It’s a legit question. One that AEW defenders and apologists will probably bristle at, yet the rest of the pro wrestling world is sincerely wondering. Is All Elite Wrestling in trouble?
I can only speak for myself, although I’ve seen plenty of opinions from fans and wrestlers. If something doesn’t dramatically change with AEW in the next 6 months (maybe even sooner), I really do think that they are at risk for losing any and all momentum that they had created previous to their debut on TNT. This opinion is coming from someone who wrote an AEW column six months ago asking my fellow Impact Wrestling fans to give AEW a chance and explaining how Impact and All Elite were not threats to one another. I have also talked A LOT about All Elite Wrestling alongside Jay on our recent Spark the Discussion podcast episodes, even going so far as to review select editions of Dynamite and discuss AEW news. I want AEW to do well and that has been firmly established.
However, things are already taking a downturn for AEW when it comes to weekly viewership numbers, pay-per-view buys, overall fan enjoyment (based on social media posts) and/or buzz. This is not the reincarnation of WCW as much as they want older fans to buy into that. This is not a revolution either. AEW currently has three good things going for themselves:
- A nice TV deal
- They’ve sold a bunch of tickets to their events
- They have financial backing (for now)
Outside of that, there isn’t a lot of certainty or assurance regarding their future, and Shad Khan confirmed as much recently in an interview.
We reported some excerpts from said interview with Forbes here at DiscussPW. The two below were the most applicable quotes from Shahid Khan (you know, the father of Tony Khan). This is the billionaire who actually controls the money and whose main priority is owning the Jacksonville Jaguars and running other ventures. Regarding AEW:
“We have the financial means, so we’ll try it.”
And then there’s this gem:
“And you get to a stage in life where you can fail and it’s not life-threatening, and this was one of those.”
Does that sound like someone who’s dedicated to a pro wrestling company succeeding long term? No, no it doesn’t. Daddy Khan has also faced some fairly serious allegations in the U.K. in recent months too, so I doubt that AEW is a super high priority for him right now. His son Tony is obviously much more passionate about it and has a more direct hand in AEW but I get the sense that if they are losing too much money at some point that they would pull the plug. You also have the question mark of how patience that TNT and Warner Media will be if viewership numbers don’t start trending up in 2020. Nobody really knows that kind of insider information but since AEW doesn’t own the network, they are somewhat at the mercy of those network executives and those kind of people are usually results driven.
There’s no doubt that if CM Punk would have been signed by AEW instead of by Fox and the WWE, that it could have been a gamechanger. There are so few talents of his stature that the WWE doesn’t already have on a legends deal or on some kind of agreement. Even in a non-wrestling role, Punk could have added a must-see type of element to Dynamite. The pro wrestling world would have been all sorts of worked up about it and it would have filled a massive gap that AEW currently has. Instead, they missed that opportunity and CM Punk is now in WWE purgatory for the foreseeable future.
Don’t get me wrong. Again, I want AEW to make it and serve as “a thorn in the side” of the WWE but I’m just not sure if they can do that for several years to come. My experience watching All Elite Wrestling so far has been a mixed bag. Honestly, I’ve wished for AEW to be successful since their inception going all the way back to “All In” over a year ago when they were just a twinkle in the eye of the pro wrestling industry. All Elite Wrestling didn’t technically exist in name then but the foundation was forming and the movement for a new, mainstream non-WWE promotion was brewing. Fast forward to now and those constant rigors of running big venues and doing a live TV show weekly. That grind and pressure is starting to take its toll. That kind of massive undertaking is very expensive and it’s only a matter of time before you can’t make ends meet.
It was a cute idea to act like you’re really taking on the WWE directly but that has proven to not even be a David Vs Goliath type of scenario. AEW is being swatted at like an annoying housefly that the WWE is trying to shoo away while it sits down to eat a big barbecue meal on its patio. That’s the unfortunate and harsh truth in all of this. The WWE is way too big and too powerful to be directly competed with. At the drop of a hat, if they really wanted to, they could easily beef up NXT and destroy AEW in the ratings. They have an insane amount of resources to do so. The weekly “ratings war” on Wednesdays, while interesting and somewhat fun, is mostly a contrived thing that AEW fans use to make themselves feel like they’re really battling with the WWE. In reality, they aren’t warring with anyone and as much as I don’t like Vince McMahon, Steph and HHH, I’m sure they aren’t worried in the slightest.
Now, there’s no denying that Chris Jericho is still a huge star although I’d argue that Rob Van Dam is at very similar level of star power (and it’s true that they’re the same age). Jericho is almost single-handedly propping up AEW Dynamite right now as their World Champion. I have watched every episode since their debut on TNT (even though I’ve had to fast forward through some of the more boring and dumb stuff at times). There are a few wrestlers that I like such as The Lucha Brothers, SCU and Santana & Ortiz amongst others. AEW has a nice tag team division. They have some good, quality wrestlers but I get the sense that it’s a roster that is incomplete and one that will burn out soon if new blood isn’t infused into it ASAP. It’s also disconcerting how they’ve made LAX and the Lucha Bros seem like mid-carders when they were featured as such huge stars on Impact.
The glaring misuse of Awesome Kong is unbelievable to me and probably my biggest complaint. I’ve been a huge fan of Kong going back to her debut in TNA and I’ve loved her recent work on GLOW. So putting Awesome Kong with Brandi Rhodes and giving her this very strange and nonsensical gimmick of cutting locks of hair off of other women and wearing them as a trophy around her waist has me extremely confused and disappointed. How can you give a legend like this in women’s wrestling a character that is clearly so beneath her? Maybe Kong has more injuries than we know about and she’s being utilized in a mostly non-wrestling role? But this?!? This is the best thing that they could come up with? Brandi Rhodes is an awful wrestler and is not good with promos. She brings nothing to the table. None of this situation with Kong is justifiable and I’m disgusted that they’re wasting Kong like this because she was one of the reasons that I was initially excited for AEW Dynamite before their TNT premiere. Now, seeing her do this bullshit makes me less and less enthused with each passing week. And for that matter, their entire women’s division is fairly subpar.
