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We Need to Talk About..... The History of AEW- Part 2 (The Empty Arena Era)

March 11, 2020 is one of those days where you put it on the “where were you” moments column. 

Where were you when the NBA announced they were shutting down for the foreseeable future? 

I was asleep. I live in the UK, it was around 3 in the morning, I'm not mad you know.

But upon reading the BBC news site on the Thursday morning just as I'm pressing play on Dynamite on Fite/Triller that not only that the positive COVID test from Rudy Gobert had caused the suspension of play in the NBA but that Tom Hanks had also gone down with the illness was the realisation that the virus that has been looming and caused disruption to the Six Nations in Italy and sport in Asia had made its impact on America.

The show closing angle of that night's Dynamite which saw The Inner Circle standing tall over the Elite with the Hangman/Young Bucks tension escalating would be the final piece of AEW action in a fully packed arena for 14 months.

A Different World (but not in Wrestling)

While the NBA and other sports with active seasons ongoing had to stop, both the American Big 2 wrestling companies carried on as normal. WWE remembered that they were more sports than entertainment and AEW used their sports-based promotion USP so that they could run wrestling shows in Florida thanks to a little help from Governor Ron DeSantis because Florida.

That help from DeSantis would come days after the failed candidate in the 2024 Republican primary adjusted a loophole in the stay-at-home order that he had executed on April 1st, agreeing to WWE’s claim that pro wrestling was an “essential business”. On a completely irrelevant tangent, you can buy a pack of 50 A5 brown envelopes for 9.99 on Amazon. But this moment which was meant to serve WWE’s best interest got AEW out of a massive hole 

AEW had moved out of Jacksonville to QT Marshall's gym taping 6 weeks worth of Dynamite matches in a three day block (31/3 and 4/2 in anticipation of the upcoming order from DeSantis. The general tale is if they didn't put events on at the Nightmare Factory, AEW would have died but that is only half the truth. Having the gym that is run by one of the AEW team and one of the linchpins of AEW in its formative year’s best mates as a Plan B is an obvious tactic, it was when you look back at those days you see that it was actually a makeup for the foolish idea that Tony Khan had of not filming multiple shows in the early days of COVID when they had the chance at the Dailys Place but Georgia executing it's own stay at home order not long after, AEW were in a bind.

The public backlash to DeSantis’ “essential business” decision saw him order that any national sport that was to be broadcast on national television, freedom to run in Florida under the “essential business” act. WWE’s PC being based in Orlando and Daily’s Place being owned by The Khan's saw a horseshoe sized piece of luck shine on the “sport” of wrestling.

A “guaranteed” weekly television show when the 3 of the big 4 team sports couldn't play was manners of heaven and be damned if the lack of fans meant the whole experience was like a dystopian experience to the point that Charlie Brooker highlighted it in his COVID special that aired in April of 2020.

Stuck with a similar problem of conducting shows in front of no fans. WWE had to play catch up with how AEW produced empty arena shows. WWE eventually put extras in the stands (watching some of the PC shows in research, it is fun to see which AEW roster members who were then PC trainees being plants in the crowd and after weeks of shooting shows in the traditional hard cam format showcasing hundreds of empty seats, WWE, or Kevin Dunn if you want to be specific realised that putting the hard cam opposite the entrance, like AEW had done it in the start of this different world, was the way for the time being.

It also helped that the in-ring action was better at Daily's Place

The months of WWE struggling to adjust in the way of doing things saw AEW build further momentum. I would compare AEW and NXT and their ratings but….

The 4/8 show may be a week NXT wins. If they don’t, that would have to be considered something of a failure since it’s essentially the WrestleMania Takeover main event on television.  Meltzer March 30 Wrestling Observer

While the 8/4 and 15/4 (the British way of documenting dates is the correct one) show nights were won in overall as well as a 3 week span of 24/6 to 8/7 (two of those weeks being the Fyter Fest vs Great American Bash weeks), the 28/10 edition (Halloween Havoc) and the final Wednesday night NXT on 7/4//21, the key demo was won by AEW every week and to anyone who wants to argue about the key demo’s importance, here’s the Wikipedia article about it.

