It’s day 3 of Blaugust 2021, and what better thing to do than chase off all my gaming readers coming in by discussing pro wrestling!
Right now, pro wrestling is in an interesting bind. It has waned in popularity from its high-point in the 90s, where nearly 11 million Americans were watching every single week, to the point where the highest-watched weekly show is around 2 million viewers, but there is an infectious sort of energy about wrestling at this point in 2021. There are a few reasons for that, and it is largely centered on newer promotion All Elite Wrestling (AEW), but there’s stuff worth talking about all over, so let’s start with the global leader in the industry, WWE.
Why Is WWE Interesting Right Now?
I’ll lead off by saying interesting and not exciting because WWE is, to some extent, the same as it always has been. Over the last several years, WWE has bled its audience, with their flagship weekly TV show Raw going from near 4 million viewers to just under 2 million. Over the last year in particular, WWE has been publicly in something of a tumultuous ride, as the company hired a new executive in Nick Khan, formerly of Barstool Sports, and he’s been on something of a spree of “cutting costs” even as the company has made record profits due to exceptionally high-paying TV contracts and a lack of touring expenses due to COVID. In the last several months in particular, he’s been blamed as the central force behind a lot of talent releases, seeing WWE firing a large number of wrestlers, including several high profile talents like Braun Strowman (who had a match with WWE CEO chairman Vince McMahon’s son at this year’s Wrestlemania, and was then released) and Bray Wyatt (a very-creative individual who has personally helped drive some of the more interesting and creative characters in the company, in the vein of the Undertaker).
The behind-the-scenes of it all is interesting, but on-camera, WWE has some momentum right now. Just two weeks ago, the company returned to touring, with several 90%+ capacity crowds for shows, and to capitalize on that momentum, they’ve brought back John Cena from his Hollywood exodus in Fast 9 and The Suicide Squad, bringing star power to the shows. WWE has, since the 90s, adopted the stance that the company itself is what sells tickets, not individual stars, and Cena is arguably one of the last performers that broke through to be individually successful, so him coming back is a big deal and has helped push ticket sales and ratings whenever he is advertised. The problem with the approach WWE has now, though, is that the rest of the roster feels largely interchangeable – in the startup period of AEW back in 2019, WWE signed dozens of bigger-name independent wrestlers and athletes, most of whom have withered on the vine as WWE’s TV approach tends to feature a small roster of the same faces every week with only occasional deviations. This is what makes Cena feel bigger than the rest of the current roster – because as a name, he has recognition and value that leaves the wrestling bubble, where a talented performer like Drew McIntyre just doesn’t – no shade to McIntyre, he’s great, but he’s stuck just being a part of a machine.
Cena’s return has led to a lot of shows being sold out, including non-televised house shows, which is great for the company even if it feels like a temporary boost on the back of Cena and the fact that people can now leave their houses and attend live events – although for how long that will be given the Delta variant of COVID, we’ll see.
WWE is using this to build to this year’s Summerslam event, their second-largest annual special. To build it further, the event is being hosted at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas this year instead of WWE’s standard basketball/hockey arena venue for the event, with over 40,000 fans in attendance. The event looks reasonably good, with big marquee matches featuring John Cena versus company mainstay Roman Reigns (who is on the best run of his career, having finally found a groove that works), and the return of mid-50s Goldberg versus current WWE Champion Bobby Lashley (a match that should see Goldberg put over Lashley as the next big star, but is likely instead to feature the older Goldberg winning a world championship because he has name recognition, sadly). However, among wrestling fans like myself, the big mystery is what is happening with WWE in general right now, as the company continues to trim down jobs both on the roster of active wrestlers but also behind the scenes in a way that suggests they may sell the company, although that also feels incredibly unlikely. On a recent investor call, Vince McMahon iterated a standard line about how AEW isn’t competition, but that “everything on TV” is and made a glib, tone-deaf comment about “giving AEW more talent,” i.e. firing more wrestlers. So, you know, that’s great!
Oh, also, the company is working on a drama miniseries about the early 90s trial of the US government against Vince McMahon for trafficking steroids, one that features McMahon as a hero against the villainous US government. Given that his daughter once compared the trial against her father to 9/11 as equally bad events, I…am sure it will be fine and nothing will possibly be tone-deaf or askew about this at all!
