Opinion: 2023 will be the critical year for AEW as company enters new phase

PHOTO: AEW (left), WONF4W/J.J. Williams (right)

At some point, amidst CM Punk loudly criticizing his co-workers and chomping down on muffins last September, AEW matured into the next period of its life as a pro wrestling promotion. While the company had ridden highs brought by positive vibes that come from launching the first serious challenger to WWE’s monopoly of U.S. wrestling through the first two and a half years of its existence, Punk’s meltdown at the All Out post-show press conference and his subsequent exit from the company changed everything. 

Despite what some critics may claim, the company was immediately a success from the launch, doing strong ticket sales, exceeding pay-per-view sales expectations, and producing a hit television show. The news surrounding the company was overwhelmingly positive, with stories of a light, easy-going backstage atmosphere and a relaxed, approachable Tony Khan leading the charge, painting a sharp contrast to the stressful, politics-filled atmosphere in WWE. 

While the company certainly faced criticism from different angles, the attitude of the fanbase, in general, was of overwhelming support and admiration for what AEW had accomplished in such a short period of time. The company had brought the wrestling style and personality popularized on the U.S. independents and in international promotions to a wide American audience and brought major league wrestling back to TNT and TBS. 

The additions of cult favorite wrestlers like Bryan Danielson and Punk in 2021 added to the positivity. Small hiccups and concerns with booking, or a talent failing to get over, were quickly forgiven because Khan and AEW proved that they could deliver the goods and provide fans with what they wanted to see the most. Even the sudden departure of Cody Rhodes a year ago, one of the founding members of the company and arguably the public face of AEW, couldn’t destroy the mood. 

The Punk press conference, however, brought that bliss to a screeching halt. An ugly tirade that featured the biggest star in the company calling out nearly every other prominent star in AEW and shooting his way out of town, which was followed by a subsequent fight that took place between Punk, his friend, and AEW producer Ace Steel, and members of The Elite. 

At that point it was impossible for the general fanbase to ignore that AEW was not a paradise; it was a wrestling promotion with egos, politics, questionable decision-making, and pressure to be the best, driving some individuals to the brink. From that point on, the vibes of AEW were altered, and fans began to question everything from wrestlers not being featured enough, to Khan playing favorites, to talent fleeing to WWE as Rhodes did. 

2023 looms as a critical year for AEW as it enters this next stage of its history. The honeymoon period is over, and the company will have to continue to earn respect from fans and maintain credibility if it wants to continue to be successful. 

The Punk press conference and further reports of backstage strife were an obvious black eye on Khan for not managing the situation appropriately, creating a situation where his top star attempted to assassinate the reputations of fellow top stars in the company while he looked on helplessly. That very public embarrassment opened the door for further criticism of Khan, and by association, criticism of AEW. 

This all occurred right around the same time that Vince McMahon resigned from WWE in a massive sex scandal that saw him replaced by his son-in-law, “Triple H” Paul Levesque, as the head of creative for WWE. While in most normal jobs, the chief executive having to resign in a sex scandal would be viewed as a negative thing for the company, in the wacky world of professional wrestling, Vince stepping down greatly aided the perception of WWE, and it came at the perfect time during the ongoing war with AEW. 

An advantage AEW had since it launched was the perception by many wrestling fans that Vince McMahon was bumbling and out-of-touch, and that WWE was a giant, monopolistic company run by a senile old man who let great talent walk right out the door and willfully resisted innovations that were being developed in lower levels of the wrestling industry. AEW was the fresh company, run by a hip executive that is half McMahon’s age, and embraced changes in the wrestling industry. 

Triple H taking over WWE changed that perception for a lot of fans. Due to his performance managing the NXT brand, many fans felt confidentTriple H would make the changes necessary to make WWE the superior wrestling brand once again, and that momentum swing occurred right before the All Out press conference painted AEW in a negative light. Suddenly, WWE was under new management and perceived to be on the rise, while AEW was spiraling out of control. 

That was, of course, just the perception and not exactly reality. In the months since WWE’s product has had some subtle changes but largely still resembles the same company it was under Vince McMahon. AEW, despite Punk’s absence and radio silence from Khan on the situation, has maintained a steady product that has been well received by fans and critics, particularly the elevation of MJF as the new biggest star in the company. 

