Opinion: Privilege in Wrestling

“I’m not saying that white people are better but being white is clearly better! Who can even argue? If it was an option I would re-up every year.” – Louis C.K.

When I ask students in the political science classes I teach what they think of when they think about privilege, students respond with phrases like, “Having an advantage over someone else”.

I define privilege as having the luxury of not having to think about issues that another person or group has to consciously think about.

When my fiancé and I are walking down the street and holding hands, never once do either of us think to ourselves, “Hey babe! Maybe we should stop holding hands in this neighborhood because we might be discriminated against for being straight.” 

However, if we were a same-sex couple, it is something we might have to worry about because, let’s be honest, in the United States, there are plenty of neighborhoods where same-sex love is frowned upon.

I encourage everyone to think of privilege from this vantage point. If you are white, are you ever afraid of being pulled over for driving while Black? If you are a male, are you ever worried about walking into a job interview seven months pregnant and not getting the job because of that? Just some food for thought.

Abrahams Lawsuit

So you might be wondering why I’m asking these questions and what it has to do with former writer Britney Abrahams’ lawsuit against WWE. 

When I saw how long Abrahams’ 33-page complaint was, I Immediately regretted volunteering to write an article about this. After all, in a past life, I was a paralegal and I hated it. I would get cases way longer than this and found the work to be very tedious and boring.

But the more I read this case, the more intrigued I was. I actually read it twice just to make sure I understood the complexities of this case.

These things should not be “complexities” but, because of the way WWE — and society as a whole — is structured, they are.

Abrahams alleges “discriminatory treatment, harassment, hostile work environment, wrongful termination, unlawful retaliation against the Plaintiff due to her race, color, and gender.”

One idea pitched was to have dark-skinned African American male wrestler, Reggie participate in a storyline where he’d be hunted like an animal by Australian wrestler Shane Thorne. 

“In a nutshell, the said hunting gimmick pitch for new wrestlers, Shane Thorne, and Reggie was, ‘since Shane is Australian, we should make him a crocodile hunter, and instead of crocodiles, he hunts people.’” 

Well, I guess if you’re Black, it’s good to know WWE’s stereotyping isn’t just limited to African American talent — if you want to look at that as the glass half full. 

Elsewhere, writers pitched WWE Raw champ Bianca Belair say a phrase stereotypical to Black women, there was an idea reveal Mansoor was behind the 9/11 attacks, a storyline where a Muslim woman would be subservient to a man, and more.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, these are claims about WWE in 2021 and 2022.

Later in Abrahams’ court filing, it states, referring to the idea of Reggie being hunted, “As the WWE writing team’s sole person of color, Plaintiff was devastated that none of her white, Caucasian co-workers stepped in to complain about this discriminatory and offensive pitch.”

The above statement speaks directly to the privilege in a WWE writers’ room where none of Abrahams’ colleagues have to care or even think about how this might come off to Black audiences so long as it is “entertaining.”

With all that said, bad ideas are just par the course for writers, and, since a lot of what Abrahams alleges never made it passed the cutting room floor, it will likely be hard to prove racism on this front.

So I guess the question you might be asking is am I accusing WWE of being racist? 

The answer is a little more complicated than ‘Yes, they are card-carrying members of the Klan” or “No, they are the textbook definition of progressive,” which brings me back to the word privilege.

Mark Henry

Like in life, in wrestling being Black is a full-time job, especially in an environment where there are very few Black writers and no one there to advocate for you. 

On Huff Post Live back in June 2014, Marc Lamont Hill interviewed Mark Henry. In true Marc Lamont Hill fashion, Hill pressed Henry about the stereotypes in wrestling. 

Henry was initially reluctant but then finally brought up when WWE gave Henry the nickname, “The Silverback”. Yes, there was a point in time in WWE where they were calling Henry a silverback gorilla. In the interview, Henry recalls, “Honestly, I could not do it. I told them: ‘I can’t do that. I got two little Black kids at home.'”

This is the same Mark Henry who was in a storyline relationship with 70-year-old Mae Young, where she gave birth to a hand and the same Mark Henry who was made to look like the butt of a joke when he was lured into trying to get sex, in a segment that can best be described as transphobic.

