WWE, alongside longtime broadcast partners USA Network and, more recently, Fox, has long been the preeminent professional wrestling promotion in the U.S. and globally.
Garnering record-setting media deals with its most recent rights renewals, its no. 1 status hasn’t been challenged since Ted Turner’s WCW took a downturn in 1999 and was subsequently purchased by WWE CEO Vince McMahon in 2001.
That may be changing with the emergence of rival promotion All Elite Wrestling (AEW), airing on TNT since October 2019. The promotion — bolstered in recent months by signing big-name free agents who left WWE, such as CM Punk, Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole — has seen viewership of flagship “AEW Dynamite” increase while “WWE Raw” sagged in early September on a total household level, according to data from Samba TV. Household viewership for "Raw" did increase at the end of September with the fallout of PPV "Extreme Rules" and was further boosted on Oct. 4 with the annual "WWE Draft" edition of the show.
This has been driven by AEW gaining in the important-to-advertisers 18-49 demographic. Comparing the lead cable shows for both promotions sees that throughout most of August, “Raw” had a considerable lead over AEW in the demo.
Things shifted in September, after AEW debuted talent McMahon’s WWE either couldn’t come to terms with (Danielson and Adam Cole) or former stars not interested in a WWE return (CM Punk). Punk’s role in the demo surge will have been noted by Fox execs, who had formerly signed Punk to be an analyst on a WWE magazine show and were both impressed by Punk and baffled by WWE’s lack of interest in re-signing him.
It should be noted that the 18-49 demo for "Dynamite" did fall in the week of Oct. 4, with stiff competition from the MLB Wild Card Game on TBS ("Raw" is not without its own sports competition, going up against "Monday Night Football" on ESPN). Whether this becomes a trend remains to be seen, but the recent success of "Dynamite" in matching "Raw" in the key demo isn't to be dismissed.
Contextually, data provided to VIP+ by leading research firm Maru Group indicates that WWE shows had the greatest overall viewership in the past month. This will be boosted by WWE’s streaming strategy, as episodes of shows are available next day on Hulu and later on Peacock. Giving fans a way to catch up later digitally is essential in this day and age, and it is something AEW is lacking for their cable shows “Dynamite” and “Rampage.”
Exclusive data from leading content analytics company Diesel Labs shows that the number of WWE fans discussing AEW on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter has increased by 86% between 2020 and 2021. In comparison, AEW fans talking about WWE has fallen a little by -7%.
Diesel Labs also found the number of fans engaging with both promotions via social networks jumped in August and maintained those levels in September. This is the time period of the high-profile talent signings for AEW and demonstrates that they did catch the attention of some WWE fans who hadn’t considered AEW before.
VIP+’s exclusive analysis among fans of both promotions shows that each promotion has its own strengths. WWE is better suited for kids (a key target audience for McMahon) and is considered to have better storytelling, whilst Khan’s AEW is perceived to have better TV matches, audience reactions and just shades being thought of as most exciting.
AEW is not yet a full-fledged rival to McMahon and WWE, but it is already showing the potential for doing so. While WWE can rely on a greater total audience watching its shows, the fact that AEW has been able to bring in former WWE stars and significantly boost its audience will be a concern to both McMahon and his broadcast partners, which paid a substantial fee to WWE for wrestling primacy on TV.
The important thing to remember from a network perspective is that wrestling still brings in a strong live audience — in modern TV terms, at least — and with this come advertisers. Before Tony Khan launched AEW on TNT, USA and Fox were the only destinations for advertisers looking to reach the wrestling audience, and TNT now challenges this.
Given McMahon’s WWE released several former recent world champions from their contracts over the summer, if they appear on AEW programming and further spike ratings, expect long, hard looks from USA and Fox. Considering that in recent years WWE has constantly bemoaned its lack of ability in creating new stars and compelling storylines, the releases of established ones is odd.
Asked in WWE’s last earnings call about AEW being competition, McMahon stated that WWE could give AEW more time to be established. Based on AEW’s sudden boost, it may be time for WWE to reassess.