We live in interesting times to be a wrestling fan, to say the least. Never before has so much product from so many countries and companies been so accessible. I can stay up all night to watch New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW)’s Wrestle Kingdom from Japan on NJPW World, while streaming a shoot interview from the early 2000s on the Highspots Network on my phone during intermission. Later, I can watch an old WrestleMania on the WWE Network at the gym, and stream the latest CMLL Arena Mexico show as it airs live in prime time.
We’re absolutely spoiled for choice, and almost all of the actual in-ring product is of a higher quality than it’s ever been. NJPW offers at least one outstanding match a week, on average, and WWE’s managed to amass the most talented roster in their or any company’s history. This is a roster that, given the right tools, can break through WWE’s formulaic writing to produce great stuff as well. That is, if the industry leader can get out of it’s own way, which is looking less likely each week, based on steadily declining TV ratings and live attendance.
But with all that choice comes fatigue. There are only so many times you can hit up the all-you-can-eat buffet before you get sick. WWE’s strategy has been to flood the zone with wrestling, providing at least seven to ten hours of new content every single week (and double that if there’s a major event on, like a SummerSlam or a WrestleMania). If you’re watching all or even most of that, you probably don’t have time or a desire for much more wrestling in your life, and that’s what WWE is counting on.
Enter All Elite Wrestling (AEW), who has announced a huge TV deal with Turner Broadcasting this week, in the form of a weekly show on TNT starting in the fall.
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEWrestling) May 15, 2019
For the first time in years, WWE’s stranglehold on televised, prime-time wrestling programming is threatened, at least potentially. Imagine if, after a brief stint as the nWo and D-Generation X in the 1990’s, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, HHH, Scott Hall, and the rest of the Kliq decided to break out and start their own promotion with serious financial backing and a prime-time TV slot on a major station, while soaking up some of the biggest unsigned talent in the industry. Even for the fatigued fan, this is very intriguing.
AEW is an organization largely run by wrestlers at the top level, who know the unique challenges that performers face in the industry. Executive Vice President Cody (Runnels/Rhodes) and fellow executives Brandi Rhodes, Nick Jackson, and Matt Jackson have given assurances, for example, that expenses for things like in-ring injuries to performers will be covered by the company, as they should be, but frequently aren’t outside of WWE. One can safely presume, as well, that AEW won’t be undertaking any problematic deals with Saudi Arabia’s leaders, as WWE did twice in 2018 and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. These deals, in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s human rights track record, have alienated some of WWE’s fanbase and even some of their performers. Daniel Bryan and John Cena reportedly refused to work the most recent Saudi Arabia show, and others are following suit for the upcoming Super Showdown show from Jeddah. Wrestlers such as Tye Dillinger, The Revival, and Luke Harper have requested their release from WWE due to feeling underused or misused by the company’s creative end. So far, only Tye’s has been granted. Taken at face value, all of these should add up to the need for a viable alternative promotion for the men and women in this industry to work, and, one hopes, an impetus for WWE to examine some of the creative and corporate decisions they made over the last year, even as they made piles of money, hand over dismembered foot.
WWE has alienated fans in other ways as well, booking their shows and their talent in a way that could be charitably called “inconsistent.” Creative decisions appear to be made on the fly, with little warning or forethought to repercussions down the line. My man, Jeff, ran this down beautifully in a recent article which can be summed up with the phrase, “WWE hasn’t pulled off a decent surprise in years.” I would assert that that statement could even be expanded to say that WWE hasn’t paid off any storyline properly in years. Even seemingly-unfuckupable angles, like the Becky Lynch and Kofi Kingston stories at this year’s WrestleMania, were needlessly convoluted and lost most of their steam before crossing the finish line. And that’s Wrestle-goddamned-Mania, a time of year when WWE is supposed to be at their creative peak. Given that, there’s simply little reason for this fan (and judging by the ratings, many others) to stay tuned in for the ungodly amount of time that WWE demands of their audience.
Contrast that with AEW, which is going out of its way to be inclusive and welcoming to their audience, as well as being focused on providing a distinct alternative to what the rest of the industry offers. The startup has made a point of signing LGBTQI performers like Sonny Kiss and Nyla Rose, while admirably not making a huge, performative PR spectacle out of it in the way that you just know WWE would. Similarly, AEW has come on board with sensory-friendly initiatives pioneered by companies like KultureCity, targeted to fans on the autism spectrum, or suffering from PTSD or anxiety, who can’t handle the bombastic noise and ballyhoo that typically come with a live wrestling product. It may seem like a small thing, but these types of initiatives show a willingness to listen and learn from their potential fans in a way that doesn’t seem heavy-handed, concocted by a focus group, or with Stephanie McMahon taking unearned credit for it.
While we can’t be sure of what AEW will be like creatively until they actually run a show outside of their Being The Elite stuff on YouTube, it’s known that stars like Kenny Omega opted to forego what had to be a lucrative offer from WWE in favour of more creative control over his character with AEW. In a recent interview, Omega said that the choice between AEW and WWE would mean making a lot of money but “turning his brain off” in the latter case, but having the chance to really impact the industry in the former. Omega has used this creative freedom and his status as a decision-maker in AEW to scout Japanese women’s talent for the startup, seemingly trying to establish a foothold for a different type of wrestling in the West, similar to how WCW made lucha libre mainstream in the 1990s with stars like Rey Mysterio Jr, Eddie Guerrero, and others.
AEW owner Tony Khan has made a point of asserting that AEW will be a sports-focused product, where wins and losses actually matter, and statistics will be tracked and kept consistent. Honestly, a large wrestling organization without the influence of Vince (or any) McMahon is worth trying out on its own, for me. If the unofficial AEW pilot project, last September’s All In event from Chicago, is any indication of what AEW’s events will be like, it will welcome a ton of different wrestling styles and characters, with a mix of humour and serious-face athletic contests. The press conference for the first event under the AEW banner, Double or Nothing, also provided some clues as to the tone of the company’s product going forward:
I don’t want to oversell AEW as some kind of saviour for the industry (yes, I’m aware I probably did that for the last two paragraphs, at least) because it’s still very much early days. Is AEW a true competitor to WWE in terms of audience? That seems incredibly unlikely, as the last couple of years have proven that WWE is so big a machine that even boneheaded, self-sabotaging decisions don’t seem to affect their bottom line. They often make money in spite of themselves. AEW’s biggest stars – Cody and Dustin Rhodes, The Young Bucks, Chris Jericho, Pentagon Jr, and Fenix – are only draws to a niche wrestling fan, rather than the mainstream draws like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Ric Flair that were used when WWE’s monopoly was last threatened in the ’90s. But AEW looks to be an employer that respects its workers by treating them fairly and giving them the creative freedom they need to increase their profile in the industry. If they can prove themselves to be a company that also respects its fans enough to give them a more sports-centric product that doesn’t insult their intelligence, maybe that’s something worth hoping for.
And I’m all in for that.
AEW will present its first pay-per-view event, Double Or Nothing, from the MGM Garden in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 25, 2019. You can get streaming/PPV details for your area at AllEliteWrestling.com