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. 

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. 

Opinion: The Ghost of WCW Still Haunts AEW Criticism

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.

Opinion: Crown Jewel main event shows WWE still has at least one dictator

On the Sept. 19 edition of Wrestling Observer Radio, Dave Meltzer revealed something quite notable about why Drew McIntyre did not defeat Roman Reigns at Clash at the Castle–saying that the move was likely done because the Saudi Arabian government dictated that Logan Paul vs. Roman Reigns needed to happen at their upcoming Crown Jewel show.

“It’s a completely different situation when it comes to matchmaking in Saudi Arabia. It’s all about something that will get publicity for an event in Saudi Arabia. It’s not about selling tickets,” Meltzer said. “It does explain why Roman Reigns had to beat Drew McIntyre. Because they had this match [Logan Paul vs Roman Reigns] going on and that is why they had to have Drew lose.”

When WOR co-host Bryan Alvarez asked why the Reigns vs. Paul match had to be for the title, and why couldn’t McIntyre win the title at Clash anyway, Meltzer speculated that the Saudi Arabian government likely pressed for Reigns to retain the title.

“It probably matters to the Saudis that it’s a world championship match, and they don’t want to have a non-title match in the main event of their show. They want celebrities, that is why they had Cain Velasques and Tyson Fury. That is what the show is about. They are essentially booking for him [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman],” Meltzer said.

While this conversation will likely fly under the radar in favor of juicier breaking news, the reality is that it is one of the most revealing tidbits of information we have gotten about WWE’s key decision-making and the company’s broader motivations all year. 

For WWE today, unlike the company in the past, the business model is not about servicing its own fanbase. The business model is about serving their biggest corporate partners, one of which is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who (according to Wrestlenomics) pay the company somewhere in the ballpark of $50 million per event, and will have paid the company around $400 million in total by the time Crown Jewel takes place on Nov. 5.

The chart below demonstrates how over the years, WWE’s business profile has shifted from being primarily direct-to-consumer revenue (selling tickets, selling pay-per-views, merchandise, etc.) to business-to-business revenue, which is the large TV deals, the Peacock streaming agreement, and the lucrative KSA deal.

For those reasons, WWE can afford to not be invested in servicing their own fanbase. The reason Drew McIntyre didn’t win the world title at Clash at the Castle, something that would have delighted the 48,000 paid fans who spent millions on tickets for the first major PPV event in Europe in 30 years, was because WWE had a more important customer in mind. 

That customer was Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. According to Meltzer, MBS wanted to have Roman Reigns vs. Logan Paul on his paid show, because a match featuring Reigns and a celebrity like Paul for the world title, would get a lot of mainstream publicity, which is the main motivation for the government paying for a WWE show. 

The point of the WWE shows, like their aim with LIV Golf and Formula 1, is for the Saudi government to host global events that attract attention across the world, and show people that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a place where cool things happen. This is largely done to distract people from the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does a lot of uncool things, including the murdering of journalists, where being gay is punishable by death, and a prolonged war in Yemen.

So WWE accepted the whims of the Saudi Arabia government because their money is more important to them than the interest of their hardcore fans, who traveled to Clash at the Castle that they want to see gets put on the back burner because not only are they not as valuable to WWE as a partner like MBS and the Saudi government, the hardcore fans will continue to support the product in large numbers even if they are constantly dismissed by WWE and left disappointed. The Saudi interest is likely less durable; WWE needs to continue to satisfy the government, or else the business relationship could be terminated. Or the talent could be held hostage on an airplane trying to leave the country. 

While WWE will presumably always be able to hold on to a portion of their hardcore audience, that audience has been diminishing over the years. The sham of booking the promotion and the world title around the interests of business partners like MBS breeds resentment from the fanbase, and over time those fans have watched their interest in WWE wane. Since the company first started promoting shows in Saudi Arabia in 2018, Raw’s total viewership is down by roughly 35%, going from an average of 2.8 million viewers per week in 2018 to 1.8 million viewers in 2022. 

