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With ‘SmackDown,’ ‘NXT,’ and AEW’s ‘Dynamite,’ Pro Wrestling Set for Big Fall Push

If you’re a fan of professional wrestling, this fall is going to be a slobberknocker of a good time.

As of Oct. 4, there will be nine hours of pro wrestling available on major broadcast and cable channels every week. WWE programming comprises most of that time, with “Monday Night Raw” airing on USA Network, “SmackDown Live” making its move to Fox Friday nights, and the WWE’s developmental brand NXT debuting its full two-hour show Wednesdays on USA. Meanwhile, the new promotion All Elite Wrestling, or AEW, will launch its two-hour show “Dynamite” on TNT on Wednesday.

The “SmackDown” move is the culmination of a billion-dollar deal between the WWE and Fox that will see the sports entertainment brand air on the broadcaster for the next five years as part of Fox’s new push into more live sports events, now that it is a standalone company post-Disney/21st Century Fox merger. Fox has been promoting the “SmackDown” debut, set for this Friday, for months, with WWE talent appearing across multiple Fox Sports programs as well as at major Fox events like the recent Emmys telecast.

“There probably isn’t a live event going back to February with the Daytona 500 where you haven’t seen some kind of organic creative integration from the WWE,” Eric Shanks, CEO and executive producer of Fox Sports, tells Variety. “It’s like we had all these closet WWE fans in the booth and in the truck and now the shackles have been lifted.”

Shanks says getting the WWE on Fox Fridays allows the network to air live events from Thursday through Sunday. Fox is entering its second season broadcasting the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” under a five-year, $1.6 billion deal signed last January, and continues to aire NCAA and NFL football and Saturdays and Sundays.

Friday’s Fox kickoff show will feature appearances by iconic performers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ric Flair, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Kurt Angle, and Trish Stratus. The show will also feature WWE Champion Kofi Kingston going up against Brock Lesnar in a main event title match.

“We’re excited about not just the legends but the in-ring action you’re going to see with a title match of that caliber on Fox,” WWE co-president Michelle Wilson tells Variety. “It’s a really strong way to kick off that premiere.”

Many are also looking forward to the head-to-head matchup between “NXT” and “Dynamite” on Wednesdays (the former premiered Sept. 18 on USA, the latter bows this Wednesday on TNT). Fans are already drawing parallels between the so-called Monday Night Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, when “Raw” went up against the Ted Turner-backed “Monday Night Nitro” of World Championship Wrestling (WCW), which also aired on TNT. The Monday Night Wars led to a new boom period in professional wrestling, with the two promotions battling it out for ratings supremacy until WWE ultimately came out on top, acquiring WCW in 2001.

AEW had its beginnings in the efforts of professional wrestlers Cody Rhodes and brothers Matt and Nick Jackson, with the latter two wrestling as the tag team The Young Bucks. The trio successfully promoted an independent wrestling show dubbed “All In” last September, which sold out the Sears Centre Arena in Illinois in 30 minutes. In January, it was announced that they had partnered with Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. executive Tony Khan and his father, billionaire Shahid Khan, to form a new company, with several other major wrestling talents signing on shortly thereafter.

Speaking with Variety, Tony Khan is not keen to take swipes at WWE or any other promotion, but previews what he hopes fans will enjoy about the new show.”I think you’re going to see a show where the vast majority of the show is focused on the action in the ring,” he says. “I think if you do see interviews or promos, those will be around the ringside area or in the ring itself. There’s a lot of great wrestling all over the world right now but I don’t think any show will give you more great matches per show than we will.”

AEW also represents the first time that professional wrestling has aired on TNT since the days of WCW almost 20 years ago. Brett Weitz, general manager of TBS, TNT, and truTV, said the time was right for the cable brand to get back into the wrestling space given its success with other sporting ventures like professional baseball, basketball, and soccer.

“It was one of those perfect events where you had a guy in Tony Khan with an incredible record in the sports business,” Weitz continues. “You had this group of people who had been sitting on the sidelines wanting to create this new, fan-focused league with tons of diversity. And it just so happens that no one has shown any competition to the other guys for 20 years.”

But AEW will face stiff competition from “NXT,” which has been airing on Wednesdays on the streaming service WWE Network for five years. The brand has been widely praised by fans, with Wilson telling Variety that it is the most-viewed show on WWE Network. Wilson also says “NXT” is poised to take on AEW in the “younger male demo,” while also still maintaining a TV-PG rating. AEW has previously stated its show will be TV-14.

NBCUniversal also currently airs WWE-related programming like “Total Divas,” “Miz & Mrs.,” and the recently-launched “Straight Up Steve Austin,” while Fox is planning to debut the studio show “WWE Backstage” on FS1 beginning in November. There are currently discussions underway on how to promote the NBCU shows on Fox and vice versa.

“We’ve been concentrating on how these brands are going to be distinct on both of the networks,” Chris McCumber, president of entertainment Networks – USA Network & Syfy, says. “We’re talking about cross promotion between USA and Fox because we want to lift all boats here.”

(Pictured: WWE’s Charlotte Flair, left; AEW’s Cody Rhodes, right)

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