Justin LaBar: WWE again grappling to remain pro wrestling’s top dog
For the first time since 2001, WWE will have weekly pro-wrestling competition live in prime time on a major television network.
Eighteen years ago, Vince McMahon’s WWE bought WCW. This ended an era known as the “Monday Night Wars,” when the two competed head-to-head beginning in 1995.
Eighteen years later, history is about to repeat and not without irony.
WWE beat WCW in 2001. Billionaire media mogul Ted Turner founded and owned WCW for the majority of its existence.
The new opposition to WWE is All Elite Wrestling (AEW) owned by billionaire Tony Khan.
The Khan family also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. sports franchises. Vince McMahon has built up his empire, with Forbes estimating his net worth to be around $3 billion. The Khans more than double that, coming in at over $7 billion.
AEW is expected to launch its weekly live broadcast in October on TNT. This is the same channel WCW’s weekly flagship show aired on. It’s rumored, but not confirmed, to be from 8 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays.
The Khans’ wrestling company already produced a handful of pay-per-view events and rallies stretching from Daytona, Fla., to Chicago to Las Vegas. Every event sold out in less than an hour and carried more buzz than the one before.
AEW’s momentum and fan base is growing, thanks to viewers wanting something different than what WWE has been providing. WWE’s viewership continues to decline.
According to Showbuzz Daily, in 2017 WWE averaged 3.018 million fans for “Monday Night RAW.” In 2018, the average dropped to 2.823 million. After 26 weeks in 2019, the average on Monday night is 2.513 million.
Despite the decreasing audience, WWE has found a way to monetize the most out of those still watching.
The brand never has been larger internationally, with a touring presence including two lucrative shows a year in Saudi Arabia. WWE has its own movie studio, WWE Films; its own streaming platform, WWE Network; and a five-year deal worth more than $1 billion to move one of its two weekly shows, “SmackDown,” to Fox in October.
Still, a significant number of fans have voted with their remotes or taken to social media to express a desperate thirst for a better creative product. For them, AEW has been a giant water bowl.
The refreshing taste is spreading to the fans and equally to those inside the business. AEW’s arrival is prompting veterans to take on familiar roles, even on the other side of the fence.
Jim Ross was a lead voice in the Monday Night Wars of the 1990s. He’s once again in the same lead role, but this time it’s against WWE. Ross was revealed as AEW’s lead play-by-play commentator.
Chris Jericho was one of the first big name talents who jumped to WWE in 1999. In January, after a 20-year relationship with WWE, he jumped to AEW as their first main event-caliber free agent signing.
The legendary Dusty Rhodes was a key figure behind the scenes for the majority of WCW’s existence battling WWE. His son and former WWE star, Cody Rhodes, is now one of AEW’s executive VPs.
During the Monday Night Wars, the man who led the day-to-day fight against McMahon was WCW Executive Producer Eric Bischoff. He is credited with the initiatives executed that beat WWE 83 consecutive weeks in the ratings, coming close to putting McMahon out of business.
Earlier this month, WWE announced it hired Bischoff as one of two executive creative directors. The other hire is Paul Heyman. He ran the third most popular company, ECW, that ultimately served as a feeder company of talent to WWE and WCW. Bischoff and Heyman will report directly to McMahon.
The competition in the ‘90s also resulted in evolution of contractual treatment of professional wrestlers. It appears that theme could carry over as a result of this 2019 competition.
Then, it was guaranteed contracts. WCW lured top WWE stars Kevin Nash and Scott Hall with an enormous amount of guaranteed money before they ever took a bump. In those times for WWE, it was still a play-to-get-paid structure. As a result of the tough competition, WWE eventually had to catch up to the treatment. Today, every talent on WWE’s roster has a downside guaranteed per year.
Now it seems the evolution of contracts could extend to the treatment of wrestlers like employees. WWE still identifies all of its talents as independent contractors, a fact that made the company the subject of a viral, scathing, sarcastic 20-plus minute monologue by HBO’s John Oliver.
AEW is showing willingness to label wrestlers as employees and offer benefits, such as health insurance, that traditionally come with that status. Jericho confirmed publicly he is an AEW employee.
The irony and timing continues as Tony Khan is expanding from pro football ownership to pro wrestling while McMahon is going in the opposite direction.
In 2001, Vince launched the XFL. It folded after its inaugural year. Coming in February 2020, XFL 2.0 launches. It’s an endeavor McMahon already has invested more than $500 million of his own money into.
Curiosity regarding McMahon’s financial and inevitable time commitment to the XFL already is running high among fans and workers. Equally as curious is the question of whether an outside project taking away some of McMahon’s focus would be a benefit for WWE.
McMahon, almost 74, has been called out by more than one of his former wrestlers/employees in recent months, being labeled as the root of WWE’s struggles when it comes to compelling and new creative stories. McMahon constantly is recognized as a workaholic but also portrayed as stubborn.
And why wouldn’t he be stubborn?
He gambled his own money on “WrestleMania” several times, and it’s now one of the highest annual revenue sport or entertainment events in the world. It trails the Super Bowl but leads the World Series.
He beat the government in a steroid trial.
He’s beat one billionaire in competition already.
He took his family-owned private company public on the New York Stock Exchange.
That’s a lot of success for a man following his gut.
History shows WWE conquered WCW for two reasons.
The first is WCW fell victim to Time Warner merging with AOL. Ted Turner’s control of WCW wasn’t the same, and new executives had no interest in having WCW in their portfolio.
The second reason was WCW’s weekly pressure forced WWE to be better. It did, and it resulted in its best business up to that point.
Khan is a lifelong wrestling fan who’s filthy rich with his own company that’s off to a roaring start. A loss of interest or power via merger seems unlikely any time soon.
So history tells us if WWE wants to maintain its top spot, it’s all on the brass, and they’re on the clock.