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We need to talk about..... the first 5 years of AEW- (Part 1- The start of the Challenger Era)

When AEW put on Double or Nothing this Memorial Day Weekend, it will mean that we will have seen AEW out on shows for 5 years. Had DoN been on Saturday instead of the Sunday it would have been on the exact anniversary of that night in 2019 but we aren't getting Saturday night AEW PPV’s because we can't have nice things anymore. Regardless, the 5 years of AEW has seen many changes socially, in the way we live and many changes in the way we watch television. In those 5 years, the way they wrestling world has changed is actually hard to believe but in thinking about this issue on a Saturday in bed in which I may or may not have been hungover, I got to thinking about AEW and where it actually stands in the grand scheme of things. So I've decided in a multi-part series to talk about AEW and it's impact on wrestling and if it has changed the world.

While the first part of what is likely to be a five-part series is more of a history recap than actual analysis, we are setting the picture for what AEW was supposed to look like in Tony Khan’s and The Elite’s vision. Call it foreshadowing folks.

                                              The first 10 months

                                            (May 2019-March 2020)

At the stroke of midnight Pacific time on New Year’s Eve, the official announcement of All Elite Wrestling was made on Being the Elite, from a video taped 17 hours or so earlier in front of the Tokyo Dome, where The Young Bucks, Cody and Adam Page were waiting with their cell phones for the ticking to end.

At first nothing happened, but then they showed the AEW insignia on the phone and Page’s phone had a graphic that read: “All In 2: Double or Nothing.” Dave Meltzer January 7th WON

While the start of AEW came on New Year's Day here in the UK in Tokyo when the complete opposite of what Dave wrote happened. Hangman Page’s phone was the sole one with the AEW logo (more on that in a later edition) for many the start was that night in Las Vegas when Cody and Dustin Rhodes fought in a bloodbath, Joshi stars fought in Joshi style for the first time in a big arena since 1995 and I spent ¾’s of the Casino Battle Royale wondering if somebody had forgotten to eliminate the guy with no legs. (Oh, and I wondered why Jake Whitehall was on my television)

In a period where WWE looked like the property of a man whose vision of wrestling had become as outdated as his vision on life, AEW was the antithesis of everything that WWE stood for in the years before. With a World Title that didn't look like a object primed for sell in The Entertainer but an actual trophy of accomplishment, matches that embraced violence and styles of matches that didn't look like they were bred in a Performance Center, AEW looked different to the “leader in sports entertainment” and that's why people like myself fell for this company.

With a television deal with TNT announced in the days before Double or Nothing with the network putting their latest acquisition in focus at their upfronts, a weekly television show to counteract WWE and talk of 4 PPVs a year saw AEW as the dictionary definition of a challenger brand just like WCW had been in the early 90s

The WCW comparison 

The comparison to WCW was very easy to make. TNT showing a wrestling show with an explosive name with Tony Schiavone in the commentary booth, the similarities seem obvious but that's where they ended. Firstly, WCW after years of conservatism (and incompetence) finally took a line of attack on WWE with a live Monday night show to go head to head with RAW. Nitro’s debut came 32 months after the debut of RAW and 6 and a half years (and a fourth head of wrestling operations) after the buyout of Jim Crockett Promotions in 1988. In today's TV landscape, such conservatism for a new company wasn't going to work. AEW had to have a 2 hr show live weekly on television. In an era where live to tape isn't going to fly for sporting coverage, as NBC are learning with their Olympic coverage, the need for going live was important as was the timing of a new company. 

Tony Khan the businessman

Those reading this will know the story of Tony Khan, the kid who loved wrestling growing up, was a message board poster, whose dad became a billionaire and invested in two franchises that also happened to be passions of Tony's (soccer and NFL) Tony like many of you reading this when faced with a decision whether or not to carry on his wrestling fandom when a fully grown adult, carried on watching the weirdest industry known to man (seriously, have you ever tried explaining wrestling to someone and they not go “huh” akin to Will Ospreay on Hey(EW) ) 

Tony with monetary means at his disposal and dare I say it, a chance to prove to himself and other people that he could run his own sports business could have invested in a wrestling company sometime in the 00s. Ring of Honour, a company on the sellers market before Sinclair snapped it up and Impact with all the chaos of the mid 00s could have been bought by Tony but it was 2019 and seeing the amount of money WWE made from their TV deal that made Tony Khan decide to invest in the rasslin’ business.

But unlike any other time since WCW died in 2001, 2019 was also now the perfect time to be the challenger brand of all challenger brands. Unlike 2002 and the raft of new companies entering the wrestling landscape in a time where WWE(F) were viewed as the winners of wrestling war and in 2010 and 2015 where both ROH and Impact couldn't get a national TV deal and messed their one up spectacularly respectively while WWE were still doing good numbers even if their product wasn't the most eye pleasing.

There is also an ad revenue split with a downside guarantee. So the final value of the deal will be directly related to ad rates and attractiveness of the product, as well as in the long run, the ratings. This behooves AEW to do an advertiser friendly show. There has been talk from the start of a very sports-centric product, with similarities to UFC and Mid South Wrestling in different ways, with analytics used in storylines, from won-loss records to other detailed statistics and likely rankings and such. How this will all transpire is still unknown and there is a question of being able to make it work, since nothing has ever been done like this in the past. -Observer- May 20, 2019

But with television numbers and fan satisfaction at an all time low, Tony took his chance. With a friend in Kevin Reilly, the head of TNT giving them a network even if the deal was a “time buy” which saw Khan pay Time Warner, the then owners of TNT for 2 hrs of programming each week, Dynamite was born.

