top of page

We Need To Talk About...... AEW Part 5 (the final part)

As 2023 turned to 2024, the most frequent words spoken by the human race were the usual “New Year, New Me”, “I will stick to my resolution" and “I swear, this the last time I'm out for New Years” but a new phrase entered the lexicon. It was “restore the feeling”


After 2023 and the Year of MJFism, talk of AEW losing its identity was mounting. Talk of needing to restore the feeling was escalating. The Continental Classic helped the narrative of feeling being restored. So did the signings of Will Ospreay, Mercedes Mone and Kazuchika Okada but while All Elite Wrestling were doing all they can to bring the feeling back, the other mainstream wrestling company in America were in the midst of a comeback.


A Strong No.1 Company 


Truth be told, said comeback had been going on for 18 months with the Bloodline/Sami story capturing the imagination with talk of babyface turns being cinema as if they have never seen a wrestler turn face before. Pundits talking about an upturn in creative after the “retirement” of Vince McMahon in 2021 with people talking of Paul Levesque being up there with Bill Watts and Jerry Jarrett in the Mount Rushmore of bookers conveniently ignoring the fact that WWE under Paul is his NXT booking on steroids. Competently booked (except for Clash At The Castle) but also dull as ditchwater but this time round the big shows aren’t saving the day. 


But with a Peacock deal, a PR machine in overdrive and a horseshoe stuck on them, WWE’s momentum heading to WrestleMania XL was rising and AEW’s was not. 


WWE’s 2023 saw ratings rise from the year before but the acclaim didn't come from just ratings statistics but from unlikely sources. For the first time since 2000 and the first time in its guise as World Wrestling Entertainment, the “New York territory” won Best Promotion, the main roster portion of WWE (one day I will publish my thesis on why you should treat NXT and WWE as separate promotions) won Best Feud for the first time since 2011 with SamiKO Vs The Bloodline and for the first time since 2000 someone associated with WWF/E won Promoter of the Year and for the first time since 2002 a booker associated with WWE won Best Booker in Nick Khan and Paul Levesque respectively and while there are flaws in both cases (especially Nick’s Promoter win) the fact it broke the 4 year (Promoter) and 3 year (Booker) winning streak of Tony Khan wins was a damning indictment on the 2023 of AEW compared to their rival.


The departure of Andrade El Idolo from AEW to WWE might have not been the deal that Cody’s switch was but it was another towel to throw from the WWE fanbase in their attempt to win bragging rights but it was the re-emergence of a face from the past that would get eyeballs on the WWE product and help divert them away from another face from its history and the scandal brewing around him and the company.


Dwayne Johnson's appearance on New Years Day was the launchpad for WWE’s line going up in the ratings and interest in WrestleMania season being higher than previous years. His appointment to the board of directors showed that he was buying into the future of WWE in associating his name with the company that propelled him to fame in the early 90s.


Days later, an announcement that Raw was going to be aired on Netflix all over the world brought attention to WWE (even if the fiscal part of the deal was actually nothing to shout about if you dissect it) The day after however, WWE would be back in the news in a way they weren't planning 


Despite Paul Levesque’s insistence that Royal Rumble week was a success, the fact that the company and it's (in)famous figurehead was subject to a lawsuit that mentioned sexual assault at the workplace meant it was anything but.


But as the months rolled on, the PR strategy of “bad man gone” was working. A large percentage of the base that watch Raw and SmackDown probably earnestly think that it is solely Vince that is being sued by Janel Grant which shows a) that the PR operation that WWE has utilised has worked and b) we have a journalistic base in the wrestling industry, aside from Pollock, Thurston, Meltzer and Bixenspan that doesn't want to do the dirty work regarding covering pro wrestling. 


And while that final point reads like a massive criticism of wrestling media (actually it does on proof reading this) a look at wrestling media tells you that content that in 2024 is critical of AEW is more prevalent than content that is critical than of WWE in 2019.


The Grift


In the first part of our series on the history of AEW, we talked about the timing being right for Tony Khan to start up a challenger brand to enter the marketplace. With criticism of WWE at an all-time high to go along with their all-time low ratings, content creators (sorry everyone for using that phrase) saw a new national company as a chance to produce new content. 


