So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #023: MOSTLY IN On AEW

The siren’s song of Pro Wrasslin’ hath grabbed me again, and I’m unable to think about much else pop culture wise these days. The groundswell amongst smart marks such as myself is reaching a fever pitch over the announcements concerning AEW — All Elite Wrestling. Financially backed by the Shah family, helmed in-part by Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks, with a growing talent roster highlighted by “Mr. Highlight Reel” himself, Chris Jericho. In short? AEW, more than any other promotion in the states, has the potential to be viable competition to the McMahon empire.

It’s not been this exciting as a fan since the Monday Night Wars… maybe, kinda, almost, hopefully. 

Let’s get out the facts first: Shahid Khan is the Lead Investor of the company, with his son, Tony, acting as President. Shahid is a billionaire — owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Fulham F.C. soccer club, and a few other sundry businesses. Tony is a life-long wrestling fan, having assisted in coverage online with the Wrestling Observer, and if interviews are to be believed… he has a sound mind on the product writ-large. Cody Rhodes, son of the late great Dusty Rhodes, freed himself of his WWE contract in 2016 and immediately set out to hone his craft in the independent scene ever since. On September 1st, 2018, Cody helmed “All In” — an entirely independently promoted wrestling show that saw 10,000 tickets sold in under 30 minutes. The event itself was widely celebrated, and in its wake… AEW now has taken form.

Thus far, the details of AEW are showcasing what I’d personally describe as “snarky shots fired over the bow” at the WWE. As announced at the AEW rally just a little after 2019 began, we learned that AEW would offer equal pay to its male and female wrestlers. In addition, AEW was also “aggressively pursuing” a business model that allowed their roster to have medical insurance via a group rate; keeping in mind that Vince McMahon’s sports entertainers all work for the WWE as independent contractors under iron-clad contacts. The money is (reportedly) great… but you tell me how much fun it is to be on the road 300 days a year, and know that it’s 100% your responsibility to coordinate your travel, purchase your own insurance, and keep the lights on wherever you might call home. But I digress. AEW is clearly making a pitch that there has to be a better way.

It harkens back to the heyday of WCW. When Ted Turner plopped the checkbook in the lap of Eric Bischoff (so to speak) the advent of guaranteed contracts for less dates (versus the WWE’s notoriously rigorous house show schedule) was the bait needed to trap a plethora of the then WWF’s roster. And for a little while — before creative burnout and fierce competition destroyed it — WCW and WWF fought tooth-n-turnbuckle over an expanding fan base. The Monday Night Wars of yesteryear gave us fans a time period most of us have yet to truly abandon hope for a return to form.

The question now, of course, is are we on the path back that fierce competition? Finally, I can opine.

AEW, as I said, has all the potential in the world right now to compete with the WWE. With a billionaire backing it, and the ears of all the most serious fans… this is a precarious time. Putting aside the frankly necessary aforementioned business model updates Cody and the Bucks are touting, what will make or break the burgeoning company is going to hinge on two factors: The Roster and the TV Deal.

Simply put? A wrestling promotion is only as good as the stars it boasts. We need only look back to the still-not-dead-but-literally-any-day-could-be-its-last TNA/Impact Wrestling. Aside from Samoa Joe and AJ Styles, the meat-and-potatoes of the roster when the company had the biggest foothold it ever had was choked with future-endeavored WWE ex-pats. And while a few made the transition, and truly improved their characters and in-ring work (all 6 sides of the goofy ring, mind you), the storylines were garbage, and the promotion presented itself as an also-ran.

In contrast, AEW needs a roster than doesn’t lean on the same ex-pat principle in order to pique interest. Thus far, the announced roster certainly feels like it’s a step in the right direction. Joining the Bucks, Cody, and Jericho are some stalwart independent hands. Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, Hangman Page, Joey Janela, and Pac (formerly WWE’s Neville) have all gone all-in, alongside some promising never-seen-stateside talent from Chinese promotion Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. In the coming months, should AEW land a few larger signings — Jericho himself mentioning that a “good promotion really needs 6-8 top tier talents to build a base from — Rhodes and company will have more than the rumblings of a revolution. And should they poach any bigger names from the WWE — unlikely as it may be — AEW could be off to the races. Lest we forget: Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash were the sparks that lit the flame. Who is to say what might happen if middling mid-card top-tier talents like Finn Balor (ne Prince Devitt), Sami Zayn (ne El Generico), The Revival, or Dolph Ziggler jumped ship?

Roster aside, of course, one needs a platform on which to stand. AEW has been rumored to be negotiating a TV deal with networks up and down the cable dial. TBS, TNN, AXS, and even WGN (Chicago’s own!) have all been mixed into the rumor mill. And any one of them would certainly be fine. Knowing that AEW owns the trademark for “Tuesday Night Dynamite” certainly adds fuel to the fire. AEW aiming squarely at Smackdown? Now that’s a war you can sign me up for any day (but, I suppose, Tuesday would be apt). And all of this culminates in May, with Double or Nothing, which is AEW’s first official Pay-Per-View as a promotion. If ALL IN was an indication of both hype and quality? Well, that’s a damn safe bet if you ask me.

As a wrestling fan, it’s an exciting time. Lines in the sand are being made. Gauntlets are being thrown down. And for every step forward the WWE takes (Rusev winning the US Championship, Daniel Bryan’s heel turn, and Becky Lynch being… The Man.), it falls on its ass twice as many times (robe-pissing, Nakamura-ball-punching, Samoa Joe wasting, Bobby Lashley existing…). AEW has the finger on the pulse of the most fervent fans. Should it secure an exciting roster that feels young… and smartly present just enough content to keep fans coming back (versus the McMahon empire than chokes the market with 5-10 hours of weekly in-ring content), they will be able to be true contenders for the attention of the pro-wrestling fan base.

And that’s an exciting bet to put on the table.