WWE’s allegiance to Saudi Arabia and booking shows around those interests is not the sole reason for that decline. There are plenty of other reasons, including Vince McMahon’s longstanding war with the fans in pushing Roman Reigns as the top star in the company, and the refusal to push new talent adequately. What those things have in common, though, is that it all comes from a place of WWE not feeling like they have to satisfy their fanbase with rewarding stories and the triumphs of their favorite wrestlers. Instead, the company can force-feed stories that play to the whims of a few key people, often Vince McMahon and as we see here, MBS, and they will make more money than ever thanks to the security of their business-to-business relationships with media conglomerates and despotic governments.

From a raw business perspective, it’s a great strategy and the company has never been more profitable. The issue (beyond the fact that WWE is selling itself to be used as a propaganda tool by an autocratic government) is that the average wrestling fan gets left behind. The company abandons the hopes of fans like the ones at Clash at the Castle, who were given a boring, interference-laden finish to the world title match and saw Drew McIntyre defeated because they need to make the Saudi Crown Prince happy by putting on a celebrity match for the world title at a future show. 

As a fan, it becomes very difficult to get emotionally invested in the major aspects of the product, such as the world championship and who is going to be presented as a top star, when those decisions are being influenced not by fan support, and not even by the egos of the wrestlers or key decision makers, but by the powerful business partnerships with a regime like Saudi Arabia. The dismissal of Drew McIntyre in favor of a vanity celebrity match that typical WWE fans really aren’t interested in seeing, all for the purpose of an attempt to spread the word further that Saudi Arabia is a hip, happening place, makes it very hard to feel engaged in a truly invested capacity. 

With the dismissal of Vince McMahon from WWE, the idealized future by fans was that the company would start listening to its fanbase again and no longer be controlled by the narrow-minded view of one man. However, as the Logan Paul vs. Roman Reigns match and decision-making around it shows, WWE is still being influenced by at least one other dictator. 

The way we discuss wrestling is all wrong

If we were to transport ourselves back to a simpler time in the history of pro wrestling and explain to fans back then how we would analyze pro wrestling in the present, you would probably terrify them with a bleak, dystopian future. 

Imagine telling fans of Bill Watts’ Mid South Wrestling, WWF Superstars, Wrestling at the Chase, or any other classic wrestling television program that in the future, not only would we watch wrestling every week, but we would spend countless hours after the show has concluded reading, listening, watching, and discussing our various opinions and analyses on the pro wrestling industry.

Every booking decision would be looked at through a microscopic lens and analyzed for its potential strengths and weaknesses. Every match is closely examined for any hiccups or botches. The constant debate about the future, who should be beating who, who should be the world champion, etc., would be permeating throughout your daily life in a non-stop barrage of podcasts, blogs, Tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts. If you ever stop and think about just how much time you spend each day analyzing the weekly wrestling product, you begin to think about the absurdity of it all. 

The constant and endless discussion and analysis around a weekly wrestling product has added a new dimension to the pro wrestling industry, one that promoters are still struggling to grasp and understand. In previous generations, there may have been newsletters, magazines, and maybe the odd radio show here and there, but nothing compared to today. In the 90s there was the internet, which opened up a new portal of discussion for a hardcore set of fans that were tech savvy, but still pale in comparison to our lives in 2022.

The growth of social media and the ubiquity of smartphones has made sure that the latest takes are always at our fingertips. Fans are constantly consuming other opinions and thoughts and sharing their own on these platforms, at all times. The podcast boom has given numerous voices larger platforms to speak directly to fans and share their thoughts and opinions. YouTube has provided a similar platform, complete with a powerful algorithm that is only one click away from sending you down a new path of wrestling analysis. 

This is true not just for pro wrestling; any form of entertainment is facing this problem. There is way more analysis for anything, movies, television, sports, video games, music, etc. The way our pop culture has evolved in recent decades along with technology has made this a universal truth. However, since this is a wrestling site, we will be keeping this discussion to wrestling. 

Wrestling on television was not designed to be this hyper-scrutinized. Storylines are meant to unfold over weeks, months, sometimes even years, before reaching a conclusion. Each and every chapter of a story or creative direction was not designed to be reviewed and examined endlessly; it is designed to be more passively consumed without too much critical analysis put forth. At the end of the day, the concept of pro wrestling is absurd and the storytelling keeping things together is flimsy; micro-analyzing the product each week is unproductive to appreciating the product. 

