CM Punk’s return foreshadows stronger competition for WWE

On the latest edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Brandon Thurston and Chris Gullo discussed CM Punk’s return to pro wrestling on AEW Rampage. Punk is set to make his in-ring return against Darby Allin at All Out on September 5. Thurston discussed on the podcast what Punk symbolizes for fans.

“I think there’s a lot to unpack as far as CM Punk being a symbol for the discontent that wrestling fans have felt, especially in the time between now and when he left WWE in early 2014,” Thurston said. “So much has happened, and it’s been really a whole era since his exit and return to pro wrestling, but it sort of bookends this era of professional wrestling that began in 2014, the beginning of the WWE Network era and this other era here where AEW continues to do some really interesting stuff.

“The story of the business of pro wrestling, the most interesting story to me, and I think to a lot of people, judging by what our audience reacts to here, is the story of AEW vs. WWE, even though they are on dramatically different scales in many ways. I think what Punk meant as a symbol to people is the frustration that fans felt, and secondarily, a lot of the unfairness and the issues that WWE has with workers rights, if you will, in terms of the classification of wrestlers as independent contractors, some of the medical treatment that he had that he was unhappy with.”

Despite the discontent fans have for WWE’s core product, many defenders will point out that WWE continues to make record profits. Thurston explained why this dichotomy exists.

“If you go back and listen to the Art of Wrestling podcast that [Punk] did [in November 2014], it’s really just an amazing highlight reel of all of the issues and complaints that fans and wrestlers have and would more so publicly have in the years to come, and I think part of the reason why there’s an additional interest in the AEW vs. WWE story, is the fan discontent, but also, at the same time, WWE has made more and more money while putting out a product that many people feel is worse and worse,” Thurston explained.

“I occasionally have people who, when I dare to have an opinion about the WWE product, which I think is ultimately important to our topic when we discuss the business of pro wrestling, the quality of product matters, and people will tell me, ‘Well, if you think it’s so bad, look at your spreadsheets, pal. They’re making more and more money. So what are you talking about?’ The reason WWE is making more and more money is largely for external reasons.

“There’s some internal things happening on the corporate side, like what Nick Khan is doing to help them make incrementally more revenue. He’s facilitating good media deals for the company and already has, but that’s despite the quality of WWE’s content, not because of it, and WWE’s media deals, I believe, would be even more valuable if the quality of their content was better, which I think it easily can be.”

On a previous edition of Wrestlenomics Radio, Gullo and Thurston discussed the business effect Punk could have for AEW. Thurston added to that point on this week’s Wrestlenomics Radio as he talked about what Punk’s pro wrestling return symbolizes from a business point of view.

“If you watched AEW Rampage on Friday night and then you sampled the ‘epic’ WWE SummerSlam the following night, it’s quite a contrast,” Thurston pointed out. “The reason why WWE’s making more money over time is because of the external media economy, that it is fortunate to find itself in. Live sports content has become exceedingly valuable in this media environment in a way that it was not in prior eras, and WWE is still popular enough, in fairness to them, they are still popular enough to justify those fees, but I think those fees could be much higher.

“Punk’s return sort of symbolizes excitement for fans and the story about whether WWE is going to get even stronger competition or if a competitor is going to exceed WWE in popularity in some ways in the future. It feels like we’re getting closer to that time, and you’ve got, in many ways, a spiritual leader, like CM Punk, coming back to join the opposing team.”

Excerpts from Wrestlenomics Radio were edited for clarity.

Header image courtesy of All Elite Wrestling

Jason Ounpraseuth has covered pro wrestling since 2019. He co-hosts 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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