When Voices of Wrestling editor Rich Kraetsch said the data from their annual Match of the Year poll was available for people to play around with, my interest was immediately piqued. I like playing around with fun data because so much of my professional time is spent playing around with boring data. (Last time I did this, I interrogated 10+ years’ worth of data collected playing my favorite board game.) 

I sat in front of the spreadsheet with very few preconceived ideas, mostly interested in looking at the data and seeing what ideas bubbled up. 

What came to mind first eventually was to look at some of the most common narratives that have emerged in wrestling in the last five years or so, and see if this data reinforces  or disproves them (while accepting that even a large sample of data about match quality is, of course, not a reflection on business trends or other factors.)

That led me to look into three ideas of my own and a bonus idea that bubbled up on the Voices of Wrestling discord channel. So here’s an attempt, grounded in fun and not to be taken too seriously, to answer the following questions:

  1. Did AEW “kill the US indies”?
  2. Did NXT UK “kill the British & Irish indies”?
  3. Did match quality suffer in the COVID “no fans era”?
  4. Is the era of great matches during WrestleMania Weekend over?

Data Analysis Notes

I took the data file Rich has collated over the 11 years of running the poll and made some modifications:

  • I added a “Major” or “Indie” tag for every promotion. I tried to keep it simple and stick to companies with significant financial muscle. The list of majors: in the USA: WWE, AEW, ROH & TNA; in Mexico: CMLL & AAA; and in Japan: NJPW, STARDOM, NOAH, DDT & TJPW. The “indies” are everyone else. 
  • I added a Country tag for every company. This relates to the company’s home base, not necessarily where their events occur, e.g., all AEW matches are tagged as USA, even if the match was held elsewhere. There is one exception to this rule, which was NXT UK, which I classified as the UK, as they exclusively operated in the UK, unlike, for example, an NJPW show in the US.
  • To identify shows during WrestleMania Weekend, I picked any show that happened on the Sunday of Wrestlemania and/or in the preceding 5 days.
  • I was concerned about “inflation” rates with voting because the number of voters has increased yearly, with an average increase of 17% per year. While this does lead to more matches getting voted for every year, when I looked at the percentage of ballots for the top matches every year, it’s a very consistent band running from the high 50s to low 70s. This makes me feel like enough consensus is there, and that was enough for me not to worry about inflation too much.

Q1: Did AEW Kill the US Indies?

This is a narrative that has existed since before the first AEW show even happened and one that has persisted ever since. Before we can understand the impact of AEW, we should first look at the macro trend for matches put on by US companies over the life of the poll:

What we see here is that pre-AEW – and to some extent pre-COVID restrictions ending – the US trend is pretty consistent between 2014 and 2020, before it blows up in 2021, which we can, in fact, attribute to AEW:

What we see here is that in some magical, highly theoretical world in which AEW doesn’t exist, the relatively flat trend of US Matches continues. 

That said, in this world maybe the indies stay stronger and maybe NXT 2.0 never happens with Takeovers continuing to deliver high-quality matches. Then again, all those things happened between 2017 and 2019, and the US numbers barely increased then. 

So we have established that in the post-AEW age, we can clearly see a positive impact on Match of the Year votes coming out of the US. But, to the actual point here, what did this mean for the indies?

We’ll get there, but first, let’s factor in something else that people said hurt the US indies: Peak “Black and Gold” era NXT and the “warehousing” of top indie talent that was happening in 2018 and 2019. As this warehousing impact was primarily an impact to the indie “all stars,” I collated the numbers for a representative Top 5 of US indie companies, for which I selected AAW, Beyond, EVOLVE, GCW, and PWG. (Basically the places with the biggest presence and most likely to book those “all-star” talents.)

When we look at their vote totals over time, compared to NXT, we do see a shift in the numbers during that warehousing period:

I think it’s clear from this chart that we can see that the indies were already coming down from their mid-decade peak before AEW arrived on the scene. So if not dying, the indies were certainly at least wounded already. But what impact did AEW have?

What we see is that the steep rise of AEW, contributes to a continued decrease of votes coming out of those “Top 5” indies, but just as much, if not more so, AEW completely ate NXT’s lunch. 

As easy as it is to say that COVID hurt these indies – and it definitely did, especially PWG – the continued downward trend for US indie matches over the last two years tells us that this is not an issue caused only by AEW, especially when you factor in that with that voter inflation, in theory votes for these “Top 5” indies should have continued to increase, but did not. 

