Note: All data used in this article is courtesy of WrestleTix unless otherwise noted

The battle for supremacy between WWE and AEW has heated up in recent weeks, with AEW surging forward thanks to new signings and hot angles, with Dynamite managing to top RAW in the key demo rating for the first time ever. Each Thursday, a new battleground takes place as the Dynamite rating is relentlessly examined and picked apart by fans and media alike.

Perhaps getting overshadowed in all of the discussion about ratings and viewership is the critical aspect of business that AEW managed to surpass WWE during the month of September in average live attendance. In September, AEW topped WWE in average live attendance, drawing 9,676 fans per show, to WWE’s 7,772. For the first time ever, AEW had a better drawing month (on average) than WWE, and they did it by a wide margin.

This is a very new trend for AEW; WWE crushed AEW in August, drawing an average of 10,272 fans compared to 6,249. August was a huge month for WWE, aided by the return of house show magnet John Cena and the 45,000+ attendance of SummerSlam. However, without a reliable house show draw like Cena in the mix in September, and without a mega show like SummerSlam, WWE’s average attendance dropped greatly.

AEW on the other hand, received a boost from the Grand Slam show in New York, drawing a record 19,079 fans to the show on Sept. 22. AEW also adding CM Punk and Bryan Danielson, two of the biggest active stars in all of wrestling, clearly gave them a boost for additional shows in September.

Every piece of data comes with certain factors that can be used to heighten or dismiss the validity of the data, depending on the critic. There are caveats that work in AEW’s advantage when looking at the September data that need to be discussed if we are going to have an accurate discussion about what that data means.

The most relevant caveat is that WWE ran more shows than AEW did, which includes house shows in smaller markets which typically will draw less than TV tapings in larger markets. AEW only ran seven separate shows in the month of September (not counting the Dark tapings in Orlando), one of which was a PPV show. All of the shows were TV tapings, and many were in large markets (particularly Chicago and New York).

WWE on the other hand ran 18 shows in September (not including NXT, NXT UK, Main Event or 205 Live Tapings) which includes RAW, SD, Extreme Rules, and house shows. The house show numbers include some small houses in small markets, such as in North Charleston, South Carolina (3,557) and Augusta, Georgia (3,297), and those certainly help draw the September average down. If you are looking to discredit AEW’s victory in September, it would be easy to focus on the fact that WWE runs more shows and drew more people (cumulatively) than AEW did in September, and if AEW ran house shows, their average total for the month would be lower.

On the flip side, house shows were actually not that bad for WWE in September despite a few small shows in tiny markets. In September WWE went on a house show tour of the UK, which was very successful. A show in London on Sept. 20 drew 13,650, WWE’s biggest crowd of the month. House shows in Glasgow and Newcastle also drew above-average numbers for WWE in September. So while house shows can work to draw the average number down, in September they also provided a significant boost to WWE’s total numbers.

In highlighting the importance of AEW topping WWE in live attendance in Sept., one has to look at the large advantages that WWE has over AEW that make a victory by AEW so unlikely. Some of these advantages are obvious, and some of them are less obvious but very important.

  1. WWE has a massive edge in brand awareness and institutional value. WWE has been around for decades, building generations of fans and running shows all over the world. WWE has a more widely viewed TV show, recognition from media that dwarfs AEW, and more money to spend on talent and live production. WWE is just a way, way bigger company than AEW and the attendance averages should never, ever be close given the historical advantages WWE has.
  2. SmackDown, WWE’s top show, tapes on Friday nights, one of the best nights in any entertainment industry for drawing fans. Running their biggest show on Friday nights is much better for drawing fans than on a weeknight, like Dynamite. Rampage does occasionally tape on Friday nights for AEW, although mainly the show tapes on the same day as Dynamite, which does not count as a separate house.
  3. WWE typically runs the largest, most well-known arenas in cities. These arenas typically are easier to get to (particularly through public transportation options) and are better for drawing fans. AEW often runs the “B” arena in different cities, which can be located further away from population centers and are harder to draw in.

A good example of the last point would be the respective shows in Cincinnati. On Sept. 8, AEW held a show in Cincinnati at the Fifth Third Arena, a smaller venue on the campus of the University of Cincinnati, further away from downtown Cincinnati (although with plenty of public transportation still available). AEW sold 6,800 tickets for the Dynamite in Cincinnati.

