Around the Loop: CM Punk, Ratings, and the Problem With Facts

Rumors never walk.

They always fly, and rumors are zipping about that controversial wrestler CM Punk could rejoin All Elite Wrestling within the next couple of months. According to Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer, Punk’s rehab from tricep surgery is “going really well.” Whether the company will invite Punk back to the ring with open arms after his shenanigans last September remains to be seen. Fans are also divided on Punk’s potential return to the fold. Depending on who you talk to, Punk is either a swell guy with a great work ethic who wants to help younger workers improve their craft or, as Chris Jericho allegedly said, Punk is a “cancer” in the locker room.

If Jericho truly said that, then this tweet from him comes as a surprise.

Look: it’s mindboggling to comprehend that, after all this time, we’re still talking about CM Punk. The ongoing saga of Punk and AEW continues to capture the imagination of wrestling fans around the world, fueled by speculation, fantasy booking, and outright guessing. Narrowing down the actual facts in this situation has been difficult. Welcome to The Business, where real life and fiction can overlap with shocking obtuseness. Sometimes, it feels like we don’t know what we think we know.

Facts are simple and facts are straight.
— Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”

This is what happened.

In September 2022, CM Punk wrestled against Jon Moxley in the main event of the AEW pay-per-view, All Out. It was a world championship match, which Punk won. During the match, Punk suffered a torn left triceps. He underwent surgery to repair the muscle. According to Meltzer, that sort of operation requires approximately eight months to recover from.

Multiple sources have reported this news and there has been no denial from Punk or AEW of its veracity. We can safely count this bit of news as fact.

This also happened.

During the media scrum following All Out, CM Punk went on a tirade against his former best friend Colt Cabana, currently employed by Ring of Honor. Punk also had bad things to say about other workers in AEW. He accused Hangman Adam Page of going into business for himself. Punk also went off on executive vice presidents Nick and Matt Jackson, collectively known as the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega. The champ claimed that the EVPs had started rumors that Punk had gotten Cabana fired from AEW.

“I haven’t been friends with [Cabana] since at least 2014, late 2013,” Punk said, “and the fact that I have to sit up here because we have irresponsible people who call themselves EVPs yet they couldn’t fucking manage a Target and they spread lies and bullshit and put into the media that I got somebody fired when I have fuck all to do with him. I want nothing to do with him. I do not care where he works or where he doesn’t work, where he eats, where he sleeps. The fact that I have to get up here and do this in 2022 is fucking embarrassing.”

That’s an actual quote from Punk. We know this happened because we saw it. It is demonstrably true. It’s on YouTube. You can find transcripts of Punk’s diatribe online. Facts.

Facts are lazy and facts are late.
— Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”

And then there was the post-scrum fight, what has become known as the Brawl Out at All Out. Punk’s comments allegedly incensed Omega and the Bucks to the point that they confronted Punk in his locker room. Despite an internal investigation within AEW, no official detailed timeline of what happened during that scuffle has been released.

We’ve heard rumors that Omega tried to protect Larry, Punk’s dog, and got bitten on the arm for his efforts by AEW official and Punk’s trainer, Ace Steel. AEW Chief Legal Officer Megha Parekh was reportedly a witness to the fight. After the scuffle, Chris Jericho reportedly told Punk he was a “cancer” to the locker room, a detriment and a liability. Regardless of what actually occurred, Punk was stripped of his title. The Bucks and Omega were removed from AEW television for weeks, allegedly the result of multiple suspensions handed down by AEW owner Tony Khan.

After that, rumors began flying that people in the AEW locker room didn’t want to work with Punk. He was a “black cloud,” they said, a person who had been “voted off the island.” Those were anonymous quotes. They may not even be real. We don’t know, since no one owned up to saying them. People wondered if Khan would buy out Punk’s contract. If one paid attention to the dirt sheets, Punk was persona non grata in the AEW locker room. Even WWE Superstar Seth “Freakin'” Rollins warned Punk away from a return to the company.

If Punk were really that horrible of an addition to the AEW roster, why didn’t we hear about it before All Out? How come the only AEW wrestlers we heard disparaging Punk were Hangman Adam Page, in remarks that were arguably kayfabe, and Eddie Kingston, who hates damned near everyone?

Facts all come with points of view.
— Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”

In television, it all comes down to ratings. Please note: I am not a statistician, and there are plenty of ins and outs within the TV business that I don’t fully understand. However, the case can be made that Punk’s absence from AEW programming has led to a decline in viewership.

Ratings for shows like Dynamite are often broken down into quarter-hours. For example, the match between Punk and Moxley that took place on August 24, 2022 (only two weeks before All Out), saw a quarter-hour increase of 14.6 percent over the previous week’s quarter-hour programming.

After Punk was written off Dynamite, the show garnered some of the lowest overall ratings in its history.

