We can probably say the honeymoon is over.
AEW was able to get a lot of gloss from being the new boy on the block. It was offering something different, which people most hadn’t seen before, and simply the novelty of it attracted a lot of viewers. The company extended that honeymoon, that period of infatuation, by being an oasis for wrestlers who fans Another felt we hadn’t seen the best of on the biggest stage. However it eventually turned out, the arrivals of Malakai Black, Miro, Andrade, Ruby Soho, CM Punk, and others felt like a big deal. It made AEW feel like this Royal Palace of Oz, some kind of glorious oddity in a very strange land (and wrestling is a very strange land).
There are those who will tell you that the pops, the attention a company gets simply off of introductions of new performers can only last so long. That’s questionable. Going back to the territory days, a big feature was the surprise unveiling, even if only for a night. That’s part of the core of wrestling, and will likely continue through all of AEW’s existence. It won’t be as often, but we’ll likely watch wrestlers bounce between the big two for a long while yet.
But the charm of being the company that’s always unwrapping new toys will dull, and already has. And that coincided with a feeling of AEW simply being out of control. It’s not totally fair, because the newest reports about yesterday’s Andrade-Sammy Guevara backstage fight make it seem more a product of Andrade being an asshole than a symptom of a lawlessness running throughout the entire company.
The perception of chaos in AEW versus the actual reality of chaos in AEW doesn’t line up. But which is the bigger problem?
The overall theme running through all of it is just, for the most part, AEW fans just want AEW to exist. While the discussion of TV ratings and merch sales and demographics was always going to be heightened with the arrival of an actual second wrestling company on television, at their heart they were just a status check. Fantasies of AEW scoring higher ratings than WWE, which they did come within a whisker of at times by some measures, was mostly fanciful. It was false bravado, meant to cover fans’ (and maybe AEW’s) insecurity about its long term sustainability. Deep down, most AEW fans will tell you that all they want is for AEW to just always be there.
The uproar over the latest shenanigans in AEW is that they flew in the face of what the company presented itself as for the first two and a half years it was around. It was the Happy Place. It was the place wrestlers came to fulfill what they couldn’t anywhere else, whether it was the money they couldn’t make on the indies or the exposure and push they couldn’t get in WWE. Everyone was having the time of their lives, everyone was excited about what was possible. There was harmony.
And it seemed like it was gone in a flash. There were whispers and buzz for a month or two that some were not happy with their role and place on the roster. And then it all exploded around CM Punk, which things tend to do. What Tony Khan is learning, we hope, is that you can’t be the place where everyone gets what they want all the time. Because there isn’t enough to go around. And people who were promised everything tend to get pretty pissy when they don’t get it (unless it’s Punk, who gets everything he wants and then gets pissy anyway). Frustration sets in, jealousy sets in, bitterness sets in, which is what we’ve seen.
Which isn’t really that different from most workplaces. And to be fair to Khan, it’s not like he had much choice. The fact that he had a bigger roster than three hours of TV can accommodate on a weekly basis is how he and AEW were able to not only survive but thrive in a summer without Punk, Kenny Omega, MJF, Jon Moxley at times, FTR by choice. Having that reserve of talent has been vital. What would AEW look like now if it didn’t have that through the summer? What would have been on TV?
But holding on to that reserve has complications, as Khan and the rest of us are learning after last night. This is probably going to be a constant component of AEW now, just like it is in WWE. Or it can run a thin enough roster just sized enough for three hours of TV and an additional couple for YouTube and just pray no one gets hurt.
But the big question is whether or not this kind of upheaval will endanger the future of AEW, and likely it won’t. AEW has a core audience that will always deliver a minimum number for Warner Brothers Discovery, and it’s hard to picture what it would take for that 700,000 to 1 million viewers every week to turn away. No matter who’s around, no matter who isn’t around, AEW still puts together four or five great matches per week, which is all that fans want.
But if the higher ups at WBD want to move beyond that, and decree that the audience has to grow beyond the dedicated, then the perception that everything is a goddamn mess does matter. There is a section of fans, however big, who will find it difficult to latch on if there’s a feeling that the whole thing will collapse like a flan in a cupboard in a matter of months. People don’t want to be WCW’d again.
To the hardcore AEW fan, the backstage carnage is just the price of doing business and part and parcel of the business. No one likes hearing about a toxic or even unpleasant workplace, but AEW fans are online enough to read all the reports about how harmonious things have been since Punk and The Elite were suspended. In the end, those who were looking for an excuse to not watch AEW will use these incidents as their excuse to do so. Is that audience large enough to kneecap AEW going forward? Maybe, but it’s more likely the company’s penchant for producing matches that people talk about for day will win out the day.