The past few months have been an immensely exciting time for American pro wrestling fans, with the return to touring ushering in some great storytelling, the emotional return of a wrestling legend, and now the realization of dream matches many of us never thought we’d see. A common thread connecting a lot of these exciting developments has been the feeling that we, the fans, are being rewarded for our dedication and our investment in wrestling, emotional and financial.
Consider the profound reward the nearly twenty thousand fans who will flock to Queens’ Arthur Ashe Stadium will receive next Wednesday night. When tickets went on sale for AEW Dynamite Grand Slam, virtually nothing about the show was known other than the fact that it would be the largest capacity venue the young promotion has ever run. Fifteen thousand fans bought tickets immediately when they went on sale, two whole months before marquee matches were announced, with little reason to buy other than a blind faith that AEW will bring the goods for its most ambitious event to date.
Those faithful fans couldn’t possibly have expected they would be treated to a dream match that wasn’t even contractually possible until just a few months ago. It will be the first meeting in over a decade between two men, Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson, who can plausibly claim to be the best wrestler in the world during the span of their careers. And the overwhelming majority of fans in attendance bought tickets completely unaware that they’d witness such a momentous occasion.
Make no mistake, this kind of reward is a big contributor to the enthusiasm that is driving AEW’s recent growth.
The man primarily responsible for the treats we’re enjoying is clearly conscious and motivated to reward AEW’s uniquely enthusiastic and trusting fanbase. Speaking with Digital Spy in the days leading to All Out, Tony Khan said: “In some ways, it’s been the most work to put a card together, but I think it will be the most rewarding for the fans and for all of us and in some ways it’s been the easiest.”
He wasn’t wrong. All Out was a crowd-pleaser to end all crowd-pleasers and in many ways, it’s probably got something to do with that ease that he spoke of. Booking and promoting professional wrestling shouldn’t be that complicated. As Bryan Danielson said last night on Dynamite, sometimes it’s as simple as giving the fans what they want.
For many of us, this may seem novel, after what seems like a lifetime of chanting into the ether and receiving in return a show that seems designed to annoy us. But in point of fact respecting one’s audience means paying attention to them and providing for the things they respond to. This isn’t new to wrestling, nor any other storytelling medium. We’ve just gone unrewarded for too long.
With that said, basic old-school booking does not account for the buzz many of us are feeling about AEW right now. AEW is doing extraordinary things and their long-term storytelling, match-making, and general sensitivity to their audience really demonstrates the power of rewarding fans and viewers for their trust and dedication.
The Omega/Danielson match itself is really just a worthy successor to the exceptional reward of CM Punk’s return last month. Once again, fifteen thousand fans bought tickets to a show at the United Center with only hints and rumors to motivate them. Once again, the feeling that AEW wouldn’t book such a big venue without something appropriately big planned for the event carried ticket sales and only after the sell-out, as a reward for their trust, were the fans treated to one of the most exciting and resonant nights in recent wrestling history. Punk himself provided another reward, finally delivering on a ten-year-old storyline with ice cream bars for the entire live crowd.
It’s easy to write this stuff off as just “doing exciting things” but there is a meaningful difference between Punk’s return and, for instance, the return of Becky Lynch at SummerSlam. In the case of SummerSlam, WWE did not trust the fanbase enough to tell them in advance that the Bianca Belair vs Sasha Banks match they’d been promoting for over a month was not, in fact, going to happen.
In the end, they decided the best way to excite the fans about Lynch was to first disappoint them about Banks. Oftentimes they don’t have a suitable make good for these situations, and realistically they’re lucky they did this time. As a result of these long-established habits, a lot of fans do not trust that there will be a satisfying payoff to Belair’s feuds with either Banks or Lynch. I certainly don’t. If fan enthusiasm for Belair declines, as it has for so many other WWE wrestlers in the recent past, this lack of trust is a major part of the problem.
Rewarding an audience for their attention and investment in a narrative is just basic good storytelling and it applies to every medium. The Marvel Cinematic Universe completely remade the way movie studios plan franchises by encouraging fans to look out for the appearances of new heroes, and then delivering those new heroes and often giving them their own movies. This project even motivated fans and competing studios to will Spider-man into the MCU, back from the character’s frustrating seclusion in Sony Pictures. This seems an apt comparison for the likes of Punk and Danielson joining AEW.
There’s an entire culture built up around easter egg-heavy storytelling in a variety of mediums. At its core, the hunt for easter eggs is just what happens when fans get excited about being rewarded by intricate storytelling. Great writers, filmmakers, artists, and yes, even great wrestlers know that audiences who look closely and are rewarded with something for their attention are more likely to stick around to see what’s next.
AEW is exceptional in their efforts to reward their audience, and has been since very early on. Another recent example involved The Suzuki Incident. Fans created a Twitter meme in reference to a relatively minor disappointment on last week’s Dynamite, and as a result of their dedication and investment, AEW turned it into an angle on the following show. The Young Bucks finally losing at All Out in a cage match after months of cheating by interference, to a team who defeated them at the very same event two years earlier, is a multilayered payoff that rings more special the closer you look at it.
A personal favorite example of this dynamic happened during the match I and many others consider the best in the promotion’s short history, the tag team title match at Revolution 2020. Hangman Page used the signature moves of stablemates Kenny Omega and Marty Scurll, to a massive response from the live crowd. Many fans in attendance understood the statement Page was making by using the moves, but for fans who didn’t know, it wasn’t a distraction, it just looked like great wrestling. The fans who knew the history of The Elite were rewarded for their dedication with a deeper, more meaningful story, and the match was all the more special for it.
Anyone who doubts the long-term plan to pay off Adam Page’s rollercoaster journey with a spectacular triumph is not paying attention. Since literally day one in this promotion we have been promised that Page will be world champion, and no matter how many losses or disappointments he has suffered, Page has been the beating heart of AEW’s storytelling all along. We will be asked to wait for The Hangman’s crowning moment not because bigger and better opportunities happened to come along, but because Page’s triumph is the ultimate AEW reward: the one we’ve been waiting for all along and the one that will be more carefully cultivated than any other.
There is every reason to believe AEW’s encouraging attitude toward their fans’ enthusiasm, and to delivering satisfying payoffs that enrich the whole experience for us, is a central facet of their philosophy of wrestling, and that is incredibly exciting to think about.
Being rewarded for our faith and dedication is the thing that will drive unprecedented interest in next week’s showdown between Danielson and Omega. We know they don’t want to disappoint us. When something does disappoint, as something inevitably will, we will be forgiving and we will give AEW opportunities to make good and get things back on track. This is what it looks like to earn an audience’s trust.