Fightful, WrestleTalk, Wrestling Observer and Post Wrestling would add extra shows in reviewing AEW Dynamite. Sites like Voices of Wrestling could add a Dynamite review to their patreon paywall with the confidence that people would buy into their coverage of a hot new promotion and that it would “pop the territory”. The closest thing that we were going to get to a wrestling war since the good ol’ days of the WWF/WCW battle was not only good for a) fans you didn't want to be tribal b) wrestlers that understood that a second mainstream company wasn't going to keep food off their table and for content creators that understood point a and b.


(This is the point where I supply a graph of The Wrestling Observer subscription numbers and show that like me tons of people like me subscribed or re-subscribed with the onset of AEW but finding subscription numbers for the observer is akin to finding the Patiala Necklace)


A question posed on some platforms does need to be investigated though. Did some content creators not actually want a second wrestling company to be great but the one they grew up on to finally be good* again


*Good by their standards 


While I don't want this to be a WWE is _______ article, the lack of critical eye towards WWE from the outlets I mentioned above (Voices of Wrestling aside) is interesting to look at. While Fightful has always been a positivity first outlet first and foremost, hence why Alex Pawlowski main roster WWE reviews were moved to behind the “5 dollars please” paywall (I'm getting another Sean Ross Sapp DM now ain't I?) and Jon Pollock from POST is one of the foremost wrestling media members that is eager to get to the bottom of the details of the Janel Grant lawsuit (even if Wai Ting is as easily pleased with the spectacle of WWE as anyone) Dave Meltzer’s reluctance to criticise the obvious Paul Levesque missteps in booking the last few months plus a harsher tone to AEW (that's just another phrase for dooming) and WrestleTalk’s lack of critical eye shows WWE’s ability to know how to talk to media members is working.


A further insight to how the WWE P.R machine works comes from Joe Lanza from Voices of Wrestling where he details the workings of Chris Legentil and Nick Khan 



But while Legentil and Nick have been around the wrestling scene since 2020, the “anti-AEW” circle has been in force since its foundation. While Jim Cornette had been the face of the circle from Double or Nothing 2019, others like Eric Bischoff, Vince Russo and “international booker extraordinaire” Konnan (can you sense the sarcasm) have joined the anti-AEW grift. But looking at the numbers on YouTube, it shows that anti-AEW videos do not do as well as people would make you believe.

Numbers as of 21st June


Even the Babe Ruth of Tony Khan Face thumbnails WrestleTalk haven’t seen the attempt at hitting the apparent anti-AEW algorithm work for them


When I entered  the words "WrestleTalk Tony Khan" into my YouTube search engines these were videos with a “Tony Khan Face” in the thumbnail’s top hits with their view numbers


Tony Khan/Jinder Mahal tweet controversy- 88,000

Khan on stepping down- 122,000

AEW Fans No Show- 129,000

The Khan/Elite angle (with emphasis on the 69 position)- 101,000

AEW Talent DEEPLY UNHAPPY- 76,000


I’m not an expert on podcast metrics but maybe Jim Cornette’s podcast works best as a lookback at wrestling history if you look at the numbers and WrestleTalk’s attempt to get viewing numbers with Tony Khan Face videos to be hitting numbers on par with their WWE coverage hasn’t been fruitful and maybe I have hit upon a further point on saying the above.


For companies like WrestleTalk, WWE=big numbers, certainly compared to AEW and with that comes a reluctance to annoy a fanbase that doesn’t want to hear criticism which extends to putting their fingers in their ears regarding the Janel Grant lawsuit. A comment on the fortnight after the revelation of the lawsuit from Luke Owen on their post Mania XL press conference show says it all along.


“WWE are the goodies again”


(I attempted to reach to WrestleTalk via email about AEW's relationship with the media but got no reply)


Dooming or Reality?


As you've realised I'm not a fan of the “anti-AEW grift” but what makes a grift different from honest opinions? I do genuinely believe that Jim Cornette honestly hates AEW with every fibre of his being whether it's because it's a departure to his stubborn beliefs to what wrestling should be (his version of wrestling had SMW's World Champion's catchphrase be a Confederate state's war cry from the Civil War) or his ability to hold a grudge or his ability to burn bridges with people and not know the capability of forgiveness (falling out with a friend of 35 years in Dave Meltzer because you have a different opinion in the progression of wrestling is behaviour that requires therapy in my opinion) but Eric Bischoff wasting opportunities to be a occasional guest star on AEW so he make his 83 Weeks business model one where he states that AEW cannot do right is a short term plan that can only be associated with grifting.


