It’s been in the water for some time, but WWE made it official today. They’re moving NXT from Wednesdays to Tuesdays two weeks from now, just after Wrestlemania. What they didn’t announce is that they’re essentially giving up on the “Wednesday Night War” against AEW on TNT. WWE would never admit defeat, but it sure does feel like one.
While NXT head honcho Paul Levesque (you and I call him “Triple H”) will try and guise it up any way he can to save face, the simple reason is that NXT — WWE’s former developmental brand but now more their Triple-A — got its head kicked in ratings-wise by AEW. Just last week, AEW doubled NXT in the 18-49 age group. That’s been the case for most of the 18 months that the two have gone head-to-head.
NXT never really came close to topping AEW in that demo, and only topped them in overall viewers a handful of times. In 2021, some of AEW’s ratings victories have been decisive. With WWE’s new deal with Peacock, the USA Network was probably elated to shift NXT off to the streaming service and get on with its life on Wednesday nights, airing Burn Notice reruns or whatever it is USA does the rest of the time. There’s also been some buzz that when NBCSN shuts up shop at the end of the year, that its Wednesday night NHL offerings could end up on USA, but that’s only if NBC decides to take the other part of the NHL TV deal that hasn’t been taken by ESPN. That hasn’t happened yet.
While WWE never publicly stated it was taking on AEW, moving NXT from the WWE Network to USA on Wednesday nights, and extending it two hours from its previous one, before AEW even hit the airwaves was a clear opening salvo. For it to slink away from the battle not even two years in is truly a departure for WWE. Considering its recent deals with Peacock and Fox, it’s not exactly like it’s licking its wounds, though.
So what happened? That’s harder to pin down. You would have been hard-pressed to find a more devoted fanbase to any company, major in indie, than fans were to NXT on the WWE Network. While it was on the New York brand, it never felt like Vince McMahon had anything to do with it. Because he didn’t. This was Triple H’s baby, and it looked and felt different than any other WWE product.
With not the same ratings pressure as “Raw” or “Smackdown” face, and not having the eye of Sauron constantly hovering over it, Levesque was able to create a brand that told different stories, allowed different wrestlers with different styles that you’d never see on WWE television to star, and to try just about anything it wanted. It was an indie company with major corporation backing. It’s no coincidence that the “Women’s Revolution” was an NXT creation. It was a place that was free enough from either executive scrutiny over ratings or production to let women wrestlers be who they were without fitting into the previous, limited, and frankly misogynist roles WWE had cut out for them before. Triple H could treat them like any other wrestler because no one was going to tell him he couldn’t.
It wasn’t just the women, though, that will be Levesque’s crowning achievement. Wrestlers who would have been considered too small or too flippy by the WWE hierarchy could also shine. It’s why Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole and Tommaso Ciampa have been the main draws for years, and why Finn Balor ended up back there. All of these guys would be lost on the main roster (and Balor was for long stretches of his time up there) as McMahon would have assuredly dismissed them as too small.
When WWE decided to “promote” NXT from its own network to USA, it felt like something was lost. Their stories and matches started to resemble, ever so slightly, what fans were getting on Monday nights already. It was more conventional. It didn’t take quite as many risks. It felt more company made than the indie show that just ended up on WWE Network. In essence, it was no longer the AEW of WWE.
So when AEW showed up, basically offering (though not always delivering) what fans had gotten out of NXT before, it’s no wonder they flocked over. That’s harsh on NXT, which still has probably the most robust women’s division and a bevy of entertaining and dynamic performers elsewhere. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
NXT probably wasn’t helped by being seen as “the minor league.” That was fine when it was the little show that could on the network. But when pitted up against another show that was positioned as the top of the top, it looked more on the rinky-dink side. Before the pandemic, AEW taking place at various arenas while NXT was still taped at its Full Sail University location that looks like the Black Box Theater the school forgot about and the theater dorks took over was a bad visual for NXT. Even during the pandemic, AEW’s location of a giant concert space (Daly’s Place) vs. the virtual fan Thunderdome Lite of NXT is another visual win for AEW.
Or it could just be that NXT never had that big of a base to begin with. It would be difficult to measure how many were watching on the network, and it’s entirely possible the amount of fans that were “Never-WWE” and salivating at another company being on regular TV was simply that much larger.
Whatever the reasons, NXT’s move is a win for fans everywhere. They’ll no longer have to choose one and find time to watch the recording of the other. Though now there will be a major wrestling show on four of the five nights per week. Throw in weekend PPVs and it could get exhausting.
It will be truly heartening news for AEW president Cody Rhodes. He only needs the slightest impetus for his head to grow to a size of being moon-orbit-able, and this would be that. It must feel especially good, as Rhodes has said in the past that Triple H held back his career at WWE. And now he’s kneecapped Levesque’s project.
Neither AEW nor WWE ever admitted out loud they were competing with each other. That probably won’t stop AEW from claiming victory.