AEW Has Everything Needed For Wrestling TV Push, Except A Network
All Elite Wrestling is the wild card in the industry’s television and media landscape.
The company that launched in January has the backing and the connections of president Tony Khan, whose family owns the Jacksonville Jaguars. The company’s executives and top-tier talent, such as Chris Jericho, have spoken about seeking a television deal. Jericho told Forbes in February that he is not “going to show up somewhere that doesn’t have a major-league television deal.”
Landing one would make AEW the first wrestling company outside WWE to do so since Total Nonstop Action (now Impact Wrestling) signed with Spike TV in 2006 and WCW left TNT and TBS after being sold to the WWE in 2001.
“I just can’t imagine it’s going to be an easy task for [AEW] to get one or two hours in prime time, 52 weeks a year,” said former WCW president Eric Bischoff, who hosts the “83 Weeks” podcast. “That’s a stretch of the imagination for me. I hope to God I’m proven wrong. I really do. That’s a lot of real estate in prime time that happens to not be that advertiser friendly. That’s how a network is going to look at it.”
AEW would be jumping into a market that, starting in October, will see WWE begin television contracts with NBC Universal and Fox worth a combined $2.35 billion over the next five years. “SmackDown Live” will move to Fox on Fridays and “Monday Night Raw” will stay on USA Network.
Ring of Honor, which is looking to expand its television presence through its parent company, Sinclair Broadcasting, and New Japan Pro Wrestling have momentum off a very successful 2018. Impact will continue to broadcast on Pursuit Network. Even so, WWE is the only company with a significant television contract in a market in which outlets are coveting live sports content.
“I think the biggest challenge for AEW is, can they fit into this marketplace that’s already overloaded,” said longtime wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer, the editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “If this was 10 years ago and AEW was coming up, I would have no doubt that they would draw a very good television rating. They still may, but I can’t say that as much because there is kind of a viewer fatigue when it comes to television wrestling.”
Landing such a significant deal, despite having Jericho and the red-hot Elite faction that includes Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks, will have to overcome the challenge of not knowing what AEW’s television audience will be — even with the success of their YouTube shows, “Being the Elite” and “The Road to Double or Nothing.” The two shows combine for more than 200,000 views a week. On AEW’s side is it has had success at the box office, selling out the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in four minutes for its first show, Double or Nothing, on April 25.
“It’s easier [for companies] to make underground names [today], but to break through and get that giant television audience, that’s a question we don’t have the answer to,” Meltzer said.
WWE, which has been dealing with a gradual decline in ratings in recent years, averaged more than 2.8 million viewers for “Monday Night Raw” and more than 2.3 million for “SmackDown Live” in 2018.
Not since TNA landed on Spike TV and averaged close to a solid 1.0 rating, until it moved to Destination America in 2015, has the wrestling world seen a new company enter the marketplace in the way AEW is trying to do.
“They have the capital to stay for the long haul if they choose, and they also have the capital to build a good roster,” said legendary wrestling commentator Jim Ross, who is in contract talks with AEW and will do a live show at Gotham Comedy Club with Jerry “The King” Lawler on Saturday and at Murmrr Theater with Bruce Prichard on Monday.
“It’s like they have almost an NFL expansion team with a huge budget and a very motivated president [in Khan] who is a huge wrestling fan who has a huge passion for the genre. How that evolves is going to be a big story.”
All of this comes with the warning from those in the business that a company should not be modeled around challenging WWE. For the most part, AEW and others have pushed their brand as alternatives to the wrestling behemoth.
“If you set yourself up, ‘Oh, we are going to go head to head with WWE’ or you imply that we are going to go after them, that’s great,” Bischoff said. “It’s good hype. It will get people interested, but if you don’t deliver, you are going to lose them.”