The first real battle of the Friday Night Wars ended with what would be considered on paper, extremely anti-climatic fashion. AEW Rampage and WWE SmackDown ended in a basic tie in the key demo, with both shows drawing a .24 for their broadcasts.

For banter on social media, nothing could be more chaotic. Since the shows tied, tribalists on both sides can claim victory. But, what if we get away from the tribalist aspects from the Friday Night Wars and look at the results in a more impartial fashion? What do the numbers really tell us and how should each promotion be feeling following the deadlock?

For starters, the companies didn’t really tie. In a few markets, SmackDown didn’t air on FS1 and thus gained a small number of fans who were watching on local networks and gained a small advantage in the key demo (estimated to be 17,000 additional viewers). However, according to Pro Wrestling Torch, during the 30-minutes the two shows went directly head-to-head, Rampage beat SmackDown with 328,000 viewers in the key demo, ahead of SmackDown’s 285,000.

From a pure numbers perspective, WWE’s performance would be considered better. Ask any network executive if they would rather have a show pull a .24 for 2.5 hours or 1 hour and they would take the longer show every time. WWE sustaining the .24 for a longer period makes their property more valuable, and why you will never see RAW go back to being under three hours. Being able to fill television time with a stable audience is the name of the game, and few entities are better at doing that each week than WWE.

With that being said, the real story is that the numbers were a tie (or very close) in the first place. WWE has so many institutional advantages over AEW that the numbers head-to-head should never be close, and yet two years after AEW debuted on television, the company has been able to draw level with WWE (or at least for this week) in a head-to-head matchup. WWE’s number may be more valuable to TV executives at the moment, but it also reflects how much ground WWE has ceded to AEW already.

Rampage did have one advantage going into the night over SmackDown, and that was that it was airing on its normal channel, TNT. TNT is in an estimated 90 million American homes, according to data from www.broadbandnow.com. That is higher than FS1 which is in an estimated 84 million American homes. TNT is also a much more popular network on average than FS1, even if the gap in total number of homes isn’t that much larger. For one night at least, Rampage was on a stronger network.

Some fans will point out that FS1 is a very weak network in comparison to TNT, and thus, AEW should be expected to fare well against SmackDown. I think that kind of misses the point; while the average show on FS1 does poorly, big events on FS1 can do quite well, as we have seen in the past few weeks as their MLB playoff games have been near the top of the cable charts when they are on. SmackDown is a show that usually is near the top of the charts on Network TV, so it should be expected to perform similarly to MLB.

The other telling issue is that SmackDown typically gets over two million viewers each week on FOX. FOX is a network station and one of the most popular stations in the industry, which gives SmackDown a huge edge each week. FOX is in 114 million homes. So FS1 is in 73% of the homes that FOX is available in, so I think it’s reasonable to expect that 73% of SmackDown’s normal viewership would be tuning into SmackDown on FS1.

That didn’t happen though, instead only about 40% of the regular total viewership tuned into SmackDown on FS1, a really low number. Sure, some fans may have not known that SmackDown was airing on FS1 and couldn’t find the station on Friday night, but that number cannot be that large. WWE hyped up that SmackDown would be on FS1 for weeks, and also advertised it heavily on NFL and MLB games in the week leading up to it.

The data suggest that SmackDown’s advantages are really tied into appearing on powerful network television, and that many regular network viewers will not follow the show to a cable alternative. This is consistent with what a lot of fans believe about the WWE vs AEW debate; that WWE’s advantages are institutional and not directly related to the respective quality of the product. WWE being around for a long time and having a historically large fanbase has earned them the deal with a powerful network, but take that network away and WWE struggles to remain ahead of AEW.

Another notable aspect from Friday is the comparison to the respective cards each company produced. WWE put together one of the biggest cards of the year for SmackDown; with a match between Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch and a promised confrontation between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns. WWE was looking to take aim at AEW by saving both of those key segments for the extra half-hour that would run directly opposite of Rampage.

Rampage on the other hand didn’t have a particularly notable card; it sported CM Punk in a match against a lower mid-card guy in Matt Sydal, as well Chris Jericho in a tag team match that also featured Junior dos Santos wrestling. Rampage had a solid card, but the company easily could have went all-out in promoting a bigger show; as many top stars including Bryan Danielson, The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Jon Moxley, Britt Baker, Darby Allin and other notable drawing cards were not on the show.

This has been a consistent theme for AEW in their relationship to WWE. While Tony Khan may talk a big game on Twitter about the battle for supremacy with WWE, the booking of AEW doesn’t really suggest the company is desperately trying to get ahead of WWE. Instead, the company produces cards that work at their own pace and avoid doing big matches until they feel like it’s the right time to do them. WWE on the other hand can be more prone to overreacting to poor numbers one week, and will be throwing out major matches with little build to try and pop a rating.

WWE tried to kill AEW on Friday night; but ended up with a draw. For a company with so many institutional advantages and a 50-year head start, it leads to a lot of questions about the future industry leader. One of the main reasons WWE was so adamant about killing AEW on Friday was that when they negotiate their next TV deals, they do not want networks to look at another wrestling company that is doing competitive numbers to them. On Friday, those networks got an important data point for negotiation season: there actually is another wrestling company that can do the same number as WWE.

In the grand scheme of things; we are unlikely to be headed towards a WWF vs WCW situation where one company clearly vanquishes the other. One company might be ahead of the other, but it looks like the landscape can support two powerful wrestling companies. The battle for supremacy is fun to talk about, but at the end of the day, wrestling remains very popular on television and both companies can exist in a healthy environment, even if there is a lot of hostility between them.

In the latest episode of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) discuss Ring of Honor. The guys go over ROH’s strengths and weaknesses in 2021, how it has lost its place as the innovators in pro wrestling, what it can do to get back on track, potential working agreements with AEW and more.