The best way to enjoy AEW is to forget the ratings, at least past the point where you know it’s doing well enough to be successful, and is going to stay on the air and in existence. However it compares to whatever Chicago show is on NBC or whatever gas Tucker Carlson has been huffing that night, doesn’t matter. And the next step after that is to not worry about where it goes from here or what the roadmap will be.
AEW is a cult company for a cult fanbase. And that’s OK. All of us AEW fans can accept that now, and can accept the fact that it likely won’t grow much from what it is now. We all dream of our little thing taking over the world, no matter the arena. Soccer fans used to be there. You have a band or singer that you wanted everyone to know was better than what most of the people you work with listen to. While at the same time, fearing how mass popularity would warp what you’d come to adore. Fandom can be quite confusing.
AEW confirmed as much with the announcement last night that it’s going to run a joint PPV in June with New Japan Pro Wrestling, called “Forbidden Door.” It’s a no-brainer, as so much of AEW’s roster gained popularity through their work in NJPW. Kenny Omega, Hangman Page, the Young Bucks, even Cody and Andrade, just to name a few, gained the attention of fans by their work in Japan. AEW has brought in Minoru Suzuki, Jay White, Tomohiro Ishii, Satoshi Kojima, and others as well, who are all current stars or NJPW legends. They’ve already been in bed together even if they hadn’t changed their relationship status on Facebook.
And while it’s the big news in the wrestling industry last night and today, it still really only applies to the dedicated fan. NJPW, due to its limited access and that most of its shows are on in the middle of the night, courts a certain type of creature. It’s the after-hours club. You need a password to get in (I mean literally, as you need one on NJPW World, its streaming service). If you’re the type to dance until 5 a.m., it’s for you. If you have to worry about your staff meeting tomorrow morning or brunch with the family, it’s very much not.
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It’s not for everyone. It isn’t for most. It’s only a few. This show in June will be great for those already indoctrinated. We’re already dreaming of the matches we’d book and how we’d get to them, even though deep down we know it’ll mostly be large tag matches to get as many people on the show as possible. In some ways, most of the show will be “empty,” in that it won’t contain storylines that will carry on for weeks afterward after weeks of build. They’ll just be cool matches. There’s some history for Hangman or the Bucks maybe to call on, but that’ll be the exception. Doesn’t matter, as the thought of seeing Hiroshi Tanahashi or Tetsuya Naito live in the flesh would get most of us off no matter what.
And you know what? All of that is OK! It’s great! There was a fantasy, especially right after the company got out of the pandemic (not that we as a society did) and started doing live shows again — and really got rolling as CM Punk and Bryan Danielson showed up — that it would show the world what wrestling really could be and win over the masses. That our little Dynamite show could become the dominant one, like WCW did for those famous “83 weeks.”
But it’s a different time now, and every type of entertainment is fragmented, unless you’re Marvel. It’s hard to see how anything that is niche by nature, as wrestling is, can rise up to something more. Let Vince chase that dream that he has so lustily for decades now.
AEW, twice a week, provides something for a certain type of fan. And the more they lock that down, the more they keep that fan in place, then the more likely it is that it will never go away. It will always be providing an outlet for us. It’s always going to be the band that rolls through town once or twice a year and plays your favorite club. Who gives a fuck if it’s not an arena? Seriously, how are you going to explain Danhausen to all of your friends?
AEW’s attendance and ratings now, that’s probably where they will be for the foreseeable future. We get obsessed with wars and competition, but it’s clear now that this isn’t what this is. AEW provides a lot of what a section of fans want, and that’s probably all it’s ever going to do. Working with NJPW only proves that. As amazing as Kazuchika Okada is, he’s never going to bring in casual fans. I’m gonna mark the fuck out at the United Center in June when the sound of dropping coins hits and he walks out, but that hardly means most people would.
This urge to see AEW grow and grow is born out of most people’s obsession with being right. Not just being right, but being proven right so everyone can see, at least in our own minds. You can see that everywhere you look, much to the detriment of…well, everything. We believe the AEW product is better, more enjoyable, a better example of pro wrestling. But many AEW fans can’t truly feel right about that unless it’s affirmed by the masses. It’s not enough to be a cult for some, especially when non-AEW fans look for their affirmation in being right and us wrong by pointing to ratings or attendance or mass-market appeal. Neither is looking for better success for their company as much as that affirmation.
None of that should matter. AEW has carved out a comfortable home for itself in the industry, and right near the top. It provides three hours a week that are massively entertaining for a certain type of fan, and that’s all it will likely do. If you’re having fun, why do you care how many others are? It’s here to stay, it’s here to stay for enough people, and that’s success.