This is an article that I have been debating about writing for a while, because it is something that needs to be said, but a lot of sites that cover professional wrestling seem afraid to say it. I want to make this perfectly clear before I get into this, I’m a professional wrestling fan, I’m not a WWE Mark or AEW Hater or a “Bot”. I support professional wrestling no matter the company and I want all of them to do well because that gives you a strong industry.
There’s this negative us vs them culture, that exists in the wrestling community that creates a very toxic culture to even be a fan of wrestling. This whole professional wrestling vs sports entertainment mentality, here is a news flash they are the same thing. AEW is no more professional wrestling than WWE is, you cannot look at gimmicks like Orange Cassidy, Danhausen and Dark Order to name a few and not see they are gimmick characters that you could easily see on WWE TV with R-Truth in comedy skits. WWE can call it sports entertainment all it wants, but at the end of the day they were founded and still are a professional wrestling company, no matter how much they want to deny those words and that reality.
Since its founding in 2019, I have supported and will continue to support AEW, the same way I have supported WWE since I became a fan in 1998. No wrestling company is perfect, WWE has certainly screwed up plenty over the years and AEW has as well. As a fan and opinion writer for this site, I have made a vow to give my readers a fair, unbiased and most importantly my honest opinion on professional wrestling. As part of that vow, I will never criticize one company for something I praised the other for or vice versa. The major problem that exists on other sites especially one particular “journalist” there is a clear biased agenda, which has caused a lot of the us vs them culture. Having such a toxic fanbase certainly doesn’t create an inviting place for potential fans. Big picture these WWE Marks and AEW Marks that hate each other is really hurting the industry that both sides claim they love. You don’t have to like the other product, simply don’t watch it but instead both sides feel the need to attack the other.
I saw a meme the other day that claimed, “WWE Fans wish death on AEW but AEW Fans just wish for WWE to do better”, that is complete BS in all honesty, and I would say the same thing if the roles were reversed here. Both sides shouldn’t be wishing death on the other and really should be wishing both products to put on the best product possible. If you truly love wrestling like you claim, why not wish for more quality wrestling for you to watch?
As a wrestling fan, I think the most frustrating part is when you see booking decisions that make no sense and matches that clearly lack ring psychology. WWE certainly has their fair share of these colossal screw ups, but as a whole they are more than financially and brand secure that they can make mistakes here and there as long as they have more successes than failures. AEW hasn’t been around long enough to establish themselves as a brand in the global marketplace and financially they are not anywhere close to WWE and likely never will be especially if they don’t start seeing the BIG PICTURE.
A few days ago, Tony Khan made the announcement that we will be seeing the first AEW and NJPW show called Forbidden Door. As I wrote about the other day, 2022 has been all about Forbidden Doors being kicked open. This particular show, is very interesting and appealing to AEW, NJPW and overall wrestling fans, but does a show like this appeal to anyone outside the wrestling bubble? I had said in my article that it is probably too early to speculate that, but the more I think about it, I don’t know if a show like this can bring in mainstream or casual fans. Now, I know AEW & NJPW Fans would be very quick to point out that this show isn’t for them. Which is true, but both AEW and NJPW want to grow their audience and how do you think WWE got to where they are today? They knew they needed more than just wrestling fans. Yes, I know there are people reading this and going that’s ridiculous.
See as much as wrestling fans love to complain at the end of the day most of them are still going to watch anyway. That’s a small pool of fans that continues to get smaller as the years go by, at one time there were 8 million people watching Raw & Nitro combined and today Raw is only getting 1.5M viewers and Dynamite is struggling to get a million viewers. Many fans left after the Monday Night Wars era, but I think a large portion of those fans were fans because how much professional wrestling was embedded into pop culture in the late 90s and the WWF vs WCW vs ECW war was so compelling that it brought in mainstream fans.