The gap between the pair of shows in the key demo was so large that NXT had to move to Tuesdays, the final two shows of the head-to-head were in fact the closest the rivalry was during the pandemic at a 0.6 and 0.5 

So the most interesting statistic to look at is how Dynamite did ratings wise compared to RAW

I will point out that the Road To WrestleMania and the curiosity of how the only “sport” still active in the weeks after Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test will present their show lead to the March average which saw the 16/3 show’s 0.76 key demo number be higher than the average of the two months before (0.73 and 0.74 for Jan and Feb respectively) but the inevitable drop as the wearisome sight of empty arena wrestling was worst for WWE RAW on USA Network, a network closer to TNT in rankings than FOX hence the comparison with AEW making big gains in the key demo after June saw the New York territory needing a change of plan. WWE’s answer was The ThunderDome.

While The ThunderDome (WWE really like their double capitals in words, huh) looked like something from 1984 it worked, with a 0.67 in the first RAW in the room with more tellys than a Currys/PC World, which can be attributed to curiosity about the newest look of WWE. The next 4 weeks would see an average of 0.51 in the demo and 1.74 million in overall viewers, a 6% and 3.5% increase in demo and overall respectively. But AEW had a 7.5% increase in overall in that period (with a pre-emption amongst the four shows) with the 9/9 show breaking the million viewer ceiling with the demo holding steady at 0.34. While WWE was correcting the ship sinking, AEW’s momentum rise was still continuing.

But while 2020 was a year that saw the gap between AEW and WWE narrow, two moments outside the world of wrestling put a focus on issues that AEW needed to deal with.

The murder of George Floyd wasn't the first and last time an African-American person has had his life ended at the hands of an American police officer. But this time, the footage of George's last moments started a conversation. The focus on Black Lives Matter with the bended knee down on the restart of the Premier League which was also replicated by The New Day on SmackDown and protests by all around the world brought focus on treatment of black people in not just America but all over the world. With that came criticism of AEW and the make up of it's roster. 

Now, I am a white guy and while as a left-minded on social issues and I wear the idea that I may be “Woke” as a badge of honour (no-one has ever answered the question, are those who are “anti-woke” asleep?) I’m still a white guy from a town that is so middle class that it’ll probably still vote in a Conservative MP at this year’s General Election no matter what Rishi Sunak does so I’m going to use the highlights from a Twitter thread from Rich Latta from 2021 (with his permission) to emphasis the points I’m going to make.

The 2019 PWI 500 released in the summer of that year shows how the Top Ten black male wrestlers were already contracted to other organisations. 

Top 10 Male Black Wrestlers in 2019 PWI 500

4- Kofi Kingston (WWE)

16-Jay Lethal (ROH)

21-Ricochet (WWE)

26-Velveteen Dream (WWE)

30- Bobby Lashley (WWE)

56- R-Truth (WWE)

59- Cedric Alexander (WWE)

72- Big E (WWE)

86- Xavier Woods (WWE)

88- Rich Swann (IMPACT)

The first person from that list not under contract to WWE/ROH/Impact was Scorpio Sky at 116th and he had transferred over to AEW when he became a free agent in early 2019 and his push was evident with Sky being booked as the MVP of SCU in the early stages of Dynamite and being the first guy to pin Chris Jericho in AEW.

As you've noticed Isiah Scott (The Artist Futurely Known As Sweve Strickland) isn't on this list because to quote Rich in a DM convo we had, he was "kept in storage"

Only 9 black women make it into the PWI Women's 100.

Top 9 Black Wrestlers in 2019 PWI 00

10- Nicole Savoy (Freelance)

14- Sasha Banks (WWE)

27- Ember Moon (WWE)

36- Bianca Belair (WWE)

41- Naomi (WWE)

50- Brandi Rhodes (AEW)

54-Kiera Hogan (IMPACT)

66- Nyla Rose (AEW)

95- Holidead (Freelance)

While Nicole Savoy and Holidead could have been signed up by AEW (we did see Nicole in the tag tournament aired on YouTube) the fact that the second to fifth ranked African American women on the list were WWE contracted shows the head start they had on All Elite in having a diverse roster.

Points like this were lost on the usual suspects in 2020. Type in the words AEW Diversity 2020 and you see everyone's least favourite cheeseboard gatherer (Hang on, did Sean Ross Sapp nick Alfred Konuwa's gimmick?) talking about AEW's diversity problem in a Forbes article headlined WWE is Far Superior To AEW In Diversity Right Now and upon reading it, its a) as bad as you expect it to be and b) very obvious that Jason Whitlock is Alfred's favourite sports journalist.