Imagine you are watching a movie. After each scene, you pause the movie and discuss what just happened in the scene, the impact it had on the characters, and what that means for the story going forward. You then spend a week listening to podcasts, reading articles and scrolling through Twitter all discussing the scene from the movie. Then next week you turn on the movie and watch the next scene, and the cycle repeats itself.

Chances are you will discover more holes in the story that is unfolding and discover that the movie doesn’t really make sense if you think about it too hard because after all, it’s a work of fiction and your suspension of disbelief can only go so far. 

There is a reason we don’t watch movies like this. Television series do work from a similar premise, but since the number of episodes are limited per season, fans are more conditioned to accept that they are working towards a conclusion and be more patient with the product. 

Wrestling, with an unlimited amount of television content it produces, has to constantly be answering questions about the creative direction on the shows. On top of that, wrestling is much more likely to have inferior writing, producing, acting, and direction when compared to movies or television, which can expose plot holes and a poorly produced product much easier. 

Those discussions that fill the time in between each weekly episode of wrestling influence the opinions of the viewer, and that in turn can influence the success of the product. If the discussion of something that happened one week turns too negative on social media, that can have a negative business impact for the company later on.

Fans who are participating in social media discussions are inadvertently working at a grassroots level to advertise a product. Fans on social media raving about a wrestling product are probably more likely to entice other fans to give the product a try than a traditional advertisement produced by the company itself. Given recent improvements in TV ratings and attendance, it’s hard to deny that the positive reviews most analysts and fans seems to be giving Triple H’s WWE shows lately have had a positive impact on getting people to tune into Raw and Smackdown, or buy tickets to live events. 

Which is why it isn’t enough for wrestling promotions to put on an entertaining wrestling product. The promotion needs to win the optics battle to not only have a good show, but convince people that the show is on a positive trajectory and more people should tune in next week to watch. 

For WWE, this has been a major struggle until recently when Triple H took over creative. Fans across all spheres of social media have been more optimistic about the product and in turn, that has led to a surge in business for WWE. Despite the fact that the product hasn’t introduced any hot new storylines, nor seems to be that much different than it was before Triple H took over, the positive word-of-mouth has been enough to impact business in a positive way. 

Ultimately, individual companies are powerless in being able to control the narrative that takes place after each of their shows. They can put on a show that is perfectly in-line with a long-term creative vision, but the discussion that unfolds afterwards can be almost random. There is a form of chaotic balance in the personal biases people will have; some fans will say a show is bad no matter what and others will say a show is good no matter what; but realistically the narrative about a show can spill in any direction, based on the indeterminable tastes of the viewing public, and the various algorithms that dictate our social media viewing habits. 

An episode of wrestling on television can’t afford to be presented in the same way that it could during previous, less tech-heavy periods of time. Promoters and performers have to be more in tune with the current narrative behind their products, and do their best to cater toward a positive spin in the public conscience despite its unpredictability. The patience of fans is slimmer, and the demand for a product that caters towards a specific fan has never been higher. 

When it comes to analyzing or discussing the product, fans need to take a few steps away from the weekly battle in the trenches. It’s hard to look at a single episode and make a broad determination on anything that is happening, just as it would be hard to watch one scene from a movie and understand the creative vision that surrounds it. Analyzing weekly wrestling and reacting to every small thing that happens was never how the product was supposed to be consumed. 

The way we analyze and discuss wrestling is simply wrong. The instant reactions to and reviews of most shows will struggle to find the point of anything because the product is never designed to be self-contained; it’s always moving forward, churning ahead to the next city for the next episode. It takes a keen eye and experience as a viewer, something many reactions on social media lack, to provide valuable insight into a product. Unfortunately, the way technology has impacted our society means that few of those voices will be heard.

Jesse Collings is a writer and reporter who has written for WrestlingINC, Voices of Wrestling, and other outlets. He is currently a reporter for Gannett/USA Today.

