Last week, All Elite Wrestling held a big news conference to confirm most of what we suspected. The new promotion headed by Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks has cash, good wrestlers, and attitude, placing it in a good position to chip away at WWE’s dominance. AEW is real and it’s spectacular.
David Bixenspan wrote up a quality post-mortem of the press conference last Thursday over at Deadspin. It’s worth a read, but the final takeaway is that this is as close to a modern, wrestler-led approach to the business end of pro wrestling as we’ve ever seen. The contracts are tailored to each wrestler and merchandise rights are far more generous, with wrestlers being able to operate their own merch shops—a far cry from WWE’s draconian control of wrestlers’ image and exclusivity clauses.
All of that is good, but where AEW represents a real change is in how injuries are handled. As Bixenspan notes, the rumored health insurance wasn’t confirmed, but AEW will be covering costs for any injuries incurred at their events. That’s a massive change from how most promotions—WWE generally takes care of in-ring injuries, as well—deal with injury issues and puts pressure on them to change up how pro wrestlers are taken care of.
Health insurance must be an integral part of any worker-centered promotion, however: the men and women of AEW are employees and they deserve the benefits which come with that status. Pro wrestling has historically been a perverse foreshadowing of our current age of precarity. We’re all independent contractors now, working by the gig and paying for travel expenses. And besides, AEW has the money.
We know this by, of course, looking at the Khans, Shahid and Tony, who are the co-owners. They’re wildly wealthy, worth twice or more what Vince McMahon is. This is their third sporting venture, after Fulham FC and the Jacksonville Jaguars; their portfolio is the definition of the billionaire sports adventurer. But we also know just by looking at what information we have about the contracts.
In an interview with Chris Van Vliet, Chris Jericho let slip that his AEW money is “the biggest offer of my career by far.” Jericho has long been one of the big names in pro wrestling and worked under big contracts with WCW, WWE, and NJPW prior to this new stint in AEW.
The speculation over the past few months has been that the contracts may be very lucrative. While we don’t have specifics, Jericho’s interview indicates they are and that, at least at the top end, they outstrip WWE’s offerings by a wide margin. For him to be offered a contract which dwarfs an upper-card WWE contract, with the implication that the offer may have been bigger than WWE’s contracts without much negotiation, means WWE is in trouble at the one place they’re strongest since WCW folding: the size of their contracts.
This is going to have all sorts of knock-on effects. There are WWE wrestlers who are very frustrated with their lot in WWE. Little is ever said directly—nobody wants to be blacklisted by a monopoly—but murmurs always come up via snide comments on Instagram or eye-rolling in interviews. We know that Zack Ryder is hardly happy and that Rusev probaby isn’t. Andrade Almas is ready for something new. Beyond that, take your pick of who has solid grounds for being frustrated. Are Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn really content to be a duo comedy act working the same frenemies angle for the next decade? Is Kairi Sane going to risk being buried on the main roster after another two years in NXT?
This is the trap WWE has created. By buying up so many top pro wrestlers from around the world in an attempt to lock them down, WWE has assembled the most talented top to bottom roster in pro wrestling history, but by necessity can’t make them all happy. Instead, what’s happened is that every single wrestler in WWE gets more mainstream exposure than they otherwise might, making them stars in waiting for a promotion like AEW.
WWE is shook. While the AEW rumors were still coalescing, it turns out that WWE offered The Young Bucks one of the strangest contracts in its history. Knowing that the Khans weren’t going to launch AEW without the Bucks, WWE offered the brothers a contract worth AJ Styles money to each, with a clause that they could leave without consequence during the first six months if they were unhappy.
That sort of contract offer isn’t a mark of confidence, but a sign that WWE was willing to change every bit of how they do business in this one instance to squash AEW before it started. The Young Bucks are very good, and perhaps creative geniuses for an ironic age, but the WWE contract had nothing to do with either attribute.
None of this means that AEW is destined to succeed. Pro wrestling is littered with the pet projects of rich, vain men. Tony Khan seems to be taking the day-to-day reins from the business end and he’s a pro wrestling superfan. But Ted Turner was a pro wrestling superfan, too, albeit one who was less knowledgeable about its inner workings than Khan seems to be. WCW didn’t survive, despite all the in-ring talent money could buy. It may be that the historical lesson is that pro wrestling only has the barest chance to work at a large scale with a meddling money mark, in which case that mark needs to be very, very good at what they do. We don’t know that Khan is, only that Turner wasn’t and McMahon used to be.
AEW also still needs television, which they don’t have. In a sign that the universe is a vicious appreciation for irony, TNT and TBS are the two networks coming up the most in rumors, 20 years after the Turner networks swore that pro wrestling was never going to be on their corner of cable after WCW died.
If they get that deal, AEW is cemented as a big deal. As it is, something has already broken in pro wrestling’s treatment of its workers. They’ve always borne the costs for everything their profession needs: clothing, travel, healthcare, and the hard work of continuous creative self-invention. They take all the risks. We have confirmation that they’re getting ready to see a lot more of the rewards.