What does wrestling's future look like?

Originally, this was going to be about something completely different. I was going to talk about how All Elite Wrestling has managed to successfully corner the market on younger viewers. It's a remarkable achievement considering that TV viewership in general is aging. That part will start off what I want to discuss, but there's something bigger I am going to end up mulling on.

Before I get started...

Looking at the latest drop of information from Brandon Thurston's excellent Wrestlenomics Patreon (it is $5 a month and it is absolutely worth it if you're a wrestling biz junkie), I noticed that he had a worksheet that talked about the percentage of viewership of each show that was in the 18-49 range. AEW has dominated this metric and it is not even close—it ranges between 45-55% of its broadcast viewership in the 18-49 demo; in fact, all of its broadcasts this year have been north of 50% in all quarters.

Before AEW Dynamite debuted in 2019, WWE programming would routinely hit 40% of their Raw and Smackdown audience being in the 18-49 range, despite the fact that the median viewer age still hovered around 48 to 50. It's only crept upward as there has been a slight, but still noticeable downward trend in the share of viewership being in the prime demographic. Since Dynamite's debut, WWE has yet to air a single episode of television, including Raw, Smackdown, and NXT that had more than 40% of its audience made up of 18-49 viewers.

When segmenting out the 18-34 age group, AEW programming typically finishes ahead of WWE's offerings when it comes to the share of the audience. A typical WWE broadcast will hover around 10% of its viewership being in the 18-34 group; AEW will range anywhere from 11-13%. The past two weeks has been considerably higher for AEW.

As I said in a comment in another post, the key difference between WWE and AEW is that WWE uses pro wrestling as a component of its entertainment brand and AEW's brand is centered on the genre of pro wrestling itself. While there are many similarities between the two besides the obvious fact of in-ring performances and a bunch of pro wrestling tropes, the approaches couldn't be anymore different. Vince McMahon and Nick Khan look for performers that can seen as credible TV stars while Tony Khan wants very good pro wrestlers performing very good pro wrestling.

It should be noted that AEW and WWE's viewership among younger men is fairly comparable. However, women and older viewers overwhelmingly prefer WWE programming.

Taking this altogether, I started to wonder about the approaches taken by both promotions, and with it, the future of pro wrestling (at least on TV).

WWE's approach is tried, true, and divisive

If anything, WWE has started to double down on the formula that it relied on previously for success. While the in-ring product has vastly improved over the past 10 years, WWE still aspires to have their shows regarded in the same light as any other TV show you would see on NBC or CBS. As I mentioned previously, wrestling is just a component of their product, not their actual core product.

WWE's calculus is very simple: they want to appeal to as much of the general public as possible. Therefore, the company feels they have distance themselves from being seen as just "pro wrestling." It's not like WWE did not have success with this approach previously: the fortunes of the company changed for the better when it started to adopt more familiar TV tropes in its programming in the late 1990s. In fact, WWE would call Smackdown the "world's most dangerous soap opera" in some of their promotional commercials on UPN.

WWE continues to vex pro wrestling enthusiasts, even though the company makes it clear that it has no interest in catering to them. It fosters an odd and consistently adversarial relationship between the promoter and this segment of the fan base that demands a level of artistic accountability that the company, once again, clearly has no interest in providing. This has been going on for well over 15 years.

Let's give credit, WWE is great at production. The product is very, very slick—perhaps too slick. Unfortunately, WWE is not that great in other areas when it comes to television. By 2002, TV was entering into another Golden Age of Television, and WWE simply did not keep up. WWE had a very young viewership at the time—the median age of a pro wrestling viewer was 28 in 2000—and instead of evolving its programming to maintain those viewers they got older, they held on to a formula that was beginning to show its age. WWE lost these viewers to mixed martial arts and other well developed TV shows and never recovered.

In fact, WWE reversed all of its growth in viewership in just a stretch of 24 months throughout 2001 and 2003. In fact, even 20 years later, WWE still tries to recapture the glory of its previous years with an increased reliance on nostalgic acts to maintain viewer interest. However, WWE continues to refuse the address the elephant in the room: the company has aspirations that they are unwilling to do anything to meet. It's going to continue to frustrate the younger, more wrestling-oriented viewers the company needs to hold on to while, at the same time, have a difficult time attracting fresh new viewers.

