How All Elite Wrestling Is Taking on WWE: A Q&A With CEO Tony Khan on the State of the Business

Tony Khan was a lifelong pro wrestling fan when he founded All Elite Wrestling (AEW) in 2019 as CEO and president, looking to take on sports entertainment titan WWE.

The promotion quickly emerged as a powerhouse challenger, putting on regular pay-pay-view events and starting weekly TV shows later in 2019. After expanding its TV output beyond the two-hour Dynamite on Wednesdays with the hour-long Friday show Rampage, it added two hours of Collision on Saturdays this summer. The result: AEW now airs three weekly shows, a total of five hours, on Warner Bros. Discovery networks TBS and TNT in the U.S. That makes Khan, who also oversees the creative process at AEW as head of creative, a big TV producer.

More from The Hollywood Reporter

In 2022, he also bought wrestling promotion Ring of Honor (ROH) from Sinclair, cementing his status as a pro wrestling mogul and business maverick.

This weekend, he will be able to celebrate what he says will be a record at London’s venerable Wembley Stadium, where ticket sales for AEW’s first international pay-per-view, All In, have surprised his doubters. Khan says it will be “the biggest wrestling event in the history of Europe” when looking at ticket sales and box office receipts.

It’s not the first time Khan is bringing a crowd to Wembley. After all, the 40-year-old co-owns AEW with his father Shahid, the Pakistani-American billionaire owner of motor vehicle components supplier Flex-N-Gate, the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL franchise, and the English Premier League soccer club Fulham F.C. It’s no surprise then that Tony Khan has been to Wembley with those two teams before given that he also serves as chief football strategy officer for the Jaguars and as vice-chairman and director of football operations for Fulham.

Despite a particularly busy week for him, Khan, wearing a Warner Bros. Discovery baseball hat, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter. In the conversation, he provided latest insights on the business of the big Wembley show, shared his take on the state of the wrestling industry, explained why AEW needs to be like Pepsi to WWE’s Coca-Cola, and responded to criticism about how he manages disputes between the more outspoken of his wrestling personalities behind the scenes.

AEW’s first international pay-per-view event All In takes place this Sunday at London’s famous Wembley Stadium. I recall that when you first announced the show, some critics thought you couldn’t fill the stadium and felt this was a crazy idea. But all the early reports showed strong sales, and then recent reports have sounded like the show could sell out. What is the latest on ticket sales?

We have got approximately 80,000 tickets distributed. We have had roughly $10 million in ticket sales and we have set every AEW business metric record for our own sales. We’ve hit our own box office record many times over, and certainly our own attendance record many times over. AEW All In at Wembley Stadium is surely going to be the biggest wrestling event in the history of Europe for ticket sales and box office receipts. So, obviously, we’ve proven that it was not crazy.

And it stands as one of the all-time biggest wrestling shows of all time [worldwide] in terms of tickets sold and gate receipts, so it’s very exciting. I believe we can live up to these very high expectations that are there for us as this is the biggest show we’ve ever done and we have a great track record of presenting excellent pay-per-view shows that are very well received both by the fans and by wrestling writers.

You have had a huge turnout for Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC games at Wembley Stadium before, and now ticket sales for your AEW show are strong. You must be the only person to possibly sell out or nearly sell out Wembley with three different franchises, no?

I’m probably the only person who’s gone in with three different sports properties and put over 80,000 people in the stands for all three. I’m sure a lot of people have done it three different times, but to do it with three different sports properties is great. I think surely we will have over 80,000 on Sunday. We’ve had over 80,000 several times for the Jaguars, and we’ve had over 80,000 to see Fulham Football Club, most recently in the 2018 English Football League playoff final.

Fulham got promoted in 2018. We got relegated in 2019. We went to the playoff final in 2020 and won and got promoted again. And then we went down again and then up again and then stayed up. So it’s been quite a saga. But last year was the first time we have not gone down or up in seven years and it was one of the great seasons of Fulham.

I’ve had a lot of great times at Wembley, and I’ve been in that coach’s office many times with the Jaguars and many times with Fulham, but this will be my first time in that coach’s office with AEW, running that locker room, so it’s very exciting.

