Many of today’s generation of wrestling fans were not watching wrestling the last time WWE had real competition. It’s been a long time. While ECW wasn’t the threat to the empire that revisionist history makes it out to be, they did make an impact. WCW had Vince on his heels, as we all know. WWE (then WWF) produced a stale, out of date product. WCW offered big money deals to names like Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash, which changed the wrestling world forever. Does Vince see that history is repeating itself today with AEW?
Ok, that’s not a fair statement. History isn’t completely repeating itself. AEW took a page out of the WCW playbook and improved it. WCW took two good ideas (the NWO and the cruiserweight division), and when combined with a lot of money and cable TV deals, turned it into a solid, several year run on top before the wheels fell off. Tony Khan and AEW have the money, a great relationship with TNT (WCW’s former Monday night home), and are building a smart wrestling company. For Vince McMahon’s sake, I hope he’s paying attention.
Losing Chris Jericho to a startup company at the time should have been a message to Vince and WWE. Not being able to bring in Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks when all signs pointed to them finally joining WWE should’ve been a sign. Losing Jon Moxley obviously wasn’t a message received either. Now, WWE has lost legends such as Sting, who could’ve collected an easy paycheck from WWE on a Legends deal for years. They lost Paul Wight, whose conventional wisdom should’ve been a lifer with Vince. Now, they’ve lost Christian Cage, who just a month ago made a triumphant return to the ring and had one of the biggest moments on one of WWE’s biggest shows of the year.
NXT has been beaten soundly in the ratings by AEW after Vince and company decided to counter-program the upstart promotion in an attempt to slow their momentum. Their stars are leaving. Free agents see AEW as a more “wrestler friendly” company, which they are. AEW has created working relationships with promotions such as Impact and New Japan Pro Wrestling, creating a genuine buzz amongst wrestling fans as well as creating a pipeline of talent that can go back and forth. That relationship is keeping television and stories fresh, something that WWE struggles to do. AEW has made many major moves in a short amount of time, and it’s paying off. They are legitimate competitors to WWE, which hasn’t had competition in over 20 years.
Now the argument can be made that WWE doesn’t need to worry about this competition. After all, they just sold their network for a billion dollars to NBC Universal. Once they’re able to, they’ll fill large arenas again. They have the talent, the money, and the name recognition to coast. But what happens when AEW decides to get more aggressive and attempt to take a bite out of WWE’s fan base? What happens when they start to counter-program RAW? What happens when someone who Vince really wants to keep under contract decides they want to go to the more “wrestler friendly” company instead of existing in WWE’s world of politics and rules? These things will eventually happen, and Vince’s reaction to them will be telling.
When WCW firmly surpassed WWE as the industry-leading wrestling company, Vince abandoned his ideas and gave us the Attitude Era, a period of time in wrestling fans still clamor for. Will Vince relent and allow Triple H to bring a more NXT style of wrestling to RAW or Smackdown? That’s what fans want, but the odds of it happening aren’t great. Vince is 20 years older and 20 years more set in his ways. He’s also a lot richer than he was back then, and that has a way of convincing someone that they’re doing something right.
I believe it was Jericho who recently said that AEW treats their veterans better than WWE. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of the quote. There’s a lot of truth to that. While some wrestling fans have downed Paul Wight and Christian Cage’s signings, and even Sting, these names bring a lot more to the table than whatever they can still give in the ring. These vets want to be in AEW because they didn’t like the way WWE had been treating them, and they’re willing to join a company that is using the names from yesterday better. These guys will inevitably have some noteworthy matches. Perhaps, more important is what this “star power” can do from a marketing perspective, as well as the help they will be offering to the rest of this largely young locker room. By cultivating an atmosphere where these vets matter more than they did in WWE, who knows who jumps ship next?
AEW isn’t going anywhere. This company is still in its infancy, and to quote Good ol’ JR himself, business is picking up. The foundation has been laid for long-term success. Whether or not they keep up this momentum is an entirely different question. If they can, it’s just a matter of time before they take their shot and go after WWE in a big way. If/when they do, all eyes will be on Vince to see whether he brings the fight back to them or not. Is Vince taking AEW seriously now? If not, he better start before it’s too late.