Wrestling's Wednesday Night War
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
One company has ruled the wrestling and sport's entertainment industry for the past two decades, but a rookie company holds desires to change that. WWE. AEW. Head to head on Wednesdays. Is this the dawning of a new 'wrestling war'?
Before analysing and predicting the present, we must review the past. Though mainstream appeal may have dwindled since pre-millenium, wrestling still holds a loyal and hungry fanbase, many of whom were drawn into the 'sport' during a time in the 1990s referred to as the Monday Night War. For contextual purposes, the Monday Night War refers to a period of mainstream televised American wrestling from September 4, 1995, to March 26, 2001, where World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) battled head-to- head on Monday nights for TV ratings supremacy. Steadily escalating throughout the 1990's - and funded by two driven billionaires (Vince McMahon and Ted Turner) with a personal animosity - the wrestling landscape changed with fourth-wall breaking, kayfabe smashing, cut-throat, cunning tactics coming to the fore in a weekly display of one-upmanship.
The war saw wrestler defections between the two companies, the pre-recorded results of the rival company aired on live TV, the birth of a more extreme and hardcore content and the boardroom 'fight to the death' for superiority and dominion of the wrestling industry.
To cut a long story short, the war not only saw a huge boom in weekly wrestling viewership and fandom, but also resulted in the collapse and eventual WWE buyout of WCW. The industry was once again set to be governed and controlled by Vince McMahon. And whilst that has been true for the past 20 years, there is a new army primed and ready to commence battle, All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
Funded by the bilionaire Khan family, AEW's manifesto is simple: we are a 'better' alternative. With former disgruntled WWE wrestler Cody Rhodes at the helm - alongside independent superstars The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) and Kenny Omega - AEW seeks to bring innovation, modernization and superior ringwork to the wrestling industry, creating a revolution that spurns a contemporary wave of wrestling fandom.
In order to fully comprehend the task AEW faces, it is important to understand the hold the WWE has over wrestling in America, and indeed worldwide. Since the buyout of WCW in 2001, WWE has reigned supreme over the wrestling world, with alternative promotions doing little (if anything) to dent the global giant. Pretenders have attempted to create a sense of anxiety within the WWE, and companies such as Ring of Honor (ROH) and New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) have devoted and staunch fanbases, but the enormity and magnitude of WWE lends itself to an image of a flee trying to take down a rotweiller - on its own, it's a futile effort. This is a lesson that Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling (TNA) learned too well.
Born out of similar roots to AEW, TNA (now known as Impact Wrestling) was started by a disgruntled former employee (Jeff Jarrett) looking to exact some revenge on Vince McMahon's empire. Wrestler's leaving WWE would find sancturary in TNA, and this recruitment drive even saw the likes of household names Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair take arms on TNA's frontline. With an optimism founded more in delusion than reality, TNA then decided to mimic WCW and go head-to-head with WWE on Monday night's at primetime... two months later TNA had returned to Thursdays.
Anecdotally this story (and my rhetoric) suggests that TNA were foolish to assume they had a product that could ever gain traction against the WWE, but this discounts the might and standing of the latter. The move to go head-to-head for ratings in 2010 would have culminated in the same result regardless of whether TNA had more clarity in terms of strategy and gameplan. To put it simply, WWE were a Goliath too big to topple.
Fast forward to 2019 and WWE is recording record-breaking profits off the back of a one billion dollar TV deal with Fox, a lucrative and controversial deal with Saudi Arabia and a monopolisation of the industry as a whole. Surely this giant is now more difficult to overcome? Well, that's up for debate...
Whilst improving financially, WWE has seen a record decline in viewing figures and TV ratings over the past few years. Compared to the height of the Monday Night War the viewership has significantly dropped, but perhaps more pertinently, the average viewership has dropped by almost 40% since 2014 (4.15 million viewers in 2014 to 2.5 million in 2019 -Forbes). Combine this with a decline in live event ticket sales, as well as the cancellation of live events due to this, WWE shows clear indicators of a 'tanking' product. To use a less PG metaphor, if WWE were a male trying to make sexual advances on its viewers - the females in this scenario - they are turning far more off than they are on. In hindsight, I probably could have conveyed the same point with a lightswitch metaphor there.
