Prior to WWE expanding nationally in 1983, there were 30-some pro wrestling promotions scattered across North America. Each had its own TV show, troupe of performers and schedule of events.
It was quaint and decidedly local. But it worked.
After 1983, wrestling hit a peak in the mid- and late-’90s when the Monday night TV war between WWE and World Championship Wrestling exploded. But WCW flamed out like a supernova. It was bought and folded by WWE in 2001.
Since then: ZZZZZzzzzz…
WWE (including WWE-owned farm-team promotion NXT) isn’t the only game in town but has no real competition save a few little engines that could (can’t) like Ring of Honor and Impact Wrestling. The resulting lack of pressure has made WWE creatively stale.
WWE lacks mega-stars besides part-timer Brock Lesnar, and even Lesnar is nowhere near the level The Rock and Steve Austin reached.
WWE thrives financially thanks to big-money TV deals, incredible revenue for mega-shows like WrestleMania and its semi-annual events in Saudi Arabia, phenomenal merchandising and a fan base that is shrinking but spends more per capita than ever.
But WWE TV ratings hit record lows recently. Their arena show business is picayune. Even their TV events don’t always sell out.
Fewer people watch wrestling in North America than ever before.
This doesn’t seem like the time to start a new wrestling promotion.
But All Elite Wrestling nonetheless debuts Saturday at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena with its “Double or Nothing” pay-per-view.
AEW is the brainchild of wrestlers Cody Rhodes (son of the legendary Dusty) and The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson).
Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega are the top stars and will main-event Saturday. Jericho, 48, has established himself as one of wrestling’s top names over the past three decades. He signed a three-year deal which he says is the most lucrative of his career.
The Khan family provides the bankroll. They also own the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and English soccer’s Fulham FC.
You know how to make a small fortune in wrestling? Start out with a large fortune.
The Khans are wrestling fans, which often works out to a backer’s detriment. Shrewd investors or money marks? Time will tell.
AEW will air a weekly live prime-time TV show on TNT starting this fall. The irony is thick: TNT and TBS killed WCW in 2001 by dropping the promotion’s TV shows, chasing off buyers who wanted to keep WCW alive and enabling WWE to purchase WCW for pennies on the dollar.
But now, 18 years later, wrestling is back on TNT. The stench must have faded.
AEW coalesced via social media, specifically The Young Bucks’ “Being The Elite” series on YouTube, which has been the biggest promotional vehicle for “Double or Nothing.”
“Double or Nothing” sold out almost immediately after tickets went on sale. That accomplishment seems grandiose, but the internet has spawned thousands of wrestling superfans who travel to big shows (the trendier, the better).
Packing the house for “Double or Nothing” was easy compared to what it will take to draw a sufficient weekly audience on TV, let alone sell tickets to house shows.
AEW plans to tailor its product more along the lines of legitimate sports, utilizing statistics, standings and won-lost records. That sounds good in theory, but no one thinks pro wrestling is legit. Kayfabe died long ago. It’s a drama-based product now, with in-ring athleticism the primary sidebar.
AEW will have plenty of the latter. Besides the established names, keep an eye on Sammy Guevara, 25. All he has ever lacked is TV.
But how do you keep stats in pro wrestling? Will somebody lead AEW in bumps or near-falls? How do numbers have any validity?
AEW’s creative leadership is still murky. “Double or Nothing” hit a speed bump when the bout between “Hangman” Page and PAC (formerly Neville in WWE) got canceled. PAC was hesitant to lose matches in AEW because he holds a championship in Japan that no one’s ever heard of.
What. A. Mark.
Can AEW create stars? Jericho is their only truly established name. Omega is a legend in Japan but will that translate to casual fans? Cody Rhodes was a mid-card performer in WWE. He deserved better, but that’s what he got. The Young Bucks are a great package but have never been in U.S. wrestling’s big time.
The Khans and TNT give AEW unheard-of credibility and backing for a start-up. TNT is paying production costs, so the network will be invested.
If a wrestling company beside WWE is to ever again achieve prominence in America, it’s AEW.
It’s an electric time for wrestling. Now or never is an exciting concept.