CM Punk returns to WWE on his very best behavior
The Second City Saint returned to WWE last weekend at Survivor Series, but cut his return promo on the November 27th episode of Monday Night Raw. Cut for time because the preceding match, which featured Randy Orton's first TV match in over 18 months, it was a less poignant and more straight-to-the-point version of his 2021 AEW promo. It is essentially a continuation of his "Voice of the Voiceless" character he had in his original stint.
It looks like Seth Rollins will be Punk's first major return feud in WWE. In any event, Punk can offer roughly a year and a half worth of bankable feuds in WWE if he stays healthy.
Randy Orton might give the Bloodline saga a shot in the arm
From live crowds to diehard Internet wrestling fans, there is almost universal acclaim for the work that LA Knight has done over the past year plus. He's probably one of the four most popular male performers in all of WWE. Despite his popularity, WWE does not trust that it is durable; not necessarily an indictment against him, but because they believe fans are, to borrow a term from Bryan Danielson, "fickle".
Orton getting revenge on The Bloodline offers fresh storytelling opportunities; and the return of Roman Reigns to WWE programming is leading me to believe that Reigns-Orton may be a Royal Rumble match. Some good TV should come out of it over the next few weeks.
AEW doubles down on its nerdy approach to pro wrestling television
From an artistic standpoint, the Continental Classic has had some pretty good in-ring performances by some of the best workers in the entire company. Swerve Strickland versus Jay White and Bryan Danielson's tilt with Eddie Kingston have been some of the more remarkable battles thus far.
However, the Continental Classic hasn't felt that special. Why? Because it is not overwhelmingly different than the type of content AEW puts on anyway. This is content for the diehard AEW fan that appreciates it when Tony Khan books in a way that is a nod to wrestling nerds. Unfortunately, great wrestling matches does not equal great television. The matches are good, but the story beats leave a lot to be desired.
Toni Storm might have a problem
AEW Women's Champion Toni Storm continues to knock it out of the park with her delusional Golden Age of Hollywood act. Adding Luther as her butler is a very nice touch.
There are three things tough about this act. One, it requires decent TV time (1 minute promos aren't going to cut it); two, it requires well-fleshed storyline (anything not ring-centric is not in Khan's wheelhouse); and three, it requires a really strong dance partner for Storm (and by extension, Mariah May), to play off of.
Khan's booking and writing style is going to shorten the shelf-life of Storm's character a lot more than she hopes for. It is unfortunate because it is one of the most brilliant things I've seen in years.
The Drew losing it storyline is actually pretty good
With all the things surrounding Drew McIntyre's contract, his current story that he's slowly losing it over repeated failures is a good one. This is not a typical "heel" turn. He is a frustrated man taking out his frustrations on others and he is obsessed with Seth Rollins' World Heavyweight Championship.
I really liked the segment on Raw between McIntyre and Rollins. Rollins' character is a little bit hokey, but it is not something that most 30 to 40 year old adults can't enjoy. McIntyre's reaction was perfect, and I'm curious to see how far his descent goes.
The TNA-rebrand is right around the corner...and so far, they missed out on two big bankable names
You can't fault TNA for swinging for the fences for CM Punk and Will Ospreay. Unfortunately, the company struck out on both. Ospreay—if you hear disgruntled WWE sources tell it—was probably overpaid by AEW. Punk, on the other hand, opted to go back to WWE because that's where his heart was set on returning.
With AEW locking up The Elite, Chris Jericho, and Jon Moxley well past 2026, the only opportunity that may be coming up on the horizon is seeing whether or not Drew McIntyre (who wrestled under his real name in TNA/Impact a few years back) will hit the free agent market.
However, I would argue that TNA doesn't necessarily need a big name per se. They just need to up the ante on putting out an entertaining product. TNA's backstage segments are probably the best in the industry. However, it's ringside production leads a lot to be desired and I hope when they upgrade their set up, they take cues from NXT.
NXT's viewership may have slowed down, but it's growth is still outperforming everything else
NXT hasn't drawn more than three quarters of a million viewers in a few weeks; that's a given due to WWE to generally not doing enough to convince its fanbase to tune into NXT. WWE relied on big ticket, viewership drawing main roster stars (i.e. Becky Lynch) to provide a boost to NXT. It worked, but it did not convince the spike in viewers to stick around.
Nevertheless, NXT is (a) pro wrestling's best written show; and (b) still, objectively, has the best year-over-year growth in all of televised pro wrestling. It has a fairly sweet TV deal with CW Network kicking in next year. The only thing NXT is lacking is a storyline that will generate a lot of buzz. The Who Attacked Trick Williams angle is a good start, but as Cageside Seats writer Marcus Benjamin correctly opined, the layers that NXT is trying to add might be overkill instead of intriguing.
What is and what isn't being reported
Fans on social media are giving pro wrestling journalists a lot of shit for things that they did not exactly say or write.
For example, Fightful reported that he had not heard any plans of CM Punk returning to WWE at Survivor Series. He also made it clear in various Q & As and even his own social media account that he was not saying that Punk was for sure not arriving and that things could change because it is pro wrestling. Wrestling Observer, PW Torch, and PW Insider more or less echoed the same thing.
Then all of them got accused of lying or missing the story when CM Punk did return at Survivor Series. This is extremely frustrating to see because fans are either pre-disposed to hate "dirt sheets", do not understand how journalism works, or both.
A journalist's story is only as good as the sources they have. Sometimes those sources are direct; other times those sources are second- or third-person. In any event, Not every source is knowledgeable about a given situation. As a known warmonger once said—there are "known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns... things that you don't know, you don't know." CM Punk's return to WWE fits into the last category succinctly.
