Editorial: After five years, the biggest questions surrounding AEW still remain

Photo Courtesy: AEW

AEW returns for two nights in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena starting with Collision followed by Double or Nothing. It represents the fifth anniversary of the promotion’s inaugural event and an easy reflection point on the highs and lows of its existence. The addition of a true alternative with national television has been a beacon for the North American industry, specifically allowing performers true leverage when it comes to contract negotiations and having an option that is willing to spend. The floor has been raised significantly for the top-tier talent and there are so many more full-time positions in the industry. 

The key for AEW was distribution with an immediate deal with WBD to present two hours of prime-time wrestling on Wednesdays on TNT.  The first deal was a modest one, which had the benefit of production costs being covered by the network while AEW was fueled with an insatiable demand. In two weeks, AEW launched on TNT while NXT moved from the WWE Network to the USA Network (with a two-week head start) and SmackDown moved to Fox as fans had four nights of professional wrestling on cable and broadcast television between the two companies. 

What no one anticipated was a worldwide pandemic that would shut down live event touring and place pro wrestling in a unique scenario to continue producing fresh content. While a lack of representation for talents made such an option easier than the NFL, NBA, or another major sports league with a union/association, the reality is that this could have sunk AEW.  

The prime factor was AEW receiving a new deal in January just before the shutdown for approximately $44 million per year and allowing the company to go one year with little or no paying customers at live shows. Second, was having its own building at Daily’s Place to stage shows, a benefit that WWE and UFC also benefited from through their Performance Center and Apex facilities. 

AEW aired a product with a wide range of styles, performers, and breaking many norms ingrained by twenty years of WWE programming that was taught to its fanbase as “the right way” and made for friction among some when AEW deviated. 

There has probably never been a wrestling company under a closer analytical assessment than AEW where every decision feels like a declaration on the state of the company. With five years of operations, there is plenty to praise and a fair amount to criticize but the achievements greatly outrank the miscalculations. 

The fact this company secured such an upgrade in its television deal just months into existence is an achievement no one outside of WWE has managed when television rights fees are the industry’s lifeblood. Whether it is TNA, Billy Corgan, Global Force Wrestling, Lucha Underground, or MLW, none of these entities have been able to score that game-changer of a deal or show evidence that there was a trickle-down effect from the huge monies earmarked for WWE programming. 

The company greatly overachieved with its television performance while incrementally increasing its pay-per-view output – still relying on a method that no one outside of UFC is consistently succeeding with – paying for the biggest shows on pay-per-view. 

The story of AEW is impossible to tell without the key people involved in the launch with Tony Khan, Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and Chris Jericho, with Jon Moxley to follow. 

It was an incredible series of events with so many talents having their contracts come due and someone in Jericho, who underwent a career revival going to New Japan Pro Wrestling and becoming a legitimate difference-maker and understanding his worth outside of WWE. For years, he professed loyalty to Vince McMahon and never wrestled for another other than McMahon. He went to NJPW and massaged his stance to never work for the opposition in the U.S., then he appeared at All In September 2018 and signed with the upstart months later. Jericho gave McMahon the ability to hold onto him, was wished well by AEW and of course, asked Jericho if he could get out of the AEW deal after giving his blessing. Jericho was instrumental in year one as the best option as its top title-holder even though it was met with criticism when he beat Hangman Page to become the inaugural champion. 

Moxley’s appearance at the first Double or Nothing represented another bullet in the chamber and someone who totally reinvented himself post-WWE and made ‘Dean Ambrose’ a distant memory. 

The people under the greatest scrutiny were Khan, Rhodes, the Bucks & Omega, along with the letters E-V-P. With these titles it was presented closer to a co-op with talent running the company, Khan being the overseer, and touting the absence of writers and declaring a clear distinction from the industry leader. It was the right message, at the right time, with the right people as fan sentiment toward WWE was eroding weekly. 

However, the individuals became easy targets for every booking decision, their own on-screen representations, and culminating with a December 18, 2019, show-closing angle with The Elite attacked by the Dark Order. It was the one time that NXT defeated Dynamite in the 18-49 demographic during the eighteen-month “Wednesday Night War”. 

Khan has spoken many times about using the holiday break of 2019 to rearrange the pecking order to take a more “hands-on” approach and become the clearcut leader on creative. 

2020 was a struggle for all wrestling companies but the end result was WWE and AEW maintaining their requirements to their broadcast partners and being paid while producing content under the toughest of circumstances. 

Post-pandemic was a new chapter for AEW, and the next phase of the company surrounded the individual that Khan wanted from day one with Phil Brooks a.k.a. CM Punk. 

One of the best promotions in the company’s history was selling out the United Center without mentioning the name CM Punk but doing everything from a wink, a nod, and a Darby Allin promo to ensure the audience would be satisfied. It produced one of the greatest moments in the company’s history as Punk walked onto a wrestling program for the first time in seven years and marked his return. 

For the next two years, you could not describe AEW without invoking CM Punk’s name. On-screen, Punk appeared to be having the time of his life from unique matches with Darby Allin, Powerhouse Hobbs, Dax Harwood, an incredible program with MJF, teaming with Sting at the Greensboro Coliseum, and drawing a $1 million gate for Double or Nothing in 2022 with Hangman Page. However, the wheels were getting loose and would ultimately fall off while the Khan clung to the belief that everything was fine as the locker room was imploding through turmoil that played out online and in public through press conferences.

It has been litigated to death in public, but the issues were handled poorly on multiple fronts. There is no consensus between the parties on the handling of Colt Cabana’s contract, which was coming due in 2022. He eventually was assigned to Ring of Honor. Punk denied any nefarious interference regarding his ex-friend, with Khan publicly backing Punk. 

