Tony Khan Tackles Challenges Presented by Pandemic as AEW Rolls on With ‘Fight for the Fallen’

This spring and summer, from “Double or Nothing” to “All Out,” was supposed to be a big stretch for AEW. Then the pandemic forced Tony Khan to turn lemons into lemonade.
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All Elite Wrestling’s special Fight for the Fallen edition of Dynamite airs this Wednesday night, offering a show symbolic to the product that Tony Khan envisioned when he first created the company.

“It’s one of the biggest cards we’ve ever put on a Dynamite,” said Khan, the president and CEO of AEW. “It’s consistent with what we like to do in the summer, putting on big shows in between Double or Nothing and All Out.”

Over the past year, AEW has worked on building an audience through telling captivating stories. That will be on display at Fight for the Fallen as Jon Moxley defends the AEW world title against Brian Cage. The card also features Cody Rhodes defending his TNT Championship against Sonny Kiss, The Elite against the Jurassic Express, and FTR sharing the ring with the Lucha Bros. in a clash of styles between two immensely talented tag teams.

“I always wanted to put great wrestling on television,” said Khan. “A lot of the greatest wrestlers in the world weren’t on television before, but now they are. And when I was a kid, my whole summer was wrestling. We really want to put a lot of great stuff out there, especially for young people. That’s one of my hopes as we continue to build this young audience. And the card is a great illustration of what we’re all about.”

Building a younger audience is critical for AEW. Television ratings are a fascinating subplot to the pro wrestling business, and Khan has been adamant about how each week that Dynamite ranks among the top shows in the 18-to-49-year-old television demographic is a win for his company.

“The key for us is TV rights,” said Khan, whose Dynamite show was extended through 2023 earlier this year by TNT parent company WarnerMedia. “That is our primary revenue stream. Without a live gate, that revenue stream has become the lifeblood of our company. It’s very important for me to keep producing new shows and have those shows keep performing the way the way they want us to perform, which is performing well in the 18–49-year-old demographic. So far, we’ve been doing those things, and they’re very happy with us.”

Ratings battles have a long history in the wrestling industry, most famously during the late ’90s when WWE’s Monday Night Raw and WCW’s Nitro engaged in a weekly tug-of-war for television supremacy. There is now an ongoing competition between AEW and WWE’s NXT, which also airs on Wednesday nights. While NXT has had the higher overall rating over the past three weeks, Dynamite routinely scores higher in the 18-to-49-year-old core demo.

“Overall viewership is a nice, round number, and if you want to make the number sound as big as possible, you say the overall viewers,” said Khan. “But the network looks at the numbers in the 18–49 demographic, that is what keeps us going.

“Over the past two weeks, Fyter Fest was a huge success. We look at that chart every week of where we rank in the 18–49-year-old demographic, and to be in the top seven two weeks in a row is a really good performance for us. It’s important to understand what the network actually looks at, so people will understand what we consider success. The key for us is to keep the demo number high.”

The 37-year-old Khan, who is also entering his ninth season as an executive for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, where he serves as the Senior Vice President of Football Administration and Technology, has a passion for pro wrestling and long sought to put his own touch on the industry. He has been able to do so with the creation of AEW, which has served as the answer for many fans’ frustrations with WWE’s creative philosophy and presentation.

“I loved the business for a long time and I always wanted to do something in it, but I never had the opportunity until I had the interest of TNT and WarnerMedia,” said Khan. “In order to have a great wrestling company, you need a great TV partner, and that’s what we have in [TNT President] Kevin Riley. I’m really grateful to Kevin and TNT for believing in AEW and believing in our fans. Without them, we never would have been able to do it.”

Florida is the home to AEW’s weekly television broadcast, and Khan has added a charitable component to this week’s Fight for the Fallen show to benefit northeast Florida’s response to COVID-19.

“Florida is my home and it’s AEW’s home, so it’s important to me and important to us to give back to the people here that have been so good to us,” said Khan. “The virus has taken a bigger toll in Florida, so we wanted to do something for the people here locally.”

AEW has produced new content for TNT every week amidst the pandemic, and Khan noted he is especially pleased with the testing policies put in place that have allowed shows to continue to run.

“We’re very fortunate to have Dr. Michael Sampson leading this,” said Khan. “He’s a great doctor and very well known in the wrestling business—he’s the doctor that saved Jerry Lawler during a Monday Night Raw. He put together a testing procedure that allowed us to run our shows safely, and he’s enforced it.

“People aren’t allowed to interact with each other until they pass the test and enter the bubble with us. We’re very fortunate that we haven’t had an outbreak and that we’ve been able to do these shows safely. It’s made our network partner very happy.”

So much of the wrestling realm has been disjointed during the pandemic, as traveling to new venues came to a grinding halt and shows have run without crowds. But the heartbeat of wrestling is the wrestlers, and the “#SpeakingOut” movement has shined an important, though painful, light on many of the business’ most serious transgressions. As a result, following serious allegations against AEW’s Jimmy Havoc, his status with the company will be re-evaluated following treatment and counseling, while Sammy Guevara was suspended indefinitely due to insensitive and inappropriate comments made four years ago about Sasha Banks.

“Both talent we suspended were largely due to things that had transpired before we hired them that we were not aware of at the time,” said Khan. “I don’t want to give an incomplete statement on either, and I don’t want to want to compare the two because they’re very different. I will refer to our company statement, other than to say I think it was the right decision and it is the right decision to suspend those people without pay. They’re two very different things and I’m dealing with them very differently.”

In under two years, AEW has firmly established itself in the pro wrestling lexicon. The company is learning as it goes, especially with a number of performers still mastering the art of live television. But it fills a necessary void, creating competition for industry conglomerate WWE and offering another home to wrestlers that want to star on television. And unlike WWE, AEW has not enacted any cost-cutting measures during the pandemic that laid off talent.

Khan takes pride in creating new television, though putting together an innovative format without fans has been a challenge. Shooting to the hard camera and forming a cast of wrestlers and staff around the ring, both of which were ideas later mimicked by WWE, has helped Dynamite consistently be wrestling’s most creative show during the pandemic.

“Having wrestlers around the ring, I got that from Jimmy Fallon,” said Khan. “He did his talk show with no audience, but had his band and writers as an audience, which made all the difference. His jokes were landing better and it felt like a much more comfortable show. It’s also brought energy to our show, it’s safe because everyone in our lower bowl has been tested, and it’s been a device that allowed us to do some cool angles.

“I enjoyed doing this so much before the pandemic. We had so much momentum following Revolution and we had this great slate of shows for the spring and the summer. The pandemic has made business a lot tougher. But this has also allowed the company to grow a lot closer when we’re all in the bubble together, which has been a silver lining for us.”

Khan’s vision for what pro wrestling can be will be visible this Wednesday, and he is confident that once people get to know AEW’s product, they will make it destination viewing every week.

“We have something for every wrestling fan, and you’ll see that at Fight for the Fallen,” said Khan. “It’s for a good cause, so please check out aewfightforthefallen.com and consider making a donation. And for the long-term, it’s a great chance for us to showcase our big shows and get people hooked on the product.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.