Pro wrestling journalistic outlets are not much different than other entertainment news outlets—they mostly depend on leaks from their confidential sources for their reporting. The ire that wrestling fans give wrestling journalists is just straight up toxic.
AEW is on solid financial footing, but...
Hey, I might be a major AEW critic these days in regards to their TV programming—but the company is in solid financial health.
Wrestling Observer reports that AEW's 2023 revenue will hover around $170 to $175 million, which is almost 70-75% higher than it was in 2022. Even though live attendance and same-day viewership has declined, more pay-per-views, higher ticket prices, and a blockbuster of an event in London have all contributed to AEW's substantial increase in revenue.
I don't care for AEW's TV shows, but it is still a good promotion and Khan should be given a degree of credit for helming a well-capitalized promotion.
This is, of course, nowhere near the revenue that WWE generates. However, WWE has a slightly different business model than AEW's
Wrestlenomics Brandon Thurston estimates that AEW needs around $200 million per year in media rights revenue to get to profitability and like other wrestling voices such as Eric Bischoff, believe that Warner Bros Discovery has an ownership stake in AEW. AEW has not been vocal about their profitability; the only time I've heard anything about profitability in WWE is when Dave Meltzer reported that AEW turned a profit on its pandemic shows due to fewer expenses.
All things considered, AEW could probably fetch $200 million a year in TV rights for its 3 shows, granted Khan is probably holding out for more money. Smackdown is returning to USA Network for only $280 million a year. USA Network is available in roughly 1 million more homes than TBS or TNT as of June 2023 (throw in streaming over the air services and it becomes a bit more even).
David Zaslav is known for his frugality, and after the studios caved to SAG-AFTRA, I'm not sure what his appetite is on spending. NBA rights are up for grabs and Comcast (the parent of NBCUniversal) plans on making a play for them. AEW's TV offerings have underperformed the market (when considering the drop in number of homes a channel is available in) by a significant margin; but Zaslav and WBD may believe that AEW's programming will be key to stopping the bleeding. My guess is that AEW gets $200 to $205 million a year for 3 to 5 years, which translates into a $600 million to $1 billion TV deal.
Long story short, AEW is not going to shut down anytime soon.
So where does AEW go from here?
Cody Rhodes help found AEW; he went back to WWE and became a much bigger star there.
Jade Cargill was AEW's best touted prospect; she left to WWE in hopes of developing into a much more bankable celebrity.
CM Punk was signed as the AEW's biggest star. Two blow-ups, the second of which resulted in his termination, resulted in him going back to WWE with much bigger fanfare than his AEW debut.
2023 has been WWE's most well-received year since 2000. The company experienced year-over-year growth in all of its major TV shows, even though Monday Night Raw's year-over-year growth has slowed, and in recent weeks, went back into the red. Even though their monthly supercards (or "premium live events") are not that great whatsoever, the company has rode a vastly improved TV product to enormous levels of success. The company is printing as much money as the US Treasury is at the moment.
AEW's in-ring product may be more artistic than WWE's, but WWE has outclassed AEW in just about every other facet. Raw, Smackdown, and NXT are better written shows than Dynamite, Collision, and Rampage. With the return of Punk and Orton, WWE now has a murderer's row of bankable stars that they can roll out whenever, whenever, and however they want.
This is not like it hasn't been seen before. WCW became a behemoth in the late 1990s, with an incredibly stacked roster of late-30s, early-40s talent that had a decent track record of drawing power. The company was outdrawing WWE by a 1 million viewers a week in 1997. Nitro, on many weeks, was the most watched show on cable television—on any day.
Vince McMahon turned the company's fortunes around by embracing what WCW did (becoming a TV-first promotion) and simply doing a better job at it. Courting younger viewers with tawdry and campy television in a pro wrestling setting, WWE added far more viewers than WCW ever did. By 2000, WWE had two shows that were outdrawing WCW's TV offerings by nearly 2 million viewers—each. Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock became cornerstones of pop culture as pro wrestlers to a level that no pro wrestler has come since. John Cena and Dave Bautista had to transition to acting before they reached the impact that Austin and The Rock had as active in-ring performers.
Khan may claim that this is a "wrestling war" and that he has a personal vendetta against WWE, but at this point it is irrelevant. AEW has doubled down on its narrow, nerdier approach to its TV shows. The most dominant storyline in the company is the Continental Classic, which makes for great wrestling, but doesn't do much to appeal to a wider base.
I wouldn't be such a critic about it if the underlying TV was good—but it is wildly inconsistent. Watch Dynamite or Collision in bits and pieces via clips and it's not really that bad. Watching it all together on a single episode is seems disjointed and off-putting.
The strange thing is that AEW can have it both ways—deep, layered storytelling with strong workrate matches. The company needs to have a cohesive, well-defined fictional universe.
However, that takes a level of TV writing the company is incapable of executing because it still does not have a professional, experienced TV writer on its staff. AEW's obsession with pleasing a bunch of IWC nerds that serves as a vocal minority of a pro wrestling audience is creating an unnecessary ceiling.
WCW and Paramount/Spike-era Impact Wrestling doubled-down on the worst aspects of its programming. Instead of countering WWE with better produced television, it settled for winning over savvier, narrower wrestling audiences. It did not pay off for either company.
It was not immediate, though. WCW's decline lasted 2 years before Time Warner sold it to WWE. Impact Wrestling, after its strong 2012, lost its TV deal at the end of 2014. With that in mind, I'm somewhat concerned for AEW's future. It wasn't because of the pushes or the wrestling that doomed WCW and Impact; it was their approach to TV.
AEW will always have a diehard fanbase, but as the novelty of the matches begins to wear thin, what will AEW lean on? AEW has to turn its attention to producing compelling television. That means bringing in TV writers. That means committing proper TV structure to its stories (which on paper often have a lot of potential).
But will they?