While the Punk/Elite drama helped certain outlets make their mind up in how to cover AEW (Matt Koon's adjustment to cordial producer of the Conrad Thompson universe of podcasts to wrestling twitter psychopath should be studied by future generations) when you see sections of the wrestling media that demand that talent making guest appearances on AEW need a video package to explain who they are to casuals yet when TNA’s Joe Hendry turns up on NXT unprompted it's all fine (yes, I'm looking at you Raj Giri) then it's easy to see that the grift is on.


But what of the S Tier of Wrestling media (in my opinion). Brandon Thurston and Jon Pollock, who have earned respect from fans for their coverage of the WWE/McMahon vs Grant lawsuit have laid out the facts of the ratings decline of AEW and with the famous public access request from Brent Council of the Wembley Stadium attendance causing eyebrows to be raised, Thurston’s forensic work in attendance reporting is equal when it comes to both WWE and AEW.


Not sure the poll asking fans if 2024 AEW was similar to either 2019 AEW or WWE was 100% kosher though.


David Bixenspan for all his social media faults, (I am genuinely scared to disagree with him because he might shout at me) his ability to call out the BS in wrestling media, like this past weekend when he pointed out that Fightful was burying the lead on MVP’s thinly veiled accusation of how Paul Levesque books black wrestlers, should never be criticised. But in the last few months of his Between The Sheets podcasts and it's halftime section, criticism of AEW has increased including co-host Kris Zellner mentions of AEW attendance being more frequent than his Corey Maclin impression.


As for the “Godfather”of wrestling journalism Dave Meltzer, surely in his piece in the Wrestling Observer marking 5 years of AEW won't be the equivalent of Reverend Lovejoy saying “it's over, we don't have a pray”


.... ticket sales for the tapings are way down, and that includes Canada. Ratings don’t always correlate to ticket sales, and as noted, declines in ticket sales historically predate ratings declines.


Again, this isn’t to say the ratings woes aren’t real. They are. Or that this isn’t the worst time for these declines. It is. But the key decline is just a major loss of appeal in one age group, which for attendance and merch it’s the key age group and for ratings it’s the No. 2 group.


But in relation to all of cable, AEW is higher up in the entertainment charts than a year ago, even with the 18-34 huge drop.


The question is how WBD takes all of this. And considering the basketball we are talking about is on TNT, they are more aware that AEW actually held up far better this year than the NBA playoffs. But the prestige of the NBA, no matter what the ratings are, still would make them pay a giant increase if they could get one of the deals.


How not getting it affects AEW, and it does greatly, is impossible to say. Is their mentality that the cable stations are dying so let’s spend less? It is that live sports is very important for streaming and signing a dual/television and streaming deal for AEW? Do they just go with the idea AEW is declining, period, forgetting about cable in general (probably not, by the way), or that pro wrestling has no prestige and thus increasing spending on it is not a direction they want to take. Or do they look at it as more important than ever. And what do they think of Collision and Rampage. Collision generally does well in the sense it loses on Saturday’s to the sports brands it faces, and does get hurt badly when WWE has a Saturday show. But overall, it’s one of the better rated Saturday night cable shows. Rampage is hit or miss, and even for AEW fans, it’s a very skippable show.


Oh, well I’m guessing the cheque from 1 EverBank Stadium Dr, Jacksonville didn’t come in.


All joking aside, when you reading the 24th May edition of the Wrestling Observer, the “Dave is a AEW homer” take turns out to be very inaccurate when you read the write up Dave did on the state of AEW 


AEW has not had the ability to create a Tiffany Stratton, Bron Breakker or Trick Williams type that will be new headliners in the mix over the next few years. 


MJF is younger than Trick Williams and the time it took Swerve Strickland from his debut in All Elite Wrestling to winning the AEW World Title (26 months) was shorter than his entire run in NXT and the self-imposed word count restriction prevents me going into detail into Hangman Page going from ROH mid-carder to one of the biggest draws in AEW.