I swear that Henry has the patience of Job for being able to withstand the onslaught of bad storylines that he was given during his WWE tenure, but it is good to know in 2014 that even Henry believed that comparing him to a gorilla was a bridge too far. 

There was also the time back in 2008 when Michael Hayes was suspended for 60 days for telling Henry that he was more of an N-word than he was. 

I swear Henry must’ve taken the path of least resistance approach to WWE, and how this idiot Michael Hayes still has a job in the company after saying something like that isn’t that much of a mystery when his boss said the same word on TV.

Bianca Belair vs. Becky Lynch: Hair vs. Hair?

I recall some WWE fans suggesting Bianca Belair be in a hair vs. hair match with Becky Lynch. I specifically remember Stephanie Hypes from TruHeelHeat’s Serving Face and Heels admonishing that idea. I also brought up the historical context of Black women and their hair.

As angry as I was at the suggestion, I understand there are a lot of fans who don’t know this history, but ideas like this are a prime example of the colorblind racism that exists in wrestling, where white fans and writers don’t even have to think about how storylines affect Black people or other people of color.

I was very happy with the way WWE course-corrected Bianca Belair’s loss to Becky Lynch in mere seconds at last year’s Summerslam. For all intents and purposes, Belair is the closest thing WWE has ever had and probably ever will have to a female version of Cena. But that someone thought that was a good idea is mind-boggling, and keep in mind this is after they did something similar to Kofi Kingston, just not giving any consideration to the Black kids who were inspired by Kingston’s title win, instantly defining him down by having Brock Lesnar squash him. I couldn’t even fathom Cena winning the title and then losing it in a matter of seconds; WWE would instantly think about how it would affect the kids.

Speaking of Cena, he got over using hip-hop culture. Even he admits that he was dead in the water until he adopted the rapping gimmick. King Eric from Off the Cuff Radio believes that John Cena owes hip-hop culture for the way he used it — and abandoned it — once he became mainstream. It’s hard to argue that point. If I were a guessing man I would say that Cena was following marching orders from McMahon but the point is that when Cena began wearing the Fruity Pebbles shirts and stopped rapping, he had the privilege of being able to turn into what McMahon wanted him to be. 

Jinder Mahal: A Heel for Being Indian

I recall back in 2017 when Jinder Mahal was given the WWE title. Fans and journalists scoffed and bemoaned this but I really liked the idea of Jinder Mahal being the first person of Indian descent to be world champion. 

In the beginning, I thought Mahal did a more than serviceable job in his new role as world champ. I then saw an episode of Smackdown where Jinder was made to go out to the crowd and get heel heat, not for being a bad guy, but for simply being an Indian.

I really scratched my head at this crap and didn’t understand it but then I listened to an episode of Talk is Jericho. In this episode from 2017, Jinder tells a story about Vince McMahon rewriting one of his promos.

“He had rewritten my promo. The original promo was something totally different. So when I finished calling the match, one of the writers was like ‘Hey, Vince changed your promo’. I was like okay, bring it to me. Can you please bring it to me? So they brought it to me and I had read the [anti-]American comment and all that, and, I was like, I like the old promo better. It was like, I tried being peaceful and nobody was listening but now I have everyone’s attention. I just beat five of Smackdown’s very best [wrestlers] and I did it all alone. Something like that. It was just a regular heel promo but then the new one was like, ‘You Americans,’ this and that. I was like, I don’t think we should go there but I’m like, Vince wrote it, it’s okay, but I did it and the reaction that I got, I was like ‘Oh man, Vince is a genius!’ He knows exactly what’s going to draw the most heat.”

Of course, Jericho agreed, and they both waxed poetic about how much of a genius McMahon is for the following four minutes or so.

All I could do was shake my head and think about the Jedi mind trick Vince played on Mahal to get him to think that going the cheap heat route that relies on outdated stereotypes is better than cutting an original promo that doesn’t rely on that type of antiquated bullshit.

Keith Lee: You Don’t Sound Black Enough

Keith Lee is a man that looked like he needed someone to give him a big hug his entire main roster run in WWE. He went from being the “Limitless” Keith Lee to “Bearcat” Keith Lee, the latter, a character he couldn’t relate to because he didn’t know what it was supposed to be. Bearcat Wright was a wrestler from the 1950s who is the disputed first Black world champion in professional wrestling (before Ron Simmons).