So, whilst being in a financial boom, WWE's product is in a decline in terms of both quality and its captivation of its audience. On the other hand, AEW have had very prosperous beginnings. All Elite Wrestling's debut show, Double or Nothing, sold out in 4 minutes. Highly trusted wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer said that the number of fans logging on to purchase tickets at the point of release was four times that of the venue capacity. Their next major Pay Per View (PPV), All Out, sold out in 15 minutes with the venue, the Sears Centre, listing over 60,000 people in the online queue for tickets at one point. In a nutshell, there is a demand for AEW. As well as sold out PPVs, AEW's announcement of a weekly TV deal with TNT sent ripples throughout the wrestling industry, not least for the fact that WCW was televised on that same network. The tickets for AEW's inaugural weekly TV shows then proceeded to sell out, and a cult following began to take shape. That said, as impressive as this all is for a rookie organisation, WWE would be entitled to react in a fairly nonplussed and apathetic mood. From a business front WWE was bringing in record-highs in terms of revenue and profit, but AEW had one more trick up their sleeve that would serve as a catalyst for the ignition of this new war, and it came in the form of three letters: MOX.
The first 'defection' of the contemporary wrestling war saw the arrival of Jon Moxley (FKA Dean Ambrose in WWE) to All Elite Wrestling. A former WWE Champion, Intercontinental Champion, United States Champion, Tag Team Champion and Money in the Bank winner during his time with WWE, Moxley's foundations lay in the indepedent wrestling scene that AEW were now bringing to the mainstream. In terms of recruitment, AEW had hit a homerun and suddenly the WWE had to take notice. Throw in the fact that WWE stalwart Chris Jericho was crowned the first-ever AEW World Champion and it was clear that proverbial punches had been thrown. The Owner and Chairman of WWE, Vince McMahon, sought to combat the arrival of 'Mox' and crowning of Jericho, and his next move represented a declaration of war. With AEW's announcement of a weekly TV show on Wednesday nights, McMahon secured a deal to bring WWE's third brand, and developmental show, NXT to national television, head-to-head with AEW on the USA Network. Originally focused on providing an alternative for wrestling fans on an otherwise unoccupied weeknight, AEW and NXT would now likely be fighting for the same viewership.
In a further move of infantilism, WWE decided to air a show on their online subscription service, The WWE Network, on the same night as AEW's charity PPV, Fight for the Fallen, as well as getting a leg up on AEW by airing NXT for two Wednesdays prior to the latter's debut show. Bringing in over 1 million viewers for these two early shows, NXT was able to showcase a willing and eager audience for a 'fresh' product. After months of back and forth, Twitter jibes and interview chicanery, the stage was set for September 3rd and the first head-to-head battle of the two companies. Overrun with fervour and zeal, the wrestling community chose their respective allegiances and waited with bated breath for the start of a war. With hopes there would be many months of warfare to come, the first offensive manoeuvre still seemed of the utmost importance. Title changes, inaugural champions crowned, suprise returns and a new defection later, and the newcomer had cemented its place in history; day one victory went to All Elite Wrestling. Drawing 1.409 million viewers compared to NXT's 878,000, AEW had not only started off in the ascendency, it had also showcased something it had sworn by all along: there is a 'lost' group of wrestling fans that lays dormant, crying out for a new product. Well, on this night the new product came out on top. WWE's Twitter account responded in typical fashion by congratulating AEW whilst also affirming the Wednesday Night War "to be a competitive and wild ride as this is a marathon, not a one-night sprint." Chris Jericho responded in the only way he knows how: "They started this war and the very first night they got destroyed."
There was once a war that lasted over 100 years, and though the Wednesday Night War is unlikely to have a duration anywhere close to that, there is still a lot more to be told. But, as both competing companies has said, in this situation the fans are the real winners.