Which will start at 6 p.m. London time, which is early in terms of U.S. times…

It’s an interesting experiment putting a wrestling show in the NFL window, in that 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific window. It’s the same window that the NFL games start every Sunday, but we’ve got a little bit of a jump on them here. It’s a couple of weeks before the NFL kicks off.

Traditionally, there have been ebbs and flows of wrestling fandom and excitement. Back in the Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant years, business was booming. Then, it got a little more quiet. Then there were the “Monday Night Wars” between WCW and WWE and the Attitude Era with The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Where do you see the wrestling business today?

This is why I wanted to get into the pro wrestling business. I believe that, as we stand here today, this is the strongest the pro wrestling industry has been in many years. We stand in a really strong position as wrestling fans right now. Clearly, the voice of wrestling fans is being heard all over the world. This is the most weekly wrestling content that’s been available on television every week in over 20 years. There used to be so much wrestling on TV every week. I grew up when there was wrestling almost every day across different promotions, and there were multiple hot promotions that would have sellout crowds and run events all over the country.

That went away, and there was only one company really running international pro wrestling and putting on multiple events per week on television. Then we launched AEW in 2019 officially, I started working on it in 2018. And after working on this for over five years, I am very happy that the wrestling business is in such a strong position right now. It’s great for the wrestlers, it’s great for the wrestling fans and for wrestling promoters, and the industry leaders, of which AEW is now one.

Who or what do you look at as competition beyond WWE?

I do follow other pro wrestling companies very closely and scout pro wrestling. I’m a pro wrestling fan, so I love to follow what’s happening. Of course, I know everything that happening in AEW, but I like to follow what’s happening in other wrestling promotions as well. I also love to follow sports. I work in NFL football and English Premier League [soccer] and follow everything very closely with the Jaguars and Fulham but also with our opponents. For the NFL, that means following the other 31 teams and their transactions, their injuries, and their form, and then also following college football and keeping an eye on the players for the future. In England, of course, I am following the English Premier League [EPL], but I also the other divisions, such as The Championship, very closely and a lot of international leagues: the Bundesliga [in Germany], the Ligue 1 in France, Serie A in Italy, La Liga in Spain and the goings on in the other major leagues.

Fittingly enough, these great sports that I also work in can be competition for AEW at times but are so many great things happening in the world of sports, there are a lot of people competing for those eyeballs. I mentioned NFL and college football. I think Saturday’s a very crowded landscape where Collision runs, but it’s a very exciting time for us with Collision that we’ve been able to launch his show on Saturday night and bring pro wrestling back to Saturday nights in America. It was actually Mr. Zaslav’s [Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav] idea to get AEW two hours on Saturday night on TNT, and that has been a very successful launch. We have a great audience every Wednesday night for AEW Wednesday night Dynamite on TBS. And now also have these two shows on TNT Friday nights with Rampage and Saturday nights with Collision.

There are different sports on it. The thing about sports is it’s seasonal for the most part, whereas wrestling is year-round. So in the summer, you might have different competition from what you have in the winter. This is an interesting time for us right now. We’ve had a very strong run of ratings: AEW Dynamite has been the number 1 show on cable on Wednesday for several weeks in a row. Later as we get into the winter, there’ll be a lot of different sports as competition, with the NBA starting back up, college basketball, and other sports. But I’m trying to go out of my way to avoid putting AEW on against the NFL whenever possible. So typically, you don’t have AEW on Sundays during NFL windows. For the most part, on Mondays and Thursdays, we typically don’t have AEW. The NFL, I believe, is the strongest sports property in the entire world.

Does your experience with an NFL football franchise, namely the Jacksonville Jaguars, and an English Premier League team, Fulham F.C., influence or play into your AEW work?

My family joined the NFL [in 2012] when my father bought the Jacksonville Jaguars. I really believe that’s what put me in a position to get into the pro wrestling business. And then when my father purchased Fulham Football Club [in 2013] that also helped me make the connections and in particular connections that we had through the club, including the CEO, Alistair Mackintosh. He actually introduced me to the fine people at ITV, Niall Sloane, who’s the director of sport at ITV. I met him through Alister and built that relationship. And that’s why ITV was such a great TV partner for us in the U.K. from the beginning. Being an executive at Fulham and working in the Premier League and in the NFL has given me connections and relationships, where I’ve been able to get into rooms with the top executives in television and sports to help launch AEW as a major player from the very beginning. I think that’s an advantage I’ve had over other people who tried to enter the pro wrestling promotion space.

