet was still in its infancy, and watching anything not WWF or WCW related meant tape trading. And by then, McMahon’s WWF had only been mainstream for a little over 10 years. The WWF of the 1990s looked a lot different, and a lot less corporate than it does now.
Furthermore, WCW brought over some major players from WWF (Hogan, Nash, Hall, Savage). This is the equivalent of AEW signing Roman Reigns, John Cena, and Brock Lesnar. But this isn’t what’s happening, as Khan is trying to build a roster from the ground up. Mind you only about 20% of the entire roster are ex-WWE talents. So this is not the same situation at all, nor the same circumstances.
So what happened in the decades following WCW’s demise?
Accepted Conditioning of Mediocrity
Let’s face it. To many jaded wrestling fans WWE has been mediocre at best throughout most of the past 20 years. Right now WWE is catching fire with The Bloodline, but even some fans recognize that it’s the only real ‘must-see’ story in the promotion.
As future WWE Champion Cody Rhodes put it in his last AEW promo:
“Everyone had been conditioned for 20 years that any title that doesn’t have the word world in it is a secondary belt…”
That word. “Conditioned.” He wasn’t just talking about championships, either. I’m not here to bash WWE in this section but to ask a very simple question:
Has McMahon conditioned the pro wrestling mainstream to expect any wrestling product to “look” a certain way — so much so, that any alternatives will always run on limited time?
As with TNA, AEW is compared to WWE all of the time. In many ways, AEW looks nothing like WWE — which one would think is a benefit, right?
All Gas No Brakes
Given the conditioning, the jaded wrestling public, and proprietary eponym that is WWE — does AEW have to live in the fast lane their entire existence?
As to say that AEW always has to put on CONSTANT A+ shows to win the hearts and minds of potential WWE (and general/jaded) viewers. As soon as AEW loses the slightest bit of momentum –– it’s curtains. The “death of AEW” is just around the corner…
We know that AEW is under the microscope with many fans. Every mistake is highlighted. Every booking misstep is spoken at length over by Cornette, Konnan, and Bischoff. Even Twitter has an account dedicated to AEW botches (in poor taste, unlike Botchamania).
The product is either “too bloody”, has “too many high spots”, isn’t pushing their women enough, overly fast-paced, not enough psychology, and not to mention the unearned dislike for Tony Khan.
Ever notice how AEW either has to be “red hot” or “losing momentum”? It’s like they can’t just exist for a small amount of time as an average show. Every entertainment medium has periods of “average” quality. But with AEW, general fans seem to want to label the product as either good or bad — with no in-between.
Yet, WWE can breeze along with one hot storyline while the rest of the show remains fairly mediocre (speaking with WWE fans themselves) — and this is perfectly fine by the standards of most WWE fans. WWE can put out over a decade’s worth of mediocre, uninspiring wrestling; but they’re not going anywhere — because they’re WWE.
It just kind of seems the cards are stacked against Tony Khan and AEW, doesn’t it? If AEW always has to over-perform just to compete — is that fair?
Fighting the Future
Right now, AEW is in a good place. In 2023, folks just aren’t watching cable television like they used to. This isn’t the days of WWE’s 4.5 ratings compared to TNA’s 1.1. Even Smackdown is underperforming at 2 million viewers, Raw seems to hover between 1.4-1.8 million, and AEW between 800k-1 million. They aren’t that far apart in the ratings.
By today’s metrics, these are all still very good TV ratings. All wrestling products rank in the top 10 of their respective nights, if not #1-3. But what I fear the most are these words from Warner/Discovery execs come 2026 when their third TV deal would likely be up for renewal:
“They aren’t WWE.”
No major cable network in this modern era has carried a #2 wrestling promotion for more than 9 years. WCW Nitro only lasted approximately 6 years, while TNA Impact remained on SpikeTV for only 9. Their ratings dipped heavily after only 5 years, however.
Granted, WCW Saturday Night lasted nearly three decades on TBS (1971-2000), but that is comparing apples to oranges.
I’d like to think that AEW as a profitable brand with its own fan base would be enough. I would think that even a million (or near) average viewers on a weekly basis by 2026 would be enough to keep AEW going for as long as I’m alive. But given history, I’m admittedly a little worried.
And it’s not for the sake of quality. I still believe Dynamite to be the best wrestling show on television. But in minds of corporate execs and casual fans — they’re still “not WWE”.
And this is a scary thought, if true.
What are your thoughts? Contribute to the discussion below!