WWE ran a RAW show on Sept. 27 in Cincinnati and sold 5,473 tickets. RAW was in the larger Heritage Bank Arena, which is located right in downtown Cincinnati, neighboring the stadiums for the Cincinnati Reds and the Cincinnati Bengals. So despite WWE running a show in the same city, in a better venue with a better location, and all of the other huge historical and institutional advantages WWE has over AEW, Dynamite was still able to pretty substantially outdraw RAW in the city.

So people might consider Sept. a fluke, and that AEW was riding high off of the debuts of Punk and Danielson and will come back to earth, while WWE has the stability to hold on for the long haul. What can we expect in the long term? Can AEW hold its advantage over WWE? I think to properly illustrate what is taking place, we can look at three different examples of upcoming shows that highlight the trends we are seeing.

Example #1: RAW in San Francisco

An upcoming WWE show that is not doing very well is RAW in San Francisco on Oct. 11. That RAW will be taking place at the Chase Center in San Francisco, the new arena for the Golden State Warriors and the premier venue in the Bay Area, one of the largest markets in the country. As of Oct. 2, WWE has only sold 2,891 tickets for that show. Perhaps more damaging is that the company has only set the arena up for 4,102 tickets, so WWE doesn’t even have aspirations for selling many tickets in the venue, which can hold probably around 13,000-14,000 fans for a typical wrestling set-up.

By comparison, you can look at almost any episode of AEW Dynamite and see stronger ticket sales, often in smaller markets. How about Dynamite in Rochester, New York? AEW sold 7,098 tickets for the Sep. 29 Dynamite in Rochester at the Blue Cross Arena.

Think about the difference in those two markets for a second. The Bay Area is home to 9.67 million residents and is the fifth-largest metro area in the country. Rochester (which we will consider part of the Buffalo, NY metro area) is part of a metro area that is home to an estimated 1.1 million residents, the 49th largest in the country. There is no way WWE, the worldwide leader in wrestling for decades, should have only sold approximately 40% as many tickets for a show in San Francisco as AEW sold for a show in Rochester. It simply should not be happening.

Some fans will point out that the show in San Francisco starts very early for a weekday, since it has to start at 8 p.m. EST for TV, so it starts at 5 p.m. local time. That seems like an excuse though; it has never been an issue before for WWE on the West Coast, and SmackDown on Oct. 15 in Ontario, California has sold more than twice as many tickets with a 4:45 p.m. bell-time. The fact is that people really are not interested in watching RAW in San Francisco, compared to AEW in other, smaller markets. That should never happen, and yet here we are.

Example #2: The UBS Arena

Comparing shows in different arenas and different markets can be a challenge because of so many different variables, but what about an example of AEW and WWE running in the same market? WWE will be running RAW at the UBS Arena on Long Island, New York on Nov. 29. AEW will be taping Dynamite at the same arena a week later, on Dec. 8. It will be the first time for both companies in the new arena, and tickets went on sale at about the same time.

So far, the results are almost shocking. AEW has sold 7,318 tickets, as of Oct. 2. WWE has sold only 2,737. AEW, in the New York market which has been dominated by the McMahon family for well over 50 years, is simply annihilating WWE.

Some fans may argue that WWE has higher ticket prices, which is true. But according to WrestleTix, the difference in ticket prices really comes from floor seating, which neither company has much trouble selling. Tickets outside the floor are priced about the same; which is where both AEW and WWE typically have tickets they still need to sell. Both companies have a large enough fanbase of hardcore fans who will pay for the most expensive tickets, but the ability to attract the less-intense fan who is looking for a more economical night out is the difference-maker.

As the date draws closer, it will be interesting to see what WWE does if the ticket sales remain at their current rate. WWE will really not want to be embarrassed by doing far less in the arena a week before AEW, so WWE will try to put something big on the show to draw extra fans. The company doesn’t have Cena at the moment, who along with Brock Lesnar, salvaged the company’s Madison Square Garden Show when ticket sales were originally weak. What WWE does to try and sell more tickets for the UBS Arena show will be telling.

Example #3 Full Gear vs. Survivor Series

The biggest shows on the calendar for AEW and WWE are PPV events taking place in November. For AEW, it will be one of their four PPVs of the year in Full Gear on Nov. 13 in Minneapolis at the Target Center, the most prominent arena in the Twin Cities area. Full Gear was originally scheduled for St. Louis the week before, but was moved a week later when a large UFC PPV was announced for the same date.

