The news officially arrived through a pair of statements, a rally outside TIAA Bank Field, and a subsequent press junket, but the Jacksonville Jaguars owners Shahid “Shad” Khan and his son Tony made their bold new foray into the pro wrestling business official on Tuesday. The name of the new promotion is All Elite Wrestling, and it has aspirations to compete directly with WWE. (Preliminary details were announced a week earlier on YouTube.) According to Tuesday’s press release, Shad is “the lead investor, a supporter and a backer of All Elite Wrestling,” while Tony had previously been announced as the company president. Some questions lingered after the rally—and, crucially, no TV deal was announced—but the Khans did put some additional cards on the table this week.
The most compelling of those was star power. Chris Jericho, PAC (Neville in WWE), Joey Janela and his valet/sometimes tag team partner Penelope Ford, Maxwell Jacob Friedman, and Dr. Britt Baker DMD (that’s not a gimmick, she’s a real dentist) joined the previously announced signings to the AEW roster. There were already plenty of big names on that roster, too: Cody Rhodes (also a vice president), The Young Bucks (ditto), Brandi Rhodes (also Chief Brand Officer), their “Elite” stablemate Adam Page, and SoCal Uncensored (Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, and Scorpio Sky). AEW also announced a working agreement with China’s Oriental Wrestling Entertainment, which is run by Nobuhiko Oshima, better known to fans as CIMA from his time in Japan’s Dragon Gate and his short run as Shiima Nobunaga in WCW in the late ‘90s.
Cody, who has been one of the more aggressive and forward-thinking voices in the sport on labor issues, also pledged to change the economy of wrestling. But while he stressed better pay during the post-rally media scrum there were still plenty of questions concerning employee status and extending health insurance to wrestlers. Medical costs for injuries sustained in an AEW ring will be covered by the company, though, which is comparatively enlightened by wrestling standards. (WWE generally does this as well, but there have been a few notable exceptions.). Brandi also pledged that female talent will be paid equally what their male counterparts make.
There is still the question of where fans will be able to watch all this. AEW’s first show, the sequel to Cody and the Bucks’ “All In” pay-per-view, will be “Double or Nothing,” on May 25 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas; PAC vs. Page was strongly hinted at as the main event for that one. The second show, with a large but unspecified portion of the gate going to victims of gun violence, will be held in Jacksonville. No date or show name was announced, but AEW trademarked “Fight for the Fallen” in December. (Subsequently, AEW announced on Twitter that longtime WWE star Billy Gunn was their first producer to be hired, while AEW later confirmed to Deadspin that he’ll be joined by recently departed Ring of Honor producer B.J. Whitmer.)
The stream of the rally was marred by audio issues, but otherwise appeared to go off without a hitch. Jericho’s involvement, was, naturally, played up bigger than anything else. Hosts Conrad Thompson and Alex Marvez started “wrapping up” before being interrupted by Jericho, who was listed on the format sheet shared with Deadspin only as “surprise guest.” Jericho has a history of returning to WWE in surprise re-entires, and has expressed dismay on his podcast over one such return being spoiled backstage by his presence on the format. All of which is to say that his arrival wasn’t exactly a big surprise: If anyone was going to show up at the end of the launch and PAC had already debuted, Jericho was the only contractually free big star in the sport. (NJPW’s Kenny Omega is still under contract there through the end of January.) Still, Jericho’s semi-surprise announcement was effective, even if Thompson sold confusion despite Jericho’s voice, singing his entrance music, playing over the P.A. system.
The claim of equal pay was arguably the most dramatic news in the announcement, if also the most confusing. Under the traditional definition, the concept doesn’t really apply to pro wrestling’s historical pay structures. Historically, pro wrestling in the territorial era paid based on a percentage of the live gate—approximately a third goes to the talent in theory, if very rarely in practice—with half of the talent budget going to the main event and the rest to the undercard. That scale shifted as pro wrestling went national. WWE used a more nebulous and ill-defined formula, plus royalties, while rival WCW paid most wrestlers (with very occasional exceptions) outright weekly guarantees, plus merchandise and licensing royalties. Those WCW guarantees pushed WWE into its current model of “downside guarantees,” which set a minimum to be offset by a balloon payment if event payoffs and royalties fail to hit the level of the guarantee. AEW may work to make sure that every wrestler is paid the same rate, but the real-world definition of equal pay is grounded in the idea of parity across job titles, and wrestling doesn’t have those—it’s not as if anyone has a specific job description of “main event wrestler” or “mid-card wrestler” or “opening match wrestler” that could then be pegged to a pay scale.