While the company saw noticeable setbacks in both live attendance and TV viewership after Punk left, the business has appeared to have steadied over the past couple of months. AEW is still theoretically in a strong negotiating position for the upcoming television rights renewal, with Dynamite regularly placing in the top five each Wednesday in the key 18-49 demo. 

The grassroots growth of the company is likely over, and as AEW has matured into a full-fledged wrestling company, with a real history and identifiable patterns and traits, the company can go one of three ways. 

AEW could 1) grow its audience and become an even bigger success, creating new stars and getting closer to WWE in some key business metrics, threatening the industry leader; 2) business can plateau and remain relatively the same, or 3) business could regress as the company proves to be a flash in the pan. 

The first two possible outcomes would be seen as successes to varying degrees, the third outcome is a dark scenario that some fans and analysts live in constant fear of taking place.

Ultimately, the fate of the company lies in the leadership and booking capabilities of Khan. The CM Punk incident was perhaps a painful, but necessary lesson for Khan to learn and grow from, a wake-up call about the paranoia and politics of the pro wrestling industry. As he gains more experience as a creative mind running a weekly wrestling show, it’s logical to expect that he will improve and iron out any issues that have bogged down the creative aspects of the company over three years. 

Khan has achieved great success during his first three years in charge. He also would be far from the only booker to be successful for the first few years, but eventually, get burnt out and lose touch. The tastes and expectations of wrestling fans are constantly evolving, and while Khan has shown a remarkable ability to cater to his fanbase, it’s a constant battle of determining what fans want to see next and being able to deliver it in a satisfactory manner. 

The first few years of AEW have been buoyed by the performances and star power of a few veteran wrestlers. Chris Jericho, now 52, was an instrumental figure in 2022. Bryan Danielson, 41, has been a key addition since coming over to AEW but has a scary injury history and has already missed chunks of time. Kenny Omega, 39, just missed nearly a year recovering from various injuries. Punk, 44, the biggest star of all, is unlikely to ever wrestle in AEW again. 

The task will be on Khan, with the assistance of the established veterans on the roster, to elevate the next generation of top stars. That plan should be in full effect in 2023, as the company looks to further create an identity with a collection of true homegrown stars that AEW can honestly claim as their own creations. The company will largely be defined by how those stars develop and mature into real drawing cards and assets to the long-term future of the company as they begin to negotiate the next television deal. 

The cupboard is far from bare. MJF, at 26, is one of the most naturally gifted wrestlers to emerge in the past 25 years and is being treated as a true top guy. Adam Page, 31, is already viewed by fans as a top star. Ricky Starks, 32, had a breakout performance over the last month of 2022 and looks poised to be elevated further in the coming year. The recently rechristened Jack Perry, 25, seems to be near a massive push in 2023, as does Swerve Strickland, 32, and Wardlow, 34. 

Lurking even further are younger wrestlers just getting their feet wet on television but dripping with obvious potential, including Daniel Garcia, 24, Wheeler Yuta, 26, the Top Flight brothers Daris Martin, 23, and Dante Martin, 21, and the enigmatic Hook, 23. 

The women’s division, long seen as the red-headed stepchild in AEW, has slowly been amassing talent and the potential addition of Sasha Banks as a major anchor and rival to Britt Baker, is a tantalizing possibility. 

There is plenty of potential, but nothing in wrestling is guaranteed. The industry has a lot more people who were perceived to have the talent to make it as main event stars — and never did — than it has true main eventers. Taking a potential star and actually making them into a true positive business factor is arguably the most difficult thing to do in the wrestling industry, and Khan finds himself tasked with that in 2023 as his original core group begins to age out of dependability and relevancy. 

For those reasons, 2023 is the most critical year yet for AEW. The departure of CM Punk, the end of the honeymoon period, and the perception that AEW is “just another wrestling company” knocked the promotion backward for a portion of 2022. Triple H taking over WWE creative reignited the passion of some fans who were previously indifferent, and AEW finds itself now in a more balanced war for critical praise and media attention. The need to create new, marquee stars has become more pressing, and the criticism of Khan’s leadership has become louder. 

2023 will answer a lot of questions about AEW’s long-term ability to compete with WWE and remain a refreshing breath of air for an embattled industry.