To promote this evening’s Blood and Guts special on TNT AEW President Tony Khan spoke with Entrepreneur about all things pro-wrestling, including how he uses his skills in analytics to determine who he’ll push on television, and why he believes wrestling companies working together is a return to normalcy. Highlights from the interview can be found below.
On Dynamite getting an extension with TNT following the COVID-19 pandemic:
It’s been going great. I mean, most of the Dynamite [episodes] have happened during the pandemic, but I think that’s a function of timing. I’m really glad I got Dynamite started before the pandemic, or it would have been impossible to launch. But also [that we launched] far enough in front of the pandemic that we were able to get a big-money TV extension before the pandemic struck. All the major media conglomerates took a big hit, so I’m not sure we would’ve gotten that nine-figure TV contract in the post-pandemic markets. I just think the timing was very good for us.
How the pandemic forced him to make Dynamite even more dynamic:
Absolutely, yes. There was that much more pressure because certain things we took for granted, like being in a new building with a great crowd every week — that was no longer something we were able to do. And it was many months before we were able to return fans at all, and then we did it safely by running the shows outdoors and with physically distanced seating. I think it allowed us to maintain a sense of normalcy. So, yeah, it was a more challenging environment than pre-pandemic. I think it really brought the best out of us. A lot of the best matches and best stories we’ve done, I think, have been since the pandemic started.
Whether there was push-back from sponsors to bring back fans:
I think it was good to have all these conversations and talk about what some of the potential repercussions could be. But luckily, we had none of those repercussions in real life. We had no sponsor pushback. We had no fan pushback. I saw on Twitter there were a couple of people who questioned the move, but a lot of those same people ended up coming to the shows and saying they felt very safe. And a lot of people who’ve been advocates for a very slow and safe return to normal life have gone to these shows and thought that they were done the right way.
On wrestling companies working together:
When I was younger, there were partnerships between a lot of the other wrestling companies. And there was the Wrestling Peace Festival, which was a great idea, and some of those companies did keep working together. You saw wrestlers from AAA in WCW, and you saw wrestlers from New Japan [Pro Wrestling] in WCW, and so I think it’s very natural. Twenty years later, things have come back full circle, and now you’re seeing those wrestlers from New Japan and AAA competing again on TNT. You’re seeing [New Japan’s] IWGP titles defended on TNT. I think it’s the natural balance of the universe just coming back.
How he studies trends and minute by minute numbers to determine who he pushes on television:
It’s a great question. It’s a mix. I look at the numbers — the minute-by-minutes, the quarter[-hours] — very closely. Since there’s not a head-to-head competition on Wednesdays [against WWE’s NXT, which moved to Tuesdays] anymore, the patterns have changed a bit. So we’re learning new things based on the data that has been coming in the past few weeks. But since we began, I’ve studied these trends really closely and it can be a good indication of what’s getting hot, what’s getting a good response. Conversely, I don’t want to knee-jerk react if something doesn’t get the biggest number right away. It doesn’t mean that it won’t turn around and draw.
When he decides to spend big money on talent:
At the end of the day, it’s similar to sports, where you have a budget and have to decide. It’s not like a mandated salary cap by the league or some sort of wrestling governing body, but it is a budget that you need to stick to. So it is similar to operating a sports team, and in lot of ways I would describe myself as somewhere between if you were owning and coaching a sports franchise, or if you own the studio and were directing movies. It’s a mix of being a showrunner of a TV show and a coach of a sports franchise. And, you know, you’re making decisions about playing time. As a general manager of a sports team, you have to decide which athletes are going to get the contracts and who’s going to get extensions, who’s going to get a tryout and who’s not, and these are things you deal with in wrestling too. When you’re producing a TV show, you’re dividing up the screen time and creating storylines. And so it’s really a mix of the two things.
On how he tries to make his shows different from WWE:
There’s a lot of differences. I don’t do really cheap DQ [disqualification] finishes to prolong something. There are other wrestling programs where you might see multiple DQs and countouts in a week. I believe in giving the fans a finish to the match. I believe in not false-advertising programs and people. I might hype something I really believe in, but there’s a big difference between hyping something and false-advertising outright, and I’ve never done the latter. I think that’s why we have a lot of goodwill with the audience. Following through on the things you say you’re going to do and trying to deliver a show that’s in the spirit of what the fans want to see week in, week out and offering fresh matches and fresh programs is a big part of it. You know, not doing the same matches 17 weeks in a row over and over again.