Going back to the WCW comparisons

With Dynamite being the first new television show on a major network for 14 years, the talk was about the star power of AEW. 4 weeks before the first episode, Chris Jericho won the AEW World Title. The reason why was obvious. With two decades plus of being on wrestling television, Jericho was the biggest name possible to put Pretty Platinum on and when you look at the first eight hours of television (four 2-hour shows) that AEW put on TNT and compare it to the first eight hours of WCW on TNT (eight one-hour shows) which was the first time WCW had been on Turner Network Television and the difference of star power is there to see.

The need to build stars from scratch was needed. While Jericho, Jake Hager (TAFKA Jack Swagger) and Jon Moxley were the three world champions that appeared on Dynamite compared to the names of Hogan, Savage, Flair, Sting and Luger, four of those names being Observer HOFers showed the difference in the rosters while Jake's debut had negative reactions from people fearing that AEW were going to do a TNA in the mid 00's when they signed almost every WWE exitee after their release and Jon Moxley had yet to win any of his two WOTY awards. Yes, AEW had The Elite with the 2018 WOTY in Kenny Omega, the tag team of the decade in The Young Bucks and Cody Rhodes but success in NJPW and ROH and it's translation to a 2hr primetime slot on a prestige cable network was an unknown heading to the premiere of Dynamite even with the six-figure number buy rates which was already 40,000 buys ahead of TNA's best ever PPV number

While WCW decided to go on Monday nights to declare war on Titan Sports, WWE took AEW entering the wrestling space as a hostile act and used NXT as a battering ram against All Elite, taking the weekly show from the developmental show turned indy work rate brand from the WWE Network to the USA Network with one sole goal to stop AEW before it got momentum and it could have actually worked had it not been for one mistake.

The day the Game changed

After the first Dynamite which pulled in 1.4 million, with a 0.68 in the key demo it was pretty evident that people were fascinated by the prospect of a second big time promotion. It also showed that TNT did a great job in promoting the show on October 2nd. The next week saw a decrease in 300,000 with 0.17 drop in 18-49 as was expected with television viewing habits and with episodes with the 6/11-20/11 episodes of Dynamite averaging at 890,000 (0.39 in the key demo) with a strong number on 20/11 when faced against an NXT packed with main roster guys appearing on NXT to promote the Survivor Series PPV that was featuring NXT heavily (see what WWE are doing there?) While the comparison to NXT can be seen with Wikipedia having it’s own page on the Wednesday Night War but if you compare Dynamite to two premiere’s on the CW Network which was two places behind TNT in the network rankings in 2019, Batwoman and Nancy Drew you can see the following. All in all, when you look at the numbers AEW was going strong until it wasn’t.

The 663,000 (0.26) rating on Thanksgiving Eve was very easily attributed to the day. The Nancy Drew show mentioned above that was aired on Wednesday nights was off for that week. The night before Thanksgiving is not a night for television viewing unless it’s appointment television for fans of a product. The 683,000 (0.25) from 18/12 could be easily attributed to the show sucking. That final segment which was not good television, was the cumulation of a couple of weeks period where Dynamite felt directionless with the Butcher and Blade debuts, Scorpio Sky as a challenger for the World Title, The Nightmare Collective and The Dark Order as main event heels flattering to deceive while on NXT, a build to a Adam Cole/Finn Balor NXT Title match and the end of a story that saw Rhea Ripley dethrone long time NXT Women’s Champ Shayna Baszler saw NXT win not only for the third time in the overall number rating (the other two being the Survivor Series go-home and Thanksgiving Eve) but for the first time in the 18-49. Cue Tony Khan taking full charge of booking.

But with momentum on NXT side and with their foot on AEW’s throat, a great New Year’s Day show from NXT would surely put more pressure on their Wednesday rival. The problem was they took New Years Day off showing a year in review clip show. AEW didn’t and with a revitalised looking show that unopposed vs NXT, drew just shy off a million, the best rating since mid-October and with a hook to end the show based on Hangman Page’s relationship with the Elite, ratings stayed solid, NXT never hit the 0.27 they hit on the 18th December again and AEW got their television deal. The “time buy” deal they signed in May 2019 was also no more, AEW were now getting paid money to air professional wrestling from 8-10 every Wednesday in TNT (except when the NBA playoffs were on)

Essentially it is an increase of about $18 million per year in value, which is said to be more than the difference between making 2020 and beyond profitable. While AEW President and CEO Tony Khan was hopeful when the promotion debuted that it would be profitable by the end of 2020, with the old deal that was not likely to happen, saying it would have taken a miracle for 2020 to end up as a profitable year and we just got that miracle.

The deal came together quickly since the first of the year.  -Dave Meltzer Jan 20 2020 Wrestling Observer

That New Years Day show was the difference maker by what people actually working the phones were saying. What would have happened had NXT put on an actual wrestling show instead of an awards/clip show is something best suited to alternate history buffs but it does need to be said that Dynamite went head to head with the college football playoff semi-finals that night and as we would learn later, AEW doesn't do bad against college football on Saturday nights

With Time Warner's confidence fully in them with the new deal, AEW on a creative front hit what some feel is their best period ever. Hangman Page’s push hit its stride, Cody took the 10 lashes, PAC and Kenny Omega had the Ironman match and Revolution saw the beat tag match of the century. NXT would see the Johnny Gargano vs Tomasso Ciampa story grind on to near it's 3 year anniversary.

But when I listen back to old Observer Radio show with Dave Meltzer in researching for this piece, you’re reminded by what sounds like Dave coughing up a lung and almost every other organ in his body that something was coming that would change the way we watched AEW.

In the next part, we look at the period between March 2020 and May 2021 and look at how AEW established their identity in the most uncertain of times


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