It is a completely different world then it was in the late 90s, the option of entertainment choices is significantly more than it was back then. Sports and entertainment programs are fighting for audiences across the board and everyone’s ratings are down as a result. So, we are likely never going to see ratings like the Monday Night Wars era, if we are going to be honest about it. So, that leaves the fans that are currently watching and trying to maintain them and try to bring in the mainstream and casual fans to boost the ratings. WWE gets this and it is the main reason that they took over in the war with WCW and have maintained the top spot on the mountain because they understand that you need to appeal to both wrestling and mainstream/casual fans. There is a reason at WM 38, we saw mainstream people such Johnny Knoxville and Logan Paul on the show, because of the publicity it would bring to the product and the eyeballs from mainstream fans of these men that would watch WM to see them, that may not have been interested prior to their involvement. The hope of course is that these mainstream/casual fans may come to see a celebrity but fall in love with wrestling themselves and become fans. WWE got flack for putting the 24/7 title on Bad Bunny, but it brought major publicity to the company as he proudly wore the title everywhere he went including SNL and would go on to win at the Grammys.
Numbers don’t lie, in order to truly succeed in this business, you cannot just rely on wrestling fans alone anymore. As much hate as Vince McMahon, has gotten over the years like it or not, there is undebatable that the man knows how to promote his product and draw eyeballs to his product. Yes, I know the Super Bowl is only one night and significant less hours than WM, but these numbers are insanely impressive regardless. This year’s WM was stacked with the return of Austin, celebrities and of course the return of Cody Rhodes. Using celebrities or appearing on shows like the Tonight Show to draw mainstream people in is part of it, but once there you need to win them over with compelling stories and in ring action that makes them want to come back for more.
The reason I bring this up because everyone that has competed against WWE, except one seems to miss the Big Picture that in order to successfully compete against Vince is that you need more than just wrestling fans, you need mainstream eyeballs. The only one that understands this other than Vince is the only man that significantly competed with him and beat him for 83 straight weeks in the Monday Night Wars, Eric Bischoff. Eric recently was asked about AEW during a podcast and had this to say:
“Tony Khan does have his head plugged into the dirt sheet fans but thinks that something has to change if the company wants to grow as a business.
On a personal level, I think Tony has got his head plugged into the dirt sheet wrestling community far too much. When you produce a show, especially like wrestling, you need to know who your audience is,” Bischoff said. “And you need to know who you want to be your audience; you have to grow your business. You can’t just keep serving the same hardcore, dirt sheet wrestling fan psychology, and mentality, and expect to grow your business.
You want to get up to 1.5 and be really competitive with RAW, or SmackDown? Guess what, you’re going to have to take that million, give or take, viewers that you have every week, and grow that by 50%, or 75%, or 100% in order to be truly competitive. I don’t see that happening, because I think Tony is dirt sheet booker of the year, two years in a row.”
Eric is essentially reiterating what I just said that wrestling fans alone isn’t enough to grow AEW. Tony Khan is making a habit of booking AEW like a fan trying win GM Mode in 2K. I’ve complained about WWE doing theme PPVs like Hell in a Cell forcing matches in the cell when the feud itself doesn’t warrant it. The feud should dictate the match type not because it just so happens to be that PPV’s theme. Tony is booking things like interim TNT champions for 2 weeks and now Sammy Guevara is having his second ladder match for the TNT title! Why? Hangman Page has defended his AEW World title in a Texas Death Match twice in a matter of weeks. Side note, what AEW is calling a Texas Death Match isn’t a Texas Death Match by the definition of the rules. It was a colossal mistake by Hangman, Adam Cole and Tony Khan for booking a crown of barbed wire in this match on one of the most religious holidays in the world, Good Friday. I don’t want to hear oh it wasn’t done intentionally, or people didn’t make that connection – it was in horrible taste and for a company trying to build an audience you can’t be offending the audience that you already have and drive them away. Not to mention that Discovery literally just inherited AEW programming when they bought Warner Brothers and that’s a horrible first impression for their new TV partners.
