All Elite Wrestling has surged in popularity after launching two years ago.
Experts say AEW has closed the gap with WWE in ratings and has leverage in TV deal renewals.
Tony Khan, the company's founder and CEO, broke down his strategy in an interview.
Tony Khan doesn't like talking about World Wrestling Entertainment.
Or maybe it's more fair to say that he'd rather be talking about All Elite Wrestling, the company he founded in 2019 that has quickly grown into a legitimate competitor against Vince McMahon's WWE.
"We have so much great growth happening at AEW and I want to focus on us," Khan told Insider during a recent interview.
But Khan - the son of Shahid Khan, the billionaire co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team with Tony - knows who the main competition is and can't resist a bit of smack talk every so often.
After WWE extended the length of its October 15 "SmackDown" event, in which it would overlap with AEW's "Rampage" that night, Khan tweeted: "I saw you're doing a half hour head-to-head with us. I can't wait to finally beat your main show head-to-head. It's been a long time coming."
WWE has for decades ruled over wrestling entertainment. But Khan, a longtime wrestling fan, saw an opening a few years ago.
"There were so many wrestlers without a contract or their contract was ending by 2019," Khan said.
Khan said that he had a number of conversations with WarnerMedia executives in 2018, then in the midst of the close of AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner, to launch a new wrestling program that would later be called "Dynamite." But it was only after he approached his father over Christmas 2018, and signed talent, that the show got the green light. It launched on the WarnerMedia network TNT in October 2019.
"My dad expected it to fail but I convinced him to take a leap," Khan said. "He gave me the money because he said I'd inherit it anyway so I might as well 'blow it now.'"
His father has since changed his mind.
AEW's quick ascension has pitted it squarely against WWE in a number of ways:
Sports Illustrated reported last month that the companies were "neck-and-neck" in the ratings battle between WWE's "Monday Night Raw" and AEW's "Dynamite" on Wednesdays.
Earlier this year, as "Dynamite" edged it out in the ratings, WWE moved its program "NXT" from Wednesdays to Tuesdays.
AEW's first show in New York City sold out last month with more than 20,000 fans packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium. Wrestler Eddie Kingston proclaimed that "New York is now AEW's town" in an obvious shot at WWE, which is based in Stamford, CT.
It has signed former WWE superstars like Bryan Danielson and CM Punk.
"I think AEW is on WWE's radar," LightShed Ventures analyst Brandon Ross said. "Vince will make the necessary adjustments that he felt they didn't have to make when there wasn't any competition."
AEW has closed the gap with WWE
During the overlap between WWE's "SmackDown" and AEW's "Rampage" on October 15, "Rampage" edged out "SmackDown" in the coveted 18-49 demo. Still, "SmackDown" did beat "Rampage" in total overall viewers despite being on FS1, which reaches far fewer homes than "Rampage's" network, TNT.
Recently, "Dynamite" was the top cable program on Wednesdays in the 18-49 demo for a month, according to the TNT parent company WarnerMedia ("Dynamite" will move to TNT's sister network TBS next year).
AEW struck a four-year deal with WarnerMedia worth $175 million in January 2020, three months after "Dynamite" launched. Experts said that AEW now has leverage for a bigger deal renewal if it can sustain its popularity.
"The ratings gap has closed and AEW can argue it should be getting WWE dollars," Ross said. "WWE's 'Raw' and 'SmackDown' have been significant TV properties for a long time. The fact that AEW is able to sniff that shows that there's real traction."
"Now that AEW has the viewers and something to point to, it will help set a floor for them as long as they can keep maintaining that audience base and prove it's economically viable for attracting advertisers," said David Joyce, a media analyst at Barclays.
Khan didn't elaborate on specific plans to maintain AEW's momentum, instead focusing on what has worked for the company so far.
"One of the reasons AEW is really popular is that it's a great blend of stars who have gotten experience from wrestling in other places and stars who have grown organically," Khan said. "It has to be a good blend of young stars and established stars."
There's room for 2 wrestling entertainment giants
WWE still has decades of clout with fans and a much larger global footprint than AEW. But experts say it needs to refine its strategy.
"It needs to improve on what it's been doing with wrestlers with global appeal," Joyce said. "That strategy doesn't change with AEW being an upstart competitor. WWE has a decades head start in brand development and global recognition."
"There have been years of complaints of WWE's storylines and the lack of new wrestler development," Ross said. "The roster has aged quite a bit and the product doesn't seem as fresh as it should. The door opened for AEW."
The competition is ultimately good for fans. As Boyce noted, there are now "four nights a week that wrestling fans have something to watch."
"When we started, we were a challenger brand and an alternative," Khan said. "Now we're just a large wrestling company. But fans don't have to make a choice."
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