There are far too many older wrestlers and not enough younger wrestlers. Plus, the young wrestlers are the ones not getting enough ring time to improve and to elevate. 


The average age of AEW's single champions as of 23/6/24 is 32 with the favourite the TNT Title being Jack Perry who is 27 years old. WWE's average age of their main roster single's champs is 35


Also the winner of the Observer's Most Improved of 2023 was 22 year-old Julia Hart


As Cody Rhodes and Jade Cargill showed, WWE, just being WWE, can take someone from AEW and make them into much bigger stars because their fan base is happy to see someone from AEW come and they promote the hell out of it. AEW has not been able to do the same with Mone, a far better wrestler who has had far more exposure than Cargill, and was a bigger star in WWE than Rhodes was before he left.


While Cody’s ascension to one of WWE’s biggest names can’t be denied, not even a barrage of texts from Chris Legentil could convince anyone that Jade Cargill is actually a bigger star now than she was a year ago.


But this is the ultimate truth. The media rights deal that has to be signed between now and the latter part of this year will either, based on the number, establish AEW as a huge success financially, a moderate success financially, a break-even company, which may be fine at this stage depending upon the goals of Tony Khan, or a company that will lose money for years to come without a real window to turn that around. There was clearly a path one year ago. And there may be today. At this point the company is still in an exclusive negotiating window with WBD. That will change somewhat soon.

The goal with the new deal, which could be one partner or multiple partners, should be both a television and streaming deal. The decision has to balance both exposure levels and money. The money aspect will determine if the company as a company is now a success or not. With the right deal, they can tape every week at Daily’s Place before a few hundred people and they are a financial success. With the wrong deal, they could hit on a hot angle or series of stars catching on, start drawing big on the road and on PPV, and still not make a profit–not just in 2025 but for the entirety of the deal.


In a world where Indycar have got an improved deal not just fiscally but in scope of coverage, I expect AEW to get an offer that is at least double of their current deal of $45 million per year for 4 years and to be honest I expect it to be at triple figure millions.


Even with THAT rating for the 19/6 Dynamite, in the 7pm-11pm time range, it finished 3rd on that night in cable overall. The question of whether cord cutting is a thing can be answered in this except from a Sportico article about cord cutting and the change of viewing habits.


The latest round of defections has reduced the bundle’s tally to 51.4 million subs, a record 12.3% loss versus the year-ago figure (58.6 million). In the past two years, 14.7 million homes have parted ways with the bundle, and the impact of all that collective quitting is plain to see in the Nielsen ratings. During the 2023-24 broadcast season, the Big Four’s primetime entertainment series averaged just 477,499 adults 18-49 per airing, which amounts to one-half of 1% of the 131.88 million souls who are members of the target demo. That marks a 12.3% drop compared to the previous season’s turnout and a staggering 26.8% plummet from just two years ago.


In a world where tv ratings are scrutinised forensically, the actual number to look out for is the single night ranking for Dynamite and Collision on their respective nights


Average of P18-49 cable original rank by month


And while WWE are frequent No.1 and 2’s on their night on cable and network, the fact that AEW are still strong in their rank shows that the panic seen by some and joy by others is misplaced. For all Dave Meltzer’s repeated claims that being the No.2 company is an anchor round their neck, this isn’t 1999 anymore and this isn’t your daddies wrestling war from the nineties because in a world where content is king, a company that produces 5 hrs of television and are ranked where they are weekly should get their reward in contract renewal season.


I said should.


I really hope I don’t get Freezing Cold Taked now


Restore The Feeling


As I said in the first section of this final part of our look at the History of AEW, the words Restore The Feeling has been said so often that the question of what the feeling actually was needs to be answered. What was it that made AEW the challenger brand that made WWE use it’s development brand as a weapon of attack against them, that made wrestling interesting again in North America and what has been lost for people to say the word “restore the feeling”


The talk of identity and the loss of it in 2023 runs deep in the conversation. It goes deeper than the words ``sports-based presentation” (more on those three words next month) Part of AEW’s identity was its status as a challenger, as the company that took on WWE’s monopoly practices, disrupting the wrestling scene and being competent at doing so unlike many before (yes, I’m looking at you TNA) but the lay of the land in 2024 is different to what it was in 2019 making the challenge more difficult but comparing what we see in 2024 to what we saw in 2019 it feels like a different product and even if you need to move with the times, the changes don’t feel representative of the values of AEW.


