This post is going to be about broad fandom, but I need to start with one of the animating, wrestling-related reasons I’m writing this today, so stick through it!
Tonight will be the first time a main roster WWE show and AEW have gone head-to-head under roughly comparable conditions. On at the same time, no commercials for either during that competitive half-hour, both on cable, and so throughout the week, there has been a flurry of attempts to get attention. It started last week, where WWE announced that Smackdown would be on FS1 in the US instead of broadcast Fox, but to make the show even bigger, they would do a “Supersized” Smackdown with an extra 30 minutes from 10:00 PM – 10:30 PM. This is the start of AEW’s second show, Rampage, which normally airs from 10-11 PM on Friday nights in the US. Then the hits kept coming – a big women’s match for WWE, then no commercials. AEW countered by offering a YouTube worldwide preshow during the last normal hour of Smackdown to eat into that, with two great matches including a legit dream match in Bryan Danielson vs Minoru Suzuki that happened once in 2004 and was not taped, so almost no one has seen it. Then, AEW got their first half-hour of Rampage with no commercials either, so both are trying to prevent channel surfing.
All of this is for a simple reason behind the scenes – ratings. In wrestling fandom, the Nielsen TV ratings for shows are talked about a lot. Nielsen ratings aren’t really a thing for fans – they’re for TV networks to judge the performance of a given show against the competition and for those same networks to set and barter advertising rates during shows, with higher-performing programming get a bigger slice of ad dollars. However, that doesn’t stop fans from using this published data as argument fodder. For two weeks in September, AEW’s flagship show Dynamite beat WWE’s original flagship Raw in the key 18-49 demographic, so while WWE had more total viewers, for advertisers, the bigger show those weeks was AEW’s. There are a lot of reasons this is not necessarily apples-to-apples – different viewing habits due to different nights of the week, stiff competition for Raw from Monday Night Football where AEW has less appointment-viewing competition, etc – but a win is a win and wrestling fans touted this – AEW fans as a sign that eyeballs go where the quality is, and WWE fans bringing up the caveats, blaming that result on former WWE talent that moved to AEW at their All Out PPV in early September, and noting that two weeks does not a war make.
And so we get to this week, where it has become obvious a new wrestling war is brewing and both shows now have a chance to go head to head – AEW with their newest TV show after a string of ratings declines and WWE with their most-watched TV show, but on a much-less watched network than usual and both throwing competitive hurdles at the other.
If you’re an MMO fan reading all of this, it doesn’t sound too unfamiliar, does it? Subscription and player count wars have long been a foundational piece of the larger MMO discussion genre. Many of us can remember the high and low points in WoW’s sub numbers and the point where they switched to MAUs, most of us watch for the ABK quarterly earnings to see the dip or rise in MAUs, Square Enix puts a player count at the end of every Final Fantasy XIV hype video and trailer, and the launch of New World recently saw people trying to math out server player maximums while noting the Steam player concurrency numbers. Likewise, for movie fans, you’ve probably spent at least some time knowing the box office take for a movie you liked, and if you get into crossover fandom wars like Marvel versus DC, you’ve probably compared box office takes as a means of competitive analysis or even as a statement of the quality or lack thereof in some movies.
For me, that begs the question – why do we know these things, track these things down, and use them in our petty arguments with fans of other competitive things?
Most of us, on some level, want to like things that are cool, popular, and give us easy ins to conversation with other people. Business metrics are a way to see that laid out in data. AEW is cool and hip, because WWE’s biggest demographic wins are with people age 50 and up. World of Warcraft was the best MMO in its heyday, because it had 14 million active subscribers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a great set of movies because of the number of movies in the portfolio with box office results nearing or exceeding 1 billion dollars. It feels good to like a popular thing sometimes, and knowing that a thing you like is doing well can confer some amount of validation, however minor.
That title sounds dramatic (and it is!) but let me explain why I found this the best summary. If you like something less popular but it has clear competition that is beating it, there is always a hope that a competitive response would include increasing the quality. The wrestling example is the easiest – WWE is known for dull, boring TV that is largely perfunctory – it can be fun to watch and the performers are absolutely great, but the show does them no favors. Losing to AEW, however many asterisks you can (rightly) attach to that result, brings about hope for change. In September, after the first week they lost to AEW, WWE promoted fan-favorite Big E using his Money in the Bank contract (a world title shot of his choosing at any time won in a ladder match at a PPV event of the same name) on Raw the next week and he did, winning the WWE Championship in a feel-good moment that excited fans. It has been a momentary blip, but the prospect of a long-term competitive battle between the two entities is that both shows will be up to high standard of quality after weeks in the “trenches.”
I saved the easy one for last – ultimately, following the business results of a media property you enjoy is about ensuring a future for it. Low-ratings TV gets cancelled. When an MMO no longer has the cash flow from active players to sustain live operations, it gets shut down. That isn’t to suggest that just knowing those metrics will stop the bad outcome, but a lot of us will become evangelists for our favorite stuff if we think there’s a risk we could lose it without doing so. I tell all my friends who are lapsed wrestling fans to watch AEW. I’ve suckered (ahem, convinced) two friends already to join me in New World. I myself was recruited into WoW by my friends basically beating me over the head with how much fun they were having when we all lived together – everyone was playing it except me, and then eventually, even me. In the hellscape of modern capitalism, business results drive the world, and if something you like is a business, then it needs that continual support in order to sustain.
So, in the end, I guess I have a conflicted opinion. On the one hand, most fans I talk to as well as myself are not invested into the companies behind our favorite media. I have no stock portfolio with ABK, Square Enix, Amazon, or AEW stock – and in the case of some of these entities, I can’t even have that investment. That makes being so highly hung-up on the success or failure of these companies to attract an audience a weirdo obsessive behavior. On the other hand, all of us are invested into these properties in at least one way – they bring us joy and their continuation can bring more joy.
In that light, while it might not be the most interesting discussion to have about two media properties going head-to-head, it does at least have real-world ramifications and mean something in an objective sense.
If nothing else, it is good argument bait, at least.