What it’s like to attend a Tony Khan media scrum

On Saturday, I got the chance to participate in the media scrum following Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor event in Lowell, Massachusetts. I know that there has been a lot of interest in these scrums ever since AEW started doing them after their major events, so people might be interested in what the experience is like. I decided to chronicle my experience and provide some thoughts and insights to the public on what participating in the scrum is like, as well as potential ways to make the experience better for everyone involved. 

For starters, the event isn’t really a media scrum. A media scrum is typically somewhat informal and spontaneous, with one person standing and answering questions while media members jostle around to get the best position to stick their recording device close to the interview subject. The post-AEW/ROH events are much more like press conferences. They are organized, public relations staff assist in organizing the questions from the media, everyone is sitting down, etc.

How to participate is straight-forward; if you have been approved for a media credential, when you pick it up before the show, a staff member will instruct you where to meet up after the show. In the case of Death Before Dishonor, the meeting place was right behind the section where the media was sitting. A member of the PR staff led us down a hallway into a small conference room, where a podium had been set up for Tony Khan and talent to speak.

When Khan (and whatever talent arrives with him) is there, media members take turns asking questions. To get in the queue to ask questions, you must signal to one of the PR staff members who are passing around the microphone. This can be somewhat challenging, since the pace of how Khan and his wrestlers tend to go through their questions is slow, meaning that a backlog of people waiting in the queue to ask a question builds up quickly. You may find yourself bumped in the order as it can be hard to keep track exactly when it is your turn. 

The advice I’d give to people is to continue to remind the PR staff that you would like to ask a question. This is very much a “squeaky wheel gets the grease” situation, and it never hurts to be aggressive in reminding people that you would like to go next.

For Death Before Dishonor, it was a smaller crowd of media members than for AEW PPV events. There were approximately ten people at the presser; Nick Hausman of WrestlingINC was the only person I know for a fact who flew in for the show. The rest of the group was made up of some national outlets that had local people on their staff (e.g., Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated, Liam Crowley of ComicBook.com) as well as some local sports media that occasionally dabble in wrestling coverage.

During the presser you are pretty much free to ask any questions that you want. There is no vetting of questions beforehand, so media members are free to fire away. I asked two questions during the presser, and while I would have liked to have gotten more questions in, I was at least satisfied with my experience. 

The first question I asked was for Claudio Castignoli, which was about if he felt like he had more in-the-ring freedom working in AEW and ROH, as opposed to WWE. After pausing for a second and making an incredulous face, Castignoli did give what I would consider a substantial answer.

The second question I had was for Khan, which asked if we would ever see The Briscoe Brothers on Dynamite or Rampage. Khan declined to give a straight answer, saying that he “doesn’t know” if they will ever appear in AEW, but said they’d be a big part of ROH. 

While Khan declined to give a definitive answer, he essentially did give us one. There has been speculation online that The Briscoes have not been able to appear on Dynamite or Rampage due to controversy surronding Jay Briscoe and a homophobic tweet he made in 2013. This speculation has been fueled by their noticeable absence in the build-up to Death Before Dishonor, since they were in the main event of the show against FTR. By declining to give a clear answer and saying that he “doesn’t know”, Khan, who we are led to believe controls every aspect of what appears on AEW television, is giving the indication that The Briscoes will not be on AEW TV going forward. 

The response was about what I expected. I did not expect Khan to give a definitive answer, since if our suspicions are correct, he isn’t going to acknowledge that Jay Briscoe may be problematic. Public figures are not obligated to give great, clear answers when the media asks them a question; it is up to the media and the public to decipher what something means based on the evidence that we have.

On social media there is a lot of frustration with the kinds of questions that are being asked during the pressers. I fully understand that frustration; and at times during the presser I was annoyed by some of the questions, particularly the ones that are kayfabe-based, or ones that are compliments of the show disguised as questions.

What I think is helpful to keep in mind is that media members have different interests in the kinds of questions they are asking. Some outlets are looking for comments on kayfabe storylines or angles, searching for news headlines like, “Claudio Castignoli says he is going to defend the ROH World Championship again at  ____” . Others might be writing feature stories and looking for quotes on certain subjects to round out their articles.

