While it’s been fun to project the battle between AEW and WWE as a TV war, the reality has been that they’ve really been separate. Sure, AEW has vacuumed up a lot of talent that WWE left out in the alley when it was perfectly serviceable or better (is this just a Chicago thing? Every one of us had an apartment in our lives that was at least 60 percent furnished by alley findings). That created spice and intrigue. But that didn’t mean the two companies lined up against each other. Especially since AEW whomped NXT on Wednesday nights and forced the latter to flee to Tuesdays, and then to be completely changed/mangled when it got there, the two have been in their own corners. AEW is on Wednesdays, WWE is on Mondays, and both have carved out different Friday night time slots (SmackDown at dinner time, Rampage at drinkin’ time).
The initial fight between AEW and NXT was essentially WWE sending out its pawns first, which seems an even more apt metaphor given the way company higher-ups have completely altered NXT (for worse in my mind, but a lot of people think otherwise) to better service the main roster, perhaps gearing up for future battles with AEW by skewing younger.
Even when AEW added a second show on Friday nights, it was slotted after WWE’s SmackDown, not head to head against it. Perhaps it was encroaching on the battle lines, but it was still definitely more of a scouting mission than a direct attack. That didn’t mean WWE wasn’t at least preparing for attack, if not going on one on their own, as the whole leaked “fast nationals” kerfluffle of the past couple of weeks. Clearly, WWE wanted something out there.
Last Friday was the first time that the two companies ran shows directly against each other, with WWE extending SmackDown half an hour into Rampage, because it was on FS1 instead of network TV thanks to Fox’s MLB playoff coverage. We all waited with bated breath for the release of ratings news over the weekend yesterday to see how it would all go down.
So what did we learn? Not really all that much we didn’t already know.
As we all suspected, WWE earned the bigger overall numbers by some margin, and in viewers between 18 and 49 years of age, the two were essentially neck and neck, especially in that half-hour that they overlapped. In the coveted 18-49 demo AEW did come out ahead, but by a slimmer margin. Either way, AEW is celebrating the win. And it’s also hard to miss that WWE didn’t leak the fast nationals this time around. Whether that’s because they got caught or because they weren’t worth much in terms of sullying AEW, that we leave to you, dear reader.
Believe me, I’d love to read deeply into all of this, especially if it confirmed my own suspicions and theories (I’m a petty, small man). But the overarching story, since AEW’s inception, has been that it’s for the more hardcore fan, a target market that will always skew younger than the legacy fans WWE has held onto for decades. The average casual fan isn’t going to be as familiar with AEW’s roster, because they aren’t as accustomed to scouring websites and streaming channels to watch other companies where all that talent has come from. They’ve only ever had to tune into WWE for so long that it’s merely reflex for them. The average WWE viewer is in their 50s (perhaps a very chilling vision of my future).
It is certainly entertaining to see that Ruby Soho’s match with The Bunny drew the exact same rating in the 18-49 demo as Roman Reigns’ contract signing with Brock Lesnar between 10:15-10:30. And I desperately want to say that it proves that AEW has to give more attention to its women’s division, that Ruby is a goddamn miracle worker, while WWE has to toss Bork by the wayside and stop treating him as some sort of ratings/attention savior.
But the reality, more likely, is that this just reaffirms the demographic/fan breakdown we already knew. Younger fans don’t have the connection to Lesnar because they’ll barely remember when he was actually interesting, or actually tried for more than seven minutes every six months. Secondly, while WWE may have applied a fresh coat of paint to Roman-Brock through Paul Heyman, it’s something everyone has already seen a ton. It doesn’t feel fresh. It’s great that Ruby was the face of this ratings success, and her being at the top of any division does feel fresh thanks to WWE’s complete ignoring of her while she was there. I, along with a lot of other fans, want the world for her, but it may have just been AEW fans’ natural inclination to turn off SmackDown (if they were ever tuned in in the first place) and put on Rampage because it was that time. AEW also included a buy-in for a free TV show — maybe the first-ever of its kind — featuring Bryan Danielson vs. Minoru Suzuki, and that may have helped steer some viewership away from SmackDown. But ultimately, I fully expect Ruby and AEW to get all the mileage they can out of this, and I’m here for it.
On the flip side, CM Punk’s opening match thwacked Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks in the first quarter of the 10 p.m. hour. People know Punk, and again, my desire is to state that the weeks-long can-of-shit storytelling WWE has been doing with its top women, with all the DQs and aborted finishes, caused people to just not care as much as they normally would about a match between two of the best in the world. Which Becky and Sasha unquestionably are. But we’ll need more evidence of that to say for sure (though WWE pulling out yet another DQ finish last night between Bianca Belair and Charlotte only makes that theory seem even closer to truth).
What we can say for sure is that AEW is most definitely a real player in the top playpen of the industry, and Friday night only affirmed that. And what we can also say is that the only true winners of all this are the fans. With both companies wheel-posing to try and outdo the other, we get three very good to great shows (and then Raw, but they at least seem to be thinking about maybe considering trying to do better with that too). And we get these kinds of debates, which though some might not like, is also part of the fun of being a fan. Sure, it leads to some tribal debates (no pun intended) that get annoying in a hurry, but if you consume it all as a whole you do get a lot of good stuff. Hell, all this has caused WWE to try and make its annual Blood Money Collection PPV in Saudi Arabia Thursday an actual PPV instead of a glorified house show. Or at least give it that appearance.
We’re not discovering much, but we get to enjoy a lot. That’s what really counts.