The tag team division which was heralded as one of linchpins of the promotion with the tag tourney a focused part of the early episodes of Dynamite and helped carry the company in the early months of the Dailys Place era ended up being affected by the dominant presence of FTR and a lack of depth that saw Jeff Jarrett and Jay Lethal being contenders for two different champions and a makeshift team in Big Bill and Ricky Starks as champs (or was that because Dax’s shoulders was so messed up he could keep them on the mat for three seconds for one particular team) which was a WWE-esque move in the days when the lead creative force in New York saw tag team wrestling as a impediment to his vision of wrestling.


A perfect chance to show a statement could have been made about the tag division was lost when the belts became vacant post-Revolution and on the heels of The C2 which was a show that feelings were restored, a round robin format even if it was 6 teams would have been a good show that  the tag division was indeed back but instead we got a 8-team knockout tournament akin to the first tag tourney, a sign that progress isn’t being made


The Trios Division, which was meant to a foundation for the fast action party match that was one of bright sparks of the first few years of Dynamite saw it’s titles go from the Elite/Death Triangle Best of 7 to the spooky-dookyness of The House of Black, which was then a part of the 1988 JCP tribute show that was CM Punk’s Collision (which is ironic, don’t you think?) to the **¾ star generals that are The Acclaimed and Billy Gunn. Hopefully the Bang Bang Gang can save the division (hang on, could the Gunn Club save the Trios Division?)


While the complaint about too many titles is something that can be easily waved away by the fact that AEW have 6 male championships (I'm not counting the FTW belt) and 2 women's compared to WWE's 7 male and 3 female (ROH Titles shouldn't anywhere near AEW telly though) the biggest problem is that apart from the one that Ospreay and Okada have their own World Titles when you are trying to make a star in the actual World champ Swerve Strickland is that each singles belt should it's own individual identity

The rankings which were part of the sports-based presentation went away and then came back a few months after CM Punk left but then went away again with hopes that it would be a once a month thing seemingly not happening.


When the rankings were making a return the chorus of people dismayed (even Meltzer was critical) at a thing abnormal from the regular way of doing things in wrestling might have been a reason for such a short return of the rankings and while yes, they had it flaws (Lance Archer beating jobbers on Dark after turning on Hangman Page to get to 1st place and getting a title was such a red flag it would have waved in the Man United end at the Womens FA Cup Final this past May) but with strict supervision and maybe a Show Bible akin to what Aaron Sorkin used for The West Wing, David Angell used for Fraiser and Jen Pepperman used for One Life To Live, a storyline device such as rankings could help AEW like it did in 2021


You don’t even have to do a numerical 1-5 like has been the feature of the previous two incarnations of the rankings. I don’t like to be a know-it-all but this is my series so here is my brilliant idea.


The mention above of Jen Pepperman wasn’t done to be ironic. Her hiring has been treated as controversial by some with mentions of nepotism because her friendship with Mercedes Mone and with her previous employment at WWE and dare I say the fact she’s a women (funny, how some people don’t use her first name in criticisms of her employment) but if she could point out to Tony Khan that a “bible” to ensure that the bad habits that have infested AEW in the last few years are eliminated and that the long term storytelling that was one of the features that made AEW so beloved in it’s first few years and the “dream match” booking that I admittedly enjoy but also feels is now too prevalent on AEW television could be the way to help Restore The Feeling


Hang on, did I just claim that Jen Pepperman could be one to Restore The Feeling.


Huh, I didn’t expect to say that when I started this series last month. It also could a sign that writing 15,000 words on the history of AEW has driven me mad (or that we’ve Jumped The Shark)


Conclusions


After five years of AEW programming in which we saw the world we live in change, let alone the wrestling world. AEW, like you and me had to negotiate a pandemic. Once the fans were back, Hall of Famers, Top 100 wrestlers of all time made their way onto AEW television and while some worked out, some did not, bringing turmoil to the company in their wake. 


The company that were criticised for their inability to push black wrestlers now has an African-American as their World Champion and could main event a stadium show this August, an achievement that an African-American male has yet to do in WWE and two companies that were hostile to AEW on its founding in NJPW and CMLL will work with All Elite Wrestling this  coming Sunday at Forbidden Door.


