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Opinion: AEW’s emergence means the carnie days are over

- Editor's Note: The following is a column and reflects the opinion of the author and not of F4WOnline.com.

- Image courtesy of Jeffrey Jones and AEW

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By B.J. Bethel

Tony Khan’s All Elite Wrestling was not supposed to succeed. If it lived for a month, it wasn’t supposed to be good. In fact, it hasn’t been good; most of the first nine weeks of television have been great. 

AEW is a company that did not have TV in August, and outside of a couple pay-per-views and spot shows on Turner’s B/R Live app, it was brand new. Even optimists saw a hard six months for the company as it delved into weekly TV. 

Instead, it has been a great six weeks of roaring crowds, of wrestlers off the creative leashes and performing with passion not seen outside Japan and the best international promotions, and a mishmash of indie wrestlers that were supposed to bomb but have instead been embraced and are slowly becoming stars.

The kid of a billionaire from Illinois wasn’t supposed to start a wrestling company and not only have a smooth operation, but a successful one. In doing so, he’s killed almost all of the previous notions about the wrestling business, and he’s found that failure will make you a punchline on podcasts, but success will make you hated. 

Khan has been slandered as a “money mark” by the old guard of prognosticators in the wrestling media. "Mark" is a slur in the wrestling vernacular. It means you’re a fool who gives up their money for nothing. You’re the idiot who can’t manage the backstage politics, the ignorant sucker who doesn’t get the small stuff you can only learn through decades of mafia-like ritual and endless weeks on the road.

To prove how big of a mark Khan was, he hired four misfits as his executive management: an indie darling tag team, an oddball Canadian who quit WWE’s developmental program to wrestle matches in creek beds in Japan, and a WWE castoff who was pulled from television and expected to be grateful anyway. 

While Khan’s success is the death knell of many of the notions of what it means to succeed in wrestling in the 2010s and beyond, it also signals the full legitimacy of the wrestling business. What’s more legitimate than a company founded by an NFL billionaire? This is a club even the President of the United States was denied entry to. It was negotiating a TV deal with major cable networks before putting on their first match.

Khan took wrestling and made it a legitimate business. On the other side, Vince McMahon has always held disgust for pro wrestling judging by how he’s produced it and tried to run from it. He has tried to desperately funnel his way into multiple businesses like movie studios that failed, two attempts at starting a new football league including one that’s earmarked for a quarter of the money from WWE’s new TV deals, and a bodybuilding federation. These weren’t business ventures, these were personal ventures to give McMahon the legitimacy he always craved. 

AEW’s weaknesses are its strengths. The Young Bucks survived on their own merchandise business, by leveraging social media, and by creating a weekly YouTube show that’s pushed the creative bounds of the wrestlers involved and the platform in terms of using it to keep your personal business afloat. 

Kenny Omega wanted more out of pro wrestling than what was in the United States, so he went to Japan and found inspiration in DDT Pro and New Japan. He became a resident and learned the language as he embraced the culture, and put on four of the greatest matches in the history of the business. He’s taken storytelling, psychology, and athleticism to another level.

Cody Rhodes had to watch his career fizzle and was met with disgust when he asked for his release from WWE. Within three years, he is one of the biggest stars in U.S. wrestling, one of its top draws, and one of its best performers. Unless John Cena or the Rock returns, Rhodes is the top babyface in the business. While Paul Levesque married his way into executive management, Rhodes earned his after three years at the so-called bingo halls, wrestling in the Tokyo Dome, and helming the best year in the history of Ring of Honor.

He studied independent wrestling and with his infamous checklist, he embraced it. He knew the importance of appearing in Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and his infamous Twitter checklist showed he had an understanding of who and what was popular and deemed important by fans. This simple move made him legit to indie wrestling fans like few WWE stars have managed. It also showed he was better promoting himself than the WWE marketing machine. He went back to his roots, ones he never knew he had, and came out the other side a star. 

The misfits turned out to be geniuses. The Elite should be at the Aspen Institute or giving TED talks to entrepreneurs. Lord knows many need the help. 

After two months of analysis, I’m less worried about AEW than WWE. AEW has long-term plans and yet remained flexible. It has set expectations to adhere to and it doesn’t involve getting bogged down with the other company down the digital dial. They are giving their wrestlers freedom and want them to become draws – they want them to become stars.

That was something WWE used to be very good at doing. They stopped and for one simple reason; Vince McMahon thought WCW’s rise was built on making wrestlers stars only to have them leave for more cash at the first chance.  

Ironically, WWE is now in the situation often found at many of those “small fiefdoms” he so snarkily called small territories in a Sports Illustrated interview during the 1980s, where territories trusted the title only to family. The McMahons are the stars of WWE, and the WWE brand means everything. There are no stars outside of the family, and any wrestler perceived as such isn’t – they’re replaceable. That’s why fans have had to witness the grind of 50/50 booking and a company that cuts the legs off its own talent more than the competition ever could. 

WWE will be around, but its monopoly days are over. As someone who has witnessed the demise of the newspaper and automotive industries up close, the similarities are startling. I don’t believe the company has the ability to change, because the template it has now set has been built and engrained for 20 years. They aren’t nimble enough on social media. The AEW guys are masters of that, and they’re quicker. If WWE makes a mark on a show, AEW counters it on social media or YouTube the next day. 

AEW doesn’t look at WWE as competition the same way WWE does. WWE wants to crush them and put them out of business. AEW deals with them as another business in a competitive market in which doing your best business means servicing your customers. Ask WWE fans of recent years how well their company is doing there. 

WWE has billions of dollars in TV deals going into the next decade. That should mean financial security, but this is also a company that’s adding years to deals and doubling pay, sometimes tripling it in some occasions, to lock talent away from AEW. The last estimate I read said WWE has over 200 wrestlers on contract. That alone means AEW has been a success for wrestlers.

But it hasn’t stopped with the checkbook. WWE has been hot-shotting for weeks and even before AEW was on TV. Its Saudi Arabia shows are a black eye to the company, and its move of Smackdown to Fox has left the company at the mercy of TV networks more so than it has ever been previously. 

With the money comes the responsibility to deliver. WWE loaded its Wednesday NXT show with main roster talent and managed a win of 20,000 total viewers two weeks ago. AEW won every ratings category but 50+ and is still dominating in the core 18-35 and 18-49 demographics that advertisers pay the most attention to. 

For those that think this is luck, keep in mind The Elite were regularly sponsored on its YouTube show by major companies, and even included some in matches (Cracker Barrel most prominently, as well as TGIF restaurants). WWE has always had the advantage on the business side, but that’s no longer the case. The Khan family runs Flex-N-Gate, building bumpers for a large portion of the world’s automotive manufacturers. 

As much vitriol fans, former wrestling bookers, and media have for AEW, it doesn’t change that what we are seeing is a seismic event in the wrestling business, one there is no going back from. The carnival days are finally dead and for good. While many thought this was the case beforehand, WWE’s recent fiasco in Saudi Arabia with its talent show this wasn’t the case. AEW is the real deal.  

The sunshine is now in, and many are running to the shadows – scared. 

B.J. Bethel covered wrestling from 1998 to 2003 focusing on WWE’s developmental territories. He has covered the Russian election interference scandal and the Midwest opioid crisis for the Sydney Morning Herald. He has had bylines in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and RogerEbert.com.