AEW can’t miss, says PWI Senior Writer Al Castle. It has some of the hottest wrestlers on the planet, its management team understands the needs of wrestling fans, it has a major national TV contract, and ownership has gobs of money. But not so fast, warns Senior Writer Dan Murphy. We’ve been down this path before and the result has never been pretty. In the end, Dan surmises, WWE, as always, will be the last man standing. If you follow the PWI Podcast, you probably know that Al and Dan often find themselves on opposite sides of a debate. Read on and let us know who you think is correct!
AL CASTLE: AEW WILL BE A SUCCESS
Dan, when we recorded our PWI Podcast days after Double or Nothing, I was surprised that you still weren’t optimistic about AEW’s chances of success. The show may not have answered all the questions I had about the upstart company, but it did answer one very important one: Is AEW for real? After Double or Nothing, I think the answer to that question is an emphatic “yes.”
For years now, wrestling fans have craved an alternative to WWE. And while there’s never been a shortage of American promotions with quality wrestling and charismatic talent, until now, none of them have been able to replicate the “big league” atmosphere of WWE. It’s the difference between watching a big budget Marvel super hero blockbuster, and an independent film; or the difference between watching a Disney musical on Broadway and a play at your local theater company.
Perhaps for the first time since the closure of WCW, All Elite Wrestling is giving fans an alternative to WWE without asking them to forego the accessibility and high production value that comes with it. That comes in part from having the deep pockets and commitment of the company’s founders, Shahid Khan and his son, Tony, and also the built-in fan base of Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks and their brethren from the uber-popular “Being The Elite” YouTube series.
Now, Dan, I know you’ve raised the concern that AEW is falling into the same pitfall that TNA and other wrestling promotions have in the past by relying heavily on ex-WWE stars, like Cody, Chris Jericho, and the former Dean Ambrose—now Jon Moxley. But I couldn’t disagree more. Firstly, AEW would have been crazy not to snag up Jericho and Moxley—not only because of their name recognition, but because their wrestling style and IQ are tailor-made for AEW’s progressive vision for wrestling.
The very fact that Moxley, Jericho, and others would choose to sign with AEW, rather than staying in WWE, speaks volumes about why there is so much optimism about AEW. In his tell-all interview on Jericho’s podcast, Moxley outlined a bureaucratic creative process that has long hamstrung WWE, and raved about having the creative freedom in AEW to maximize their storytelling abilities.
What’s more, it’s clear that AEW is looking to learn from the mistakes of TNA, WCW, and other promotions by using established talent to help create new stars. That was apparent from the involvement of Maxwell Jacob Friedman, Jimmy Havoc, and Jungle Boy in the high-profile angle involving Bret Hart and “Hangman” Adam Page, as they introduced the AEW championship belt.
In several other ways, big and small, AEW has sought to differentiate itself from other wrestling companies, and particularly, from WWE. That includes AEW’s decision to hold UFC-style post-fight gaggles with media, its rule of leaving countouts to the discretion of referees, and its use of stats and win-loss records to advance storylines and, ultimately, wrestlers’ careers.
But all of AEW’s assets—from its visionary braintrust to its deep roster to its major-league production value—wouldn’t mean a whole lot without the right platform to reach potential fans. It’s what’s held back Impact Wrestling, ROH, and many others from reaching their full potential. But with the announcement of a primetime television slot on TNT—which reaches nearly as many households as WWE’s cable home, USA—AEW is in the perfect position to hit the ground running at a time when WWE is particularly vulnerable.
This may sound crazy, Dan, but I could see AEW drawing more weekly television viewers than WWE within 12 months. They’ve got the vision, the infrastructure, and the resources to win over wrestlers and wrestling fans alike.
DAN MURPHY: AEW WILL BE FAILURE
Oh, Al. You’re the eternal optimist.
If I may borrow a quote from Bojack Horseman: When you look at something through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.
I’m not going to say AEW is dead in the water. I’m not going to write the company’s epitaph before the first episode even runs on TNT. But I am going to say I’m extremely skeptical that AEW is “for real.” And, while you may see AEW drawing more television viewers than WWE in 12 months, I’ll be impressed to see AEW simply survive that long.
There are some people out there—including you, Al—who are treating Double or Nothing like it was WrestleMania, Starrcade, Wrestle Kingdom, and the Parade of Champions all rolled up into one. Let’s call it what it was: a glorified super-indy card carried by one good match (between a pair of WWE castoffs) and a “surprise” appearance by Jon Moxley (who was a disappointment as a draw and ratings mover in WWE). It wasn’t the worst pay-per-view I’ve ever seen (though the battle royal was putrid), but it certainly didn’t make me want to rush out to buy tickets for AEW’s next event.
So pump the brakes on the hype train a bit and let me give you a quick history lesson.
1990. Promoter Herb Abrams forms the Universal Wrestling Federation as an alternative to WWF and NWA programming. His first (and only) pay-per-view in 1991 is headlined by Steve Williams versus Bam Bam Bigelow. The UWF disappears a short time later.
2001. Jimmy Hart partners with Hulk Hogan to create the XWF, a new promotion built out of the ashes of WCW. Jerry Lawler, The Road Warriors, Curt Hennig, and a young kid by the name of AJ Styles are among the all-star cast recruited. Hart lands SunWest Management Systems as an investor, a series of tapings are held, and … nothing, other than a whole lot of legal wrangling over the next decade.
2007. MTV—yes, MTV!—creates its own rasslin’ league called Wrestling Society X. Producer Kevin Kleinrock boldly proclaims it would make everyone forget about WWE. It lasts one season.
2014. Mega-successful producer Mark Burnett (the mastermind behind Survivor) joins forces with mega-successful Hollywood director Robert Rodriguez to launch Lucha Underground on the El Rey Network. With cutting-edge production values, a Hollywood budget, and a huge roster of talented wrestlers, LU makes a big splash. Four years later, it goes on hiatus as several contracted wrestlers publicly demand to be released.
Now you might say that Shahid and Tony Khan have deeper pockets than all of those other wannabes put together, and you’d be right. I counter that the Khans have zero experience in running a wrestling company or a weekly episodic television show. Wrestling history is littered with would-be visionaries and “money marks” who think they can topple WWE. One can only speculate how much money Bob and Janice Carter and Panda Energy lost in funding TNA.
No one has challenged WWE in 20 years. No one has even come close.
Cody and The Young Bucks are wrestlers. They know how to wrestle. But do they know how to produce weekly content that keeps viewers invested? Or will they focus on getting roster spots for all their pals and having everyone “get their stuff in” rather than build storylines? Can they overcome all of the obstacles that have destroyed so many other start-ups that have come before them? So far, they haven’t given me any reason to think they will.
WWE is too entrenched in the public consciousness as a brand. The novelty of AEW will wear off quickly and the fans will go back to WWE, as they always do.