What Is Exciting About AEW Right Now?
AEW, on the other side of the coin, is riding high on being the top-rated show on Wednesday nights among key demographics and has been the beneficiary of a handful of things that will bear some explanation.
First, the easy part – AEW is a more fan-focused wrestling show, one that got me back into watching wrestling as weekly appointment television after around 7 years not doing so. There are a lot of things that go into that, so I’ll (actually!) briefly summarize. In short, AEW uses continuity well, building logical, well-told stories that feature talent in ways that are exciting and fun to watch. While the narrative arc of a wrestling story told well can sometimes be predictable, AEW uses that well – building exciting matches and story elements into such predictable moments while using unpredictability sometimes to their advantage. Whereas WWE often feels like television for children (and in their advertiser focus, they are), AEW books more interesting and nuanced stories that aren’t afraid to lean on adult and deeply emotional themes like failure, overcoming adversity, growing as a person, and being shown the error of your ways. The show isn’t perfect, but their weekly program Dynamite is consistently good-to-great throughout the two hours, and because they only have major pay-per-view specials once every 3 months (as opposed to the monthly PPV calendar of WWE), things have room to breathe, and talent rotate in and out of Dynamite, with only a few major performers featured on a weekly basis.
Because of this, AEW has a passionate fanbase that makes live events with fans spectacles unto themselves. While WWE crowds are often quieter (or raucously against the product they’re watching live), AEW fans support the show and add to it. With that as an advantage, AEW’s return to touring and full-capacity live events has brought back some of the missing energy of the COVID era and the company has been performing for high attendance crowds since they resumed touring in early July.
This time of year is AEW’s big season too, as they build to the US Labor Day weekend and their signature event, All Out in Chicago. While their May show, Double or Nothing, is arguably taking some of that role since it was the first event under the AEW banner, All Out is a bigger deal since the original iteration, All In in 2018, was the largest independent wrestling show in the US, and it was that show which cemented the formation of AEW as a company. This means that a lot of stories are built up around their conclusion at All Out, and in many ways, it is the company’s Wrestlemania equivalent – their big marquee show.
Chicago is a strong wrestling market, and AEW is going to be running no fewer than 4 shows there in the next 30 days, with 3 shows including All Out at the NOW Center, their “home arena” in the Chicago area, and one show earlier than those, with a live TV broadcast from the United Center in downtown Chicago. The company is launching a new show on TV called Rampage in the coming weeks, a one-hour weekly program to compliment Dynamite, their current TV offering, and that show should help further build storylines for their quarterly PPV events. It will sometimes be live, and such an edition of that show will be two of the events in Chicago in the next month, including their debut at the United Center. Later in the fall, AEW will be running their first stadium show at Arthur Ashe stadium in New York, a tennis stadium that can seat around 20,000, and the tickets for that show are nearly sold-out already.
The Arthur Ashe show in NYC and the United Center show are both interesting, because they’re the biggest tests of AEW’s mainstream viability to date. WWE isn’t really mainstream to the same extent as the 90s anymore, but if you ask someone who doesn’t watch about wrestling, they’d probably know WWE, some of the wrestlers, and at least have name recognition of it. Because of that, WWE still tours larger NBA/NHL level venues, with Wrestlemania held at an NFL stadium annually, while AEW has largely stuck to smaller basketball and hockey venues on college campuses, where maximum seating is usually just shy of 10,000 before production gets set up, so an average AEW sellout is around 8,000 fans where a WWE sellout is 12,000 or more. Arthur Ashe at this point will be the largest non-Wrestlemania wrestling show in the greater NYC area in a long time, as with the configuration on-sale, they’ll sell more seats than WWE does at Madison Square Garden, with near to 20,000 in attendance (if it sells fully out).
But why is AEW cresting this wave now, two years into their existence?
Well, rumors, mostly – but a lot of smoke is there.
Wrestling in the US was changed forever in the late 2000’s when WWE signed a newer crop of indie wrestlers, led by two names – CM Punk and Brian Danielson (renamed to Daniel Bryan in the WWE).
