Having been rumoured for months, All Elite Wrestling has officially announced their television deal with WarnerMedia to air a live pro wrestling television show on TNT. It will be a return for pro wrestling to the station as TNT famously aired World Championship Wrestling’s Monday Nitro from 1995 until 2001.
If someone wants to have fun, you can make a lot of comparisons between the AEW project and WCW. WCW was owned by billionaire Ted Turner, while AEW is owned by son of multi-billionaire Shadid Khan. World Championship Wrestling was originally Jim Crockett Promotions, which was often booked by professional legend Dusty Rhodes. His son Cody is one of the founders and Vice President’s of AEW. WCW was competition to the World Wrestling Federation, now of course the WWE. AEW is already being billed as competition for the WWE. Much of WCW’s early success out of the gate was from having former WWF superstars to be familiar and create a nice bridge to ease the swallow of a new pro wrestling product. AEW now has Chris Jericho, Jim Ross, Earl Hebner, Billy Gunn, Jerry Lynn, PAC (Adrian Neville), Cody Rhodes, Justin Roberts, and Hugo Savinovich on the payroll, faces and voices familiar to some WWE fans over the past 20 years.
But this is in just having fun. The difference is that WCW was Jim Crockett Promotions, a wrestling company that began in the 1950s and already had a well established territory, television, and roster. It was one of the biggest territories in North America in the eighties when Ted Turner purchased it, and it took years to repair both its financial woes and public image. AEW is starting from scratch, and at the heart of it are names that never really worked in the WWE. Instead they are the guys WWE fans have been expecting to show up for years and never did. From Nick and Matt Jackson of the Young Bucks to Kenny Omega to “Hangman” Adam Page, to several former Lucha Underground stars like Rey Fénix, Pentagón Jr., Angelico, Jack Evans, and likely Joey Ryan, to even guys like Christopher Daniels who has always worked for the competitors and periphery of the WWE. Many of these guys cut their teeth in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in California, which the WWE has for the past few years been signing nearly every champion and popular competitor from. The west coast is a fresh outlook to the pro wrestling business, and while Cody comes from his Rhodes background (and has added his brother Dustin to the mix) in Georgia, and the Khan’s station themselves in Jacksonville, Florida where their National Football League Jaguars play, a California feel permeates through the roster more than any other location. And while no base has been established in California, one can definitely see that will be the in ring product we’re going to get from AEW.
Getting TNT for AEW is a head start that other wrestling companies have only dreamed of, and something we haven’t seen since NWA:TNA scored the Spike TV deal once WWE left to return to the USA Network. They squandered that deal and the now Impact Wrestling has struggled to find television anywhere. Ring of Honor, who helped put together the All In card that helped kickstart the AEW project, has had their owners Sinclair Broadcasting have to pretty much purchase the Fox Sports regional networks to get them anything more than local television access. Lucha Underground had to appear on a satellite station mostly for director Robert Rodriguez to show his favourite horror movies. Major League Wrestling has had some success finding television in the United Kingdom but they have had to really build their audience through YouTube. Meanwhile the WWE last year signed massive television rights deals with USA Network and Fox, ensuring that no matter what they really showed on television, they were going to make money. And with the quality of the product spiraling, so too has their ratings. It was this fear that people believed could destroy the TNT deal before it happened for AEW. But TNT looks poised and ready to give pro wrestling a second shot.
While the excitement for a serious North American competitor to the WWE is hard to ignore, AEW has a lot of questions it needs to answer before it can even consider going up against WWE for an hour head to head like what we saw in the Monday Night War era of the 90s. The roster, while including some of the most skilled wrestlers of the past 10 years, is heavy on 30 year olds with similar builds and similar wrestling styles. There isn’t much variety in the men in style or physique to really present a diverse product. Instead you are going to see a lot of the same (albeit exciting) action up and down the card. The women’s roster is the definition of starting from scratch, with no real superstar headliners and a lot of women nobody has heard of. Lots of potential no doubt, but stars will need to be created until folks like Sasha Banks can get out of her WWE deal to come over. The tag division is lucky to have Fénix and Pentagón because when you look at the Bucks, Best Friends (Chuck Taylor and Trent Barretta) and Angelico and Jack Evans, it feels like the same two white guys copy and pasted three times. But this is of course the start, not what the product will be for the next decade (hopefully). Another question mark is legendary play by play Jim Ross, whose play by play ability has deteriorated with age for the past 15 years. At his best he’s a memory of his peak. At his worst, he’s lost and worse than silence. He’s going to need to either turn the clock back, rely heavily on PWG colour commentator Excalibur who understands the style, or train third man Alex Marvez to one day take his position.
The company in press releases and interviews has stressed a sports centric product. Owner Tony Khan has talked about being a major fan of Mid-South Wrestling in the 1980s and is owner and chairman of TruMedia Networks specializing in analytics for sports. Chris Harrington was hired to be Vice President of Business Strategy but his specialty on Twitter was finding the numbers and analytics for wrestling programs. Tracking analytics and paying attention to a win-loss record would be a major advantage to the WWE, who often re-writes their product minutes before going live on Monday and Tuesday nights. Having the restrictions of data could actually inspire creativity instead of limiting it. But the only idea of what their television show will be is in the form of Being The Elite on YouTube run by the Young Bucks, which is primarily a comedy show focusing on inside jokes in the industry. This week was possibly their best episode and nearly every segment involved some sort of inside rib to either the WWE or independent wrestling. We just haven’t seen what their actual idea of a sports centric product will be.
While the company hasn’t announced what day they will be airing, I’m personally predicting they will go with October 4th when Smackdown Live moves from USA Network on Tuesday to Fox on Friday, to still give wrestling fans two hours to expect that night. It is yet to be seen how AEW works around the National Basketball Association, which takes precedent over all programming on TNT, or how much they will use Bleacher Report Live, WarnerMedia’s over the top network, as their own AEW Network in comparison to the WWE Network. But question marks are a good thing to help one anticipate what we actually get from the project. While the joke online has been this is a t-shirt company, no t-shirt company scares the 90% market leader into refusing to let their independent contractors leave and agreeing to lock them up on extended contracts just to prevent them from leaving. AEW has stressed it’s not a competitior to the WWE but an alternative. The problem is, when a company has 90% of a market and wants 100%, your mere existence is a threat to their goals. The Monday Night War was truly kicked off when Scott Hall came out to proclaim, “You wanted a war? Well you got one.” The question isn’t if they can win the war but survive it. And when you have TNT, a multi-billionaire of an owner, pro wrestling legend Chris Jericho, and a wrestling industry starving for an alternative they don’t have to hunt down to see, and a wrestling product that can retain its stars from the WWE’s grasp? You got a better shot than anyone has had since 2001.