Did AEW Miss The Boat?

Similar to more or less any major promotion in the history of professional wrestling, there are positives and negatives to each national organization today. The Attitude era in the WWF was the hottest product during the hottest period in the history of the business. There are several iconic moments that defined the narrative of the sport during the late-90s. Stone Cold Steve Austin became the biggest star in the history of the industry and record-setting ratings were generated. At the same time, there was a lot of mid-card drek, most of which was scripted by Vince Russo, that didn’t age well and in retrospect proves that not everything was gold among the wave of popularity. World Championship Wrestling had an amazing array of talent and was the only organization to put Vince McMahon on the ropes, but it also fell off a cliff to an embarrassing degree so Vince bought it for pennies on the dollar. Total Nonstop Action…enough said.

The point being, no organization is perfect, but the ability to make the most of the asset they had was ultimately what defined the narrative of the company. When the WWF had Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and The Rock on the roster at the same time, the correct decisions were made so millions of fans watched Raw every week. Eric Bischoff was able to offer enough cash for Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to jump to WCW, and the NWO became one of the most popular factions of all time. Bill Goldberg was very inexperienced, but he was presented in a fashion that made me a mega star, albeit for a relatively short run.

All Elite Wrestling had one of those critical opportunities and unfortunately, the story that unfolded since that time shows that they missed the boat.

At the All Out pay-per-view in September 2021, Bryan Danielson, who worked Wrestlermania earlier that year and was one of the most popular WWE stars of the modern era, as well as one of the best in-ring workers of his generation, made his surprise debut for the company. The same night, Adam Cole also showed up in AEW. Cole, a former NXT champion, was regarded as a tremendous talent that had main event potential, but the rumor mill suggested that Vince McMahon saw him as a manager on the main roster. In just one night, Tony Khan had one of the most popular stars, with the signing of Danielson, and a superb talent in the prime of his career for the addition of Cole. Let’s not forget, less than a month earlier, CM Punk returned to professional wrestling for the first time in seven years when he inked a deal.

Within the span of just a few weeks, Tony Khan added two of the most popular stars of the modern era, and one of the best young in-ring workers to the roster.

This should’ve set the foundation for All Elite Wrestling’s expansion to become a more competitive option for fans within the sports entertainment genre. As we know, that didn’t happen, because for a variety of reasons, many of those that were discussed in the past, Tony found a way to either mismanage of minimize the assets that he had. Upon his arrival, Adam Cole wasn’t slated for the main event scene, but rather became secondary in a stable in The Young Bucks and worked a mid-card feud with Orange Cassidy. Danielson’s early tenure in the organization saw him wrestle Adam Page, who was portrayed as a whiny baby face during his title reign, to a draw for the championship before he also was camouflaged in the Blackpool Combat Club stable. There was a time frame, particular during the series of matches with Page, that Bryan Danielson was the best heel in the business, but very little was done to capitalize on it. The CM Punk debacle exposed not only the lack of professionalism from the supposed EVPs, but also the complete mismanagement from Tony Khan. The biggest money possible at the time would’ve been CM Punk vs. The Elite, but it was well-documented that The Elite refused to work with him. The talent doesn’t have to be friends to draw money, and if The Elite wanted to draw money for the organization, they wouldn’t let their personal grudge determine their business decisions. That’s one of the responsibilities of being an EVP of a company, they should make the best choices for the company, not just themselves.

The most recent Dynamite rating might suggest that the promotion has a clearly defined ceiling for their audience.

As we know, Will Ospreay’s main event bout saw a decline in ratings with 779,000 viewers a few weeks ago. Okada made his surprise debut as a full-time talent on that show, but since it wasn’t announced, the sluggish number wasn’t a reflection on him. Mercedes Mone’s surprise appearence two weeks, which was hinted, but never confirmed drew just 801,000 viewers. Again, that number can only be considered to a certain extent since Mone’s appearence wasn’t advertised.

However, last week would be the opportunity to see how much of an impact both Okada and Mone bring to the table because by this point, wrestling fans know they will be on the show since it was known that they arrived in the company. Furthermore, the show itself was somewhat stacked with Okada vs. Eddie Kingston, Samoa Joe defending the title against Wardlow, and Adam Copeland vs. Christian in an I Quit match.

