For nearly 20 years, being the second-biggest wrestling promotion in the United States was an empty distinction. In that time, Impact, Ring of Honor, and New Japan Pro Wrestling have battled for number two but mostly failed to achieve relevance in the mainstream.
In 2019, All Elite Wrestling was founded, and the wrestling community heard the same things as it had countless times before. “They have money. They have talent. They have television.” Once AEW finally hit the air in October, they proved it was more than just talk. They were a high-level company and a legitimate number two.
After only three months on television, AEW was renewed by WarnerMedia through 2023.
2020 provided a set of circumstances that would kill most companies in their first year of life. No ticket sales from fans in the building, no arenas to use, and a handful of big hitters on the roster missing from TV. AEW navigated these roadblocks en route to dominating NXT in head-to-head competition. While 2020 was more successful than anyone would have expected in March 2021 was a year that would see AEW take a step forward. A year big enough that it may have changed how people view upstart wrestling companies forever.
The start of 2021 felt like an extension of 2020. Solid (mostly) empty arena shows in Daily’s Place, solid matches, and a solid pay-per-view. AEW won the Wednesday Night War in April when NXT moved to Tuesdays. In May, AEW had its first pay-per-view with fans in attendance since Revolution 2020. From July-November, AEW’s long-term booking was met with good fortune, giving AEW more momentum than had been seen in wrestling for years. July saw AEW’s return to the road, record ratings, and rumors of CM Punk returning to wrestling. August saw Rampage’s debut, the United Center’s sellout, and the AEW debut of CM Punk. September saw an all-time great pay-per-view in All Out, ending with the surprise debuts of Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson and breaking the record for AEW pay-per-view buys.
Later in September, Dynamite beat Raw for the first time in the 18-49 demo. To round out the year, AEW paid off the Hangman Page story after two years of build. Perhaps more importantly, WWE was underperforming during this time.
Lightning in a bottle.
In the time since AEW has lost a little bit of steam as wrestling companies do. The injury bug hit in 2022, the ratings dipped, and news of backstage drama became more frequent. This crescendoed in September when CM Punk used a public presser as his forum to air his grievances with his coworkers, leading to a fight backstage and several suspensions. Combining these factors has seen AEW take a perception hit among fans on social media and pundits. Many of these factors are normal and even expected in the strange professional wrestling industry.
What online discussion seems to miss is how abnormal the degree of success was for this startup wrestling company.
It isn’t normal to land television on a prominent network with no shows to your name.
It isn’t normal for a wrestling company to have almost no news of backstage drama.
It isn’t normal to average nearly six figures in buys for pay-per-views; even TNA, at its peak, only hit 60,000. It isn’t normal to have a star return from a seven-year absence while you steal two world champions from the competition. Lastly and most importantly, it isn’t normal to beat the 20-year market leader less than two years into your life on television. Things not being the same doesn’t mean that AEW is on the verge of demise. It does mean that everything went right for AEW in the back half of 2021, and perfection is not sustainable.
Being the number-one company in the world is an obsession for many wrestling fans. It has been an obsession for promotions in the past, and it ended up killing or crippling them. The drive to be number one drove WCW out of business and drove Impact to Mondays and, shortly after that, back to Thursdays in disgrace.
Though AEW was able to meet a sagging WWE early in its life, that should have never been the expectation. In the same way, it made sense for AEW to have large increases in year-over-year numbers in 2021, it makes sense that numbers have decreased after the magic of 2021. It is also worth noting that AEW’s competition is riding a wave of goodwill it did not have in 2021.
Unfortunately, success has been reduced to a binary judgment in the wrestling community. Your company is either hot, or it’s cold.
While AEW couldn’t supplant WWE at the top of the wrestling world, they are still the strongest alternative the wrestling business has seen in over 20 years. AEW’s television partner is clearly happy with them, and even with the declining numbers, they are still some of the highest on Wednesday nights. What is clear is that AEW has learned from the second-place promotions of the past and is going to stay the course. AEW hasn’t chosen to abandon its long-term strategy for short-term success.
For now, number two is not a bad place to be.
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