Hear me out.
I once wholeheartedly believed in the indie revolution. Grassroots, adult, punk rock wrestling that would go mainstream if people would only give it a chance. Strong style striking. Non-PG promos. ‘Fight For-ever’ chants. That was wrestling.
I’d already indoctrinated several friends to the cause, so, in 2018, I brought my man-child revolution to the lapsed fan.
I took a friend from school (let’s call him The Miz) to his first proper wrestling show: the aptly named Revolution Pro Wrestling in East London. There was no sufferin’ succotash here. Just the unheated, historic York Hall, a bar that inexplicably didn’t take card payments, and, most importantly, a Canadian Destroyer on the ring apron for a near fall in the second match.
My hopes were crushed as soon as we walked through the venue’s clunky ticketing system.
“I thought it would be bigger.”
You see, WWE’s greatest trick wasn’t just buying their main competition in 2001. It was to raise the levels of TV production in the two decades that followed so impossibly high that no upstart company would ever be able to compete. To wrestling fans like The Miz, anything that didn’t look like WWE wasn’t wrestling.
Wrestling wasn’t wrestling.
Wrestling was Sports Entertainment.
The Miz didn’t become a BritWres fanatic. He was content to watch only the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania each year, and follow Mandy Rose on Instagram. Which makes The Miz AEW’s most valuable possible acquisition.
AEW has been terrific at grabbing pre-existing fans frustrated with WWE and providing them a genuine wrestling alternative. Blood and guts, coherently told storylines, charging a premium price for pay-per-views, actually pushing that guy from the Wyatt Family – All Elite Wrestling has found great success in doing the opposite to WWE, and they’ve nurtured a loyal audience as a result. In the first three months of 2020, Dynamite averaged 883,000 viewers per episode. In the post-pandemic months since, they’ve maintained 771,000. By current wrestling standards – nay, all of televised sports – that sub-15% drop is very healthy. The NBA Playoffs, for comparison, were down 37% from 2019.
WWE Raw, meanwhile, dropped 29.1% in the first five months since the start of the pandemic. SmackDown fared slightly better at 26.1%. Not even firing Paul Heyman from his position as Executive Director of Raw could turn the ratings around. But WWE did that anyway.
For those first five months, the pandemic was the great production leveler. Weekly wrestling TV went from huge entrance stages and thousands of fans live in the crowd, to a series of interchangeable low-ceilinged warehouses. For the first time ever, WWE didn’t look that different from IMPACT Wrestling, Ring of Honor and AEW. Even The Miz couldn’t pick them apart.
But then came THE THUNDERDOME.
THE THUNDERDOME is the second most WWE solution to a problem ever. The first is firing Paul Heyman. As, for those not already aware, it mainly involves two things:
- Complete control of the audience.
A lot of people laughed. I laughed.
But it worked.
After a few teething issues, like fans showing pictures of the KKK and Chris Benoit (because, Internet), WWE’s THUNDERDOME wasn’t just a production marvel (winning an industry award). It was also seemingly an actual ratings draw. Raw viewership began to trend upwards. SmackDown returned to its pre-pandemic 2.1m+ audience on Fox. Suddenly, WWE looked was the only Normal wrestling show on a TV of New Normals. And, crucially, the absence of fans was no longer the defining part of the show.
But over on AEW, it still is.
So why haven’t AEW got a THUNDERDOME?
Obviously, money. There’s a pandemic on, and even the Khan family (who are multiple times richer than the McMahons) will be feeling the squeeze. But for a CEO who specialises in numbers, the opportunity to replicate WWE’s ratings pivot might be worth the financial punt. There’s never been a better, more level playing field to syphon off your competitor’s viewers.
Funnily enough, it was WWE who copied AEW during the early Total Lockdown shows. AEW were using wrestlers at ringside for weeks before WWE swallowed their pride and called up the entire NXT brand to the Performance Center audience. It was AEW who pointed the hardcam down the entrance ramp first to fill the empty fan void too. Both were huge improvements for AEW and WWE.
But now WWE has left AEW in their THUNDEROUS wake. While I like the current Dynamite production, with wrestlers and assorted extras at ringside, then fans sporadically placed around the crowd, The Miz will never tune into that product. And can you blame him? The Miz no longer wants to be reminded he’s in a pandemic, the biggest, most noticeable part of AEW right now to new viewers is still what isn’t there. What’s missing. The fans. And The Miz wants his WWE-style escapism from that.
I could be totally wrong, of course. It wouldn’t be the first time. (Keith Lee WILL be protected on the main roster). But it would have been a fascinating experiment if AEW debuted a THUNDERDOME at the same time as WWE, where we could’ve seen if, actually, The Miz might’ve started watching Dynamite over Raw.