A perceived “double cross” during a promo segment with Page led to Punk using the same platform to call out an unsuspecting Page on live television. This should have been the “crossing the Rubicon” moment of a talent using television real estate for a receipt. All roads led to the All Out press conference in 2022 and the subsequent backstage brawl involving Punk with members of The Elite, ending with NDAs signed and Khan playing a game of metaphorical “Twister” to appease all parties and keep his stars under the AEW roof. 

With the addition of Collision in June 2023, it felt like an ideal separation for the divided parties with Punk assigned to Collision, and with it, came reported ground rules going so far as to remove Christopher Daniels (head of talent relations) from attending the shows on Saturdays. 

Punk’s rope ran out after a physical altercation at All In in August – a night that should be the most celebrated in the company’s history – but is marred by the incident that was caught on tape and backed AEW into the decision to fire Punk after two years. 

Brooks led the company to its highest business metrics but was equally damaging with public perception and while he commands his supporters and detractors, the woes of AEW during these two years extend beyond Punk and pointed to leadership issues that allowed things to get beyond anyone’s control and exploded in grand fashion.

Not to be lost was the January 2022 news that Cody Rhodes’ contract was up with AEW and that he would make the decision the next month that it was time to leave the territory. Rhodes’ involvement with AEW could be its own documentary with an exit that was seen as symbolic in real time but is so much greater in hindsight. Rhodes’ final year with the company seemed rife with friction, trying to find a presentation that clicked and rolled with the tide of fans who loved and/or hated the performer. With all the concerns, none of that baggage followed him to WWE as he was taken in as a megastar from night one and has been able to ride an unbelievable wave since, becoming the top babyface in the industry and a significant cog in the wheel to WWE’s revitalization. 

Today, AEW faces several challenges, losing the wind in its sails that it enjoyed from 2019-2022 as the upstart competitor that was producing better quality television, showcasing more compelling characters, and feeding an audience that was starved for something outside of WWE.

But, then, the most significant figure in pro wrestling history met his demise beginning in June 2022 and culminating with a final resignation in January 2024. Vince McMahon was the subject of several “hush money” allegations paid out to women over sexual harassment that were uncovered by the Wall Street Journal while putting a spotlight on myriad offenses McMahon had been linked to throughout his career going back to a rape allegation by former referee Rita Chatterton regarding an alleged incident inside of a limo in 1986. 

McMahon resigned from the company in July 2022 and Paul Levesque was installed as the new leader of creative, helping to curb the company’s faltering reputation among its core base. In reality, McMahon was never fully divorced from the creative process during this time but it didn’t matter because the perception of the product being through Levesque’s vision was the breath of fresh air the audience wanted to believe. 

McMahon existed in the shadows but Levesque was front and center and the company rebounded with attendance spikes, better storytelling, loosening the restrictions on promos, and getting away from the “bang your head against the wall” stalwarts of WWE’s presentation. 

A coup by McMahon was executed in January 2023 for a return to the board of directors and position as chairman through exercising his “super shares” that overruled all other stockholders. McMahon returned with the caveat that he was returning to “explore strategic alternatives” (i.e. sell the company) and gave him the protection of Wall Street, where the stock responded well to this news and gave McMahon justification for a return to the company. 

A deal was announced in principle the day after WrestleMania 39 with Endeavor, which would merge UFC and WWE to form TKO Group Holdings – to be finalized five months later. Curiously, Ari Emanuel claimed he demanded McMahon stay on board and gave up equity to ensure McMahon’s presence – a decision he would come to regret months later. 

The bombshell occurred on January 25, 2024, just two days after WWE’s landmark announcement of a $5.2 billion deal with Netflix, when former employee Janel Grant filed a lawsuit against McMahon, John Laurinaitis, and WWE alleging sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, and being trafficked while working for the company from 2019 until 2022. 

It was the final straw for McMahon’s tenure, as he resigned less than 48 hours after the filing and ridding WWE of its leader since 1982. 

The revival of WWE through its detachment from McMahon has placed AEW in a spot where it is the clear #2 and forces the question of what is the ceiling for an alternative brand when so much of the core WWE audience is satisfied with the industry leader?

That will be answered this year when AEW negotiates its domestic television rights and finds out what the market will spend for non-WWE programming. 

Today, AEW is locked in an exclusive negotiating window with WBD until the summer, per Fightful’s reporting, and then can opt to place its rights on the open market and find out who is willing to bite. 

Major factors will include WBD’s relationship with the NBA, which appears to be withering by the day as Disney, Comcast, and Amazon move toward finalizing their deals with the league for the 2025-2026 season and beyond. The loss of the NBA will be a massive loss for TNT, who currently command $3 per cable subscriber, largely boosted by the inclusion of the NBA. That rate will inevitably fall with basketball disappearing but also represents billions in savings for WBD, which is holding onto approximately $40 billion of debt. 

TNT still needs to be programmed nightly and with the excess cash that was reserved for the NBA, does a percentage get earmarked for AEW, which is a consistent top-five, top-ten cable property between Dynamite, Collision, and Rampage? 

Is there a wild card player out there who is itching for the exclusive window to end and willing to overspend for wrestling programming to make its mark? How valuable are AEW’s pay-per-view rights in an economy that is geared toward streamers looking for ways to evade monthly churn? 

There is no easy prediction on what AEW’s landing spot will become in 2025 but it will be the defining deal of Tony Khan’s career as a wrestling promoter and provide a roadmap for the future of the pro wrestling industry in a rapidly changing cable and streaming landscape.

About John Pollock 5598 Articles
Born on a Friday, John Pollock is a reporter, editor & podcaster at POST Wrestling. He runs and owns POST Wrestling alongside Wai Ting.