The Brand Extension #15: AEW and What It's Doing Right

The Brand Extension #15: AEW and What It’s Doing Right

AEW, with Cody, and Jurassic Express

By former Lords of Pain 205 Live reviewer, “205 Clive”.
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A couple of times throughout this series, I’ve written about some aspects of All Elite Wrestling I’d consider as negatives. Or, at least, questioned things viewed by some as vastly superior to WWE. When the only difference I see is the furniture. As one would expect, reactions to both were pretty divisive. An incendiary and provocative pastime criticising AEW indeed is. This time, however, I thought I’d play it safe and look at some successes. Hopefully more objective in nature, rather than subjective. 

First off, the elephant in the room has to be addressed. As inconsequential and archaic as I find television ratings personally, those Thursday results have become the be all and end all for a select few. Almost as if the figures’ releases are the week’s actual highlight for fans entrenched in the Wednesday Night Wars. What seems to be glossed over is how poorly both AEW and NXT fare, compared to Raw, Smackdown, and other viewing more in keeping with today’s collective conscience. Be that as it may, Tony Khan’s Elite warriors pip Triple H’s soldiers to the post more often than not. These past few weeks have seen AEW employ a simple yet effective marketing technique that aims to keep viewers on TNT.

The Twitter hashtag competition that runs during AEW’s picture-in-picture commercials is an excellent capitalisation on the company’s already thriving social media footprint. So frenzied is AEW’s online fanbase that sees its more prominent users regularly interact with the wrestlers themselves, one can’t help but feel a part of the larger AEW community. This inclusive approach embeds loyalty in fans who see the company giving back to them. Not to mention the crowd who love freebies. It does fly in the face of advertisers buying specific time slots, though, when potential consumers’ attention is drawn elsewhere. Which makes me question how much AEW actually cares about the coveted demo. Such a competition is used to keep viewers watching, regardless of age or gender, surely?

Already, I’m lost in the tall grass as to what actually matters. If I am, then others must be, too. The ratings circus is an argument  fervently argued over by the internet wrestling community. It is a point of contention that won’t go away anytime soon, such is the obsession with the business behind wrestling. 

Another debate that rages on is that of the preferential booking afforded the company’s EVPs. Gold adorns the majority’s waists, while The Young Bucks join them in now several hours of screen time between them. The gripe is currently aimed towards Cody, with a mid-card title reign allowing him to rack up enough wins to join Jon Moxley at the summit of AEW’s rankings table. It’s easy for cynics to justify their conspiracies, theorising that AEW is nought but a toy with which a select group present themselves as the stars they feel they weren’t in other companies. Turning that on its side, events have recently transpired that provide an intriguing take on art imitating life.

At Fight For The Fallen, Cody was seemingly too distracted to make quick work of Sonny Kiss in the latest TNT Title Open Challenge installment. While some of that may be due to other factors, Cody’s blatant disrespect shown to his opponent, by way of downtime push-ups, spoke of something else. Of someone who sees himself as unbeatable. Untouchable, even. As if the TNT Title is nothing more than an excuse for Cody to show his dominance over everyone not named Jon Moxley. Kiss was valiant in his efforts to rid Cody of his insolence. To the point where the resultant Cross Rhodes was delivered with more aggression and certainty than normal. Quite simply, this isn’t behaviour becoming of the white meat baby-face we as fans have been conditioned to see Cody perceived as since Dynamite’s debut. Rather, it is a slow burn heel turn that fits an online narrative already in existence.

We see it also in the tag team scene, through dissension within the ranks between Kenny Omega, Hangman Page, and the Bucks. Although a mere whisper compared to others, rumours have emerged of EVPs not exactly seeing eye to eye regarding the creative process. The link between this and what we see on screen is admittedly less tenable. But the foreshadowing I have interpreted tells me Omega and the Bucks will turn on Page, with it being only a matter of time. Pay attention to how much criticism The Elite receive online in contrast to Page. Slowly,  a pattern emerges of individuals attaining a moral alignment more suited to their social media personas.

This is the kind of fourth wall storytelling that draws me, a casual fan, in further. Not the poorly veiled or even blatant jibes at previous employers. Or the promos where wrestlers proclaim themselves as ratings deities. The nuanced merging of reality and fiction that actually furthers a character or program’s overall arc comes off as far more rewarding an investment of time than the aforementioned cheap pop one-liners. 

For me, these hint at insecurity in one who is looking for the next meme that keeps them relevant for another week. When a company has several ex-WWE stars in its employ, who are so due to falling out of favour with those in charge, it’s no wonder the trope is becoming stale very quickly. On the bright side, that same criticism can’t be levelled at those with little to no previous dealings with WWE. For some outfits who made their name on the independent scene, more so than under the WWE umbrella, are succeeding without the use of said crutch. And are all the better for it. 

Take Jurassic Express as an example. Alone, they may not scream superstars. Though, as a unit, they form a collective with enough endearing but innocent baby-face tendencies for them not to be grating. Their camaraderie and the character that comes with it jumps out of the screen; cartoon characters come to life. On top of the presentation, impressive  tandem wrestling usually seen in tag teams is levelled up with the inclusion of another man. These three cogs in a wheel work together well, pulling off unique offense that can’t help but put a smile on your face. Action that begs for that trios style to become more of a mainstay in the North American scene. 

The singles stars, too. Whose cult following is impossible to deny and sees them rub shoulders with the company’s top tier on a regular basis. So much so, that it’s not too alien a sight to see them in that main event scene on a more permanent basis. Maybe even in the near future. The Darby Allins and Orange Cassidys of the world. MJF, whose heel character is so well rounded. The only thing left for him to do to become a main player is be handed the right opportunity. Lance Archer, who has enough appeal about him that all it need take is a few weeks’ build to be considered the danger he was first presented as when he first debuted. Outside of Cody’s current arc, it comes as no surprise to me that those boasting less association with WWE are the more captivating, personally.

Taking away the playground tit-for-tat which puts me off the most, there are some other issues with what AEW delivers. Ones that could be fine tuned with a tweak here and there. The reliance on too many managers for wrestlers without much It Factor to make it on their own. The injury riddled women’s division, and its stop-start, stuttering growth. Or even referees. Who distract from the action with either a questionable interpretation of the rules, or displays of needless overexuberance. More there may be, but to pick holes in AEW is not the point of this piece. No wrestling entity is perfect, afterall. 

Instead, it is to shine a spotlight on what I at least consider successes, irrespective of individual tastes. Those intangibles that may go some way in improving long term feeble television ratings. Maybe pull in those teens and their fifty-plus parents with the chance to win some merch. Or by fleshing out a trios division for Jurassic Express to become stars among their peers, rather than a novelty tag act. Or fleshing out characters, so as to become storied in their own right. Built from the ground up, with their roots found online or on AEW TV in the first place.

Focussing on these positives, more of which there may well be, will go a long way in washing off the sometimes perceived stink attached to AEW. Let that want to be a genuine alternative blossom, and stamp out the need to pander to a loud but, frankly, small audience. It is something I’m confident turns off fans who don’t have a dog in the fight. It might even be a deterrent in the company’s aspirations to grow. 

Nevertheless, the plusses are slowly allowing me to soften my initially hard stance on the company. Maybe if AEW leads by example, its die hards might drop the tiring gatekeeper routine. With that gate left unguarded, who knows how many might shuffle through and help take AEW to the next level?

Let me know your thoughts on the above column in the comments below, or @RickyandClive on Twitter.

Read my previous Brand Extension columns here.

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