Moving the show to Minneapolis was considered a somewhat risky move; Minneapolis had not shown a particular fondness for AEW historically, as Dave Meltzer pointed out, the interest in Google Searches from Minneapolis for AEW-related events was much less significant to interest in WWE events, and it felt like a WWE-town. However, tickets have been moving swiftly for the event since they first went on sale, and the company has sold approximately 8,000 tickets after the first few days.

For WWE, the largest show left is Survivor Series, the second-oldest PPV in company history and the final of the “Big 4” PPVs that WWE runs every year. This year Survivor Series will be at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Dave Meltzer predicted that it would be an easy sell-out given the history of WWE running PPVs in New York City.

Ticket information for Survivor Series has been more difficult to find due to the Barclays Center switching to having Seat Geek, as opposed to Ticketmaster, being the sole seller of face-value tickets for events. On Sept. 26, WrestleTix reported that 6,199 tickets out of an available 9,006 had been sold for Survivor Series. Dave Meltzer stated on Oct. 2 that Full Gear was ahead of Survivor Series in total tickets sold.

Similar to the results in San Francisco, for WWE this should be considered unexpectable. New York is their home market and by far the biggest metro area in the country, and Survivor Series is a major PPV that some hardcore fans, especially fans living in the Northeast, would be traveling too. To not be drawing as well as an AEW show in Minneapolis, a city they were not even expected to do particularly well in, should be a real wake-up call.

Again, the ticket prices for Survivor Series are higher than for Full Gear, but the reason for that goes back to the markets they are running. New York is a much wealthier city than Minneapolis with more affluent people in the area, willing to pay “New York prices” for entertainment. WWE’s product simply isn’t matching up that standard, and fans are disinterested in attending the show.

What does all this mean?

So what does this mean? AEW had a big September and things look promising in the coming months. WWE still holds a number of big advantages, including running more house shows and selling more cumulative tickets, being able to charge higher prices, and in some cities still hold big advantages (WWE has done better in Florida and Texas this Summer than AEW, for one example) over the competition.

The gap appears to be closing though, and AEW feels like a company gaining momentum thanks to the additions of Punk and Danielson, while WWE attempts to tread water at their current level, which isn’t particularly impressive to begin with now that Cena has gone back to Hollywood. In October, WWE may regain the lead in average live attendance, but the fact that it was close enough for AEW to win a month is astonishing given where the companies were two years ago.

Live attendance of course is just one measure of success. The real money today is in TV deals, which means that ratings are more critical to becoming the industry leader than anything else. But does AEW surpassing WWE in ticket sales indicate that a future rise in TV viewership is on the horizon?

Dave Meltzer has pointed out historically that jumps in live attendance typically predate jumps in television viewership. The evidence of this includes WCW in the mid-90s, who saw live attendance improve in 1995 before the TV ratings for Nitro took off the following year. The WWF experienced similar growth a couple of years later, as Steve Austin proved to be a good draw at the box office before he drew big numbers on TV.

We’ve learned during the pandemic and the empty-arena wrestling era that atmosphere matters a lot when it comes to TV ratings. AEW’s crowds being louder (and in recent weeks, bigger) than WWE audiences may provide them with an advantage on TV, although both companies do a stellar job at making every arena they are in appear full, even if it’s not even close to a sold-out show. AEW doing a show in front of nearly 20,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium gives off a superior atmosphere than a RAW or a SmackDown that is in front of 5-8,000 fans in a regular basketball arena; and we have seen over the past two years that atmosphere really makes a difference.

Lastly, it has been said not just in wrestling, but across pop culture in general, that New York is ahead of the curve and what first becomes big in New York will become big across the country. AEW leaping ahead of WWE in the New York market may prove to be a troubling sign for WWE, who has historically used success in the city as a barometer for their plans across the globe. AEW is ahead right now in the New York market; will that trend spread to other markets? Only time will tell.

AEW has in a lot of ways surpassed WWE as a hot ticket in the wrestling world. WWE still holds an almost insurmountable lead in overall revenue and the market as a legacy company that has generations of fans. But much like Dynamite topping RAW in the key demo, AEW is here to challenge WWE much earlier than expected, and AEW topping WWE in September, and looking to continue to be in the pole position in other markets, is a real issue for WWE and a huge win for AEW.

In the latest episode of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) discuss WWE and AEW both giving away major matches on television, the business sense behind giving away those matches on cable, WWE hot shotting major matches to stay ahead of AEW and more.