In another Talk is Jericho interview, this one from 2022, Lee admits that McMahon was not a fan of the way he spoke

Lee says McMahon told him that he sounded too smart for his own good. When I heard Lee say that, I was shocked but not surprised. I guess Lee didn’t fit the stereotype of what a big Black man should sound like. With the limited context that I have of this, it comes off as extremely racist. 

What’s Gonna Happen?

Privilege is a luxury in wrestling. I don’t think WWE is thinking about the fact these characters are minorities when they’re placed in these aforementioned gimmicks and storylines and unfortunately, that is the problem.

I’m not sure if Britney Abrahams will succeed with her lawsuit. Should the case actually make it to trial, I’m not sure whether Black wrestlers will testify against her and I seriously doubt any will stand in the gap for her. 

It’s my hope that all wrestling companies have a diverse writing staff, especially if they’re going to rely on the talent of minority wrestlers.

I hope that all the minority wrestlers and writers know their value. I’m not suggesting they need to fight the writing staff over every single thing but when something doesn’t feel right, they should be free to vocalize it without the fear of being fired the way Abrahams was.

The knee-jerk reaction for a lot of WWE fans is to say, “WWE is not racist” at the mere suggestion that something in WWE might be. I remember when Sasha Banks and Naomi walked out and so many fans just knew for a fact that it was not race related even though all we got was that ridiculous statement from WWE and nothing from Sasha or Naomi.

I cannot emphatically say that WWE is racist just like none of us can emphatically say that they are not racist. The one thing I can say is, WWE has a culture problem and this problem is not brand new.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.

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. 

Opinion: What AEW could learn from ADKAR

“Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core, that you don’t even think of it as culture.” – Brittany Forsyth

Last month, I wrote an article where I addressed the potential for toxic positivity existing in AEW. I did not quite understand the extent of it until I watched the AEW All Out post show press conference on September 4. I came to the conclusion that it’s worse than I originally thought after listening to the comments of CM Punk, and then hearing that after the press conference there was a violent outbreak. 

On September 7, Tony Khan announced that the world title and the newly-minted trios titles were vacated. It was reported by Sports Illustrated that all parties involved in the alleged melee; including CM Punk, Kenny Omega, and both the Young Bucks; were suspended. Needless to say, AEW has a few problems.

The signs were always present. When AEW became a viable alternative to WWE and an attractive destination for wrestlers, for all praises that were sung for AEW, there were people in the background, like Brian Cage and Joey Janela, who, while they didn’t outwardly bash AEW, seemed to not be creatively fulfilled.

In business psychology, one of the tools taught to organizational leaders when things start to go awry is the Prosci ADKAR Model. It’s an important model to look at when the toxicity of an organization has spilled over into the public and is no longer simply an “in-house” issue. ADKAR uses five building blocks for successful change: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. 

ADKAR methodology is usually associated with managers, but it can be used to improve overall culture. In this article, I am going to go over each step in the process to examine AEW.

Awareness – of the need for change. The first major component to the Prosci ADKAR methodology is the understanding that changes in the organization have to happen. One can hardly watch the All Out press conference and assume anything other than AEW has issues. From my vantage point, it’s got more issues than a subscription to The New York Times. Their world champion CM Punk went on an expletive-filled rant about the EVPs of the company, Colt Cabana (referred to in the press conference by his real name, Scott Colton), and Hangman Adam Page. Punk said:

“It’s 2022! I haven’t been friends with this guy [Cabana] since at least 2014/late-2013, and the fact that I have to sit up here because we have irresponsible people who call themselves EVPs, and couldn’t fucking manage a Target, and they spread lies and bullshit and put [it out in the] media that I got somebody fired when I have fuck all to do with him, want nothing to do with him, do not care where he works, where he doesn’t work, where he eats, where he sleeps. And the fact that I have to get up here and do this in 2022 is fucking embarrassing.” 

He said all this while eating breakfast pastries.

The part I find the most amusing about this rant is Punk laments needing to “have to” talk about Cabana, when no one at this particularly press event asked Punk about Cabana. Punk interrupted before the first question of the scrum could be asked and went into his tirade. Anyway, I digress. 

