One year ago, All Elite Wrestling debuted its weekly series “Dynamite” on TNT. It marked the first time in years that a professional wrestling promotion other than WWE had aired on a major U.S. cable network. Many fans were thrilled at the prospect of reigniting something akin to the rivalry between WWE and WCW of years past, while others felt this upstart promotion would barely make it out of the starting gate.
One year and a global pandemic later, AEW is still going strong. The company has delivered consistent wins in the television ratings and on pay-per-view while also continuing to grow its roster and further define its brand. Much of that is due to the passion those at the top of AEW have for the product, which is palpable when hearing them speak about it.
“I don’t have children, so this is my child,” says Cody Rhodes, AEW in-ring star and executive vice president. “It really is my baby in terms of how I feel about AEW and how I feel about the roster. Even people who are older than me, I think of them as my kids. So I feel very strongly about it. And I think we’ve had a wonderful year so I’m in love with AEW.”
Since its launch last October, “Dynamite” has been airing against the WWE show “NXT” on Wednesday nights. “Dynamite” has consistently beaten “NXT” head-to-head in both the key demographics and total viewers in that time. According to an analysis by Variety Intelligence Platform, AEW has averaged a weekly audience of 835,000 viewers in Nielsen live-plus-same day ratings over the past year, compared to NXT’s 696,000. WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” and “SmackDown Live” are still the reigning champions in terms of viewership, averaging 1.7 million and 2 million viewers respectively in the same time frame.
Fans have dubbed the competition between AEW and NXT the Wednesday Night Wars, a callback to the so-called Monday Night Wars between WWE and WCW. While most AEW stars have stayed out of any talk of a ratings battle, former AEW champion and former WWE champion Chris Jericho has taken the opposite approach. Jericho, a pro wrestling legend, began referring to himself as the “Demo God” due to his segments consistently being the highest-rated in the adults 18-49 demo.
“I was just really getting into the whole concept of what the demo means,” Jericho says. “There is a little bit of a war, obviously, just by the fact that NXT is on a Wednesday night. We don’t really pay attention to what they do during the show. But afterwards, of course, you check in the ratings…The company really can’t point that out, but I can because I’m a heel and can say whatever I want to incorporate that and no one’s going to get any heat for it because it’s the truth.”
Jericho has served up a number of highlight-reel worthy moments like coining the “Demo God” during his time with AEW, but he is far from the only star to do so. Another is Jon Moxley, formerly known to WWE fans as Dean Ambrose. Moxley debuted for AEW and quickly found himself in the spotlight, winning the promotion’s heavyweight championship from Jericho in February.
Moxley has been vocal about his displeasure with WWE’s creative process since he left the company, saying that the use of writers has stifled the creativity of the talent. AEW has allowed him the opportunity to break free from that.
“We let our talent speak in their own voice, say what they want to say, stay with the feeling, and it creates authentic moments,” Moxley says. “And you’ve seen that with myself, Cody Rhodes, Chris Jericho, Darby Allin, and so many others. You have the feeling of being out there on the fly with no script. You just know we have to go off the air at exactly 10 p.m. and I have to smash the champagne bottle over your head.”
Another moment that fans and company insiders alike point to as a major “Dynamite” highlight was the cage match that saw Rhodes face off against Wardlow, the bodyguard of the villainous MJF.
In the match, Rhodes did a moonsault off the top of the cage, landing on Wardlow below. While those watching were exhilarated, Rhodes was not.
“I should have never done it,” he says. “Literally I have nightmares about it because the cage was too tall. And I’ve not been the same since I hit the ground. I remember telling Brandi [Rhodes] ‘I think I might have had a mini heart attack.’”
Brandi Rhodes, who is married to Cody, is also an AEW talent in addition to serving as the company’s chief brand officer. In the ring, she has participated in a number of high-profile storylines. Perhaps most notably, she and her tag team partner Allie — collectively known as The Nightmare Sisters — made it to the final round of the inaugural AEW women’s tag team tournament.
But Brandi has also been impressive behind the scenes as well. She helped AEW partner with the non-profit KultureCity to provide sensory bags for fans with autism at every AEW event in an effort to make such events sensory inclusive.
“I’m really proud of our continued relationship with KultureCity,” Brandi Rhodes says. “Even through these trying times, we’ve continued to maintain a good and close relationship with them. As you know, we’re trying to hopefully move forward into a time where we’re seeing people again. As that is starting to happen, we definitely want to be able to cater to our fans and audience members that have sensory issues and need that extra care there.”
In terms of seeing people again, AEW has been forced to film its live events largely without an audience since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is starting to change recently, with the company allowing a limited number of attendees to buy tickets to events it is staging at its current base of operations in Jacksonville, Florida.
But during the first few weeks of the pandemic, uncertainty was the name of the game. AEW pre-taped a number of shows in the early going, but travel restrictions quickly found them without a massive number of in-ring talents.
“After the first two weeks of the pandemic, as our roster started to thin out, what happened was we were forced to do shows with less than 30% of our wrestling roster available to us,” says Tony Khan, AEW’s president and CEO. “And I’m actually proud of those shows as I am of anything because they kept us going.”
“I wanted to film shows to keep the storylines moving so that we could build a testing plan,” he continues. “I always believed that, as we’ve shown, a safe testing plan could be implemented. I didn’t know how long it was going to take to design and get all the tests we would need and get it all set up. But it came together in in about a month.”
The company managed to stay afloat despite the lack of a live crowd, with the television audience remaining largely consistent.
AEW had already earned the trust of WarnerMedia by that point. The media conglomerate announced in January that it was extending its deal with AEW through 2023 while also adding a new one-hour weekly show that will debut in 2021. But AEW’s ability to adapt to the pandemic has only deepened the respect that WarnerMedia executives have for the company.
“I think where where the rubber really met the road was during when COVID hit and watching Tony really pivot and grow,” says Brett Weitz, general manager of TBS, TNT, and truTV. “And he was able to keep those storylines going and put so many great things together, even through a global pandemic, and that tells you everything you need to know about the DNA of that brand and that guy as a producer.”
AEW has also expanded beyond its live shows, launching a toy line in early August that includes action figures and replica championship belts.
According to Juli Lennett, industry advisor for the U.S. toys division of NPD Group, the toy line is performing well out of the gate. For the month of August, it ranked as the number three new property among U.S. toys. A new property was defined as all toy brands that recorded no sales between Jan. 5 and May 30 2020.
Sam Linsky, senior vice president and co-head of scripted originals for TBS, TNT and truTV says that there are also plans in place to continue expanding the AEW brand across the full range of the WarnerMedia portfolio.
“We have an opportunity to use all facets of WarnerMedia in a way that most places can’t,” Linsky says. “We’ve got a comic book company. We’ve got video game companies. We’ve got merchandising people. We’ve got people who make animation for television. We’ve got reality television producers. It’s all in house. So we have a real opportunity to spread this IP and grow it across WarnerMedia.”
So after one year, the sky looks to be the limit for AEW. If the company is able to stay on its current trajectory, it is poised to stake out a major claim within the world of professional wrestling.