On October 19, 2022, Dynamite saw a drop of 231,000 viewers from the previous week’s episode, which drew 983,000 watchers. The October 12 episode featured two championship matches, including Jericho defending his ROH Championship against fan favorite Bryan Danielson.

The drop in viewership continued into the next calendar year. Following the January 25, 2023 Dynamite, which exceeded one million viewers watching the AEW debut of Mark Briscoe, the show took a loss of 102,000 viewers on February 1. That first February episode of the year featured Moxley vs. Page and a No Holds Barred ROH Championship match between Darby Allin and Samoa Joe.

The Dynamite for February 15, 2023 featured a Trios Championship match between The Elite (The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega) going up against Top Flight and A.R. Fox. While some would believe that having the Elite on television would kick ratings up, the episode dropped by 75,000 viewers over the previous week when 899,000 viewers tuned in.

One can also look at the December 28, 2022 Dynamite, which featured the Elite versus the Death Triangle. That episode saw viewership decline by 81,000 viewers.

In the words of the great Scott Steiner, the numbers don’t lie. Some workers draw on certain nights and not on others.

Interpreting the actual reason for those poor ratings is difficult. Are the ratings on a decline because Punk hasn’t been on television? What do you do with the information that Punk’s match against MJF on the February 2, 2022 episode of Dynamite drew fewer than one million viewers? These aren’t numbers I’ve pulled from the air, either. Check out Wrestlenomics and check them out for yourself. For every set of numbers available, a multitude of conclusions can be reached, depending on your viewpoint.

There’s the issue, for me, anyway.

All the different trains of thought, the variety of perspectives. All the damned nuance.

Facts don’t do what I want them to.
— Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”

One can go by nothing but the data and arrive at certain conclusions. Nobody wants to watch the Elite. AEW has suffered in Punk’s absence. Everybody loves The Acclaimed. But if you focus on other numbers, such as the all-important 18-49 age demographic, one could ostensibly come to completely different conclusions.

For example, the aforementioned February 1 episode of Dynamite pulled in a 0.31 rating out of that demographic, the highest of the month so far. The January 25 episode snagged a 0.32 rating of 18 to 49 years old. There’s not much difference in those demo ratings, although the difference between the overall viewership of those two episodes went down by over 100,000 audience members. Even though AEW is losing some viewers, they are retaining the ones who have historically spent money on merchandise and tickets for live events.

If there’s one area where the ratings are a confusing miasma, it’s the dichotomy between who the ratings say fans love and the reaction some performers get when they walk down the entrance ramp to the ring. Have you heard the audience pop for Ruby Soho? Soho is over with the crowd. They love her. But, if you pay attention only to the ratings, she’s one of the biggest reasons for AEW’s ratings decline.

The same can be said for the Elite. Ratings head for the floor when they’re on screen, but you wouldn’t guess that from the riotous welcome they get on television from damned near every crowd, regardless of the venue. Love them for their skills or hate them for the “facts” of what they did backstage at All Out, the Elite get a crazy response from those in attendance. Are those three wrestlers, who bump like mad for ravenous crowds screaming for them to “fight forever,” the weakest parts of AEW’s weekly foundation?

I can’t make it make sense, and the ratings don’t help. Unless, that is, fans have a tendency to cherry-pick the ratings to support their own theories.

Hardly anyone watched the main event women’s match featuring Soho, Storm and Dr. Britt Baker, DMD on the February 15, 2023 episode of Dynamite. It only pulled in about 710,000 viewers. Is that rating enough to support opinions such as “no one likes women’s wrestling?” Has AEW content suffered since Thunder Rosa and Kris Statlander were sidelined by injury? Do fans miss that swath of eye-black on Toni Storm’s face? I can find nothing concrete in the ratings to back those theories up.

Listen: I want this to be simple, a cut-and-dried debate. Nothing would please me more than say, absolutely and conclusively, that CM Punk should come back to AEW because that would be best for business. Conversely, I would love to be able to tell you that he should stay away, or maybe the Elite should bugger off to New Japan.

I can’t do that. There are numbers. There are facts. And then there are things we don’t know. Office stuff. Backstage complications. Contract negotiations. Any theory I could posit, any opinion I could offer, would be in some aspect, uninformed. As a writer with some journalist experience, I find that bothersome. It’s like the rough tickle in the back of your throat before you start coughing.

With The Business being what it is, I cannot help that. Believe me, I do as much fantasy booking and speculating as anyone. People will defend their thoughts and choose their particular hills to die on. It’s hard not to love a sport that engenders such strong feelings in its audience. I don’t have any choice than to go with what I think, what I feel, and what I think I know.

Sometimes, the facts we believe we have aren’t the facts. Until specific reasons or explanations are given by decision-makers or the people directly involved in any situation, we won’t have the truth. In the case of CM Punk, the Elite, and that whole mess, I’m still waiting.

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