Tony said when he founded AEW, he didn’t want to be on TV, but it seems almost every week they hype up “Tony Khan Has A Major Announcement”. Booking unnecessary gimmick matches on free TV, debuting former WWE talent and “major announcements” is the definition of hotshot booking that is essentially being done to appease their fanbase, pop a rating and attempting to maintain it, but it is not growing an audience. Unfortunately, they aren’t really maintaining or growing their audience at all as they struggle to reach a million (rating tracker courtesy of WrestlingInc):
Below is our 2022 AEW Dynamite Viewership Tracker:
January 5 Episode: 1.010 million viewers with a 0.43 rating in the 18-49 demographic (TBS premiere episode)
January 12 Episode: 969,000 viewers with a 0.39 rating in the 18-49 demographic
January 19 Episode: 1.032 million viewers with a 0.44 rating in the 18-49 demographic
January 26 Episode: 1.100 million viewers with a 0.41 rating in the 18-49 demographic (Beach Break episode)
February 2 Episode: 954,000 viewers with a 0.35 rating in the 18-49 demographic
February 9 Episode: 1.129 million viewers with a 0.41 rating in the 18-49 demographic
February 16 Episode: 869,000 viewers with a 0.31 rating in the 18-49 demographic
February 23 Episode: 1.010 million viewers with a 0.40 rating in the 18-49 demographic
March 2 Episode: 966,000 viewers with a 0.35 rating in the 18-49 demographic
March 9 Episode: 945,000 viewers with a 0.40 rating in the 18-49 demographic (Post-Revolution episode)
March 16 Episode: 993,000 viewers with a 0.38 rating in the 18-49 demographic (St. Patrick’s Day Slam episode)
March 23 Episode: 1.046 million viewers with a 0.41 rating in the 18-49 demographic
March 30 Episode: 979,000 viewers with a 0.38 rating in the 18-49 demographic
April 6 Episode: 989,000 viewers with a 0.38 rating in the 18-49 demographic
April 13 Episode: 977,000 viewers with a 0.37 rating in the 18-49 demographic
April 20 Episode: 930,000 viewers with a 0.37 rating in the 18-49 demographic
2021 Viewership Average: 891,810 viewers per episode
As you can see AEW isn’t maintaining the audience of a million viewers and despite a coffin match and Tony’s major announcement the ratings actually went down this week. On Bischoff’s Strictly Business podcast, he had more to say on AEW’s need for growth:
“Nobody else out there that is manufacturing products is looking at the AEW brand right now or anybody in it and going, ‘wow, we can build our future on that,’” Bischoff said. “They’re looking at it and going ‘wow, this is interesting, let’s see where this tracks for the next year-three years. And if there’s consistency and they see that the belt program that AEW has for example at Walmart, and is actually tracking and growing and creating revenue, that will give future licenses the interest in coming out and trying to build some of their product on AEW licensed properties. But that doesn’t happen overnight, it didn’t happen overnight in WCW. Providing AEW continues to grow, which arguably they’re not, they’re kind of flatlining at a million viewers a week, but if they can grow that industry in such a way that it gives confidence to manufacturers and distributors to go ahead and invest money in that licensing in hopes to increase sales off their products, that’s when you’ll start to see real growth in AEW. It’s not a knock against them, you can’t do that overnight. No one is going to take that risk until you’ve established yourself in the marketplace.”
This image above sums of the difference between these two men, one is taking his eye off the ball by getting distracted by negative comments of fans online. Vince doesn’t care about negative comments at all because he sees the big picture and is confident on what he is doing and is not going to get distracted by negative tweets. This comes with years of experience from Vince, but Tony is old enough and should know better than making such insane statements as this does nothing to help himself or AEW.