AEW President Tony Khan is coming off an unearned victory lap after conveniently revealing that Hulk and Linda Hogan have been banned from all future AEW events. This, after Linda Hogan’s deeply racist tweet blaming “Afro-Americans” for looting during the George Floyd protests.

Now celebrating its one-year anniversary, however, AEW’s only minority champion is Hikaru Shida. It could be argued that white wrestlers in AEW would be enjoying a clean sweep right now if wildly entertaining top star Britt Baker—easily the most-pushed woman in the promotion—was not currently on the mend from a leg injury.

(Britt was never supposed to win the World Title in 2020)

AEW has benefitted from too much praise simply for not being WWE. But this is still the carny wrestling business, and AEW has more in common with WWE than most care to admit. AEW felt compelled to run live events during a global pandemic, just like WWE. AEW’s only two world champions in history are Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose)

If Alfred had cared to do research, he would know why that was the case but I guess he was too busy cutting cheese to do the work.

While the conversation about diversity was occurring in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder, a tweet from Tori, a former girlfriend of David Starr accusing him of sexual assault. In the days that followed, stories were shared on social media of sexual misconduct by wrestlers all over the UK and USA.

Promotions like Chikara were brought down by allegations. Many promotions in the UK had to restructure their practices in the fallout. Prominent names such as Joey Ryan, Marty Scurll and Jay Lethal were also named. Joey’s cameo at the 2019 All In show, which has been seen as the prologue to AEW will always be closest Ryan will ever be to AEW. Marty Scurll’s blacklisting from wrestling (except AAA it seems) put into focus how AEW got away with it with Marty’s decision to sign with ROH instead of his expected decision to join AEW and Jay Lethal joined All Elite Wrestling. Yeah, that understandably upset people. At least they didn’t hire Ric Flair after he was alleged on Dark Side of The Ring of committing sexual assau…. Oh wait.

While AEW’s hiring of problematic wrestlers after allegations against them in the last two years is deserving of contempt, in the months after Speaking Out, AEW dealt with the wrestlers under contract to them that had been alleged against. Jimmy Havoc was released after allegations of assault and Sammy Guevara was suspended for vile comments he had made in a podcast about Sasha Banks.

WWE released or suspended all of those in the NXT UK department of the promotion with allegations to their name bar one (the man who was the NXT Cruiserweight Champion at the time of Speaking Out, Jordan Devlin) but of those based in America accused just one was released immediately (Jack Gallagher after admitting to his acts) while the others named (Matt Riddle and Velveteen Dream) while released at a later date, it needed multiple more acts of fireable behaviour on Riddle’s side and a clearing of Velveteen’s name by Paul Levesque before he was fired.

While the top two American companies were under the spotlight with the issues of diversity and Speaking Out, WWE would go on a releasing spree in the early days of the pandemic with 37 talents being released in the month of April. It was a move that repulsed fans in a time where the indy scene was dormant due to the circumstances of the time but it was also a move that pleased the stock market with the dollar price on Wall Street doing up because modern capitalism. 

Looking back, the 37 releases showed how bloated the roster had become and how many were just kept in storage (I completely forgot that Primo and Epico were under contract to WWE in 2020) but such an act in times where the future was so uncertain, would get a deserved Most Disgusting Promotional Award Tactic Award, another victory in an award that WWE has dominated like Beyonce has dominated the MTV VMAs and with Tony Khan’s insistence that unless disciplinary  circumstances necessitated a release, that wrestlers would get to see out their contracts making them the antidote to WWE in its business practices (yes folks, I’m doing foreshadowing)

Of the 37 to be released. eight would turn up on AEW television. Some in cameos (Erick Rowan in that emotional moment in the Brodie Lee tribute show and Matt Cardona because Cody Rhodes) some turned up for a cup of coffee (Lio Rush) and some have been staples of AEW television (Tay Conti, Serena Deeb and Miro). Of a further nine to leave in the next 8 months of the year (four of them being accused in the days of Speaking Out) you saw Drew Gulak leave, which did slightly amuse me after the events of the Backlash press conference and also Renee Paquette (who might have been the best of the WWE to AEW moves of those who left post March 2020) and Sting (he did well in AEW as well to be fair)

A further 48 talents were released or left after their contract expired in the first half of 2021 before the full-time return of fans in arenas in both WWE and AEW and it would be a number of  those 48 that would  play an important part of The Big Acquisition Era.

Next time in We Need To Talk About AEW- we look at July 2021- September 2022 and how the big signings AEW made in this time was the beginning of AEW losing their religion.


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