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All Elite Wrestling (AEW)—the pro wrestling promotion founded by Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. co-owner Tony Khan—will put on the biggest non-WWE wrestling show in America in more than 20 years tonight at Arthur Ashe Stadium. More than 19,000 fans are expected to pack into the tennis center in Flushing for the live broadcast of AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam and the taping of Friday night’s AEW Rampage: Grand Slam. For the record, the last time a WWE competitor drew 20,000 fan to an event was Jan. 4, 1999, when 38,809 people showed up to the Georgia Dome for an episode of WCW (World Championship Wrestling) Monday Nitro.
The sold-out New York card comes at a time when the upstart promotion is seemingly hitting on all cylinders. In addition to record-setting ticket and pay-per-view sales, AEW is selling more merchandise than it ever has (they sold upwards of 100,000 CM Punk shirts), and Dynamite has beaten WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw in the 18-49 demo the last two weeks. Wrestling historian Dave Meltzer (founder, Wrestling Observer Newsletter) called the recent milestones “really significant; 1999 was really the last time a [WWE competitor] had broken through at this level. WCW had a really strong business from 1996 through the spring of 1999. Nobody has come even remotely close to it since.”
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Our Take: Khan launched AEW in early 2019, signing a bunch of high-profile talent out of the gate (including Chris Jericho, Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks). But he did so without a television deal in place, and when the promotion ultimately signed on with WarnerMedia, the agreement “didn’t really come close to covering the costs associated with producing the shows,” Khan said. The lifelong wrestling fan was funding the venture out-of-pocket for the first year.
The risks Khan took began to pay off in January 2020, when AEW signed a four-year renewal with the AT&T subsidiary worth upwards of $175 million (runs through December 2023). The deal, which included a provision for a third hour of programming, made the business financially viable long-term and helped to buoy the company during the pandemic. As Khan said, “We had strong revenue [coming in], even without all of the live-event ticketing revenue that had been significant [up to that point] for us.”
AEW TV ratings held up comparatively well during the pandemic, leading WarnerMedia to add a second weekly show to its programming calendar (Rampage on Friday nights). But Khan said the return of fans to venues gave his promotion the momentum to “not just close the gap but pull ahead over the last several weeks.” Dynamite beat Raw the past two weeks. While Monday Night Football likely cost WWE the win last week, there was no NFL game Sept. 6.
While it makes for an eye-catching headline, the truth is, whether AEW wins or loses the weekly ratings battle at this point is irrelevant. “The fact that they are this close less than two years on television is pretty remarkable,” Meltzer said. “It [usually] takes a long time to come from nothing and get to a certain level—and the other company is like 13x their size. It has certainly been a faster climb than most anticipated.”
AEW has also been successful converting its weekly television audience into pay-per-view buyers. The company has averaged more than 100,000 purchases per event, and every one of their PPV shows (Double or Nothing, All Out, Revolution, Full Gear) has been up year-over-year. The company’s most recent PPV had more than 205,000 purchases ($10 million-plus in gross PPV receipts), the most of any WWE competitor since May 1999. For perspective, no other wrestling promotion has done an event with more than 60,000 PPV buys this millennium.
Khan says AEW is profitable today, but given his “significant investment” up front and the revenues he has reinvested back into the business (including an eight-figure outlay into developing a video game), he’s not in the black just yet. That should change in the coming years. The company should see a significant increase in the value of its media rights moving forward (see: WWE’s $470 million/year for Raw and SmackDown combined), and a windfall could be coming as a result of the 2022 video game release.
AEW entered the pro wrestling business at a time when WWE maintained a monopoly over the industry. So, could an upstart league in one of the big four sports, then, similarly challenge the establishment? Unfortunately, the opportunity seems unique to wrestling. “There’s no other sport where such a high percentage of above-replacement-value and elite talent would be available to sign in such a tiny window of time,” Khan said. In fact, he argues that even with AEW on the scene, a third major promotion would have a better chance at being successful than a second football, basketball or baseball league in this country.
Harvey Schiller, who was the president of Turner Sports during WCW’s heyday, pointed out that in pro wrestling, promotions create their own stars, making success easier to achieve. “WCW built up Goldberg from scratch. It wasn’t as if he was a quarterback, who they had to see how he performs,” he said. “They created the quarterback and put him in a position to succeed.” Goldberg became one of the company’s biggest draws.
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