Tony coming up with an insane theory like “bots being sent by someone” (presumably implying it’s Vince). Considering how much money WWE is pulling in from TV deals and the Saudi shows alone, it is highly unlikely WWE is wasting time or money to try and bury a promotion that is unclear if they are even actually turning a profit since they are a private company and are barely getting a million viewers. Instead of moving on from the internet questioning Tony’s sanity on social media, he doubled down by saying he is hiring investigators. Tony, you’re not John Conner, the rebel leader of the resistance and Vince isn’t Skynet sending bots (terminators) out to get you…the whole everyone is a hero in their own story comes to mind here. WWE isn’t the evil empire that the clearly biased narrative tries to make them out to be. For many fans including myself, for decades their first exposure to wrestling was WWF/E that started their love for professional wrestling. There probably are bot accounts attacking AEW, just like there are probably bot accounts attacking WWE. It doesn’t mean WWE or AEW are paying for these bots to attack the other. You can’t worry about that stuff the focus needs to be on putting on the best product that you can and don’t worry about some negative fans are saying or what WWE is doing.
Tony needs to stop getting distracted by unimportant things like twitter feuds and not let awards proclaiming him to be the best booker to go to his head. Tony either insists on taking everything on himself and it is too much or the people that he is listening to in his executive inner circle, they likely don’t have Tony or AEW’s best interests at heart. Part of the reason Cody left, was he realized he didn’t want that conflict of being an active wrestler and an executive at the same time because there’s an appearance of a conflict of interest. Wrestlers want the best spots and given executive powers the temptation of abusing it to get and stay at the top is strong. It is truly sad because there are people such as JR, Arn Anderson and William Regal, who could really advise Tony with booking, but it doesn’t appear based on his booking that those that could really help him are helping or are being ignored.
The purchase of ROH for a rumored $40M for their video library, trademarks and some ring/production equipment, was probably not the wisest use of that kind of money. Yes, I know the Khans are billionaires, but he honestly overpaid for what he got. The video library itself is questionable because a lot of the early ROH footage was poorly shot and often times used entrance themes they don’t have the rights to use. On Honor Club they would literally mute the music. How appealable the footage in its current form would be to HBO Max for example is unknown, but besides the quality and music issues, you also have talent like the Briscoes, who embodied ROH that Turner executives supposedly don’t want on their networks.
Tony needs to keep the eye on the ball on truly expanding the business of AEW. If you own a coffee shop that isn’t turning a profit, you don’t buy another older coffee shop that isn’t turning a profit and expect to make them both profitable without a profitable plan. It is very unclear if Tony has a legitimately plan for ROH to make that investment pay off and he needs to build and maintain an audience outside the wrestling fan bubble. The Khans are rich so they can afford AEW just being Tony’s fun little hobby that doesn’t turn a profit, but it can and should be more than that. Promotions such as NJPW, Impact and AAA that partner with AEW, aren’t rich like the Khans and wrestling is their livelihood and they need to turn a profit. As I detailed months ago, Impact got nothing of value from the AEW partnership.
Don’t get me wrong, Tony Khan has done a lot of great things like launching a major promotion, the major TV deal, partnerships with Impact, NWA, AAA and NJPW, the Owen Hart Tournament and the amazing Brodie Lee tribute show and how he has looked after Brodie’s family since are truly amazing things that he should be proud of achieving. However, the big picture is expanding the audience outside of the typical wrestling fan bubble and maintaining that audience. There is no valid reason why partnerships between companies cannot benefit all parties involved and not just AEW. The potential is there for huge profits for everyone involved, if the people in charge just open their eyes to the big picture and deliver. You need to find ways to draw in mainstream and casual fans, whether it be by bringing in celebrities or appearing on tv shows to promote it or advertising or something else. Compelling stories that answer the questions of who are these people, why are the fighting and why should I care. Providing quality ring psychology and storytelling will help to draw people in. Once you draw the mainstream people in, you need to impress them and make them to want to stay for more.
Photo Credits – AEW, NJPW, ROH, SNL/NBC, Sportskeeda and Daily Accolade and Wrestle Feed’s Instagrams