Every type of sport, and even some television programs have die-hard followers, a hardcore fanbase, ravenous for more content. Ask them about their favorite players or their favorite characters. You’ll get a litany in response. Here are their accomplishments and their failings. This is when they broke up with so-and-so. Now they’re with another person, another team, a different faction. They were good, and now they’re bad.
This rabid devotion is particularly evident in the world of professional wrestling, where large chunks of fans have divided opinions about which company delivers a better product. You’ve got WWE fans on one side, praising the matches and the direction being taken by new Chief Content Officer Triple H. On the other side, you’ve got the AEW faithful who can’t get enough of the realistic quality of the bouts and feuds between wrestlers. Give it a name. Call it tribalism, fanaticism, a rabid ride-or-die mentality.
The truth is both AEW and WWE are doing some things right. If they aren’t drawing in new fans, then they’re keeping the loyalty of the ones they have already gained.
Look at the recent return of Bray Wyatt to WWE. Fans were glued to their screens and scrambling to decode secret messages on signs in the crowd. They scanned mysterious QR codes, watched weird animated videos, and looked up GPS coordinates in hopes of cracking the puzzle. Was Wyatt coming back? If so, when?
The answer was at Extreme Rules 2022 in October, when Wyatt made a chilling return. The dude didn’t even wrestle. It didn’t matter. All the waiting, all the investigation paid off.
Is that wrestling storytelling in the classic sense? Absolutely not. It was a social media side-quest that got the viewer more involved in the overall product. The “White Rabbit” ARG may be the most successful campaign undertaken by Papa H’s new regime so far. My social media feeds were inundated with theories and clips. It got to the point where I, admittedly not a WWE fan, became invested in what was happening. Wyatt’s return, although cleverly telegraphed, was both a shock and a welcome resolution to the mystery.
Surprises have become an integral part of AEW as workers seem to materialize out of nowhere. Was anyone wondering where Ruby Soho had gone after her injury earlier this year? I wasn’t, which made her attack on Tay Melo on Dynamite all the more exciting.
AEW fans have been conditioned to expect the unexpected. One never knows who could show up on television. Whether it be an ex-WWE star, an AEW worker returning after time on the disabled list, or a celebrated Japanese wrestler like Kazuchika Okada, the potential for surprise appearances has made AEW must-watch television.
The company’s YouTube wrestling shows, Dark and Elevation, have slowly been adding story lines to their standard content of having established workers wreck enhancement talent. A story line between “All Ego” Ethan Page and Matt Hardy/Private Party has been advanced on those secondary shows. Athena has been turning heel for about six weeks on YouTube, a character trait that she has only recently exhibited on the network programming. This is a good move, which encourages casual fans into watching more episodes of Dynamite and Rampage while rewarding the die-hard fans with the genesis of interesting story lines.
“Pro wrestling is pro wrestling. Like it all, because either way, people who don’t like pro wrestling are making fun of the people who do no matter what they like, so we should just all band together and like all pro wrestling.”
— The Blue Meanie (former ECW and WWE star)
Busted Open Radio, November 2022 (transcribed by Wrestling, Inc.)
Except some fans don’t. For them, there can be no such thing as co-existence between wrestling companies. For them, it’s always a war between WWE and AEW and there must be a clear-cut victor. It’s a kind of crisis fandom that thrives on rumors, chaos, and insults.
Look: I’m not a fan of WWE and its business practices, but I can appreciate the company’s efforts to please its fanbase. They have some compelling characters and put together some good matches. It’s not a perfect product, but neither is AEW, with its backstage drama spilling into the media and occasional inconsistent booking.
But that’s the way any business works. You throw shit against the wall and see what sticks. You deal with the talent as well as you can and work from there. And if you don’t like the result, there is nothing forcing you to consume the product.
Look in the crowd during just about any AEW telecast and you’ll see someone wearing a shirt or holding a sign that says, “Just Enjoy Wrestling.” It’s good advice.