AEW does have a barrier of entry

Meanwhile, AEW is committed its presentation of pro wrestling as an art form and entertainment genre. Aside from crossovers with various WarnerMedia properties and a few guest appearances, Khan has eschewed the Hollywoodization of his product. Khan is an old-school, hands-on booker (which can occasionally be detrimental), explaining on Jacksonville's 1010 XL/92.5 FM's XL Primetime that doesn't have "27 Hollywood writers writing sketch comedy." In other words, AEW is going to win over audiences by being what they are proud to be—a pro wrestling promotion promoting pro wrestling. The trade off is quite obvious: they're going to draw a smaller, but loyal, audience.

Pro wrestling is still an acquired taste, despite how enjoyable it is. I've made no secret about the fact that while AEW's TV shows are enjoyable, they are incredibly undisciplined. There's a smoothness and fluidity that is lacking in their broadcasts, granted it is less prevalent on Rampage as it is on the live Dynamite. Some fans like that—it gives an air of unpredictability—but it's going to turn off many of the viewers it wants to pull in. In other words, AEW creates a barrier of entry into its own programming by overwhelmingly focusing on an audience that is already into pro wrestling.

Some fans will argue that pro wrestling television should not cater to the general public at large—it should just cater to pro wrestling fans. That's a passionate and understandable statement, but that only creates a ceiling for growth. If you want AEW to be around for the next 10, 15, or 20 years, the company has to draw an audience that would otherwise not be interested in pro wrestling or combat sports.

Neither of them are drawing new fans

Nevertheless, what is clear is that both companies have the same problem—neither are attracting new pro wrestling (or sports entertainment) fans. Both companies have been heavily relying on existing audiences or luring back lapsed viewers, which is fine for the short term.

Despite pro wrestling having better press and wider acceptance in pop culture than its previous boom period, total viewership and average show attendance are not anywhere near the levels of the late 1990s and early 2000s. WWE was easily drawing anywhere from 11,000 to 12,000 people per show, and pro wrestling as a whole added nearly 6 million television viewers in the United States from 1996 to 1999. There were weeks in late 1999 and early 2000 where WWE's Raw Is War and Smackdown, WCW's Nitro and Thunder, and ECW's ECW on TNN series were all drawing over 1 million viewers for their broadcasts.

While the networks are happy with their present reality–Raw and Dynamite generally beat everything in their respective time slots in the 18-49 demographic except sporting events and much more accessible reality shows; Smackdown is often a top 5 show in the 18-49 demo on broadcast TV—the promotions themselves have a future to build towards and it cannot keep looking like the greatest hits of yesterday.

Wrestling's future must be disciplined & accessible

One of the big questions that many industry observers asked in 2019 was whether or not the American market could support two nationally broadcast touring promotions. It can. Both WWE and AEW enjoy relative financial stability, support from their respective networks, and have fanbases willing to shell out money for whatever they have to offer.

Pro wrestling's future will center on these two promotions. But what does that future look like? Who's approach is going to pay off over time? Is it the pop wrestling formula of WWE or the pro wrestling formula of AEW? Is it somewhere in between?

It's hard to say. WWE's approach has been proven to work in the past; however, the company has been left behind by developments in scripted television. AEW's approach is much more pleasing to pro wrestling fans, but appeals to a much narrower audience. I question the sustainability of both.

If WWE is going to achieve its goals of being a brand on the same level as Marvel with shows that are on par with other scripted offerings on TV, it has to get better at TV. Whether that can happen with Vince McMahon at the helm is a question we all know the answer to.

If AEW is going to continue to be the self-proclaimed "home" to pro wrestling, then it needs to find a way to reach fans that would otherwise be dismissive of the art form of pro wrestling. There's a limit as to how long they can rely on just a niche audience.

In other words, pro wrestling's future depends on (a) how disciplined the TV programming is and (b) the accessibility of its content.

For the former, WWE and AEW need to get smoother with their programming. If WWE wants its performers to be akin to actors, then the company needs to require its performers to take acting classes and employ full-time acting coaches. AEW has to improve the flow of its relatively disjointed shows and add an experienced TV show runner to help Tony Khan write and structure his shows.

For the latter, both companies need to draw on what is currently popular with TV viewers and mold it to fit into their programming. Pro wrestling is an acquired taste, yes, but it has to be something that one can easily get into. Both companies have a foundation, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

Pro wrestling's future is interesting. It's neither a bad or good thing. At this point, I'm personally neutral. However, fortunes can change and we will just have to see where it goes.

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