The birth of All Elite Wrestling in 2019 is THE most significant move for the wrestling industry since 2001. The industry altering change AEW brings to wrestling is so severe that most people don’t realize how much things will change, in EXACTLY the same ways as Julian Cain in the “Kings of the Ring” Novel Podcast series, where his opponents predicted failure because it didn’t fit with the rules and conventions they knew, instead of realizing that the rules and conventions were about to be changed.
Since 2001, “WWE Style” has become the norm, putting wrestling in the hands of TV Writers, and prioritizing quarterly stock and corporate achievement over actual audience interest generated revenue, along with eliminating any attempts at presenting the world within their programming as real. This resulted in a product more scrutinized and criticized than ever, an erosion of the fanbase by millions moving onto UFC and other forms of entertainment yet has also, ironically, seen the WWE more profitable than ever due to the realities of today’s global market and benefits of being an established brand in the 2000’s. Meanwhile those competing promotions able to secure television have largely followed the WWE’s model of presentation, due to their success, and those considering a different approach are dealing with a TV industry in the 2000’s completely soured on wrestling BECAUSE of the quality of the WWE product and its declined ratings.
THE FANS AND THE WRESTLERS OUTSIDE OF WWE
While this dynamic has actually prevented WWE from any direct competitors rising up to challenge them over the past 18 years, the other backlash was the rise of the hardcore internet fan and the independent wrestler. Wrestling fans who want to watch wrestling, WILL do it no matter how shitty WWE may be, therefore this enthusiasm was unleashed as a collective online voice virally across the world wanting better. With no singular outlet for this unrest, the entire independent wrestling genre has been the beneficiary. By the mid 2010’s, this disgruntled fanbase, combined with the rising impact of social media, and advances in accessible video, made independent wrestlers around the world insanely popular. The talents themselves were the brand, not the company, (not unlike the territorial days of wrestling) and could wrestle for 50 different companies in a year. The fans ate it up, independent companies grew, and we were suddenly in a world where wrestlers like AJ Styles, Alberto Del Rio, Rey Mysterio, and … Cody Rhodes could make six or seven figures OUTSIDE of the WWE. This was when the road to All Elite Wrestling was starting to be built, even if no one realized it at the time.
THE BULLET CLUB ELITE TAKES OVER THE WORLD
Nothing had more “street cred” than New Japan, with the top Japanese’ battles with the 90’s NWO inspired “Bullet Club” featuring mostly non-Japanese talent. This brought NJPW the American crossover appeal it never had before and the ones who benefitted the most, since NJPW was too slow to invade America, were the actual members lead by Cody, the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega who still worked outside Japan. Their popularity inadvertently got the attention of the corporate world and were given a t-shirt outlet through Hot Topic stores nationwide. This opportunity saw sales obliterate expectations and was a significant sign of the crossover drawing power the Bullet Club Elite had. Then they had a YouTube show that drew over 200,000 subscribers to follow their adventures outside of the ring, which was slowly building the foundation of a wrestling territory.
Lead by the Bullet Club Elite, New Japan finally ventured into America in 2017, and shyly booked a mid-sized arena instead of recognizing how hungry the American market was and went for something more ambitious. The show sold out a few thousand tickets in minutes, in one of the great promotional blunders of underestimating the popularity of their draws, and the hunger of the modern wrestling fan. Ring of Honor began setting their own records for attendance, using the BCE, including their biggest show of all time in 2018, all lead by a main event featuring Elite members Kenny Omega vs. Cody in an angle booked by them on a YouTube show.
It’s a chicken or the egg situation really, did the rising indie wrestlers create the enthusiastic internet fans, or did the fans make them such hot stars? Who can say, but this symbiotic relationship manifested itself in the most tangible of ways when Cody Rhodes accepted a challenge to draw 10,000 fans. If the independent scene entering 2018 was the “Attitude Era”, then the Bullet Club ELITE was its “Stone Cold Steve Austin”. After establishing themselves as the biggest draws outside of the WWE, and the overall mood of the wrestling fanbase, I had zero doubt the Elite headlining their own show, would sell every ticket.
And that they did, in 30-minutes. That combined with the all-around mania and turnaway crowds at the Starrcast convention in Chicago was the perfect representation of how fan angst at the establishment (WWE) could be re-routed into a singular wrestling outlet without outwardly pushing itself as an anti-WWE group. While many saw this as a sign that the Bucks and Cody were now in position to cash in with WWE, the boys correctly realized that ALL IN wasn’t about that, it was proof that a new kind of wrestling product could thrive.
