Will All Elite Wrestling Make WWE a Better Product?
Short answer to the title question: probably not.
On May 25, 2019, All Elite Wrestling ran its debut event as a promotion and nailed it. Their goal was to get people excited about future events, including their weekly TV series, and they did that. Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks put on an amazing show. Expectations were high, and whether it met the expectations or not, fans were thrilled to have a new product to enjoy. 12,000 people filled the MGM Grand Garden Arena. This is an exciting era for wrestling fans.
The real question is though, how will World Wrestling Entertainment and Vince McMahon respond? The CEO and Chairman of the most successful "sports entertainment" promotion of all time has had very little competition over the last 18 years. Sure, there's Ring of Honor (ROH) and Total Nonstop Action (TNA). But at most, those promotions only sell a few thousand tickets to their largest shows and a few hundred thousand views on weekly TV. But WWE is seeing declining ratings every week, and professional wrestling commentators and marks have been becoming increasingly critical. The more optimistic of these fans believe that McMahon thrives under competition, and the lack of competition is why WWE is becoming increasingly stale. Logically then, it should follow that a successful AEW would bring out a more competitive McMahon and a better product, but will it really?
Two Different Businesses in Two Different Industries
Cody Rhodes is going to be a major asset to AEW. While he wants to be a wrestling talent first and foremost, he is a co-Vice President of the company, along with the Young Bucks (Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson) and Kenny Omega. But more important is not just that Rhodes is co-VP, but he's also the son of legendary booker and wrestler Dusty "The American Dream" Rhodes. Both wrestling and promoting are in his blood, though it cannot be stated enough that Rhodes so far has been brilliant in his own unique way. Rhodes is building a promotion for both wrestlers and for the smart-marks, and unlike McMahon's WWE, AEW is very much a wrestling promotion. If you focus on the sports aspect, the fans will naturally be entertained.
WWE on the other hand is not what one would consider a wrestling promotion. It's an entertainment empire. The performers and commentators aren't even allowed to say "wrestling." It's instead "sports entertainment." WWE owns a film studio to produce movies featuring it's performers, and episodes of Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live tend to be more about advertising whatever movie projects is coming out, or directing people to social media than about anything else. Ticket Sales and PPV buys only make a small fraction of WWE's business plan. In fact, WWE also owns a streaming service where for almost the fifth of the cost of a PPV buy, subscribers can not only watch PPV events (Now called "Network Specials") live and included in their subscription at no extra cost, but also a back catalog of PPVs, episodes of Raw and Smackdown, and tons of original programming. The network of course, is also heavily promoted during their shows.
Readers of this article already know this. But I still feel compelled to remind the audience of what the WWE is. It's not a wrestling promotion. It's an entertainment empire. And the nature of WWE's business model doesn't require the company to change at all. McMahon, much like Rhodes, has booking and promoting in his blood. The son of Vincent J. McMahon senior, Vince McMahon knows how the business works. He also has one thing that his father didn't have: a ruthless business aggression.
Vincent K. McMahon did not inherit the company from his father like some businesses. He worked hard and bought it from him. It was early in his ownership that McMahon then started attacking the competing territories. WWE (then WWWF) had long pulled itself out of the territories system, but during the elder McMahon's era, they still kept somewhat of a peaceful truce. Under the younger McMahon, things were different. He raided top talent from many of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) member promotions. He started promoting outside New England. He eventually took the company nationwide. As a response, NWA member Jim Crockett Promotions started going nationwide as well, becoming the largest NWA promotion to do so, and eventually being the official promotion to cold competitions for the NWA World's Championship.
Jim Crocket Promotions was eventually sold to Turner Broadcasting System, and renamed World Championship Wrestling. Yeah, McMahon bought them out.
Time will tell how well Rhodes business acumen is, but Vince is a businessman first and a promoter second. AEW has Tony Khan as its president and initial investor, so the money is there, but making a profit is a whole different story. Vince knows how to make a profit. WWE is seeing increasing growth despite declining ratings, declining WWE Network subscribers, and declining PPV buys. It's often said that the writers for WWE write for an audience of one: McMahon. Honestly, they write for an audience of one indeed, but that one person is Benjamin Franklin.
