Published on February 7th, 2020 | by Jerry Doby0
Wrestling’s Wednesday Night Wars Are Already Stale
It’s no secret that there are fewer people watching professional wrestling now than there were during the peak years of the 1990s. Back then, it wasn’t unheard of for there to be four million people watching WWF on one channel, and three million watching WCW on the other. For a while, it was five million watching WCW and four million watching WWF. That was at the height of the so-called ‘Monday Night Wars,’ when WWF Monday Night RAW and WCW Nitro went head to head and drove each other to new extremes and new heights.
The landscape of professional wrestling has changed almost beyond all recognition since then. WWF won the war by purchasing WCW and then closing it down in 2001, and since then, it’s ruled the wrestling roost in America. Impact Wrestling would love to believe that it’s been a competitor to Vince McMahon’s gigantic company, but in truth, they’ve never truly registered in McMahon’s radar. Without competition, the company dialed back some of the edgier aspects of its presentation. Matches were less bloody and violent. Women stopped being used as mere eye candy. The coarse language was cut from the show. Everything was a little cleaner and safer, and sponsorship-friendly, but despite the welcome reclassification of the women, it was hard not to feel like something had been lost.
Last year, after eighteen years of there being no alternative wrestling promotion in America, everything was supposed to change. Tony Khan, son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, paid big money to set up All Elite Wrestling and put wrestlers Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and tag-team brothers Nick and Matt Jackson in charge of it. The billionaire family called on their media contacts and managed to get a regular spot on TNT every Wednesday night for twelve months – a deal that has recently been extended through until the end of 2023. WWE had competition again, and WWE responded as it saw fit.
In a move that a lot of people saw as petty and mean-spirited, WWE announced that their ‘developmental’ third brand NXT – a brand that had traditionally been reserved for relative newcomers to WWE learning the company’s ropes – would graduate from WWE’s subscription-only network onto network television. The USA Network had agreed to air the show, and they’d agreed to air it on Wednesday nights, at the exact same time as AEW’s show Dynamite. Although publicly they welcomed the competition, privately it’s understood that AEW’s senior figures were furious. The Wednesday Night Wars had been born, and fans began to dream of a return to the good old days of the 1990s, with both companies pushing the other to new heights.
We’re now four months into the Wednesday Night Wars, and it’s hard to feel like they haven’t been a disappointment. After the rush of excitement that came with AEW’s launch, things have settled down into a familiar pattern. AEW generally beats NXT in the ratings – usually by one or two hundred thousand viewers – but neither show is cracking one million viewers. No television show achieves the same kind of ratings that were possible in the 1990s because fewer people watch live television these days, but even so, the figures are a disappointment. The viewers of the shows don’t care about disappointing viewing figures, though. They care about disappointing content; and compared to what we thought we were going to get, the content has been disappointing.
When AEW ran its inaugural pay-per-view event ‘Double or Nothing’ in May 2019, it had a casino theme, with huge dice all over the set and roulette wheels heavily featured in the promotional material. It was an on-the-nose choice. Everyone involved in the project knew that they’d taken a gamble. For Tony Khan, it was like playing online slots with his father’s money. For the various wrestlers who’d signed contracts with the fledgling company, it was like playing online slots games with their careers. There was an aspect of online slots that fans were looking forward to seeing as well – the idea that anything might happen on any given week. Khan’s bet paid off – his company now has the stability of a four-year television deal. The wrestlers won their bet too – with the show guaranteed to stay on the air for at least four years, their contracts ought to be bulletproof. The fans, however, are still waiting for their ship to come in.
What made the Monday Night Wars so exciting is that you could tune in to either show on any night, and someone unexpected might turn up. Someone who’d just finished a contract in one place might turn up in another. It happened when Lex Luger turned up live on the very first WCW Nitro, having been with the WWF the week before. WCW took Kevin Nash and Scott Hall from WCW. WWF took the Big Show, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit from WCW. Chris Jericho arrived from WCW, too. Chris Jericho is still wrestling today as AEW’s World Champion and performing admirably, but he’s being given a shortage of material to work with.
The problem with surprises is that WWF, or WWE as they’re known now, learned from those battles with WCW. All of their major stars are currently tied down to long-term contracts. Even wrestlers they don’t treat as stars are being offered new contracts for more money just to ensure that they don’t go to AEW. For all the rumors that CM Punk would turn up in AEW, he eventually decided to become a correspondent for Fox’s WWE Backstage show. Edge spoke to AEW but ultimately decided to make his return to wrestling in WWE instead. In their six months of existence, aside from the debut of Jon Moxley (the former Dean Ambrose) on their opening night, the closest AEW has come to a surprise debut was Jake Hager, the former Jack Swagger – and he doesn’t even wrestle.
NXT is low on the surprise stakes, too. They pushed the boat out to gain a brief advantage over WWE in the ratings by moving several of their biggest main-roster stars across to the Wednesday night show to build interest, but that temporary bump has faded away. The big stars are back on RAW and SmackDown. The NXT roster, excluding Rhea Ripley, looks the same as it did a year ago. For all the great wrestling that happens on NXT – and make no mistake, the in-ring product in NXT is vastly superior to AEW’s – it still feels safe and familiar.
Perhaps this is all down to the lack of stars in wrestling today. Twenty years ago, everyone could name ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan, and The Undertaker. WWE’s biggest star today is Roman Reigns, who has nothing like the same level of mainstream familiarity. AEW’s is 50-year-old Chris Jericho, who the average person in the street may remember in passing from ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ Without stars, there’s no hook. Without a hook, there are no viewers.
We don’t know what the solution is. Perhaps someone ought to throw a sackful of money at CM Punk to get him back in the ring, or show us a brand new star rookie and push them to the moon. One of the sides is going to have to do something, or the Wednesday Night Wars will become not so much a battle but a minor scuffle, played out in front of an ever-diminishing audience.