ALL ELITE WRESTLING
ALL IN already gave us our first shot of what AEW will look like. Chris Jericho’s innovative crossover feuds in NJPW with Omega and Naito, and the Jericho Cruise also showed us. It’s about wrestler-driven feuds using fundamental booking, and mastery over social media and the internet to brand-build. Yet it’s also about being edgy and presenting wrestling in new ways. ALL IN was not only filled with 11,000 fans who loved great wrestling, but also who followed and engaged with the YouTube soap opera that is “Being the Elite”. BTE is a shoot style wrestling version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, (aka no scripted dialogue) on the most popular media outlet among young people around the world. It’s the backstage vignette but done in a way that never denies that wrestling is a work, but doesn’t make you or wrestling look stupid in the process. And unlike the standard acted scripted WWE vignette, BTE is a full-blown show that tells logical, compelling, believably acted, and long-term stories, that (believe it or not) honor the traditional rules of kayfabe at a core level:
Essentially it’s this: When the Undertaker rises from the dead and flies 30 feet up in the air on stage surrounded by lights and fire, the WWE is trying to convince the audience that what WE are seeing is real. When Joey Ryan appears with 10 walking penises as a living ghost he’s trying to convince Hangman Page that what HE is seeing is real. Once you understand the difference you’ll see why the ELITE storytelling is not the same thing as invisible grenades or WWE lunacy.
Much like Julian Cain’s Empire Wrestling Federation in the "Kings of the Ring", doom is being predicted industry-wide from fans and media alike. It’s understandable to believe this, because when you plug the talent involved into the formula we’ve seen from other companies, it’s logical to predict failure. But remember they also predicted failure for ALL IN’s goal of 10,000 tickets sold ...
THREE Main Reasons why AEW will succeed:
Big time money from someone with a vested interest run by wrestling people. In Tony Khan of the Khan Sports Billionaire Empire as the money man, AEW has a majority owner with an incredible amount of personal interest in wrestling, as Dave Meltzer can attest to, but also experience in sports business. And while not yet announced, one has to assume Cody, Jericho, the Bucks, and others involved will have actual equity on top of running the wrestling side of things. This marks an ownership group of actual wrestling people, backed by vast resources and the apparent access to properly utilize those resources. Examining the histories of ECW, SMW, GFW, TNA, and ROH, shows they each had one of the two ingredients only, and none were able to become a mainstream wrestling company. AEW has both.
AEW is not starting from the bottom. AEW’s first show, ALL IN, drew more fans than any non-WWE American wrestling show in almost 20 years, and captured the attention of the wrestling, corporate and TV world. AEW immediately showed it can be major league in ways that TNA, SMW, GFW, and ECW were not able to, as they all grew from the bottom. AEW has an instant major league track record for merchandise sales, and social media activity, and most importantly an incredibly large built-in fanbase.
The Product itself. ALL IN was well received as the best show of the year, "Being the Elite" is the hottest wrestling show on YouTube, the ELITE players have put on some of the most popularly entertaining matches and segments in the business. We’ve seen enough to gauge what AEW would be, and all signs point to a wrestling-centric product created for the fans, which has shown the ability to draw.
Individually these 3 things can fail, but collectively is a recipe for AEW success.
Outside of all that has led to AEW, it’s the future that’s most exciting. Think of all your favorite WWE wrestlers being wasted like Cesaro or Dolph Ziggler types, but end up re-signing. Think of the CM Punk, Chris Jericho, and Batista types who try other careers because they’re not having fun in WWE and there’s no where else to go. And think of the independent stars like Ricochet, Kevin Steen, and Pete Dunne who end up with WWE because there is no other major league company they can go. All Elite Wrestling solves these dilemmas and the roster and talent base is only going to get stronger in the future. It may not yet be fully understood but the wrestling world has been altered by AEW, yet at the same time was the natural byproduct of where wrestling has evolved.
And it is for these reasons I have zero hesitation in saying that at some point AEW will begin drawing an audience that will rival Raw and Smackdown, and will be the largest wrestling company since WCW. In the 90’s the wrestling boom came from the top on down, in the 2010’s the wrestling boom has come from the bottom up, and the organically evolved product of this boom is All Elite Wrestling.
Steve Te Tai
Head Writer, Kings of the Ring
January 1, 2019