wrestling / Columns

AEW vs. WWE: The Balance Has Shifted

September 8, 2021 | Posted by Ian Hamilton
Wednesday AEW WWE NXT, Shane Douglash, AEW TV

For what feels like the first time in a quarter of a century, “mainstream” wrestling feels genuinely hot. Even if you’re not following along with every second of Dynamite, Rampage, Dark or Dark: Elevation, you’ll have had to be living under a rock to have missed the last few weeks’ of news.

CM Punk wrestling his first match in seven and a half years. Adam Cole popping up just two weeks after wrestling on a TakeOver. Ruby getting away from the Riott and resurfaced with a Rancid hit. Bryan Danielson making the move away from WWE after what’s felt like years of on-and-off teasing – and those are just the last three acquisitions, all within a three-week window that’s had AEW claim more headlines than not.

Yes, like most fandoms, wrestling is very tribal. A look at the comments section will tell you that! Yet in recent weeks, the groundswell of positive sentiment towards AEW has gone outside of the usual fan groups. Those recent arrivals have certainly tapped into lapsed fans of various degrees – whether it was those who paid scant attention to AEW, or those who’d checked out of the modern “mainstream” scene. Partially because WWE’s not had any legitimate competition since the late 90s – when WCW faded away before eventually being bought out. What we’re about to experience is going to be new to a lot of fans. Wrestlers letting their contracts expire. Wrestlers suddenly getting leverage – be it for extra pay, or knowing that they could have “more than the indies” as an option should that Twitch stream proves to be too much of a hurdle for your current employers. Bay Bay.

Now, here comes the part where I’ll be exposing myself as a hypocrite in this resurgence – we shouldn’t be looking for this in “monster ratings.”

As someone who had spent many a Thursday evening refreshing Twitter for the AEW vs. NXT ratings details, let me explain. We’re past the days of the “head to head” “war”, but the days of pro wrestling hitting the same kind of heights as they did in the late 90s (in terms of getting 7s and 8s in the Nielsen ratings) is likely some ways off. Simply put, the sheer volume of content available today that just wasn’t a thing back then. Sure, you had message boards and newsgroups (ask your parents) in place of modern day social media, but there wasn’t the massive variety of options for visual media: yes, there were other channels, but there certainly wasn’t the range we have today. There was no YouTube. There was no Netflix. No Prime Video. No Disney+. No TikTok. No WWE Network, HighSpots, IWTV, or anything like that – back when WWE and WCW were doing high numbers, if you didn’t like what was on TV, you had to dig out a VHS tape (again, ask your parents) or do something else. While what WWE has been saying about falling ratings is (for the most part) true, their numbers have been falling more than others…

While there’s one thing from the past we can’t lean on, there are perhaps some lessons from the past that we can either hold close or throw aside. Let’s throw out the main argument I’ve seen from tribe WWE – that “signing all of WWE’s old stars” ruins AEW. It’s all about the nuance – there’s a difference between what happened in TNA a decade or so ago, and what’s happening now. Sure, AEW’s bringing in guys from WWE’s very recent past (Christian, Danielson, Soho, Cole), but we’re not seeing some of the more egregious examples from TNA – anything comparable to (say) Otis coming in and beating Jungle Boy.

The one lesson from the past (and indeed, the present) that absolutely does need to be heeded, is that of overexposure. Throwing aside the YouTube shows, which a lot of us do, AEW’s currently producing three hours of TV a week between Dynamite and Rampage. At least while the company is still on the rise, that really needs to be the limit – remembering the mistakes of the past where WCW got really hot with Nitro, ended up getting a second show, then added a third hour, leading to straight up overexposure that played a role in WCW’s eventual demise.

So, I’m not saying “AEW’s got to be careful to avoid a doom spiral”, no more than I’d say that for any other company – just look at how quickly New Japan’s gone from being hot to hitting the doldrums. What I am saying is that for the first time in a lot of fans’ lifetimes, wrestling feels genuinely hot again. The lesser-invested fan (please, don’t use the C-word!) are taking notice, to the point where you’re starting to see AEW t-shirts pop up at indy shows, alongside the shirts du jour and whatever WWE tees are doing the rounds. For now, it’s a hotness that’s being contained in the US – but with talk of AEW looking to head over to do a show in Europe (specifically naming Craven Cottage as the venue – the home of Fulham Football Club, which I’m sure Tony Khan could sort out mates rates on booking fees for!), assuming the travel restrictions in this pandemic don’t stretch on for too much longer, that AEW-Fulham show would be a supremely hot ticket… and who knows what that could lead to.

AEW is about to enter their third year running, and have provided more of a sustained opposition than TNA ever did – for all of their weeks of 1.1 ratings back before streaming and what-have-you decimated TV numbers. Sure, there may be a slight speedbump coming in the new year when Dynamite changes channels, but considering that AEW’s cultured goodwill among their fanbase that’s almost unheard of in the current era, I wouldn’t expect that move to TBS to do too much damage in the long run. Can AEW last? Nothing lasts forever, but if you’re a fan of having an honest-to-God alternative product, and top level competition in the wrestling world, now is the time where you should be enjoying the fruits that are on display – regardless of which tribe you’re a part of.

article topics :

AEW, WWE, Ian Hamilton