The Nepotism Of AEW

(Photo Credit: AEW)

Nepotism is unavoidable in pro wrestling, it’s often woven into the fabric of the industry because those that are spotlighted are chosen by the office for their roles. Bruno might’ve (allegedly) took the title from Buddy Rogers, but he didn’t compete in nearly 12 years of legitimate bouts over the course of two reigns to keep the championship. Favor jobs are a part of the industry, and that’s not always a negative. Older veterans were often given a reduced role in the WWF in the 80s as a show of respect for what they contributed to the promotion in their prime. There was an MSG show from 1986 (not sure if it’s on Peacock, but was available on the WWE 24/7 on-demand service from years ago) where Pedro Morales squared off against Bob Orton, and the crowd was thrilled to see the aging legend in the ring again. Sure, it was a mid-card bout where Orton bumped all over the place for the former champion, but it still had entertainment value.

There are numerous stories from the territories when someone was given a spot in a preliminary match as either a way to break into the business, or for the veteran in the latter stages of their career that could use the payoff. Plus, you can’t blame bookers and promoters for using the crew that they are familiar and comfortable with, that’s just the nature of the business, especially when that promoter wanted to maximize the box office, they usually went with the safe bet.

Obviously, we know that nepotism can also be negative enough to destroy organizations, too.

Many of Hulk Hogan’s friends kept a job in WCW for no other reason than he enjoyed his entourage at events. How many gimmicks did Ed Leslie have? Bubba The Love Sponge on TNA programming is one of the bleakest moments in the history of the business. Favor jobs are one thing, but if personal agendas dictate too many business decisions, it has a much bigger impact on the organization.

So, I wasn’t surprised when many friends of The Elite were signed to All Elite Wrestling when the organization launched nearly five years ago. On one hand, that talent, specifically from the independent circuit, were the wrestlers that most of the EVPs were familiar with so if they saw talent on a smaller local card, it makes sense to at least consider if those competitors had the ability to become stars for the new project. On the other hand, success on a relatively small independent show doesn’t automatically translate to the stage of national television. In many ways, it’s apples to oranges, and while it wasn’t necessarily nefarious, when The Young Bucks made suggestions to Tony Khan for potential talent to sign, were they honestly qualified to determine who would be a good fit for national TV? Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful when an aspiring hopeful lands a national contract with a chance to live their dream as a major star, but that doesn’t mean that the wrestler was truly ready or experienced enough for such a stage. Furthermore, The Young Bucks, as talented as they are, and as accomplished as they became when they were able to cultivate the support that led to the formation of AEW, the only TV experience they had was strictly as performers early in their careers with TNA and eventual ROH. Again, and this isn’t a knock on their talent, but just a realistic approach to the situation, did The Young Bucks or really any of the other EVPs have the experience to make decisions for a national company?

That’s not to say that AEW never had a chance to skyrocket, because it did, and unfortunately, that time frame probably concluded a few years ago, but rather that the turn over of talent, especially given the inexperience of many involved, was just a part of the industry. Marko Stunt is probably a great kid, and he had a chance to appear on TNT. Good for him, and nobody can take that away from him, but was he truly ready for the major leagues when he signed an AEW contract? He wasn’t the next Rey Mysterio, and comparisons to such at the time to attempt to justify his presence on television were almost unfair to him. The visual of opponents taking bumps for him was comically bad, as he looked like a young skateboarder from the X Games, not a pro wrestler. He just didn’t have the in-ring ability to make his work look anything close to entertaining or believable, especially for a TBS audience.

On the flip side, Joey Janela is someone that has talent, has a fan base, and got himself in good shape prior to his All Elite exit. Janela’s talent just isn’t suited for main stream pro wrestling, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Sure, AEW wasn’t the place for him, but if he can flourish and make a living on the independent scene, where he can get the most from his character then he found a level of success. As much as some WWE documentaries might suggest otherwise, a national promotion isn’t the only barometer of success for a performer.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised at the recent departures from AEW, mostly from those within the production side of the organization.

Keep in mind, All Elite Wrestling launched as a startup company with a core group of people behind it, which is a great narrative as a few aspiring individuals wanted to take a chance to spark the industry, with the corporate machine of WWE as the opponent. At the very least, the entrepreneurial ambition was admirable. If the concept flopped, Cody would’ve almost proved WWE management right with their assumption that he was just a mid-card guy, The Young Bucks would’ve been labeled as just high spot indy darlings, Chris Jericho would’ve been considered desperate to stay relevant so he hitched his wagon to an unproven concept, and critics would’ve claimed that Kenny Omega could only get over in Japan.

