Opinion: AEW house shows are a new opportunity for grassroots growth

Across the wrestling world, the house show has been a dying concept. Ring of Honor stopped running non-televised (or in their case, non-streamed) events in 2017. Impact last ran a steady stream of house shows in 2015. Nearly every indie company has some sort of streaming/recording component for all of their shows. 

House shows have been a discussion point for AEW since the company was first announced. Once the very backbone of the wrestling business, the concept of a non-televised wrestling event has slowly been losing popularity in the digital age. Where media content is king, and entities are judged based on the number of hours of content they produce each week, it makes little sense to spend money running a live wrestling event and not broadcast it.

Internationally, where live attendance makes up a much wider percentage of revenue, house shows are still prevalent, but even a company that relies heavily on live attendance, such as New Japan Pro Wrestling, still manages to record most of their events for broadcast on New Japan World. 

The reality is that non-televised events are money losers. Even for WWE, the only American promotion really still committed to doing house shows, the company struggles to turn a profit for its live events division which even includes more highly-attended televised events. Wrestling companies that have limited resources are not going to commit to running money-losing enterprises, and even one with the financial might of WWE has greatly reduced its house show schedule in recent years. 

WWE ran about 147 house shows in 2022, the company’s first full year back on the road since running about 347 house shows in 2019.

So when AEW first launched, it wasn’t a surprise it didn’t run house shows. The company was committed to running TV tapings, pay-per-view events, and a few different live special concept shows shown on Bleacher Report Live. Even the undercard matches were taped for YouTube-exclusive shows, becoming Dark and Dark: Elevation. A business with a substantial, but limited, budget needed to optimize its content and make sure that it was being put somewhere it could make real money. 

As AEW enters its fourth year of operation, on Feb. 1, a press release announced that a new series, “AEW House Rules” would bring non-televised, live events to different cities. While the press release didn’t state how many house shows the company would be running or their frequency, the first event is set for Saturday, March 18 in Troy, Ohio. 

The decision by AEW to run house shows was unexpected. The company seemed satisfied with its current touring schedule, and since AEW hadn’t run house shows previously (the only outstanding case being a one-off show in Jacksonville) the expectation is that AEW couldn’t make house shows profitable. 

On the flip side, there are some obvious benefits to running more house shows. The most frequently-discussed benefit is more in-ring experience for some of the younger wrestlers on the AEW rosters. Wrestlers with potential but little ring time, such as Jade Cargill, HOOK, and Anna Jay will have a chance to work more frequently, in front of sizable live crowds and develop as performers in a time-honored practice that nearly every wrestler in history has used to improve. The shows may not turn a profit, but if they have a positive impact on potential young stars on the roster, they could be worth the investment. 

There is however, a lesser-discussed benefit for AEW when it comes to running house shows, one that has nothing to do with improving the existing roster, or giving wrestlers frustrated with a lack of television time an outlet to work. That benefit is grassroots advertising, something the company has been slowly becoming more acquainted with as it matures.

By bringing AEW to different cities, particularly those that haven’t hosted live events in the past, the promotion is presenting its product to new audiences. While ticket sales alone might not be enough to take house shows into the black, marketing and converting attendees into becoming more consistent AEW fans may prove to be worth it. 

Shows with lower ticket prices in communities with fewer nightly entertainment options than major metro areas is a great way to take someone who has sampled the product in the past and turn them into a fan who consistently watches and spends money on AEW. 

Every wrestling fan can remember the first wrestling show they attended. Especially for children, it can leave a favorable impression that can help foster a real passion for the industry, and AEW should be looking at creating that spark for new fans that may be unfamiliar with its product. 

A good example of the benefits of house shows can be seen by examining WWE’s house show dates. 

In recent years, WWE has focused on hosting house shows on weekends in smaller markets that are unlikely to host TV tapings.

Discounting a series of shows between Christmas and New Year’s Day, where WWE always runs shows in big markets, WWE ran 19 U.S. house shows between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31. Those shows were in the following cities:

  • Binghamton, NY
  • Erie, PA
  • Corbin, KY
  • Roanoke, VA
  • Huntsville, AL
  • Jackson, MS
  • Rochester, NY
  • Moline, IL
  • Charleston, WV
  • Kalamazoo, MI
  • Saginaw, MI
  • Wheeling, WV
  • Petersburg, VA
  • Rochester, MN
  • Portland, ME
  • State College, PA
  • Allentown, PA
  • Madison, WI
  • Peoria, IL

Out of those markets, only one (Kalamazoo) is in the top 50 media markets in the U.S., according to Nielsen rankings (Allentown is sometimes also lumped into the broader Philadelphia market.) Unsurprisingly, WWE doesn’t draw particularly well with these shows and probably doesn’t turn a profit based on ticket sales. WrestleTix reported estimated tickets distributed counts for each of these events, which ranged between 1,917 (Kalamazoo) and 4,466 (Roanoke).

However, WWE has remained committed to doing those shows in part because it helps promote the brand in all of these smaller markets that are largely untapped by other professional sports leagues. The fans WWE gains from having consistent live events in all of those markets do add up, and play an important role in giving WWE the largest fanbase of any wrestling company today.

Since AEW has had very limited touring, it has many untapped parts of the country that it has yet to visit, opening many exciting new, albeit smaller, markets for AEW to introduce its live product. While the company has already been to almost every major metro area (the only top 30 market AEW hasn’t visited, nor is scheduled to visit, is San Diego), it hasn’t explored most of the smaller markets that WWE regularly visits. 

The first house show being announced for Troy, Ohio, a small market that hasn’t hosted a live major wrestling event since a TNA house show in 2011, is a promising start in AEW’s attempts to reach untapped fans. The promotion might be able to draw more fans in New York or Chicago, but the grassroots advertising and cultivation of a new fanbase can take place in these smaller towns. In Chicago, the promotion would attract mostly the same fans who are already regular AEW viewers and customers. In Troy, AEW will reach underserved fans.

The investment in house shows may not profit immediately from ticket sales alone, but a consistent showcase of AEW talent in smaller, untapped markets could allow the company to reach new viewers and convert semi-interested parties into invested fans.