As a representative of Wrestlenomics, I knew my questions had to be fact-based and oriented on the more serious side. Personally, I think the pressers would be a lot more interesting if the kayfabe questions were dumped entirely; the pressers are too good of an opportunity with one of the most powerful individuals in wrestling, as well as numerous top performers being available for questions, to be wasted by asking kayfabe-based questions, or complimenting the people on their performances. However, I understand that there is a market for kayfabe-based comments and “soft news” and those questions will always be a part of the pressers.

I do think there should be more people at the pressers pushing for real information. The conduct of some members of the media is questionable. Before the presser started, I heard one media member loudly talking about how people on social media complain about the media not asking “tough questions”, and stated that you simply cannot do that. The individual then said that if Vince McMahon was in front of them at a presser, they would obviously not ask McMahon about the recent NDA scandals.

That shows the difference in mentality between the various members of the wrestling media. To me, not asking Vince McMahon about the scandals if presented with an opportunity to do so would be a complete dereliction of your duty as a member of the press. To other people, it’s a toxic idea, something to steer clear of at all costs for fear of ruining a relationship with sources. My response to that would be how valuable of a relationship do you have with a source if you are not allowed to ask them the most important questions?

There is also a tendency for some people to include their own opinions before asking a question, things such as, “I think that was a great match. What do you think (wrestler X)?” 

Not only are these questions boring, they also pose an ethical dilemma. By asserting your own (favorable) opinion into the question, you are admitting a clear bias towards a particular response, something that reporters should steer clear from.

Why do people choose to insert their own views into the presser? One explanation is that they are afraid of having a negative relationship with the person they are interviewing, such as a wrestler they like. By prefacing a question with a compliment, they are indicating that they are a fan of the wrestler, and that the wrestler should appreciate them for saying they had a great match or whatever. 

Another explanation is that the line between analysts and reporters in wrestling media (and in all media) has been blurred. For many people in the presser, if they were not attending the presser they would either be writing reviews online of the show or hosting a podcast reviewing the pay-per-view. I suppose that can translate to people assuming it’s common to add a little of their opinion into their questions. Either way, I think it would be an improvement if the media attempted to have a more publicly unbiased disposition when asking questions to the talent (and please, hold your applause).

On the AEW side of things, there was one major negative. At one point during the presser, while Wheeler Yuta was fielding questions, Daniel Garcia came in and shot an angle, interrupting Yuta and complaining about how he lost his match. He was ushered out by security and that was the end of it. The whole thing lasted under one minute. 

I understand why AEW/ROH does things like that; it makes the show feel more “real” and Garcia was very good in the angle. However, I’m here to do a serious job based on real issues, and I don’t like being used as a prop for a wrestling angle. My time is more valuable than that, and I’m not interested in being part of the show. It also creates an awkward transition where Yuta and Castignoli had to react in kayfabe for a minute before going back to answer real questions.

In my experience, AEW/ROH does a pretty honest job with the press conferences. They are much more media-friendly in this environment than WWE ever is. You are allowed to fire away with any question you can come up with, and even if Khan or the wrestlers decline to say anything substantial, you at least are able to get those answers publicly on the record, something that is almost non-existent in wrestling coverage.

The pressers can be improved the most by the wrestling media taking itself more seriously. If more media members were committed to asking real, honest questions and gathering relevant information, as well as being willing to be a little tough sometimes and not shy away from the hard questions, the experience would be improved across the board. 

We would get way more relevant information out of the subjects, and it would also create an environment where the media supports each other more, since people can ask follow-up questions if they feel like a previous question was not answered in a satisfactory manner. It is difficult to do that when we are bouncing between honest questions and kayfabe commentary.

Lastly, I’d add that if you ever have the chance to attend an AEW event as a member of the media, I strongly suggest you go. The coolest thing about it is getting to meet other media members in-person, and network a bit. Wrestling media is a very isolated job. Most people work out of their homes and only communicate digitally with their colleagues. Major events with media coverage allow people to meet up with one another, share thoughts and ideas, and promote a healthier media environment.

Jesse Collings is a writer and reporter who has written for WrestlingINC, Voices of Wrestling, and other outlets. He is currently a reporter for Gannett/USA Today.