In just three years, All Elite Wrestling has disrupted an entire industry and, when all is said and done, 2021 may go down as the defining year for Tony Khan’s professional wrestling promotion.
Founded in 2019, AEW has rapidly grown into one of the dominant forces in the pro wrestling business, but not without experiencing some bumps in the road. AEW spent much of its first year preparing for its major cable television launch, which took place in October 2019.
Although the company held several pay-per-view specials leading up to the premiere of “Dynamite,” it wasn’t until there was a true weekly television presence that it could begin its ascent to challenge Vince McMahon’s WWE. Then, of course, much of 2020 was hampered by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which forced AEW to host the majority of its shows in a nearly empty Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, Florida.
However, things change massively in 2021. AEW resumed touring nationwide, expanded its television offerings, and made some of the largest free agent acquisitions in professional wrestling history.
“I think 2021 was the best year we have ever had in AEW,” AEW President Tony Khan told AOL.com. “Our four pay-per-views this year represented our largest buy totals we have ever had. In particular, the last two shows are the two biggest pay-per-view buy totals and biggest revenue shows we have ever done. We also expanded our television, adding our second show on a second night.”
In terms of a signature moment for AEW over the past year, Khan referenced the signings of CM Punk, Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole, all of whom made their debut with the promotion over the summer.
Punk, in particular, should largely be considered the holy grail of pro wrestling signings. For 7 years, Punk had been out of the business while pursuing an MMA career and other endeavors. Fans clamored for his return almost incessantly during his hiatus, and when “Cult of Personality” hit on August 20, it was a truly special experience for Khan.
“When he emerged and his music started playing and I heard the reaction from the crowd, it all came together to be my favorite television wrestling moment of the year and one of the greatest things we’ve ever done in AEW,” Khan admitted.
Two weeks later, AEW would add to its success by holding its annual All Out pay-per-view. In addition to being one of its most purchased events, it also featured the debuts of Ruby Soho, Danielson and Cole, fan favorites who had recently became free agents after prolonged, successful runs in WWE.
Overall, the additions to the AEW roster this year alone were among the most significant developments for the growing promotion.
“In terms of star power, some of the biggest stars are people who have signed with AEW this year,” Khan said. “If you look at our men’s division, we’ve signed Punk, Danielson, Cole, Malakai Black, Andrade El Idolo, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish. Our women’s division has expanded tremendously. We’ve added Ruby Soho and Thunder Rosa and we have had the emergence of Jade Cargill, who is widely considered to be AEW’s rookie of the year.”
Of course, many of the signings were former WWE pro wrestlers, and while many easily fit into the plans for Khan, there is a degree of restraint that needs to be exhibited when building out the AEW roster.
As the curtain is pulled back more and more on the industry and AEW emerged as a true competitor to WWE, some fans now immediately assume any talent that becomes available would thrive in a new environment.
In reality, the decision isn’t that simple.
“I have to look at a variety of factors,” Khan said. “There are some talent, when they become available, regardless of how they become available, I want to make a place for them because I know they can make a difference here. There are other times that I may have a specific idea for someone.
“Nobody else can do it because there are a variety of factors that I have to consider. There’s the budget, where new people are going to fit on TV, will they be used on TV right away or in a developmental situation, or is it someone I am keeping for insurance in case they break out or if we have injuries or circumstances that necessitate new faces in the mix. This year, more so than any other year prior, we saw difference-making names become available.”
In addition to making personnel decisions, Khan is tasked with booking AEW’s shows and storylines in order to maximize the entertainment factor for fans. This year, AEW paid off two of its longest running storylines, resulting in the crowning of arguably its two most important, current champions — Adam “Hangman” Page and Britt Baker.
In Page’s case, his win over Kenny Omega at Full Gear in November was the payoff of a two-year build. For Baker, her ascent to the top of the women’s division was something that Khan admitted he could have pulled the trigger on sooner, but instead opted to wait a bit and build Baker and Thunder Rosa into bigger stars in the process.
“There was a period where Britt was catching fire, but I thought it was important to elevate Britt and elevate Thunder Rosa rather than rush into anything,” Khan said. “Similarly for Hangman Page, he had to grow as a wrestler, grow as a person and Kenny Omega had to have this dominant reign to secure his place as the preeminent, dominant, pro wrestling world champion for Hangman to dethrone. It meant so much more that way.
“There are times in the short term you might be able to pop a number or build short-term interest when you have somebody who is really hot, but when you have this kind of depth and these kinds of stars like we have in AEW, I can afford to be patient and let stories develop and let wrestlers develop to make the moments as meaningful as possible.”
As far as the future goes, AEW is on the cusp of a major change, as its signature program, “Dynamite,” is moving from TNT to TBS starting January 5. The move ensures that AEW’s Wednesday night staple will avoid being preempted by Turner’s myriad sports deals, including the NBA and MLB.
Another benefit of the shift is that “Dynamite” will be seen in primetime for all time zones, something that previously wasn’t the case.
“There’s a great history of wrestling on TBS,” Khan said. “Now we have the power of both networks behind us. There are a lot of advantages because on Wednesdays we’ll see far fewer sports-related time shifts and preemptions than we have had in the past. It was something we dealt with. There were times we had some of our biggest momentum and we were hit with time shifts and there was nothing we could do about it. It’s a great solution.”
Fewer preemptions and the primetime shift should result in bolstered ratings for AEW in 2022, which is the primary revenue driver for the company.
“It’s a point of pride for us when we get a good number and it’s a point of pride for the network,” Khan said. “There used to only be one wrestling company that could do that, and one show that could rank number 1 in the 18-49 demographic. Now there’s two companies and four shows that can boast that. I think that’s great for the wrestling business, wrestlers and wrestling fans. The [television] rights fees are a big part of the business model for both AEW and WWE. The way these shows are measured are by the Nielsen ratings, particularly the 18-49 demographic, which is how they are presented to us.”
Now, with a stacked roster, fully solidified TV offering and coming off the four largest pay-per-view buy rates in the company’s history, all that’s left to see is how AEW further capitalizes on its momentum in 2022.