Question: Did AEW kill the US indies? 

Conclusion: No (but it appears to be dying of a thousand small cuts.)

Q2: Did WWE “kill the British & Irish Indies”?

While I was thinking about Question 1, specifically when realizing that NXT started the collapse of the US Indie vote totals long before AEW showed up, I got to thinking about the narrative that WWE, by launching NXT UK, and partnering with PROGRESS, killed the UK and Irish indie scene. What can the data tell us for this narrative? Will it tell us, much like Pete Dunne did, that the UK scene could thrive with WWE getting involved? Spoiler alert: Butch was categorically incorrect. (But it might not have all been because of WWE…)

As we did with the US, let’s first start with the macro picture of the UK & Ireland over time  (which, reminder, includes NXT UK.)

What we see here, not unlike what we did in the US, is a peak before COVID and AEW, followed by a slump thereafter and a slow recovery. But was the slump caused by NXT UK?

 Let’s look at the vote totals broken out with the NXT and Ireland (actually just OTT) separated out from the rest of the UK:

It’s somewhat hard to put that 2019 decline at the door of NXT. 

There’s a clear slump in the UK line that year, presumably as many of the top UK stars are now hanging out in a warehouse in London, but there’s no equivalent uptick in the NXT UK line either. OTT is holding strong, but not growing either, so there’s no obvious thing to point to in 2019. Or is there? 

At the same time, WWE scooped up some of the top UK stars, AEW picked up a couple and a few more spent more time in Japan. The talent drain started with WWE but did not end with them. Then COVID happened, and was such a significant external factor that we cannot assess further the WWE impact. It also means we cannot properly assess the Pete Dunne theory about WWE helping grow the scene (which I always thought was obvious bullshit.) 

All of which is to say: we will never really know how things would have shaken out in the UK, because what really hurt the UK scene was twin-fold: COVID and Speaking Out.

The impact of COVID wasn’t just a lack of shows in the UK. Due to travel restrictions, it also cut off access to fly-in talent from the US, Mexico and Japan, who were a key factor in many of the matches that earned votes in previous years. 

The impact of Speaking Out was a further winnowing of the domestic talent pool and a bad taste in the mouth of fans, at a time they already couldn’t go to shows. This is what seems to have really killed the scene. Let’s look at vote totals for the 3 biggest companies in the UK & Ireland scene:

PROGRESS, long the top dog in votes here, and OTT, the number two, lost all their momentum and never recovered. 

Meanwhile, RevPro, who largely avoided most of the Speaking Out blowback, is thriving. No doubt, this is also somewhat on the back of having access to Will Ospreay and other NJPW talent.

Question: Did WWE “kill the British & Irish Indies”?

Conclusion: No (Speaking Out and COVID did.)

Q3: Did match quality suffer in the COVID “No Crowd Era”?

I’m not sure if this one is a “narrative” so much as it is my own assumption, but looking back on 2020 and 2021, I don’t remember enjoying all that much wrestling, certainly not compared to the years immediately before and immediately after. 

The lack of fans is the main issue, a personal sense of dread in that time was certainly another, but also there was some fairly uninspired booking happening too. Fairly, in some cases. I understand not wanting to burn good stuff on empty arenas.

To assess the impact to match quality in those years, let’s once again start by orienting ourselves with the macro trend, this time the total number of matches getting votes every year:

This surprised me a little. I assumed we would see significantly fewer matches in 2020 than the prior year(s), because with fewer matches in general, and an assumption of fewer great matches, surely the numbers would drop as voters coalesce around fewer matches? In fact, we see an annual decrease of only 1% from 2019, so that didn’t happen. 

One factor we cannot exclude is the increase in voters in 2020, which was up 20% from 2019 (the biggest increase since the first three years of the poll, perhaps because with more time to fill while quarantining at home, people got more adventurous in their watching habits and filled up their notebooks?)

