WWE pursuing New Japan is good strategy, AEW’s reaction wasn’t

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, hosts Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo broke down the news of WWE and New Japan Pro-Wrestling in talks over the past few months.

According to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, WWE president and chief revenue officer Nick Khan is in talks with New Japan about WWE being the exclusive U.S. partner with the promotion. New Japan currently have working relationships with All Elite Wrestling and Impact Wrestling, and they have worked with CMLL and Ring of Honor in the past as well.

PWInsider reported the focus of these discussions centered around free agent Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson), related to having him re-sign with WWE but also able to work dates with New Japan. In the past few years, Bryan has expressed interest in wrestling outside of WWE.

The news has had fans come up with fun photoshop memes, as well as think up some potential dream matches. Thurston noted the timing of this news.

“So consider the timing of this,” Thurston said. “If this information was dropped from the WWE side to Dave Meltzer, on the week of AEW’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view, then from a media strategy standpoint, you’ve absorbed some of the conversation, some of the energy directed towards AEW on one of its biggest weeks of the year. You’ve got people talking about New Japan and WWE, instead of AEW.”

Thurston continued as he gave his thoughts on a WWE-NJPW relationship from a strategy point of view.

“This would be a working relationship that no one was clamoring for, but it would, from a strategy standpoint, from WWE’s perspective, at least block AEW from doing something valuable,” Thurston noted. “A relationship between AEW and New Japan is one of the most valuable cards from a talent standpoint, from a fan attraction standpoint, that AEW has to play.

“A lot of the energy New Japan lost since 2019 with the western market, including in the United States, was a result of New Japan losing Kenny Omega and to a lesser extent, the Young Bucks. Those two are now with AEW. AEW was able to absorb a lot of that fan energy. So getting Kenny Omega back in the ring to rekindle some of these feuds with people in New Japan including Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kota Ibushi is obviously another big one, that’s a big play for AEW to get ahold of if they can put a big, let’s say, an Omega vs. Ibushi match on an AEW pay-per-view.

“That could be huge if it’s built and executed correctly, and it’s important here to note that the Observer mentions WWE pursuing an exclusive relationship, at least among U.S. partners with New Japan. So that would exclude, presumably, AEW from having a relationship. When you think about whether or not you’re going to leave WWE, like Jon Moxley did, and think about where else you’re gonna go, one reason why you might more strongly consider AEW is they’ll let you work New Japan like they have let Moxley work New Japan. They have let Chris Jericho work in New Japan. So if you take that away from them, then you’ve got one less piece that’s going to attract talent who may not be feeling creatively satisfied in WWE.”

Thurston broke down more of WWE’s strategy behind a working relationship with NJPW.

“What’s the result for WWE in this? Maybe get a few really cool matches out of it but at the end of the day, you’ve got Vince McMahon in control of the main roster creative, so I don’t think this is going to be a very good thing if this happens and comes to fruition,” Thurston admitted. “It’s not gonna be this great thing for fans or for WWE, and maybe there will be some benefit for New Japan. New Japan’s probably feeling some financial pressure right now from the state of emergency that’s been declared in Japan related to Covid-19, causing New Japan to postpone events. New Japan relies on live event ticket sales for the majority of their revenue, unlike these U.S. companies that have enormous media revenues.

“So I see this, from WWE’s standpoint, being along the lines of other things that they’ve done in recent years with their strategy, including warehousing 300 wrestlers, many of whom they don’t have anything to do with in their content. It’s along the lines of moving NXT off of the WWE Network and onto the USA Network. It’s not really clear what the financial benefit was. It’s not really clear if moving NXT made WWE more profitable than it would have been otherwise. The value of NXT’s TV rights are, in my assessment, not huge, well under $50 million, probably closer to $20 million per year. The new deal that they just signed, that will go into effect this fall, does not appear to be any significant up step.

“So it’s more about defense, I think, for WWE than it is about offense. And purely capitalistically speaking, I think that’s a smart move by WWE, if this is really happening.

“If I’m Nick Khan and if I really understand the wrestling landscape the way that I think one should, I think to myself, well, the biggest problem for fan retention and for talent retention is Vince’s creative. I can’t get the pencil out of Vince’s hand. Vince isn’t going to change. Vince is so out of touch now that his son-in-law is showing signs of being out of touch.

“So I can’t improve the content internally, and the external threat to the WWE brand is everyone else’s superior content, but maybe I can create a relationship that will mitigate the superior content or get some of that superior content under my control. That means taking the access to New Japan away from AEW and putting it into your own hands. Whether it bears fruit for yourself or not, it’s a net win for you.”

Gullo pointed out how on the New Japan side of things, the move is most likely financially motivated. He noted that New Japan do not take kindly to their talent being mistreated citing World Championship Wrestling under Bill Watts and TNA.

On the same day the news dropped, AEW CEO Tony Khan filmed a promo released on Twitter before AEW Dynamite and during WWE Smackdown. Tony Khan took shots at Nick Khan, addressing the report of WWE’s talks with New Japan. Thurston noted what Tony Khan’s promo signals as well as what it means for WWE’s strategy.

“So not even thinking about whether it’s a good promo or not, I think this is a bad strategy move by Tony Khan. It’s the actual WWE and New Japan offices that are talking to each other. I’ve been told by people on both sides, that between New Japan and AEW, it’s mostly Rocky Romero, who’s the New Japan USA office, talking to AEW, as opposed to the Japanese office.”

So when Tony Khan said New Japan agreed the promo was a good idea, it’s questionable whether he’s referring to the Japanese office.

“I know a lot of people think the promo is the greatest thing. They’re really positive on it.

“It did make me want to watch Dynamite more,” Thurston said. “The promo was posted during Smackdown when a lot of people are on Twitter, thinking about wrestling. So there’s probably some people who watched Dynamite more than would have otherwise. But again, if I’m WWE and if I feel threatened by AEW, which to some extent I should, and if I think an exclusive New Japan relationship hurts AEW, which it would, then this promo reassured me of that notion and I would double-down on pursuing that deal.

“Personally, I want the wrestling industry to be more competitive. I want the content in all companies, especially the highest profile companies to get better, and this promo tips his hand. Tony Khan encouraged WWE, in my view, if WWE is as smart as they supposedly are, to swallow up more good wrestling into their inauthentic universe, which means the greater consolidation of power for WWE in the wrestling space and a weaker wrestling industry than there would be otherwise.

“And secondarily, it’s another step down the path we’ve seen so many other wrestling executives take. It seemed a year or two ago when AEW was in its first days as a company, if you paid attention to things that Tony Khan said, his background and his demeanor, you’d think, okay, we’re safe with this guy. This guy is not going to turn into an Eric Bischoff, a Vince Russo, a Jeff Jarrett, a Dixie Carter, or a Vince McMahon in terms of putting themselves out there as an on-screen character too much.”

The original transcript of the podcast was edited for conciseness and clarity.

Jason Ounpraseuth has covered pro wrestling since 2019. He is a co-host of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also an independent pro wrestler and trainer. For more, see our About page.


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