One of the key distinctions WWE made when Cody Rhodes returned to the company was to immediately position him as one of the biggest stars in the company. Outside of Roman Reigns, Cody has almost undisputedly been the company’s biggest star since he returned to WWE two years ago, and if you consider that Reigns rarely appears on WWE programming, Rhodes has easily been the most valuable star in the company.

While Rhodes was always presented as one of the major stars of AEW, when he returned to WWE, it was clear he was being pushed in a way he was never pushed before. Rhodes was featured throughout episodes of RAW, popping up in multiple segments each night. A digital countdown clock memorably hyped his appearances to remind fans when he was going to be on the show.

In a lot of ways, this felt like a lesson from WWE. This was how you presented a wrestler as a big star–you put them all over the product, you advertised the hell out of them, and you always made sure they were engaged in some angle or feud. Rhodes’ star power increased accordingly–it wasn’t just that he was in WWE that made him a bigger star, it was very much how he was presented as an over-the-top babyface that was all over the product at every turn.

I’ve written and said on a number of occasions that this was something AEW should adopt from WWE–whether you like WWE or not, one of the clear advantages they have over AEW is a commitment to pushing a few singular stars, and that the chosen few WWE wrestlers who get pushed to the moon feel like bigger stars than anyone in AEW, even if AEW’s quality of product is superior.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that more, and I wonder if that is the wrong way to look at AEW and what it should be doing to remain successful.

The idea that wrestling is a business built around singular star power has been hammered into our heads for generations. Companies need to have that one mega, life-changing star in order to draw huge. Hulk Hogan in the 80s, or Steve Austin in the late 1990s, etc. Everything from a business perspective starts with having that megastar to build everything around and to sell tickets and get people watching on TV.

That may be true if the goal of a wrestling company is to be the dominant force in the wrestling industry–but is that AEW’s ultimate goal? That doesn’t seem likely. AEW is looking to be a viable alternative, not necessarily take out WWE as the industry leader, which is an impossible task. With that understanding, it’s important to focus on what AEW needs to do to remain a viable alternative.

The notion of needing to have that one megastar is a lesson that WWE has taught to wrestling fans. Since that is how WWE has built its product since the days of Bruno Sammartino, that reflexively becomes the “right” way to promote a wrestling company for most wrestling fans. When AEW is discussed, that strategy, the WWE strategy, inherently ends up being used as a blueprint that AEW should follow.

AEW, though, is not trying to be WWE, and copying that strategy would only put AEW on the path to being more like WWE, when it should optimally be resisting that path in pretty much every way.

One of the unique aspects of AEW is that the roster is large, and many wrestlers are featured every week on TV. Even the biggest stars are likely only to be in one segment per week, as opposed to WWE’s biggest stars, who are apt to appear multiple times per show. Because of that, AEW wrestlers are less likely to become stale or overexposed, which is kind of a trade-off with putting a cap on their potential star power. Cody might have more star power the way he is being featured in WWE, but it also means that he is aging faster as an act because he is constantly all over the product.

The difference in strategy is pretty simple–in AEW, you get more wrestlers, but the wrestlers work less frequently, while in WWE, you get fewer wrestlers but more of those wrestlers. Fans will naturally gravitate to the strategy that they find more appealing. It’s in AEW’s best interest to attract the fans that prefer their existing roster utilization, as opposed to radically changing it to be more like WWE.

The way AEW markets and utilizes its wrestlers is a key part of it being an alternative to WWE. Being an alternative is not just by having blood in matches, using luchadors, or having a partnership with NJPW. The way AEW uses its large roster to have fresh matchups and to avoid overexposing its biggest stars is very different from WWE and is appreciated by AEW’s fanbase.

With MJF as AEW World Champion for most of 2023, AEW did break from this approach. MJF was pushed far more heavily than any other individual wrestler had been before in AEW–he was all over the product, even at times wrestling multiple matches on PPV. The result wasn’t that MJF became a much bigger star–the result was that a lot of fans got very frustrated with MJF’s act being overexposed, and his personality derailing other aspects of the company. By the end of his title reign, MJF had a minimal impact on business for AEW, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t being pushed hard enough, it was because he had grown stale and boring.

The idea that AEW needs to have giant stars in order to grow the company and compete with WWE is completely misplaced with what AEW’s goals should be. It’s the same kind of philosophy that states that AEW should run head-to-head with WWE, or try to sign every WWE wrestler for more star power, or any other kind of outdated methodology that decaying podcasters would suggest Tony Khan should adopt.

AEW is different from WWE.

AEW is different from WCW.

That is the whole point of the company in the first place.

It’s probably worth noting that two of the most successful true alternative pro wrestling companies in history, ECW and Dragongate, both also utilized a more collective approach to roster utilization than WWE ever has. Neither ECW or Dragongate have one or two wrestlers that define the promotion–instead it is a bunch of different names that come to mind when fans think of both promotions. ECW and Dragongate were not designed to usurp the industry leader–they were designed to present an alternative approach to pro wrestling than what was available in the mainstream.

AEW is in a much more powerful position than either of those companies, thanks to Tony Khan’s personal wealth and having strong television. The philosophy, though, should still be the same: What can AEW give fans that they are not currently getting in WWE?

A core aspect of that is focusing on more of a collective approach in terms of how frequently wrestlers are featured on the product. You may put a cap on some potential star power, but it keeps the AEW product fresh and engaging, and chasing after fans that can only fully approve of the way WWE presents its product is only going to provide limited returns.

Listen to Voices of Wrestling’s AEW Podcast: The Good, The Bad & The Hungee!

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