Both men were decidedly not what WWE normally went for. They’re average height men, with physiques that are impressive but obtainable, and both focused on very different elements of wrestling compared to the WWE norm – cerebral storytellers – CM Punk able to easily weave reality into the story in his promos while being above-average in the ring, while Brian Danielson was a strong in-ring performer who could physically tell great stories through his selling, his emotion, and the like. Both forged a strong connection with fans – CM Punk for being the closest WWE has gotten in the modern era to an anti-authority hero in the vein of Stone Cold Steve Austin, while Daniel Bryan was an underdog face that overcame odds and garnered a lot of fan support.
Both are also known for quick, somewhat (or in Punk’s case, very) acrimonious exits from the ring of WWE – in CM Punk’s case, he walked out after the 2014 Royal Rumble due to poor creative plans for him going into Wrestlemania and a bevy of health issues (famously, at this point, he was suffering from a cyst that led to him shitting himself in the ring on a late 2013 Smackdown, which he tweeted about when it happened), culminating in the WWE FedExing him his contract release paperwork on his wedding day. Daniel Bryan had a long history of concussions, and was forced to retire from in-ring competition in early 2016 due to the discovery of brain lesions. He later was the beneficiary of numerous cutting-edge treatments, including re-oxygenation of his brain, and the healing that enabled allowed him to return to active competition in the spring of 2018, albeit with careful post-match evaluations for brain health. He wrestled for WWE until April 2021, where his contact legitimately expired and he was sent off with an excellent match on Smackdown against Roman Reigns, where he would either win the Universal Championship or leave the company – and he lost, as one might have guessed.
Fans love both performers for different reasons – CM Punk because he was almost singularly the driving force behind the WWE having a creative boom in 2011 that made his segments must-watch, while Daniel Bryan was a plucky underdog character who developed in WWE after spending years languishing in the company, all thanks to very simple chants – the words “Yes!” and “No” with different hand motions that led fans across sports to participate with what became his signature chants. Brian Danielson, the person, is passionate about wrestling and competing with the highest level of performers, and he spent a long time in WWE against the very best they could offer, having outstanding matches across a broad range of opponents. CM Punk, meanwhile, lost his passion for wrestling in WWE, ending up taking on a second passion in UFC, where he had a very disappointing MMA debut and record before ending up as a commentator for smaller promotions under the UFC umbrella and a brief return to WWE not wrestling (as a Fox employee on their WWE commentary show Backstage, prior to it being canceled last year). WWE does not see a path to return for CM Punk, as while Vince McMahon has an affinity for him, his daughter and her husband Triple H do not, and Punk was also sued by WWE doctor Chris Amann for claims Punk made publicly about his cyst and medical treatment in his last months in the company, a suit which the doctor lost.
So when WWE super-discounted Daniel Bryan merchandise over the past few months and started making sure to not mention him on television, including in the recent promotion of a match between Edge and Roman Reigns (a match which happened at this year’s Wrestlemania with Daniel Bryan as a third man in the ring), it became suspect. WWE normally leaves doors open when they suspect they can close on a new deal, and while the company has been inconsistent in its booking of Bryan, he’s always ended up back in WWE. In the past few years, WWE has only done fire-sale merchandise for a single performer when they suspect that person is going to AEW – Sting got that treatment last fall and he was in AEW in December. CM Punk, meanwhile, is a name that has been bandied about for AEW for years. AEW considers Chicago a home of sorts, and it is also where Punk lives and is from. When the promotion debuted, there was some public discussion that AEW had tried to secure a contract for CM Punk, but Punk was generally dismissive of the company and ended up going to Fox for WWE Backstage instead. As of late, however, rumors have picked up again – Punk using social media to troll by following AEW president Tony Khan and following some of their performers, posting out-of-context images of the Chicago skyline, and then the band Living Color briefly followed AEW, was caught, and unfollowed (Living Color’s “Cult of Personality” was licensed by WWE for CM Punk’s entrance music during the peak of his run with the company).
At this point, AEW is leaning on these rumors heavily to sell tickets without directly acknowledging them. On last week’s Dynamite, AEW announced the Rampage episode on August 20th would now be live and from the United Center in Chicago, subtitled “The First Dance” (a cheeky reference to Michael Jordan’s documentary “The Last Dance” and another Chicago-centric in-joke), and that event has been reported as sold-out already after just having gone on-sale over the last few days, with a pre-sale selling most seats and the general availability selling the rest. After this announcement, AEW performer Darby Allin cut a promo mentioning the show and saying he would take on everyone, even those that consider themselves the “best in the world.” CM Punk calls himself the “best in the world” as a part of his character and self-promotion. At the same time, the Arthur Ashe stadium show is rumored to be where Brian Danielson would debut, and that rumor has driven sales up such that additional tickets have been made available and the company keeps pushing capacity higher to capitalize.
