AEW has been in existence for just over three years now and in that time has cemented itself as the second-largest pro wrestling company in North America. It is not the first non-WWE company to take on Vince McMahon in the years since the WCW and ECW buyouts essentially ended the second “boom period” of pro wrestling, nor is it the first to run a weekly TV show with a talented roster of stars, both homegrown and famous ex-WWE talent. It is, however, the first to be viewed as a legitimate competitor, not only in terms of market share, but in a host of other ways. TNA/Impact could never outbid WWE for anything or anyone. Ring of Honor could never regularly sellout a 6-10k seat arena for a weekly show. Ever since Vince McMahon scooped up the carcass of WCW and ECW, the market has needed an alternative, and though several have tried, none have felt big enough to fill the WCW-sized void.
AEW has done just that, and in the two and a half years since Dynamite kicked off their weekly TV output, the company has grown by leaps and bounds. It has secured a hyper-loyal fanbase, and attracted top wrestling talent not only from independent and overseas promotions but also from WWE, in a way no company has been able to do since WCW’s heyday. Could TNA have secured the former Dean Ambrose or Chris Jericho? Could Ring of Honor have signed with Turner Networks for a highly promoted weekly show (and then, later, a second)?
AEW’s success cannot be overstated, nor can it be forgotten how much they have improved in such a short timeframe. Viewers who have been with the company from the beginning can remember the days of bad audio, microphones cutting out, and commentators occasionally being unsure what segment they were supposed to be hyping. The roster has improved by leaps and bounds as well, to the point where it is arguably the best roster of pro wrestling anywhere in the western hemisphere.
Are things perfect? No, and now that the honeymoon period is over it’s right and good to take off the kid gloves and give the promotion a serious evaluation. Yes, it’s still only been three years and some change since the whole enterprise was announced. WWE is coming up on seventy years old. The fact that AEW is even able to thrive anywhere close to WWE’s level is astounding.
That being said, AEW’s ratings have flatlined. They’re steady, sure, and in this day and age, where TV ratings are steadily dropping, it’s a minor miracle for a show to hold as solidly as Dynamite does. Even WWE RAW—a show which has been producing live entertainment on Monday nights going back almost thirty years—is steadily falling, year over year, at a rate faster than most other shows on television. Still, AEW’s ratings have flatlined. They are hovering around the high 900K mark, in comparison to RAW’s 1.8 million or so. The numbers fluctuate a little, when you zoom in week-to-week, with AEW sometimes eeking over a million, and sometimes RAW dipping to 1.4 million or so, but it was just six months or so ago that I was openly speculating how long it would take for Dynamite to pass RAW in the overall viewership numbers. Today, I wonder if both aren’t doomed to stay about 500K or so apart from each other forever.
AEW has an advantage WWE doesn’t in this regard. Being a new company, they aren’t so boxed-in with what is expected of them. WWE has been around for so long, that the idea of doing a radical change to spark a long-term rating spike is unfathomable. AEW is still new enough that they can get away with trying new things, dropping what doesn’t work, and tweaking the formula, all under the auspices of “a young TV show still finding its groove.”
To that end, I offer three suggestions that AEW can implement which might help their young show(s) to find a wider audience. Keep in mind, at one point AEW was consistently over a million and now they are consistently just under a million. Those fans went somewhere, and very little has changed in the show since those fans left. That tells me they can be won back, but some things might need changed or tweaked to snag them.
A SOFT BRAND SPLIT
Keep in mind, that a “hard” brand split would be more akin to what WWE does (or tries to do). It would mean splitting the roster in half and putting one half on show-A and the other on show-B, not letting the two interact other than on special occasions. To be honest, it never made sense for WWE to try this once they decided they weren’t going to use the WCW name and logo, etc. Had the WCW buyout gone according to plan-A, RAW would have been converted into a WCW show, with a WCW roster and SmackDown would have become a WWF show with a WWF roster. New acquisitions would have been assigned a new show as needed, etc, and it’s possible a draft would have taken place every year as well. Once it became just “RAW” and “SmackDown,” with both operating under Vince’s banner, it felt artificial to have the two brands barely interacting.
A “soft” brand split, however, simply assigns each wrestler a show they work more often than not. They’re free to move over to the other show as needed but, for the most part, if you want to see a particular wrestler, and especially if you want to see him compete, it’s going to be on one of the two shows. This frees up space for more talent to be utilized. It’s no secret that AEW’s roster is overloaded with great talent. There are performers in the prime of their eventual Hall of Fame careers and performers just starting out on national TV who have all the potential and support in the world. Unfortunately, there are too many of both categories for everyone to be featured every week because, often, the same handful are featured twice a week, while some aren’t featured at all.
A soft brand-split allows for more talent to be featured more regularly. As it is now, if you don’t see Daniel Garcia this week, you might see him next week. If not, then you almost surely will the week after that. If you do, it might be a couple of weeks, maybe a month, before you see him again. At the same time, you can count on seeing Adam Cole just about every week. Personally, great as he is, I think Adam Cole is a bit overexposed right now. In a soft split, Adam Cole might, maybe, cut a 30-second backstage promo on Rampage hyping an upcoming match, while someone like Daniel Garcia would have time to compete. It wouldn’t hurt if Rampage started an hour early and moved to two hours, but that’s possibly out of the company’s hands.