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that there was a decrease in 2020, and it was only the second time in the poll’s history there was a decrease, so there is something to dig into here. (I took a sidebar and tried to figure out what happened in 2017, but I couldn’t find anything obvious)

To figure out more about the decrease, I decided to look at the country-level view of the votes, and broke that down into the three major markets, of USA, Mexico and Japan plus the Rest of the World:

Right from the jump, we see a couple of things:

  1. Mexico just got killed in 2020, dropping 70% from 2019. Initially, my take on this was that lucha as a style needs fans more than most other styles, but RIch kindly pointed out to me that between April and August of 2020, AAA and CMLL put on a combined 5 shows, so this was really about a lack of matches
  2. In Japan, somewhat unexpectedly, the number of matches increased by 12% from 2019. There’s a lot to dig into here, so let’s do that.

In part, I chalk the Japan 2020 numbers to how much Japan can ‘over-index’ for great matches in Japan, between all the New Year shows around Tokyo, boosted further by the first-ever two-night Wrestle Kingdom event. Getting all those great matches in the bank before the shutdowns kicked in certainly helped.  It was not the only factor, though. 

I went into this with the assumption that the Japanese votes each year would be a majority of NJPW matches, and while that was true in many years where NJPW was often 50% or more of the vote, that trend was easing pre-COVID (and has ended since.) I’m not sure I know why exactly, but I am assuming more/better VOD access is part of it. 

What is clear, however, is that the NJPW vote share took a bigger beating in the no fans era than other Japanese promotions, with NJPW votes decreasing in 2020, while votes for other groups increased. The two biggest individual drivers of those increases are interesting case studies, STARDOM and NOAH:

  • STARDOM jumped 25% on its 2019 total with the Bushiroad-era and its associated marketing efforts now in full swing, with Rossy Ogawa being unafraid to book interesting things during this time, and with STARDOM catching some attention outside of its core fanbase thanks to the Syuri vs. Utami Hayashishita hype cycle.
  • NOAH jumped 70% (!) on its 2019 total. I am not a regular NOAH viewer, so I have nothing solid here. Primarily, my assumption is that the hard-hitting house style of NOAH translated better to the no-fans era. Katsuhiko Nakajima kicking the fuck out of a guy looks great in a full room, or an empty room, basically. (If you have a better theory, please let me know)

The real low point in Japan, however, was 2021, a true down year across all of Japan, the first and only time Japanese matches received fewer votes than the prior year. This happened at the same time that the US and Mexico were experiencing bounce backs in their vote totals. This is easily explained by Japanese government restrictions not ending mid-2021 like they did in the US and Mexico. 

What about the US during the no fan era? Well, somewhat accidentally, we mostly covered that above in the AEW vs Indies section, because the addition of AEW as a net-new organization – 2020 was their first full calendar year – added so much match volume that the overall number of US votes was slightly up from the year before. 

We can only imagine what it would have looked like otherwise, but if we go back to the “AEW does not exist” chart from Section 1, we see that if you take AEW out of the US pool, US matches go down by a theoretical 14%, instead of the 3% increase we actually saw. Which sounds about right to me in a theoretical hellscape world that is pandemic wrestling in the US that only has the Thunderdome and a dying US indie scene.

Question: Did match quality suffer in the COVID “No Crowd Era”

Conclusion: Yes (but not as much as I expected.)

Q4: Is the era of great matches during WrestleMania Weekend over?

Our final question, and hopefully, the simplest. 

If you listened to the episode of The Flagship Wrestling podcast that was released on 2/2, you’d have heard the somewhat depressing preview of WrestleMania Weekend the guys did. Between the two-day WrestleMania event and the weakened US indie scene, there is a narrative that says that ‘Mania Weekend is dying and the great matches it produces are going with it.

What does our data say?

Ignoring 2020, because all the indie shows were canceled that year and also setting aside the incredible peak of 2019 (I was there, that really was a great mania weekend), the three post-COVID years have produced more great matches than the 2016-2018 period did. So I feel confident saying that Mania weekend hasn’t died yet.

I had to ask myself, how much of that post-COVID mania weekend was because of Ring of Honor, like is Ring of Honor propping up mania weekend now? The data says no, again as the overall trend is almost identical.

I’ll be interested to revisit this in a years, because, as of this writing, there is no Ring of Honor show booked, STARDOM just imploded potentially affecting the quality of their upcoming show in Philadelphia, the Mark Hitchcock Memorial SuperShow likely has fewer unsigned luchadors to book than ever, WWE appears to be back to fighting with its fans, and the local indies are revisiting ECW for the one-hundredth time, so this might be a truly low year for Mania Weekend.

Question: Is the era of great matches during WrestleMania Weekend over?

Conclusion: No (or, at least not yet.)