On top of all of this, AEW has been creatively quite interesting with the storylines presented, as they’ve been working towards the conclusion of a two-year plus story arc with Hangman Adam Page, one where he’s been presented as overcoming his self-doubt and a sense of betrayal from his former friends to reach the World Championship, currently held by his former tag-team partner Kenny Omega. The women’s division likewise just crowned Britt Baker (sorry, Dr. Britt Baker DMD, a legitimate practicing dentist) as its champion, a character who has had a somewhat similar trajectory in that she’s been in a long-term path towards the championship as she’s built up her character and refined her presentation on TV in a more compelling and interesting manner. The company is also the beneficiary of changes in management overseas, as New Japan Pro Wrestling’s new leadership has been amenable to working with AEW. The prior management was not, because the Elite, the performers who are executive vice presidents of AEW, left NJPW to start the company, leaving them high and dry (although their contracts had expired, NJPW was using the Elite to promote a Madison Square Garden show in April 2019 which ended up selling out but also not being a high spot due to NJPW’s partnership with Ring of Honor in the US and ROH putting on disappointing matchups at the show). Since then, AEW has allowed performers like Jon Moxley contracts with just US exclusivity, explicitly allowing them to work with NJPW and the repaired relationship between the two companies has seen NJPW performers on AEW shows in the US, AEW stars on NJPW’s US show Strong, and co-promotion of upcoming events by both parties including multiple NJPW title defenses and a title change on AEW TV.
AEW is also in a partnership with Impact Wrestling in the US, which allows for some performers to cross over and AEW’s World Champion Kenny Omega to be “the belt collector” and also be the Impact World Champion. Lastly, AEW is partnered with AAA Lucha Libre in Mexico, who….you guessed it, has Kenny Omega as their current champion (sidenote: AAA’s top title is the “megacampeonato” or “Mega Champion” and that fucking rules even though the belt looks like shit) and allows their talent to work big matches that cross borders, as well as making them appealing to talent like the Lucha Brothers (Pentagon El 0 Miedo and Ray Fenix) and the freshly released from WWE Andrade El Idolo, about to be son-in-law of Ric Flair, who can work matches in front of their home audiences in Mexico while also being on international TV via AEW, increasing their star power and earnings.
Basically, this – AEW is firing on all cylinders right now, and is doing stuff that makes them genuinely interesting by adding an element of unpredictability through guest appearances, surprise matches, and feuds that cross promotions and countries while remaining fairly easy to follow through recaps, promo packages, and the way these stories are presented on AEW television. The company has been on a hot-streak that has seen them be the number 1 cable show on Wednesdays, even during the Olympics, and the 18-49 demographic rating they get often meets and sometimes surpasses even that of Raw. Should they actually end up picking up both CM Punk and Brian Danielson, they’ll have a wrestling fan’s wishlist of dream matches within reach, a growing audience that is already making the show a success (WarnerMedia has already renewed Dynamite and added Rampage based on the first-year ratings of the show), and a lot of fan goodwill from handling things better than WWE and treating their audience with a modicum of respect. The flipside to this is if AEW is leaning on these signing rumors despite not having signed either Punk or Danielson, in which case…oh boy, it will get rough.
For WWE, things are fine in the short term, and long-term, the company is in a spot where the vast majority of their income is from television contracts and business deals outside of the fanbase (like their ongoing commitment to 2 events a year in Saudi Arabia…) such that even if no one came to a WWE show, they’d be good for like 5 years anyways. After that, well, the perception of loss of popularity might be too much (and the rumors are that both television partners are varying degrees of annoyed with the company over letting Punk and Danielson sign with AEW because of that perception), but they are locked in for the long-haul.
Given the startlingly regular pace of talent releases this year, they may very well fire themselves into even more record profitability, but the problem with that idea is that while WWE tries to be the draw, they do still rely on performers that move the needle, and as they fire performers who do that in a market with a growing amount of competition and creative fulfillment elsewhere, they might very well inadvertently create a boom in wrestling – for someone else.