As we know, that didn’t happen, but it’s important to remember that once the novelty of a new product wore off, the substances of the organization was going to have to continue to give the fans a reason to invest their time and money into the product. We also know that part of the equation has yielded mixed results in the past few years. As a standard disclaimer, no that doesn’t mean that All Elite Wrestling is going to fold, AEW will continue to exist as long as the Khan family wants to fund it. However, I think it’s fair to say that All Elite is in danger of being typecast as a secondary organization, somewhat similar to the position that TNA was pigeon-holed into for the majority of its existence during the Dixie Carter era.

For AEW, the entrepreneurial ambition was a great way to start. but the DIY approach doesn’t apply to a national promotion with a live weekly touring schedule, TV, and pay-per-view. This is big business with millions of dollars on the line, the amateur hour strategy of packing t-shirt orders in the living room or formatting the line-up for an indy show is well below the standard of what is needed for the second biggest pro wrestling organization in the United States.

A prime example of this was the departure of Dana Massie, the wife of Matt Jackson, from the merchandise department, and according to The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, her decision to leave was based on how the company handled the CM Punk/Young Bucks altercation, specifically that the company didn’t defend the EVPs publicly. I actually met The Young Bucks at a Ring Of Honor show in 2017 and they were very polite. I’m sure Dana Massie is a nice lady and probably tried her best in her role with the company. However, if she wasn’t married to Matt Jackson, would she have really been the head of merchandise for All Elite Wrestling? Outside of packing mail orders from The Bucks’ indy days, what qualifications did she have to run the department?

Keep in mind, the AEW merchandise, both in distribution and production has been notoriously subpar in recent years. It was common on social media for fans to post that when they attended All Elite TV tapings, very few t-shirts or other merchandise was available at stands in the arena. Remember, the true professionals have a way to gauge how many shirts, what sizes, and what designs are usually some of the better sellers so that each live event has a proper stock of merchandise. There are analytics involved to be able to maximize the amount of revenue that can be generated at the merch stands at live events. Sure, it’s an impulse buy, but it can add to the overall live event experience. A few AEW logo t-shirts, without any specific wrestler merchandise is just half-hazard attempt at the venture. On the flip side, when the WWE ran Maidson Square Garden last week, there were four different CM Punk t-shirt designs alone, in addition to all the usual WWE merchandise. Again, this isn’t some amateur hour guessing game about how many t-shirts to bring to the shows, there are analytics to establish a general estimate of how many t-shirts are usually stocked for live events. Plus, the WWE takes the extra step of selling exclusive live event merchandise for specific events.

The notion that fans can just “order from Pro Wrestling Tees” is silly. Their business model is print on-demand so they don’t have to keep any extra stocks. That way, none of their materials are used unless it’s specifically for a sell, and that’s a very efficient business model. It completely makes sense for a small business to keep its costs at a minimum to be able to maximize profit. For the myriad of independent talent or retired legends, it’s a great option to be able to make a few extra dollars on merchandise. But some local yokel in a print shop in Chicago trying to send out potentially hundreds or thousands of orders for All Elite Wrestling just isn’t realistic. Quite simply, the merchandise requirements for a national organization are above the pay grade of a individual small business in Chicago.

As far as Dana Massie’s exit, if she didn’t want to work for the company, that’s understandable, but it should be an opportunity for Tony Khan to get a professional merchandising group to upgrade the department for the organization. Furthermore, if she was unsatisfied with how the company handled the backstage fight, she should keep the situation in perspective, it’s a business, and Tony Khan is paying The Young Bucks top money to work for his company. The ability to make the most money possible is what matters, not personal disputes. QT Marshal also left, and was primarily writing formats for the organization before his departure. Similar to the merch situation, did QT have any experience formatting scripts for a national promotion? Aside from working at Cody’s training school, did QT have any qualifications? Granted, the reason reported for QT’s exit was that he wanted to continue to wrestle, and he has the right to pursue that, but again, this should be a chance for Khan to hire someone with experience to better format the shows, especially when the timing of the TV broadcast are usually botched for Dynamite.

There were some other departures from the organization within the production side of things, and if that leads to an upgrade then it was a good decision, which isn’t a criticism of the prior production group, but rather to point out that the product should continue to evolve. In a similar fashion, the structure of the organization should continue to evolve with a better standard across the board. Again, nepotism is to be expected, but keep that to a C-level show like Rampage. If All Elite Wrestling is going to continue to be a force in the industry, instead of being typecast as a vanity project, this year should be when the amateur hour stuff is discarded for a more professional approach to attempt to maximize revenue for the organization.

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Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

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