In the wee hours of Sunday, AEW owner Tony Khan was talking about the Continental Classic when the dropped the following quote (emphasis mine):
“I think that if people want to see the sports-based presentation in every match, there’s 33 matches in the Continental Classic, so get ready, strap in, get ready. Every Wednesday and Saturday, the same people who don’t want to see any outside interference – I’m not bullshitting, I’m dead serious – if you don’t want to see any outside interference, if you want to see straight wrestling at its very best in a great field, then put your money where your fucking mouth is. Wednesdays and Saturdays, I expect to see you strapped in, because we are going to put on the best wrestling tournament with some great matches.”
First of all, let’s not even talk about the wrestling aspect of things. Tony Khan isn’t entitled to a cent from any customer. If customers feel like your product is no longer what they want or need, they’re under no obligation to continue giving you money. Thinking otherwise is psychotic. Khan’s job is to provide a product that people want to spend money on; if people aren’t doing that, then that’s a Tony Khan problem that needs a solution, not a consumer problem.
Let’s talk actual wrestling now.
AEW’s main event has taken a dramatic turn towards a sports entertainment style of booking compared to the company’s previous four years. The promotion has continued to move away from an emphasis on storylines centering on the results of matches to a focus on storylines dependent on segments away from the ring.
The theory, primarily based on arguments from loud randos on Twitter, is that AEW can’t appeal to the general public without adopting WWE-style storylines. This is where all of the “Tony Khan can’t tell stories” arguments came from. If you follow the logic, the adoption of the central tenets of WWE’s booking will cause AEW to grow larger & become more successful. Even if this makes some original hardcore fans unhappy, it would be the financially wise move.
The problem is, if you make this pivot and it fails, then you’ve only succeeded in driving off your original core customer base without replacing them with other customers that the newer approach appeals to.
And this is exactly where AEW is, according to a recent study by Wrestlenomics.
Year over year, the third quarter of 2023 saw a 11% drop in overall viewership of AEW Dynamite and a 20% drop in overall viewership of AEW Rampage, against a 3% rise in overall viewership of TBS & TNT original programming. If you focus on the key demo, there’s a 14% drop in AEW Dynamite viewership and a 19% drop in AEW Rampage viewership, both against a 2% drop in the key demo viewership of TBS & TNT original programming. The ticket distribution for the average AEW Dynamite in Q3 2023 is down by 4% year over year as well. And over that year, the sports entertainment aspect of AEW’s creative has increased with the creation & continuation of the Adam Cole & MJF Brochachos storyline and the shift of Toni Storm’s character to “Timeless Toni,” amongst other changes.
More worrying than the drop in business for AEW is the public-facing misidentification of why consumers are losing interest in their product. Reread the Tony Khan quote from the start of this article. Khan isn’t commenting on fans rejecting the sports entertainment storylines, but instead focusing on fans complaining about the usage of interference. For better or worse, interference has always been part of AEW storylines from the company’s start. That’s not the dramatic shift in the creative of the company, but this is the strawman Khan propped up so he could berate his customer base.
Or consider MJF’s favored “different flavors of ice cream” analogy that he uses at seemingly every pay-per-view scrum. Wrestling has always benefitted from having different types of matches and characters up and down its shows. But if you heavily begin featuring a certain “flavor” of wrestling at the same time that you have a noticeable drop in your business metrics, then the only logical conclusion is that your customers are rejecting that flavor.
This leads to the most concerning aspect of all of this.
If AEW leadership is unable or unwilling to analyze their business patterns and conclude that they need to change their business approach to satisfy their customers, then they cannot properly run a successful company.
A “no, it’s the children that are wrong” approach to AEW’s existing core audience will only continue to push them away and further decrease AEW’s popularity and financial success.
Listen to Voices of Wrestling’s AEW podcast: The Good, The Bad, and The Hungee!
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