This follows up on the recently posted WWE SWOT Analysis.
STRENGTHS (INTERNAL — HELPFUL)
- Leadership with credibility in sports and media: AEW President Tony Khan’s credibility from working for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC was likely a great help to allowing AEW to get TV deals in the U.S. (WarnerMedia) and the U.K. (Sky and ITV). Besides being backed by a very wealthy family, this is what sets AEW apart from other newcomers to the U.S. wrestling industry since 2001.
- Leadership with a strong understanding of industry history: Khan comes to the wrestling industry not only with experience from sports and media business, but with a strong understanding wrestling history, and a genuine enthusiasm for the medium. He’s a wrestling fan much in the sense many disenfranchised WWE fans are, which distinguishes him from Vince McMahon. These qualities too are lacking in leadership of other major players to enter wrestling since 2001.
- Financial backing: Tony Khan’s father, Jaguars owner Shahid Khan is a billionaire with a net worth reportedly multiple times greater than that of Vince McMahon. Without the financial backing to start the company, a new wrestling company like AEW couldn’t happen.
- Willingness to curry favor with bellwether fans and media: As the internet has become more ubiquitous and the wrestling fan base has become smaller, the influence of wrestling media and “online” fans who have often been dismissed as insignificant, has become greater; I believe this is especially the part of the wrestling mind-share that’s grown frustrated and distrustful of WWE. AEW leadership seems to have established largely good relationships with this part of the fan base and media. The most influential member of wrestling media is Dave Meltzer, writer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. His relationship with AEW leadership seems especially tight. Meltzer’s coverage of the new company has been largely favorable, which, whether calculated or not, may secure whatever access he may have with AEW, and encourages continued favorable analysis. To contrast, WWE engages with wrestling media far less, at least publicly. WWE seems to prefer mainstream media outlets, knowing wrestling media will eagerly aggregate any morsels of news and comments published elsewhere. This is largely the case for AEW stories also, yet AEW talent and executives are allowed to be interviewed by wrestling media far more frequently than their counterparts with WWE. In sum, the access AEW gives wrestling media, relative to the lack of access WWE grants, probably respectively encourages more favorable coverage of AEW and less favorable coverage of WWE than would exist otherwise. I suspect WWE underestimates the value of this factor, which has become gradually more significant over time, and which may have been more reasonable to overlook or dismiss in previous years.
WEAKNESSES (INTERNAL — HARMFUL)
- Wrestler-executives in dual roles lack prior executive experience: In order to entice key talent to sign with the startup, Cody Runnels (Cody Rhodes), Brandi Runnels (Brandi Rhodes), Matt Massie (Matt Jackson), Nick Massie (Nick Jackson), and Tyson Smith (Kenny Omega) were given Executive Vice President roles. In particular, Young Bucks brothers Nick and Matt, and Cody did an impressive job promoting themselves before joining AEW. They succeeded in putting on an independent pay-per-view and live event, All-In in September 2018. While successful self-promoters, none of these five executives have prior experience in leadership roles in a wrestling company or another type of company comparable to AEW.
- Female stars: The female talent pool in the current wrestling industry isn’t as deep, probably for systemic reasons. AEW’s women’s roster pales in comparison to WWE’s wealth of talent in that area; arguably AEW’s women’s roster is outshined by the female talent Impact Wrestling, despite the latter’s lower profile. Kylie Rae, who was seemingly at the beginning of a strong push, abruptly left the company last year. Recently AEW has been especially hurt by injuries and international travel restrictions. However, recruitment seems to be the root problem. Since debuting on TNT in October, the company has even missed on multiple talented women who were available but signed with WWE.
- Over-supply of talent: While taking into consideration WWE has a larger roster and far more hours of in-ring content to fill, the average WWE wrestler who had at least one televised match from January to June has more matches than the average AEW wrestler, even when eliminating wrestlers who have had only one or two matches. In this comparison, the median WWE wrestler had 4 matches in the six month period, while the median AEW wrestler had 3 matches. Considering WWE’s apparent willingness to stockpile talent in part to keep them away from the competition, this is surprising. The five key talent-executives, who’ve cultivated a lot of relationships with other wrestler throughout their distinguished careers, may have pushed the company to hire more talent than it needs in a competitive talent market that’s increasingly expensive. Cody Rhodes last year in a public talk openly embraced nepotism as a hiring strategy, saying “I believe in nepotism, I believe in giving your friends jobs. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for nepotism.” The on-air performance of Chief Brand Officer Brandi Rhodes doesn’t justify the amount of air time and character revamps she’s gotten, but considering her executive role in the company there seems no escaping the situation. Some wrestlers have apparently been acquired due to their ability to cover other office or production roles, which may be efficient. However it’s not clear AEW needs 70 to 80 wrestlers on hand to cover three hours of weekly in-ring air time.
- Developmental strategy: Will recruiting from the indies and free agents be enough? AEW is still a young promotion but it barely has a developmental strategy compared to WWE, which currently has a U.S. and U.K. training center, as well as relationships with a number of independent companies. Nor does AEW have any strong working relationships with other promotions currently. Cody is participating in the Nightmare Factory wrestling school, which has its first classes later this month, but the school isn’t an official AEW developmental facility, rather it seems to be more of a rebranding of QT Marshall’s school.