A good comparison for how AEW are doing compared to WWE is to look at golf and at the gap between the PGA and LIV. Of the 3 million that watched golf on 23/6, 5% watched LIV on the CW. If you use an equivalent, Smackdown being on a Big 4 network and Dynamite being on a lesser network (with the difference admittingly being SmackDown and Dynamite being on different nights) of the almost combined 3 million of both shows on 21/6, 23% watched AEW’s offering on what was an all time low night Dynamite in the ratings.  (God, imagine if Dave Meltzer covered golf and found out how much LIV were behind PGA in the ratings)


While that is lower than what Tony Khan would like for sure, putting perspective on it, wrestling’s challenger brand is doing better than golf’s. 


I would go into the UFL/NFL rating dynamic but I have a word count to work with (it's not good for UFL)


But as things have changed, one thing has gone full circle as Paul Levesque, whose NXT operation was tasked with stunting the growth of AEW and failed to the point that Paul’s passion project was overhauled is now the man in charge of the main roster creative whose ratings are reported positively compared to AEW’s. 


But while rating’s are lower than they were in 2019-2022 and people are bigging up the night’s cable ranking as a counterpoint to reduce the negative news associated with the ratings line going down (why are you all looking at me for?) and cord-cutting is also being as a reason for line going down (seriously, why are you all looking at me) a interesting stat tells you that people still want to pay money to watch AEW PPV’s (which is why Tony wants to be rewarded for any move for the PPVs to MAX.


And when you compare the above other companies and their conversion rates?


In 1998, which was a year that saw a boom period for the wrestling industry, a non Big 4 PPV which got a buyrate of 300,000 (like Fully Loaded) had a conversion percentage of 6-7% with SummerSlam of that year with a 700,000 buyrate having a conversion from the tv rating of that month being 15.3%. WCW in the same year saw their July PPV, Bash at the Beach, with their second greatest ever buyrate see their average rating of the 4 weeks before of 4.25 million turn into a B/R of 580,000 which was 13.6% of those WCW Nitro viewers buying that PPV


Also for the record, TNA in the year 2010 when Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan were at the helm had an average of 1.1 million during the year and saw a buyrate high of 30,000 (Bound for Glory) meaning that just 2% of the TNA tv audience bought that TNA PPV.


Yet people want to take Bischoff seriously.


Are the attendances something to worry about? Yes. But that’s not just related to the on-screen products. With ticket prices at a more premium rate than 5 years before during a cost of living crisis and a lack of trust that the big stars will appear on tv shows and a lack of star studded dark matches like WWE used to do in the Attitude Era (you were getting Steve Austin/The Rock in a match when you went to Raw/Smackdown even if it was a dark match) the AEW live experience may not be the necessity it used to be.


But with the problems that AEW have to deal with with the tv contract cloud over their head, one thing cannot be denied.


The truth is, one of the biggest achievements AEW has made has been to live rent free in WWE’s head. How else do you explain the Cody/Punk segment on the go home show of the Royal Rumble, how else do you explain the Cody Rhodes/Ethan Page/Shawn Spears/Lexus King segment on NXT. Did you expect the Prohibited Portal to be a thing without Tony Khan making inter-promotional special relationships sexy again. Heck, the day after the announcement of The Young Bucks revealing the footage of the Punk/Perry altercation, WWE announced that they were releasing a documentary about the "making" of the WrestleMania XL main event on the same day as the Dynamite angle but then gets delayed for almost three months.


And despite what people like grifters and people who doom even if it’s earnest in its opinion might say, the chances of seeing Year 6 and 10 are high (I was going to joke  that the chances were higher than a Labour General Election but I don’t want to be in internet infamy in case that goes wrong.


Those next 5 years are going to be fun, the landscape will be different in 5 years, they’ll be periods when the product will frustrate just as much as it exhilarates, Will Ospreay will at one point winning the World Title and of course people will say that AEW will die but I’m confident that the joke that me and a friend on a group chat made about us writing a book about “Who Killed AEW” won’t come to fruition.


I’m also confident that should the unthinkable happen, the documentary about the death of AEW would be better than Who Killed WCW?









Comments


bottom of page