This next one is probably the trickiest question I have for you. Similar to Hollywood, wrestling is a business of stars. That also means big personalities and at times clashes of personalities and their opinions and interests. There has been much talk in the wrestling business about the dislike and disagreements between some of your big stars, especially CM Punk and members of The Elite (Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, Hangman Page) that led to a reported physical altercation last year. Some are concerned about what that means for locker room morale and AEW overall. These stars will all be in London after their infamous run-in last year. How do you see your role in managing such tensions? Do you leave these things to the wrestlers to sort out or do you give any guidance or step in and draw a line?

The most important thing to me as the CEO is the wrestling fans. I’m a huge wrestling fan, and I try to think like a wrestling fan. I want the best wrestlers here in AEW. I want the best roster. And there may be some of them that don’t get along with each other backstage or on TV. It’s not ideal, but it’s a reality, and I can’t make everyone get along. I’m not sure it’s necessarily even in the best interest of pro wrestling for everybody t get along. But ideally, everybody is going to be able to focus on their matches and putting on the best shows for the fans. And I think that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve had really strong ratings. So even though … wrestlers backstage hate each other and don’t want to be friends with each other, I think we all agree this is a really exciting time for the company. And it’s a really exciting time for the wrestling business and for the wrestling fans.

There are a lot of people around here who think they’re the best. And I think a lot of them have a valid claim that they’re the best. And what I’m trying to do is to create an environment where everybody can go out and prove it multiple times per week and create a platform where the fans can decide who the best wrestlers are, what the best rivalries are, what the best matches are. As long as I can keep the top talent in AEW, we will have the best matches and the best big events. The lineup of wrestlers competing on AEW All In is the strongest group of talent we’ve ever assembled on one show, it features some of the biggest matches in the history of this company, and I think it’s going to be one of the greatest days ever in pro wrestling this Sunday.

How do you and the team at AEW define yourselves in relation to the competition? Do you see AEW as the future wrestling champion, do you position it as an upstart contender going up against sports entertainment giant WWE, or what?

When I first started working with Warner Bros. Discovery, they handed me a big deck of what it is to be a challenger brand. Because this is their expertise, they said: “You’re going to be a challenger brand.” They were totally right. Pepsi is a challenger brand. Pepsi is a huge player in the industry and a major corporation, but nobody would claim that Pepsi is a worldwide leader in the industry. They’re a challenger brand and they’re competing with an established company that’s been around a very long time and they’re taking them on. And they built a huge market share in this space as the challenger brand in that space.

Burger King is another great example of a challenger brand. A lot of their marketing is directed at referring to themselves as that challenger brand and taking on an established leader, and they’re not afraid to call out that leader when they think there’s something that they can do better. There are a lot of examples of these kinds of challenger brands. I think what AEW has established for ourselves is that we’re a challenger brand in a multibillion-dollar business, and we have a large market share carved out for ourselves.

What’s very interesting in the U.K., which is a major media market and one of the best markets for the pro wrestling industry, AEW is carving out a legitimate claim as the industry leader now. It’s very exciting because as a challenger brand, your goal is to go into the different major markets and territories and win them over and try to turn places. If we can go into some major places and take the lead, then that’s really a huge step for us. And right now in the U.K., AEW is the industry leader in pro wrestling: we’ve set the box office records, we have by far the biggest TV audience every week thanks to our partnership with ITV, which has a great history in the wrestling business. [In the U.K., WWE shows have aired on BT Sport, which recently became part of TNT Sports, a joint venture of BT and Warner Bros. Discovery.] The average person in the U.K. knows ITV is the home of pro wrestling going back many years to World of Sport. And now, AEW, thanks to the great viewership we get on ITV every week, is by far the most-watched wrestling promotion across our shows Dynamite, Rampage, and Collision.

Now that we’re so close to All In at Wembley Stadium, which was, I think, the most ambitious move ever in European pro wrestling, it’s very, very exciting. And it feels like it’s one of the most important events in the history of pro wrestling this Sunday, Aug. 27.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter

Click here to read the full article.