WWE stock took a small dive earlier this year, but overall it's still up from not just last year, it's up from the start of this year. WWE is still a highly profitable business. And wrestling fans might not like hearing this, but WWE is doing well for all the reasons long-time fans are dissatisfied with the on-air product.
Attitude Era Blues and the Real Audience McMahon Books For
This is going to sting: The Attitude Era and Ruthless Aggression era sucked and is only remembered fondly because of nostalgia. There's a reason Vince Russo is one of the most hated figures in wrestling. Remember, as head booker for the company, he wrote almost all the WWE (then called WWF) storylines from that time. He single-handedly killed WCW when he worked for them, writing some of the worst storylines. Women were not allowed to wrestle, were treated strictly as jokes, and couldn't show off any sign of talent or intelligence. Match qualities were overall lower. There was an over-reliance on blading in matches for cheap effect, senseless violence against women was glorified, rape threats as an attempt to draw cheap heat (or cheap pops if it was a male babyface referring to a female heel, which itself then only glorifies such an heinous act).
Yeah, the Attitude Era was successful, but it was successful because it took the cheap and easy route. The writing was awful, the wrestling was mediocre in most cases, and everything was overbooked.
The problem with WWE is not the PG era. It's the writing. Guess what, you can still have excellent writing in a PG environment, and Russo has proven that you can have horrible writing on 14A TV. But there's more money to be made in PG. You have a larger audience potential audience, access to more sponsors, sponsors who will try to outbid each other to be affiliated with your program, better timeslot on television. The Saudi deal would never happen in the Attitude Era. Yes, I get it, ratings are down. But ratings are down not just because the WWE product sucks. They are down because the casual audience who enjoyed the product in the late 90s are realizing the poor and offensive quality of the product from that era and don't want to let the kids they have today watch it.
The Attitude Era is a product of its time. A time where making light of domestic violence and rampant homophobia were socially acceptable. A time where concussion injuries were less understood, and protecting the bodies of it's performers was not a priority because the could just pop another Vicodin after the match.
The product now is designed to protect both the bodies, minds, and integrity of the performers, company, and sponsors. That's a good thing. The current product isn't great. A lot of us would love to see certain stars get moved up the card and are sick of seeing other stars forced down our throats. Fifty-fifty booking is boring and too heavily relied. Not everyone can be pushed, though and the fans demands do outweigh what is possible, but it'd be nice to have a bone thrown our way.
Vince's PG Era was a business decision. Sponsors are paying more than ever to be affiliated with the product. The Saudi deal put a smooth 10 billion dollars in the company's pockets. Despite a steady decline in ratings, FOX Sports bought five years of WWE programming for $205 million a year. This, of course, directly resulted in "the Wild Card rule." A rule that fans have expressed distaste for as it crowds an already too deep roster of talent, making it harder for fan favorite undercarders to get any attention. But when both FOX and Universal demand that they are paying you for Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, and other top stars, you need to make a decision to appease both of them.
WWE doesn't need to sell tickets or PPVs. The company is doing well, and ratings don't mean anything. Mr McMahon may seem like he makes stuff up on the fly, but there is a method to his madness. These decisions are made to ensure TV deal money comes in, Sponsors are kept happy, and morally bankrupt foreign governments with regressive laws about women will keep writing cheques, because Vince is a businessman first and a promoter second. What you as an audience think doesn't matter, because you aren't the companies primary source of income.
So will AEW push the WWE to improve its product? Doubtful. At most, we'd just see undercarders not used and then their contract extended to make up for days they were not used.
But honestly, WWE doesn't need to change as it's business model relies on exclusive deals with networks, foreign governments, and sponsorship. Our favorite wrestler might be underutilized, but WWE can extend their contracts and then continue to sell us that wrestler's merchandise.
AEW is great, and more options is great for consumers and always will be. But while fans of wrestling may feel the WWE needs to change, that would only be true if WWE were a wrestling promotion. As a business empire, WWE is doing perfectly well.