By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JeffreyDLutz)
Last week, WWE reported record quarterly profits. During a pandemic, even. What an accomplishment. So why is nobody celebrating?
Because we remember that WWE saved money by unnecessarily firing wrestlers shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak forced a long-term move to an empty (or mostly empty) Performance Center for television and pay-per-view tapings.
Because the conference call with stockholders to release WWE’s financial information was actually kind of tragic. Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon seemed disengaged and unwilling or unable to offer insight into the creative future of the company.
Because television ratings are bottoming out, storytelling has been directionless and uninspired, and because other pro wrestling companies embrace the industry. Meanwhile, WWE isolates itself and is so afraid to try anything new that 1980’s relic Bruce Prichard is responsible for much of the content on its two flagship TV shows. Its previous idea for a new direction was installing Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman, those guys from the ’90s, as creative thought leaders.
At least those gentlemen fit WWE’s most popular demographic – old white guys.
Journalists don’t root for one wrestling company to succeed, especially at the expense of others. But let me tell you why it seems many who cover the business are more emotionally invested in AEW than in WWE. AEW has been on television for nearly a year, so any preference has nothing to do with its newness.
AEW is proud to be a wrestling company and WWE is not. It’s as simple as that. I could end the column there, because the evidence supporting that argument is overwhelming. But just for fun, let’s go through some of the most glaring examples.
Remember when Vickie Guerrero showed up in AEW for the first time, seemingly a one-off then, and WWE’s response was to ban its talent from appearing on Guerrero’s podcast? That seems rational, doesn’t it? I’ve never listened to Vickie’s podcast, but I know that interviews away from the WWE umbrella expose more of a talent’s personality than WWE’s writing can ever muster. Guerrero was doing WWE a favor and WWE shut her down because … reasons?
It’s impossible to say WWE doesn’t care about wrestling history. It does. It truly, madly, deeply cares about its own history, so much that it frequently rewrites it. While the individual members of Degeneration X, The Clique, and Evolution stack Hall of Fame rings, contributors from the early years of the business are grouped together in a video package to announce their inductions at each year’s HOF ceremony.
AEW seems like it actually cares. It features Jake Roberts, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard and others on TV regularly as a nod to the past, not to capitalize on it. It realizes that the story of professional wrestling can’t be told without WWE, so it embraces that fact when allowing Bret Hart to unveil the AEW championship belt. WWE treats these appearances as affronts and punishes the talents involved and its own fans by preventing them from having more personal access to WWE’s stars through outlets like podcasts.
WWE stifles creativity. I have no idea if Dean Ambrose, Luke Gallows, Karl Anderson, Eric Young and others who have complained about their WWE characters are the next great creative minds in the business, but I do know that WWE refuses to find out.
The scariest part of the recap from last week’s WWE conference call was just how grim the creative future of the company looks. McMahon seemingly has no interest in passing the baton or trusting anyone who wasn’t by his side in 1987 or 1996. Triple H is apparently waiting patiently, but he’ll probably be in his sixties by the time Vince McMahon is unable to continue.
So who’s next? Probably not any of the longtime producers, whom WWE deems increasingly expendable. Not any of the performers WWE has already lost because McMahon is too stuck in his ways to solicit ideas from young, energetic people. Not Bruce Prichard. Please, not Bruce Prichard. Really used to love his podcast, but … no. Just no.
AEW can’t be 100 percent positive, even after nearly a year, that wrestlers make the best bookers and writers in 2020. But it’s admirable that owner Tony Kahn is staking the future of the company on innovation and progress rather than depending on whatever worked when WrestleMania was a novelty. If WWE was similarly invested, maybe Cody Rhodes would still be working there, pitching ideas that don’t lead to the lowest viewership in Raw history.
Ideas, especially from talent, die in WWE. Its wrestlers have to escape the most profitable wrestling company in the history of the world to find any kind of creative freedom or satisfaction. Imagine if it worked that way in other forms of entertainment. Community theater would be more appealing to actors than a Netflix series. Double-A baseball over the big leagues. Local bar shows over headlining Coachella.
Wrestlers are feeling more at home in AEW and Impact Wrestling because they’re heard, acknowledged, and appreciated there. It’s a family and if one of those companies succeeds, they all succeed because that means wrestling is succeeding. It doesn’t mean they aren’t competitive with one another, it just means they recognize the importance of ideas, creativity, and inclusion.
The year 2020 has been rough, but at least companies like AEW and Impact are living in it. WWE is on another planet, building plexiglass barricades to keep good ideas away and waiting to see if 1987 comes around again.