First off, let’s be clear: there isn’t really a wrestling war right now. Tony Khan believes there is. Certain elements of the Internet wrestling community think there is (and actively partake in dropping bombs) and talent pretends there is when it’s contract renewal time. But the reality is, there can’t be a war when one company is so far ahead of the other in terms of TV ratings and revenue.
Nothing AEW achieves will put WWE out of business. WWE was recently valued as a $9.3 billion enterprise as it formed a new company following Endeavor’s acquisition and merger with UFC. That combination touted as being worth in excess of $21 billion.
Tony Khan couldn’t get a TV deal for Ring of Honor.
In the war between WWE and WCW, it was a fight to the death. This time—at best—it may slightly affect WWE’s bottom line if AEW continues to grow, and ran live events on the same days as WWE’s non-televised shows. AEW’s arrival has actually generated more chances for wrestlers to work. It’s opened up the wrestling world and brought in more fans, or at the very least, brought back those who had become disenfranchised.
What was notable in the Monday Night War was how WWE had to change its game. Vince McMahon’s natural inclination is to have PG, cartoony characters. When WCW produced an edgier product, Vince had to adapt. The Attitude Era was the result and has been viewed with nostalgia ever since.
In the modern day faux war, Tony Khan is the one holding the edgier, more adult based product. Blood may be banned in Stamford but Jon Moxley is contractually obliged to bleed every time he hears a bell ring. In this generation, the product closer to the Attitude Era has failed to win the ratings battle against RAW and SmackDown.
Eventually, the children currently watching WWE will outgrow it and migrate to AEW. Until then, Tony Khan needs to secure more viewership. Even the acquisition of big WWE names didn’t significantly budge the needle. CM Punk had a great Rampage debut but it didn’t translate into a massive return each Wednesday. Bryan Danielson is beloved by fans as one of the best wrestlers on the planet. He’s in a place now where he gets to prove it. The problem for TV ratings is, not many casual WWE fans care about wrestling, especially if it’s caked in violence.
The best way to directly compete with PG WWE is by creating PG content.
This is where Tony Khan faces a conundrum. AEW has a strong identity and style. Migrating to a PG show would all but kill the company. Its loyal fans (which are an organic fanbase) would leave, in the short-term it would fail to turn the heads of WWE viewers. The chances are, Tony doesn’t even see it as an option. But there are several (imperfect) solutions.
AEW’s TV shows are finally back in the groove after removing Ring of Honor content from weekly programming. Which brings us to option one. Ring of Honor, up to this point, has been presented along the same lines as AEW. Admittedly, its history doesn’t look like the natural fit for a PG presentation. But if you took a highlight reel from WWE’s Attitude Era, that would be a hard sell to a modern day TV exec for a PG Sports Entertainment show. Still, here we are.
ROH could easily be repackaged. The fact is, it failed to secure a TV deal after months of Tony Khan shilling the product on TBS and TNT. It would be superbly optimistic to expect the relaunched Honor Club to recruit a notable subscription count. Not many will pay $9.99 just for a weekly show.
Unless they are going to offer specials like Impact Plus, Tony Khan may need to return to the drawing board and turn ROH into the family friendly version of his universe. Women Of Wrestling’s ratings prove there is a market for a commercially friendly audience. Its ratings trounce Impact Wrestling, which itself is a solid product. He’d find it an easier sell to those in charge of cable channels to pick up a rejuvenated family version of AEW in the guise of a new ROH. There’d be enough separation between AEW and ROH to dispel fears that the PG audience may inadvertently be drawn to the edgier Wednesday and Friday shows.
The market exists to break WWE’s dominance (if not its profits) but the first rule of showbiz is to give the people what they want. The majority clearly want the soft version of wrestling that fills three hours of television every Monday night. Unless brand loyalty is so strong with WWE that people will watch it regardless of what they churn out. We know this can’t be entirely true. Ratings have improved since Triple H’s arrival as Head of Creative, proving it isn’t watched mindlessly by everyone.
Luring the WWE fanbase with a throwback product hasn’t made a significant dent into WWE’s coffers. It’s time to try with a direct imitation. It worked for WWE in the Nineties. DX was a reaction to nWo. The whole vibe of the Attitude Era was taking what WCW started and trying to do it better. History tells us they succeeded.
History has a way of repeating itself. Imitation is the best form of flattery. It’s time Tony Khan flattered WWE by creating a copy so good, it makes loyal viewers switch sides.
The rumoured AEW Collision show could be this vehicle instead of ROH. A two-hour Saturday show would need to resemble Dynamite’s story progression more than Rampage’s pure action dynamic. To differentiate, and prevent Rampage becoming irrelevant, this could be the PG show AEW has on offer. All the reasons listed above for changing ROH can be applied here instead.
Or we have the option to amalgamate and instead of it being AEW Collision, it is a ROH two-hour show called Collision headed by a returning CM Punk. The story is already written: he can’t work with the “children” in AEW and The Elite, so he’s dragged ROH to network telly.
The most outlandish—and biggest risk of all—would be for Tony to create yet another new brand. It would be free from AEW and ROH’s adult orientation and could start on a blank page. It could still use CM Punk in the role described.
What Collision can’t be is Dynamite-lite, offering nothing new to AEW’s TV library. Being a two-hour show, all signs point to AEW needing a brand split. This would enable them to use their sizeable roster more effectively (and expect more free agents in the coming months following WWE’s buyout). But this alone won’t improve ratings or market penetration.
Tony Khan can’t win his imaginary war, but he can become something more like an equal than an afterthought if he acknowledges there needs to be a flavour for every fan out there. Whether its Collision or ROH he uses as the vehicle for this—or even a new brand—he needs to think outside of his box.
However, if he chooses to keep the new status quo and sit on one million viewers in order to maintain his vision, that should be applauded and respected. What he has created is the alternative many of us craved. And by its nature, alternative is rarely ever mainstream.