It’s possible the ROH purchase might accomplish exactly what we need. It might give them the means to have a two-hour weekly show where Tony Khan’s AEW’s roster (there is no “ROH roster”) can be better and more consistently showcased. However it is implemented, a soft brand split put simply, allows the company’s large roster to be featured more regularly. Or, to put it another way, it allows for…
A FOCUS ON THE LOWER CARD
One of the things that set the Attitude Era apart was the fact that everyone had a storyline, a gimmick, a reason to be on TV, etc. The competition between WWE and WCW was so strong that the two sides analyzed not just the overall numbers and not just the numbers quarter-hour by quarter-hour, but segment by segment, moment by moment, to determine which performers were tuning people in or out. If you were on TV you had better have a good thing to offer viewers. You had to stand out. To that end, everyone had something to do.
That’s an aspect that has been lost in the twenty years since. AEW is lightyears better than WWE in this regard, I grant you, but they still could do a better job having well-developed stories separate from their top players. A soft brand split allows more wrestlers to have more TV time, but that doesn’t just mean more “wrestling” time. It means more opportunities for them to interact with other wrestlers, to have feuds with storylines, and segments that build and build to a payoff, either on PPV or in a much-hyped match.
Ratings are solid but not moving because there’s a core audience of “wrestling” fans who love good wrestling and, hoo boy, does Dynamite put on almost a PPV-quality show every week. What it’s missing, however, is more build-up, especially among the lower card, as a chance to get more performers over and get audience members invested in more storylines. It only takes a handful of people to gravitate toward one storyline for them to start tuning in every week when they might otherwise just catch the show every now and then. The more stories you tell the better. That’s what pro wrestling is. That’s the beauty of it. Yes, there are great “stories” told within a match, but the most engaging, mind-blowing, fan-remembering matches are the ones that payoff a story that took weeks to build.
Or, to put it another way, AEW might be better served with…
A LITTLE LESS WRESTLING
Sacrilege, I know, but hear me out.
I am not advocating for AEW to be more of a WWE-style “sports entertainment” show, with a plethora of skits taking up the runtime each week. WWE absolutely overdoes it on the skits, and the imbalance of wrestling action and “entertainment” segments is stupidly out of whack. That being said, a little variety makes for a well-seasoned show. Right now AEW Dynamite is 90% wrestling and 9% in-ring interviews/promos, 1% backstage shenanigans, and 0% fun skits. That 0% needs to move up to like 5-10%, even if that means the wrestling goes down to 85%. Considering how RAW is a three-hour show that has as much in-ring action as the one-hour Rampage, I don’t think anyone is going to accuse Tony Khan of trying to copy Vince McMahons penchant for promoting silliness.
That being said, last month, RAW ran a segment between Kevin Owens and E(zekiel)lias, in which the latter took a lie detector test to prove he really wasn’t the wrestler he most certainly is. It was a fun segment. It was also a segment that was, in my opinion, perfectly done on SmackDown in 2003, when Vince McMahon made Mr. America take a test to prove he was not Hulk Hogan. That segment’s highlight featured Mr. America shouting “I am not Hulk Hogan, brother!” and it was so cheesy and dumb that I laugh every time I think about it.
If you do ten of those skits a week, I will probably hate nine of them and end up hating the tenth because I’m in such a bad mood over the other nine. If you do one or two of them a week, you’re probably going to do a better job than what WWE would do (quality over quantity) and I will probably enjoy the change of pace in between the amazing wrestling action. It seems to me when Jericho and Kenny Omega were champs there were a lot more talking segments, skits, and non-wrestling segments on the show. Moxley’s reign was during the pandemic, so it’s understandable that a lot of that would have fallen by the wayside, and even Kenny’s reign came about in the latter stages of Covidmania. The Hangman Page era has been the first in front of packed houses week after week, and while the talent level has never higher for the company, the variety has never been lower.
A little change in the formula here and there might do some good.
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Make no mistake, AEW is hardly “in trouble.” There is a whole online community that seemingly only lives to try and hate on AEW. In my opinion, they’re a symptom of a larger problem:
WWE has ruined wrestling fandom.
Before AEW it was basically the defacto idea that to be a fan of mainstream pro wrestling you had to hate-watch it. The generally accepted statement was “wrestling usually sucks but when it’s good it’s great.”
Then along comes AEW and proves that wrestling doesn’t have to “usually suck.” In fact, it can usually be good-to-great, and occasionally amazing. I would argue AEW does something that “sucks” about as often as WWE ever does something that’s truly amazing. That’s not very often.
As a result, that sudden change in the marketplace completely broke the brains of some people who couldn’t accept that there could be a show they didn’t have to hate. They can’t love AEW because they don’t know how to love wrestling. They’ve never loved wrestling. They grew up in the post-Attitude era, when the product was niche and they couldn’t openly love it without being mocked. All they’ve known is hate-watching WWE, to the point where it has come to define their entire wrestling fandom and identity. So to hear about this non-WWE product whose fans openly talk about how much they love it is brain-braking. The more AEW fans talk about how much they love it, the more some WWE fans must play the role of the contrarian.
As a result of that, some AEW fans feel compelled to dismiss any criticism of the company, when in fact there are things to be improved. It’s a fantastic weekly product, and no PPV event has ever come close to disappointing, and the upside is still tremendous…but it’s not perfect. I love AEW. I support AEW. That’s why I want AEW to improve.
What do you think? Could AEW use a few tweaks to the on-screen product? What ideas do you have? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!