Whether one likes Punk or not, this complaint speaks volumes to a management problem in AEW and there is at least one wrestler who is publicly implying that he has no respect for management. Khan needs to examine this thoroughly. Punk’s rant was unprofessional and wrong, but before we go blaming him and dubbing him the cancer in this situation, Khan needs to sit down with every single person on his roster to see who or what is the problem in this company and why it has gotten so bad that it has spilled over to the public. Prosci maintains that the ADKAR Methodology is based on the understanding that organizational change can only happen when individuals change. 

The question Khan has to ask himself is, “Did CM Punk join AEW and introduce this toxic behavior to the locker room?” or “Did this toxic behavior in the AEW locker room already exist and Punk just shined a light on it?”

From there, he can determine if the goals of people in the locker room are congruent with the organizational goals of AEW as a whole. If the individuals involved in the backstage altercation do not have goals that are aligned with the companies, this means that they are not a good fit for AEW, which brings me too…

Desire – to participate in and support change. This step is important in the ADKAR process because it gets rid of all of the bad apples that do not want to be there. For a lot of people, change is scary. The fear of change is why a lot of people stay in loveless marriages or jobs that they hate. Moreover, humans are wired to fear change. For the Bucks, Page, and Omega, they have been operating one way in AEW that they have been used to and were comfortable with. For Punk, he has made clear that there are certain individuals that he does not like. If all of these individuals are to maintain their influence in AEW they will need to have a desire to change and get over whatever egos that they may have. They will have to want to change.

Knowledge – on how to change. Outside of just AEW, I often wonder who wrestling companies defer to when talent is dealing with mental health issues. From a historical standpoint, while there have been successful wrestlers who have retired and have meaningful lives once their careers are done, there are plenty who have died early, get incarcerated, and seemingly do not know what to do once they are out of the limelight. I believe a lot of these issues come from the fact that wrestling is a bottom line business. Promoters pay close attention to who is drawing, who is selling merchandise, and what wrestlers have the highest ratings when they are on screen. It would behoove all wrestling companies to hire Industrial and Organizational Psychologists or I/O Psychologists. It’s the job of I/O psychologists to understand what is going on with individuals in the companies, through interviews, questionnaires, and observations. 

As soon as the All Out press conference ended, I started seeing memes across the internet of Khan looking confused and disheveled after Punk’s rant. What I found the saddest about all of this is, I seriously doubt that he saw it coming. To fully understand the knowledge milestone in ADKAR, Khan is going to have to hire people to do necessary research and actually get to know his talent, who will maintain the anonymity but will report common complaints.

Ability – to implement desired skills and behaviors. This milestone in the process comes when people in the organization have the ability to implement change once other steps have been completed. The toxicity that AEW is experiencing did not happen overnight. It didn’t even begin when CM Punk joined AEW or when Cody Rhodes quit AEW. The potential for this chaos in AEW existed the minute Khan came up with the idea of starting the company. Since AEW is still in its infancy, these negative behaviors are not yet baked in and can change if the individuals in the company want and desire change. 

Reinforcement – to sustain the change. Finally, the ADKAR methodology understands that it’s easy for an organization to jump back into bad habits. Some of these bad habits in wrestling have been going on for decades. There are plenty of wrestlers historically who have relished and even celebrated bad behavior. I do think that is starting to change, but old habits die hard. AEW needs to make clear to talent that these public call outs and people going into business for themselves in promos will not be tolerated by anyone.

Khan actually set a precedent against this by doing things like publicly tweeting why he got rid of Big Swole. He set the stage for “call out” culture where talent goes public rather than keeping discontent in-house. 


Somewhere along the way, Khan lost control and it resulted in a culture of disrespect among top talent in the company, which will continue to spill over to other talent if it’s not addressed. I believe that blame in this situation can be easily spread. I think Khan hired the EVPs because they could interact with other talent in a relatable way. 

I don’t think anyone in this situation has to be fired, including Punk. However, if this conflict results in litigation, then all bets are off. 

I don’t think the EVPs titles should take away because this is their first true test. I believe if they survive this, they will become better EVPs, as the mettle of management is tested in bad times, not good.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.