“Equal pay means equal opportunity regardless of sex” Brandi elaborated in a tweet on Wednesday afternoon. “It does not mean that everyone will be paid the exact same salary regardless of their position. It means the gender pay gap does not apply. An entry level woman won’t make less than an entry level man because of her gender.” Reached by text message, Tony Khan echoed Brandi’s pledge that the base pay will be the same for me and women while also expanding a bit on the topic. “It’s going to be more of a weekly guarantee, plus royalties, like a WCW deal,” he told Deadspin. In other words, AEW’s guarantees will be based on perceived star power and intended spot on the card. That isn’t necessarily a foolproof plan, as there aren’t any superstar female free agents out there right now—someone like Baker, who is an excellent wrestler, will need to be built up as a star to get to the level of the Bucks and Cody—and WWE’s top female stars appear to be locked down for the time being. Traditionally, the industry leader signs talent to three-year contracts, and with most of WWE’s key women going to the main touring roster in 2015, they would have all renewed their deals last year.
“Doing the same job in wrestling entails everything about how you draw, produce, sell, et cetera,” Cody added. “Your star power isn’t determined by gender.” But with the biggest names among women wrestlers currently locked up—even outside WWE, the recognizable female wrestlers are all signed to ROH, Impact, or Lucha Underground—AEW’s star women may need to be built from scratch. Given that this is wrestling, though, there is still some wiggle room where commitments are concerned. Lucha Underground has been letting contracted talent work for other TV promotions while funding for future seasons is up in the air, and Impact’s contracts only specifically exclude WWE and ROH, leaving an opening for AEW. One source familiar with current talks told Deadspin that AEW has plans to work with at least one of the all-female Japanese promotions to help fill out the women’s roster. That would give AEW a pretty high in-ring standard on the women’s side right off the bat.
Wrestlers in AEW will still have some degree of independence; Cody singled out Jericho’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Rager at Sea cruise and Joey Janela’s Spring Break series of shows with Game Changer Wrestling as projects that will be continuing. Khan further told Deadspin that wrestlers can still sell their own merchandise independent of AEW, with royalties coming from AEW-produced merchandise and the talent’s cut being “more than WWE, ROH, NJPW.” (Wrestlers selling through ProWrestlingTees.com, AEW’s distributor for the time being for company logo merchandise, are used to a royalty in the 50 percent range.) The most recent WWE talent contract available publicly is Stephanie McMahon’s, which was filed with the SEC in 2013. It does not actually stipulate a set royalty percentage, instead reading as follows:
WRESTLER shall be paid a portion of the Products’ Net Receipts (or a portion of a pool thereof established for the WRESTLER and all Other Promoter Talent) received by PROMOTER with respect to the Product Sale which portion shall be established from time to time by PROMOTER and be generally consistent with other of its top talent.
Cody added that in addition to the “generous royalty rate” and some wrestlers being able to keep their own stores, AEW’s merchandise agreements will be case by case and not use a boilerplate agreement like WWE’s. “We aren’t offering ‘take it or leave its,’” he explained, before enthusing about the involvement of “genius” Dana Massie (Young Buck Matt Jackson’s wife, who manages the brothers’ own merchandise business) and ProWrestlingTees’ Ryan Barkan in the the promotion’s merchandising. In addition, while WWE talent lost a sizable chunk of their income when pay-per-views were moved to WWE Network in 2014, Cody tells Deadspin that there will in fact be a cut for the talent in AEW’s pay-per-views, albeit on a case-by-case basis. “Every contract is different,” he explained. “This is my first experience tailoring and licensing and doing contracts.” Some of that guidance may come from wrestling analyst and podcaster Chris Harrington, whose involvement was informally announced during Cody’s scrum on Tuesday. With years of covering the “Wrestlenomics” side of things, including a website that includes an indispensable archive of WWE and other pro wrestling financial and contract data, Harrington is one of the promotion’s more interesting hires.
WWE has been without a major competitor since WCW was folded by Turner Broadcasting, its parent company and domestic TV partner, back in 2001. The Khans have the money, connections, and motivation to mount a real challenge in a way that nobody else has to date, but with no TV deal yet it’s still unclear just how this will all work. There are some promising rumors, there—the company reportedly has multiple suitors, including TNT, the former home of WCW Monday Nitro—but it’s another thing about this promotion that is still making the transition from dream to reality. A TV deal would make what’s already a big story even bigger and crazier, but it was clear that AEW was aiming high since its trademarks surfaced back in November. It’s still a long ways from air, but that Tuesday Night Dynamite trademark sure sounds tailor made for TNT.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.