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AEW: How can this possibly work?

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The latest news of Kenny Omega finally signing with AEW has an already excited wrestling fanbase all over the world salivating at what this promotion could ultimately turn into. With cult favourites like the Young Bucks at the helm, a huge pay per view event booked for Las Vegas and rumours of tv deals abound, what could possibly go wrong?

In the history of wrestling in America, two truly national promotions have turned a profit in the same calendar year less than a handful of times. While WWE may have just signed record television deals, actual ratings are smaller than they have been in the modern era, house show business is in the toilet and network numbers are largely stagnant. There has never been less people in the United States watching wrestling on a weekly basis.

While there are certainly die-hard fans, willing to spend more money than ever before on marquee events and conventions, there really isn’t a casual audience anymore. As such, in this marketplace, how can the mathematics of AEW possibly add up?

There were two boom periods following the WWF’s national expansion, the first led by the incredible popularity of Hulk Hogan following his AWA run and appearance in Rocky III, and the second by Steve Austin and a superb supporting cast including once in a generation stars like the Rock.

One key fact that is often missed about the ‘Attitude era’ is that the WWF managed to tap back into the audience that watched in the late 80s and early 90s, in their formative years, when they were mid to late teens with a raunchier and more adult orientated product. These people largely moved away from pro wrestling following the WCW purchase and ultimately botched Invasion angle, and while the product has been through some creative highs and lows since then, nothing and nobody has caught fire at the level wrestling did between late 1997 & 2001.

It’s not impossible to pontificate that Kenny Omega may be the next big breakout star in wrestling. He is relatively unknown to the mainstream audience, and has an incredible skill set. It could actually be that the next huge star is someone unknown to all of us at the moment and that person will change wrestling and lead to another boom period. It’s not impossible, but is fairly implausible given that WWE haven’t been able to manage it again in spite of their history, in built long-standing television and relatively loyal worldwide fan base so how does AEW stand a chance with none of that?

Yes ‘The Elite’ are stars of a YouTube series, yes they have over three hundred thousand subscribers and yes they sold out ‘All In’ and will likely sell out ‘Double or Nothing’ very easily as well but what does that all actually mean? The fact that the pay per view numbers for ‘All In’ were never formally released tells you what those YouTube subscribers actually mean for bottom line business.

The IPPV did 20,000, Dave Meltzer himself said that if the television numbers were anything significant he would know about it. There certainly is a die-hard audience there that will pay to travel to a convention and a big show but in nowhere near the numbers that could sustain a full-time touring group, satisfy a television company looking for a return on their investment of a deal or sell enough pay per views to justify the biggest contract of Chris Jericho’s career.

Some may read this and think this is pure pessimism, sadly I think it is the reality for an industry that hasn’t been as niche as it is now for decades. TNA on Spike was regularly doing ratings of over a million and could never translate that into significant pay per view buys or anything resembling better than barely breaking even.

The play here, clearly, for the Khans is to get a television deal based off of the over inflated costs of live ‘sports’ content. However if ratings do not materialise, and I can’t see how they will (and that ultimately doesn’t translate into pay per view buys) then how can this possibly be a sustainable business. There is also the very real risk that the sports rights bubble goes pop, ‘cord cutting’ is a very real problem for the television industry and when the ratings for cult sports properties don’t justify the outlay the claw back will be quick and devastating.

As for the Khans themselves, there is another story lurking beneath the surface that may provide wrestling fans sceptical on this venture with even more concern. While Shahid Khan is a multi billionaire, and can no doubt afford to plough money into this venture and it be loss making for the medium or long term should he choose to, is this ultimately not just another play thing for his son and a way of keeping him removed from the important stuff of the real family business?

While I have been a wrestling fan for almost as long as I can remember, first watching British matches shortly before they were finally cancelled from ITV in 1988, there is one passion in my life that I can’t remember a time before. That just happens to be Fulham Football Club, for whom I have had a season ticket at for thirty-two consecutive years.

I never expected that there would ever be such an odd collision of my two worlds until I first starting reading reports about the registering of trademarks in Jacksonville. This was earlier during this Football season when things were not looking quite as bleak as they are now.

I think it’s important to set the scene here as concisely as I can regarding the Khans time at Fulham. They arrived in the Summer of 2013, spent a decent amount of money on players but crucially made some dreadful mistakes particularly around managerial decisions thereafter and we were relegated to the second tier of English football after 13 seasons (unlucky for some) in the Premier League.

The second tier of English football is notoriously difficult to get out of, we had two utterly miserable lower table finishes to endure before a run for promotion in 16/17 that was ultimately unsuccessful. During this time Tony Khan became more involved in transfers and he along with a college friend (Craig Kline) had clashes with the footballing side of operations (ie the coaches/manager) about what players were suitable. They were largely using a stats based model which I understand has been used very successfully in baseball. Ultimately Craig Kline left the club amongst a cloud of accusations about the Khans and this is all currently being investigated by the Football Association (the governing body of the game in England).

The start of the 2017/2018 season was an incredibly frustrating one again, the mix of players purchased by Tony Khan (who as director of football by this point was in complete control of this side of the club) in the summer window wasn’t quite clicking and we were desperately missing a striker. Cue our then manager Slavisa Jokanovic texting his friend and countryman Aleksander Mitrovic on the off chance during the January transfer window and fast forward five months and we had been promoted through the playoffs at Wembley.

I can’t state enough what a unique set of circumstances this was, Mitrovic was the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle and for that January to May period we barely had an injury and lost only two games throughout that time prior to promotion. Khan and co were widely seen as heroes, though under the surface the troubling facts about what had really occurred over the preceding 5 years with them at the club remained.

During the summer months, spearheaded by Tony Khan, Fulham spent more money than any promoted club in history to try and ensure that this season would be successful. More than Manchester City, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid did in the same period. Fast forward again to now and we are not far off from being relegated again. The players purchased once more were not fit for purpose, the club appears to be in meltdown (including one player being recently arrested at the training ground for attacking a member of the security staff) and again the buck (no pun intended) stops with the Khans and specifically Tony.

What does any of this have to do with Professional Wrestling you may ask? Well, thanks for sticking through the Football stuff and getting to the part where I state that Tony Khan has worked his way into a position at a football club that he appears, based on a now identifiable track record, to not to have the skill set to be a success in. What is to say that the exact same thing isn’t going to happen with AEW? Right now it’s all the niceties of ‘we’ll work with anyone’, ‘we have some creative control’ but how long will everyone be getting on when the head of creative, with no prior experience in that role just a fan like you and I, puts his foot down on something. Ultimately he is signing the cheques so the buck (pun intended) stops with him.

So in this wrestling business environment and with the added, possible, issues around the capabilities of the owner(s), how can AEW possibly work? For the good of wrestlers, fans and the industry as a whole I can only hope I am very very wrong about my deep rooted concerns for this venture.

Near 30 year fan of Professional wrestling, I grew up watching World of Sport in the UK before getting into the WWF in 1990. Favourite performers of all time are Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Randy Savage & Steve Austin. Highlights as a fan were being there live for Rock vs Austin at WrestleMania X-Seven, Hogan vs Rock at WrestleMania X8 & CM Punk vs the Rock at Royal Rumble '13.

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