By Chuck Carroll
(CBS Miami/CBS Local) — You only get one chance to make a first impression.
So, congratulations, All Elite Wrestling. Your coming-out party was one that will not soon be forgotten. From fireworks to surprises to bombshell announcements, AEW’s Double Or Nothing rally was everything it needed to be and more.
The wrestling landscape is crowded, seemingly too crowded for a new kid on the block to find any semblance of large scale success. Moreover, after a multi-year run of steady growth and surging popularity, there are signs that the independent wrestling boom is slowing considerably.
On a larger scale, television ratings and viewership continue to circle the drain for WWE, as both have repeatedly set record lows in recent months. Attendance figures are also slumping badly.
Elsewhere, just 12 months ago Ring of Honor appeared to be on track to eventually challenge WWE’s throne. It would have taken a number of years, but the upward trajectory was there. At the very least, it seemed reasonable to conclude the promotion’s popularity could reach a level on par with the original incarnation of ECW.
ROH did reportedly set a live attendance record in 2018, but much of that success can be attributed to strong gates and a run of sellouts during the first half of the year. But the number of empty seats spiked as the months ticked by.
Then there was also intangible feeling that independent wrestling had gotten as big as it was going to get. Worldwide, Bullet Club had grown white hot, and t-shirts featuring The Young Bucks and Cody were flying off store shelves like John Cena gimmicks at an all-children’s show. The payoff for the intra-faction feud between Cody and Kenny Omega was the largest live gate in ROH history, as 5,900 fans filled the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans to watch them battle on the eve of WrestleMania.
But once Cody had his rand raised in triumph, ROH and its fans were left to ask “where to from here.”
The answer: a joint show with New Japan Pro Wrestling at Madison Square Garden on WrestleMania weekend in 2019. Without announcing a single bout, all of the roughly 15,000 tickets to the world’s most famous arena sold out in short order.
With all the tickets scooped up, the same question presented itself: where to from here?
The answer: All-In in Chicago.
Opting to test the waters of promoting a show for themselves, The Elite sold out the 10,000-seat Sears Center in Chicago in minutes, besting the blistering pace set just months earlier by ROH. The show was viewed as the biggest non-WWE event in the U.S. since the demise of WCW almost two decades ago.
Again the question again was asked: where to from here?
In an election year, fans were voting with their wallets and TV remotes and wrestling was losing in a landslide. Eventually, WWE would hit the panic button by promising wholesale sweeping changes in an effort to appease a disgruntled and shrinking fan base.
While many viewed this as an uncorrectable tailspin, members of The Elite were quietly in the background just biding their time. They were formulating a plan and counting down until their contracts with Ring of Honor expired at the end of the year. And what a plan it was.
Thanks to generous funding from Shad Khan, the billionaire owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC of the Premiere Soccer League, the “where to” question would be answered.
What occurred Tuesday in Jacksonville was the most impressive debut of a wrestling promotion in decades. It was evident that the event was constructed of equal parts creative planning and the money to pull it off. And from all appearances, it is bringing back a decent amount of fans who recently checked out of sports entertainment.
Thus far, Khan and The Elite are off to a heck of a start. It a shrewd and calculated move, the heavily attended rally, just a stone’s throw from where WWE was holding a live SmackDown taping. It shows AEW executives mean business and were anxious to fire the first shot in a new sports entertainment war. Then there were the less-than-subliminal jabs at WWE’s operations, as Cody vowed AEW fans wouldn’t be puppets told who they could and couldn’t cheer for. The competition won’t admit it, but the message has undoubtedly been received.
Much of AEW’s business model remains a mystery for now. But can it keep the momentum going without a single show on the calendar until Memorial Day weekend? It’s also unclear whether there are plans for weekly television or whether the promotion will rely solely on a handful of large events each year. The latter presents a particularly challenging road in an era when fans are used to being super-served content. WWE alone produces 8,000 hours of content annually that’s viewed in 180 countries, while other notable competitors average an hour or two each week.
Time will tell whether they can compete without a consistent product, but let’s take a look at the weapons they have in the AEW toolbox to help fan the flames of interest as the build to Double Or Nothing ramps up.
Chris Jericho: The appearance of the future Hall of Famer was by far the biggest surprise of the rally. And in securing Y2J, AEW has their franchise player. The man whom they can build around and can lean on heavily to attract new fans. His biggest asset may be the fact that he can lure casual WWE fans over to sample the AEW product. Remember, the majority of the WWE Universe watch that product exclusively and aren’t familiar with any talents who haven’t appeared on RAW or SmackDown.
The other big thing is that Jericho is genuinely excited to help grow the brand and has promised that he’s in AEW for the long haul.
PAC (aka Neville): Although not on the same level as Jericho, the former WWE Cruiserweight Champion also can introduce the WWE Universe to this new wrestling alternative. And the 32-year-old English grappler carries a large amount of weight with independent wrestling fans, having carved out a name for himself on that circuit long before signing with Vince McMahon in 2012.
Britt Baker: She doesn’t have the same name value as Jericho or PAC, but Dr. Britt Baker is who AEW’s women’s division will be built around. And it’s a wise decision. If you’re not yet familiar, she is a pro wrestler by night and a real-life Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry by day. She is someone who we all can look up to.
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No Gender Pay Gap: AEW’s Chief Brand Officer, Brandi Rhodes, vowed that there would be no gender pay gap in the new promotion. Pay will be based on relevant experience and the overall value the talent brings to the table. She clarified her statement on Twitter, doubling down on the promise.
WWE has previously faced criticism for reported large disparities in pay between male and female talent, even after the Women’s Revolution was well underway.
Handsome Compensation: Cody also promised that all AEW wrestlers will be well compensated. This isn’t necessarily going to attract fans, but it will help attract top-tier talent. If Khan is truly willing to open his coffers, he could become the modern day “ATM Eric.” That nickname was bestowed upon Eric Bischoff who was known for signing wrestlers to incredibly generous offers (even those who didn’t deserve it) during his time running WCW.
Timing: Despite the fact that Double Or Nothing is still five months away, the timing of the first show can still work in AEW’s favor. It comes roughly a month after WrestleMania, when overall interest in wrestling is still higher than usual. It will be interesting to see how the smart marketers tap into that wave.
Indeed, there is plenty for the marketing team to work with, and there will be more announcements of talent signings in the coming weeks, as the roster is rounded out.
There’s also still one other major unanswered question: will Kenny Omega be part of AEW or did WWE make him an offer he couldn’t refuse? That’s the ultimate storyline to follow.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.