- Social media: The start-up nature of the company means it essentially began with zero branded social media touch points. Its social media execution has also been criticized.
- Legacy IP: Similarly, the start-up nature means the company began with no video library or legacy of legendary intellectual property. AEW’s made no acquisitions in this regard. WWE owns much of the U.S.-originated valuable video IP. Newer video libraries belonging to Ring of Honor and Impact Wrestling (especially the former) may be under-monetized but a favorable deal among competitors seems unlikely, nor does AEW currently have the infrastructure, like a streaming service, to monetize the content.
OPPORTUNITIES (EXTERNAL — HELPFUL)
- Disenfranchised fans and talent: This is one of the essential factors that makes AEW as viable as it is. By delivering a chronically unsatisfying flagship product, WWE damaged its trust relationship with many fans through the last two decades, especially in the last several years. Some WWE talent who pursued working for the company as their livelong dream found themselves unfulfilled creatively. There’s a market of fans hungry for a comparable alternative to WWE and a pool of motivated talent interested in leaving or altogether avoiding the industry leader.
- Increasing value of live sports content: As is the case for WWE, there’s no strong sign the value of live content will decrease in the coming years. AEW’s average annual value per hour in the U.S. is one-sixth that of WWE’s flagship programs, yet even as it’s opposed head-to-head by WWE NXT, AEW Dynamite delivers just under one-half of the total audience of Raw and more than one-half of the 18-49 audience. AEW should be able to close that gap in future negotiations if its brand and viewership remain strong.
- International markets: AEW has strong distribution in the U.S. (TNT), Canada (TSN), and the U.K. (Sky and ITV) and has deals in some major European countries through WarnerMedia. The company hasn’t yet made a deal in India, which is WWE’s #2 market. Other markets like Australia, Ireland, South Africa, Latin America, Japan, Middle East-North Africa, New Zealand, and China are proven TV markets for WWE that need to be covered. Currently the only way to watch AEW Dynamite in these markets is with a subscription through FITE, which isn’t sufficient for adopting new fans.
- Improved monetization of peak events: AEW produces four annual peak events, offered exclusively on pay-per-view. PPV distributors take a sizable split of the revenue for providing distribution. Is there a way in the short- or long-term for AEW to take this area more in-house? Starting a DTC video service like the WWE Network would be an expensive investment. The company doesn’t have nearly the video library to stock such a platform with. Would it be viable to acquire or license other wrestling companies’ libraries? Would DTC iPPV be viable without conflicting other partnerships to sell pay-per-view events directly to consumers on the internet rather than through iPPV distributors like FITE and B/R Live with whom AEW must share revenue?
- Working relationship with New Japan: There are obvious synergies here. Well-promoted matches between AEW and NJPW stars would be a major attraction for wrestling fans in both the U.S. and Japan. Many of AEW’s top stars are former top stars with New Japan. Kenny Omega speaks English and Japanese. Their respective audiences are likely well aware of the other companies’ top stars. New Japan is eager to gain more ground in the U.S. and other English-speaking markets more familiar to AEW. There are two major obstacles in the way: 1) New Japan’s multi-year working relationship with and loyalty to Ring of Honor, which is greatly threatened by AEW. 2) NJPW and AEW EVP Omega seem to have a troubled relationship after he left in 2018.
THREATS (EXTERNAL — HARMFUL)
- WWE competition: WWE is the strong, well-funded, long-time industry leader in wrestling. Despite “we’re focused on us” messaging to the contrary, WWE is clearly eager to defend its position and would like to diminish AEW into obscurity. NXT was moved off the WWE Network and onto the USA Network, probably for little short-term revenue, in order to go head-to-head with AEW and diminish AEW’s viewership. WWE is willing and able to bear the expense of stockpiling talent to keep them from the competition. A contributing motivation for introducing the NXT UK brand was to stunt potential competition from a relaunched World of Sport brand in the U.K.; WWE was successful in disabling that competition.
- Covid-19: The pandemic continues to dampen momentum the company might otherwise gain. The flagship show now has had more weeks during the pandemic era than before it. Like WWE, AEW’s content is harmed by the lack of large live audiences. Potential business partners may also be hesitant to commit amid broad economic uncertainty.
- Fragmentation among EVPs: Creative or business disagreements among AEW’s four founding talent-EVPs (Cody, the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega) could cause problems. Apparently these four began with equal positions. What happens if or when one or more gains more influence or power than the others? This could result in key talent leaving the company or have negative effects on morale.
- Drug policy: Talent contracts reportedly allow for drug testing, but AEW has no known policy or testing. This may be preferable for talent. And it’s true the wrestling culture isn’t as troubled by drug abuse as it once was. Still, wrestlers who punish their bodies regularly and travel frequently are almost certainly at disproportionate risk to abuse substances like painkillers, recreational drugs, and performance-enhancing drugs. Additionally, despite the predetermined nature of matches, wrestlers are in competition with one another. Athletic physiques and the ability to recover from and work through injury are components in that competition. WWE enacted its current, probably minimal, drug policy in the mid-2000s only after suffering loss of human life and public relations disaster.
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