On July 26, 2022, I wrote a column entitled “For AEW, the Vince McMahon Advantage Is Gone.” That column listed how AEW would find a harder time doing business with Paul Levesque taking control of WWE’s creative process. His more contemporary vision of pro wrestling (relative to Vince), combined with the personal relationships he cultivated as the head of NXT would make negotiations and dealings with talent harder. Plus, hopeful fans would be more willing to give a Hunter-led WWE a chance to impress them, which would mitigate the hunger for an alternative. It was going to be one of AEW’s greatest challenges to overcome.
That challenge went away with one press release on January 5, 2023.
Press release from Vince McMahon himself.
— Brandon Thurston (@BrandonThurston) January 5, 2023
Somehow, Palpatine returned.
After a retirement that rivaled Tom Brady’s in both its incredulity and its brevity, Vince McMahon is back. As chief shareholder, he strong-armed his way back into his old role as Chairman of the Board, knocking a few dissenting voices from the board in the process. While McMahon claims that this is to oversee the next round of television deals, and while he claims that a sale of the company is being considered, it’s hard to see the logic of the 77-year-old man taking his power back by force only to voluntarily give it up again in two years time.
Vince McMahon is back in control, rendering everything WWE gained with his departure completely futile. The glass ceilings have been reinstalled and fortified. The preconceived notions about stardom have returned. And the hope of Levesque’s long-term vision of the promotion being realized has quickly faded away. However, not all was lost in these past six months. There was much to be learned from the actions and reactions of the leading parties.
When it comes to business practices, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to Vince and his son-in-law. Several years ago, we watched Levesque pick apart the thriving European independent scene to form NXT UK, a show with a fraction of the notoriety of its US counterpart. He ran the exact same playbook McMahon used four decades ago to run his competition out of business. Enter the scene offering exposure and opportunity, only to cherry-pick the top talent and leave the scene barren of buzz and ticket-selling talent. Maybe offer a promoter or two office jobs to fully co-opt their promotion.
When Levesque took control of WWE creative, he tried another one of McMahon’s tried and true methods of acquiring talent: poaching them from their opposition. It is public knowledge that WWE contacted Swerve Strickland to try and get him to return to the company when they brought back his old group Hit Row. While Swerve gave them the cold shoulder, other people in AEW who worked under the NXT banner suddenly had issues that took them off of television. Whether it was due to them needing to “recalibrate” or if it was them seemingly trying to get themselves fired by getting into backstage scuffles, there were several talents who seemed to want to get out of their AEW deals at the same time.
Unfortunately for Levesque, things weren’t as easy as they were for Vince. These guys weren’t on handshake deals that could be reneged on with no notice like in Vince’s day. They were signed to long-term contracts with AEW, who have never made a habit of cutting people from their roster. Any plans of an NXT Black and Gold Era revival were shut down quickly, with Tony Khan noting publicly that he had the money and the will to fight them off.
"I have a lot more money than Jim Crockett did and I'm not going to take this fucking shit."-Tony Khan#AEWAllOut
— Jason Hagholm (@JHagholm1) September 5, 2022
Levesque had to settle for bringing in talents with, to put it kindly, lesser name value.
Despite the issues, Levesque’s rise brought on, as well as unrelated issues that came about the old-fashioned way, AEW survived a stressful back-end of 2022. Their television shows since Full Gear have gotten praise for their focus and elevation of talent, while their average TV ratings for Dynamite in 2022 finished essentially even with their ratings from 2021 despite the roster disarray.
AEW Dynamite finishes 2022 with an average of 960,000 viewers, +2% versus 2021 (942,000).
And an average P18-49 rating of 0.34, -3% from last year (0.36).
Excluding any preemptions. pic.twitter.com/FQ8FkfFRQd
— Brandon Thurston (@BrandonThurston) December 29, 2022
Meanwhile, under Triple H’s watch, WWE squandered the post-Vince interest in their television by churning out the same product, changing only minor details those checking back in either didn’t notice or didn’t care enough about to stick around. WWE’s TV ratings were also essentially even year-over-year, meaning that the mid-year booking change did nothing for business on a big scale. While both shows finished even to their positions from last year, it felt more like an accomplishment for AEW and an indictment of WWE due to the circumstances both promotions were faced with over the past year.
WWE Monday Night Raw ends 2022 averaging 1,758,000 viewers, virtually equal to its 2021 average (1,756,000).
P18-49 average rating was 0.47, -6% from last year's 0.50.
Calculation excludes Syfy preemptions and this week's "Best of" ep. W/ "Best of" averages are 1,745,000; 0.47. pic.twitter.com/HEuGUyc8Xm
— Brandon Thurston (@BrandonThurston) December 29, 2022
As we start 2023, both sides have essentially gotten back where they started in January of 2022. Despite the massive industry-shifting events the last year has seen, Vince McMahon and his whims still loom large over WWE, while Tony Khan and AEW still feel like the strong alternative they set out to be when the promotion started. Khan has even joked about the difference the last few days have brought about on Twitter.
Everyone at work is being so nice to me these past 24 hours!
I wonder why…
It must be belated holiday spirit.
— Tony Khan (@TonyKhan) January 6, 2023
But while their positions remain the same, the insight that has been gained over the last year has to be used wisely. For Tony Khan, he has seen the difference between the people who respect AEW as a destination and the people who see it as career rehab for WWE. For Vince McMahon, he has seen his fiefdom taken from him only to take it back and eliminate those who threatened his rule. And for Paul Levesque, he has seen the position and the power that he had been waiting on for over twenty years be snatched away from him without the slightest of warning.
In one fell swoop, AEW regained their biggest trump card and their biggest asset to success. And now, with the knowledge that a Triple H reign at the top of the company did little to change anything, that trump card only grew stronger. On July 26, 2022, I wrote a column entitled “For AEW, the Vince McMahon Advantage Is Gone.”
What a silly thought that was.