The episode drew just 800,000 viewers, a slight dip from the previous week, indicating that either the company should’ve booked these stars better, promoted better, or the fans simply aren’t as invested in the product as they were a few years ago. As a comparison, when the previously mentioned CM Punk was on the roster, the ratings were usually around a million viewers. Now, the numbers are generally around the 800,000 viewers that the show garnered last week so there was roughly a 20% decline in TV viewership. The diehard All Elite fan base might try to defend it, or Dave Meltzer might attempt to spin the narrative with 82 stars for the matches at the most recent pay-per-view, but the bottom line is, a noticeable portion of the AEW audience has eroded during the past two years.

There’s not one specific reason for it, but rather a series of fumbles that brought All Elite to this point, as far as the perception of the product among wrestling fans. As we’ve discussed, when an alternative product launched in 2019, there was a level of good will with the audience because Tony Khan wanted to spark the industry, and fans wanted other options outside of the WWE to be successful, especially because the business had become so stagnant. When the novelty of a new organization wore off, the company had to stand on its substance, and that yielded very mixed results. The slapstick approach was disjointed and most of the time counterproductive to the quality of the product. Tony Khan gave away more wrestling contracts than Oprah gave away cars, and as a result, a portion of the roster is in the witness protection program in terms of exposure since the only main event spot they have is at catering every week. Along with that, there are a lot of names on the roster, but I’m not sure that automatically translates to depth on it. With a few exceptions, almost everyone on the show is kept at relatively the same level. If you try to get everyone over then nobody truly gets over. There are several guys that are very talented, but don’t get the regular TV exposure to be established as anything more than just another name on the roster. The Ring Of Honor purchase didn’t bring its library with hundreds of hours of footage as the foundation of an All Elite streaming service, it allowed Tony Khan to play Shane McMahon from the Nitro segment years ago. It goes without saying that the continued involvement of ROH belts on AEW programming is convoluted and rather silly, does anyone care who any of the ROH championships are outside of the world title?

As far as booking troupes, guys like Matt Taven and Mike Bennett, both talented athletes, went from being in lame comedy skits for months to a part of what should be considered a dangerous faction for the Undisputed Kingdom. These guys were cannon fodder and are supposed to be considered important in the span of a week? Wardlow had all the potential you’d want to see in a prospect, but as mentioned prior, he always ends up in the same position so it looks like the fans don’t buy him being anything more than that, which was proven when the title match against Joe didn’t draw bigger ratings. In a similar fashion, the Adam Cole reveal went on too long and was underwhelming.

Basically, the fans have seen All Elite Wrestling for what it is, Tony Khan’s vanity project that his family bought for him so that he can play Vince McMahon, and if there happens to be good wrestling in the process then that’s great, but AEW isn’t viewed as the next great alternative. The fans have seen that Tony had the chance to do things right when WWE missed the boat, but his results were just as underwhelming. Adam Cole is a prime example of this type of scenario. Furthermore, the bizarre rants on social media and cringe worth stuff at the press conference after the pay-per-views send the message that All Elite is more about Tony getting the chance to be friends with the wrestlers than anything else.

Finally, this is all very disappointing because it would be great to see All Elite be as successful as possible, but the structure and the management skills to maximize the opportunities for the organization aren’t there. CM Punk and Adam Cole weren’t nearly as successful as they should’ve been after All Out in 2022. Bryan Danielson should’ve been more successful than he was, but the stellar matches he had was an example of his tremendous talent, not Tony’s booking style. It’s very frustrating because there was a chance for All Elite to be a lot more than what it is, especially because it was such a rare combination of factors that led to its launch in 2019. Tony signing every major free agent isn’t the solution because talent on the roster isn’t the problem, the booking philosophy to maximize what the talent brings to the table is the problem.

Sure, Ospreay is going to have great matches, similar to Bryan Danielson, but will he be put in a situation that makes the most of it? Okada is booked in a stable with The Young Bucks the same way, Adam Cole was upon his arrival. Mercedes Mone is very talented, but the AEW women’s division is almost always in disarray. Perhaps, the perception of All Elite, with its series of fumbles as a promotion, is why the numbers plateaued. If you mentioned the potential of Ospreay, Okada, and Mone joining All Elite at some point two years ago, it’s doubtful that many would’ve thought it would actually have a decrease in ratings.Granted, in 1995 nobody would’ve guessed that WCW would’ve become the number one show on cable by 1997, but there’s absolutely no indication that there’s going to be a major boost for AEW in the future for the company.

What do you think? Share your thoughts, opinions, feedback, and anything else that was raised on Twitter @PWMania and Facebook.com/PWMania.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

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