Most wrestling historians agree that the demise of World Championship Wrestling in 2001 is one of the worst developments to ever take place in pro wrestling. While the company deserved to collapse due to years of incompetent leadership, the end of WCW as a major wrestling promotion firmly created a WWE monopoly in the industry, which many analysts attribute to the stagnation of the business during the 2000s.
WCW no longer being viable means that major professional wrestling in the United States was reduced to the whims of one man, Vince McMahon. Talent earning top money were located almost entirely in one company, and to the general public and a whole generation of fans, WWE was the only version of professional wrestling that existed.
The rise of AEW largely filled the void left by WCW twenty years prior. Whether pundits personally enjoyed AEW or not, the general consensus was that the rise of a legitimate #2 company in the U.S. was a positive for the wrestling business. Major television on TNT/TBS, the financial power of a billionaire owner, and a commitment to being a genuine pro wrestling organization established AEW as a legitimate alternative to WWE’s monopoly. The new company can compete with WWE for the best talent and can be seen as a major league promotion by the media and the rest of the entertainment industry.
However the collapse of WCW, the fact that the once mighty company quickly imploded and went from being the most successful wrestling business in the market to defunct in under four years still haunts the memories of fans and pundits alike. Anxiety about AEW suddenly losing momentum and capsizing the way WCW did still permeates throughout the community, and no matter how long AEW seems to survive, that eternal pessimism about financial success still hangs over the company like a dark cloud.
That has led to AEW being analyzed and criticized in a way that almost no other wrestling promotion has been evaluated previously. For AEW, it is not enough for it to merely be good. Putting on good wrestling matches, having good promos, and providing engaging storylines isn’t enough. Instead, AEW needs to do all of those things, but also provide some sort of distinct evidence that the brand is on an upward business trajectory.
An episode of Dynamite can be filled with excellent wrestling matches and memorable promos, but still, be met by criticism that it didn’t have any marquee matches that would draw a big viewership number. Fans and pundits will analyze each episode of Dynamite or Rampage, not just based on entertainment value or inherent quality, but also on if they believe that the show will report a good rating the next day.
There is plenty of value in analyzing the economic trends of the pro wrestling industry, but only in AEW does it seem like that analysis has a direct connection with how people feel about the actual quality of the show. A show that is good in terms of quality can be undermined by a perceived lack of appeal to a broad audience, and that sentiment gets passed around by fans.
In WWE, the product is rarely judged by how attractive the show appears to be to a broad audience. WWE shows are either good or bad, based almost wholly on the quality of performances on each individual show. Since the company is so financially successful, there is no immediate concern WWE will go out of business, and thus it is evaluated purely by quality. Smaller companies, like New Japan Pro Wrestling and Impact, are not seen as significant enough players by most fans and pundits to express immediate concern as to whether or not each show is driving the business forward.
The focus on AEW constantly needing to grow its audience and achieve progressive business success with each show leads to some awkward criticism of the promotion. Since there is no guaranteed best practice for growing a fanbase, pundits are left guessing as to what the company needs to do to be successful.
This frequently leads to a lot of strawman arguments about the casual fan, a hypothetical potential viewer who is often easily turned off by small miscues and whose interests just so happen to be often in line with the interests of whoever is advocating for them in the first place. If a pundit doesn’t like blood in wrestling, they will say that the casual fan doesn’t like blood and AEW needs to get rid of it. If a pundit likes women’s wrestling, they will say that they need more women’s wrestling to attract the casual fan.
Oftentimes, you will see arguments that AEW needs to be more like WWE, despite the fact that AEW is rooted in being an alternative wrestling product that is very different from WWE.
This follows a logical pattern; AEW emerged from the success of indie wrestling and New Japan in the United States, establishing a fanbase of loyal customers that was also limited in size. In order to grow, AEW would naturally need to either regain lapsed viewers of wrestling (former WCW fans, WWE fans who gave up watching, etc.) or convert regular WWE viewers. By being more like WWE, analysts argue that AEW will be more likely to convert those fans into viewers, and grow their fanbase, thus easing the anxiety of fans who are afraid the company is going to end up out of business like WCW.
This leads to the advocacy for AEW to adopt more WWE practices, such as increasing the number of video packages and recaps of past events, utilizing false finishes in matches, melodramatic backstage interactions, or any other distinctive WWE trope that has become common over the years.
It’s important to keep in mind that advocates for this may not enjoy any of those things themselves, but they are so concerned about AEW going away that they will suggest these things because they think it can help the business grow and avoid bankruptcy. For some fans it’s almost as if their interest in AEW’s programming doesn’t come from the quality of its pro wrestling, but by ensuring that WWE doesn’t have a monopoly on the industry.
The truth is that almost no real research has been done to determine what actually interests casual fans, or if creating a more WWE-like product would help AEW build its fans. Any analysis that states definitively that a certain practice would help AEW reach a bigger audience should be questioned. Casual fans are not a monolith and certain things are going to appeal to some fans, while also alienating others.
In recent months, as AEW has experienced somewhat of a business decline following the departure of CM Punk, the anxiety about those economic trends has increased as well as a renewed sense of pessimism that the company may not be as secure in its standing as originally thought. This has occurred despite the fact that the individual shows themselves have been strongly received, with the recent performances of MJF, Ricky Starks, Jon Moxley, and Chris Jericho getting pretty much universal praise.
To draw a comparison to WCW, this is not at all what happened with that company. For years the product was critically panned and in turn, fans turned away in droves, shrinking live attendance and sending television ratings tumbling downwards. The product was very bad, and the result was business was very bad.
AEW has found itself in a completely different situation; the product is still regarded as being quite good, but the concern with a recent dip in attendance and the failure of Tony Khan to secure a TV deal with Ring of Honor has led to some doomsday clouds coming onto the horizon.
Fear that AEW won’t get a huge increase in television rights from Warner Brothers Discovery has some fans and pundits scrambling for fallout shelters, preparing for the worst. In some cases, some can’t even appreciate the quality of the wrestling product because they are still scarred from WCW’s collapse and afraid of it happening again, despite the company being in a very different situation.
This has created a unique environment for AEW three years into its existence. Despite quickly building a loyal TV viewing audience, one large enough to regularly be ranked in the top five of cable programs on its day each week, and despite having been a successful touring act from the start, there is still a concern that it could all go away quickly. That AEW could just be a flash in the pan and almost no matter how big the business grows, or how much money Tony Khan is willing to invest in it, there will always be anxiety that one day Shane McMahon is going to appear on an episode of Dynamite, and announce he bought the company.
So AEW hasn’t been allowed to just be another wrestling company; it needs to constantly be improving and growing its audience, otherwise, fear and anxiety take over some fans and analysts and become all they can think about, which often leads to strange criticisms and hyper-focusing on strawman casual fans who don’t exist and never will.
Perhaps one day, if the promotion has guaranteed television revenue in the billions as WWE does, AEW will just be judged based on the quality of its shows. Until then though, it will remain subject to constant comparisons to WCW and the fear of things suddenly falling apart.