Other faults of AEW are the consistently (and sometimes unnecessarily) long matches with very little to no emotional investment attached. I get it that a lot of the roster are independent wrestlers that not every viewer is familiar with and that it takes time to establish them. The way they’ve gone about it at times has not been effective though. If I find myself not caring about several matches, then a lot of people out there are having a similar feeling. Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks are essentially the core four of the male roster. Their match bookings so far have been very questionable and head scratching at times, and I’m not sure if it’s because they have too much say in things or what. Also, to me, Jake Hager playing the monster heel role is just… meh. The storylines are poor for the most part and I still can’t figure out AEW’s overall identity other than they have several long matches each episode. They seem to be catering too much to a niche audience and the casual fan is left wondering, “What the fuck is this?”. I haven’t even contemplated buying any of their PPV events and I’m getting closer all the time to giving up on their product entirely.
The big picture look for AEW is also tainted by the apparent selfishness of Cody and Brandi Rhodes. Like Jay pointed out recently, they are a poor man’s version of Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. These two are featured on TV way too much and mostly it hasn’t been good. I was a big fan of Dusty Rhodes and I respect The American Dream entirely. Cody is never going to be even close to as big of a deal as they portray him to be on Dynamite. I’m sorry, he’s just not. It’s a false narrative. A washed up Dustin Rhodes isn’t helping things either. The shine has worn off of all of it.
I’m not going to spend much time on the rumors and morale stuff but it’s clear that there have been some cracks forming in their “team chemistry”. There was a report on a Joey Janela tweet where he expressed his unhappiness with AEW and then later deleted it. That seemed like a shoot but I guess it could have been some weirdly worked bs? When Kylie Rae was briefly with the company, there were rumors about her leaving on bad terms due to her experiencing possible bullying and/or harassment. It’s interesting that she was featured in a match at Bound For Glory not long after her AEW release. I could go on, but suffice to say not everything is peachy keen with All Elite behind the scenes.
Thanks to Jay, we have a really solid understanding here at DiscussPW when it comes to ticket sales for all sorts of pro wrestling events and it’s obvious that AEW is not actually “selling out” venues each and every week like they’re claiming on Dynamite. Now, to be fair, they are putting an impressive amount of fans in these arenas and I give them 100% credit for doing so because it’s not an easy task to carry out on a weekly basis. Let’s be real though, not even the WWE sells every venue to absolute capacity week in and week out. This “everything is great” attitude is an aspect that AEW is seemingly using as a strategy to appear more successful than they actually are. It’s a “if we tell the at-home audience that the venue is sold-out, then it becomes reality” type of thing. Hell, it probably is working to a certain extent with those not doing some fact checking. The truth is that if they’re going to stay sustainable long-term then they’ll need to go to smaller venues at some point.
Here’s another valid question for ya. Is Impact Wrestling in better position in the long-term? It’s difficult to quantify that exactly but I know for sure that I’d put the best five male wrestlers and best five female wrestlers in Impact up against any promotion, including the WWE and AEW. Sadly, people have their built-in biases and Impact doesn’t get as much respect and notoriety as it deserves but their time is coming. The fact that Anthem owns AXS TV provides security that AEW simply doesn’t have. As Impact gains momentum, and the shiny new toy phenomenon continues to wear off of AEW, the two companies may gravitate towards a middle ground of success. I’d still like to see the two entities work together in some capacity (like I wrote about previously) but alas, I don’t think that the decision-makers at AEW will permit that to happen unless they get significantly humbled down the road.
There’s one last thing that I want to point out that hasn’t received the attention that is should. I’m referring to the AAA relationship with AEW and Impact. It’s been a somewhat odd arrangement to see both promotions have an agreement with AAA. The most interesting and telling thing that happened in 2019 in this regard was the MSG Hulu Theater show. It seemed like when that show was announced originally on Wrestlemania Weekend that AEW would possibly be involved and help sell tickets for the main Madison Square Garden arena. After 5 months of poor ticket sales and AEW doing nothing to help AAA and eventually disassociating themselves completely from this event, Impact stepped in at the eleventh hour to help AAA out with promotion and advertising.
We may never know the true story with that NYC event but it seems like since that juncture that AEW doesn’t have as solid of a working relationship with AAA as Impact Wrestling does. Impact continues to tape their TV show in Mexico City as part of their regular rotation while AAA wrestlers are featured heavily on those shows. I’m not sure if AEW has burnt that bridge but something seems fishy there. AEW also has a strained relationship with New Japan and it’s really puzzling as to why they have a hard time working with other companies.
AEW in 2020 is going to have to step up their game in order to keep pace with other competition. It’s only going to get tougher from here as their honeymoon period is over. As much as they want to give that false impression that everything is perfect and that their attendance and PPV buys and viewership and everything else is super successful, they may have to reevaluate and adjust to a more realistic, downsized approach. I waited several months to observe and closely watch AEW before I made any kind of judgement as I didn’t want any knee jerk reactions on this piece. Enough time has passed though now. I could nitpick a bunch of other things that All Elite is doing wrong but my main take away here is that they need to call an audible and they better do it quickly. If they stay on the same course that they’re on right now, then they are in trouble and it’ll be just a matter of time before their quarterback gets blasted in the backfield. They still have time to fix things but the clock is ticking.