September looked to be the most competitive month for pro wrestling in the U.S. in decades. And it was even more contentious than most expected.
The biggest battle is in the cable ratings in the 18–49-year-old demographic, the one that ad rates are based on. The traditional Monday Night Raw WWE franchise and AEW's Wednesday night Dynamite have been neck-and-neck the past three weeks, with the difference between victory and defeat so close that they are well within Nielsen's margins of error.
WWE had not lost a weekly cable race since World Championship Wrestling's heyday in 1998. But on Sept. 8, AEW Dynamite from Cincinnati, the first show after its All Out pay-per-view in Chicago, changed all that.
The show featured the television debuts of Bryan Danielson (formerly Daniel Bryan in WWE), Adam Cole and Ruby Soho (formerly Ruby Riott in WWE). All three were surprise debuts on the pay-per-view three nights earlier. Well, surprise in the sense that they weren't advertised, because word was certainly out that all three would be showing up that night.
That show did a 0.52 demo rating, the same number Raw did two nights earlier. AEW won on same day delivery by a 681,000- to 678,000-viewer margin in the key demo, although Raw did have more DVR viewership.
Danielson and Cole had moved to AEW when their respective WWE contracts expired. Soho moved over when she was fired by WWE in a cost-cutting measure.
Vince McMahon wasn't about to ignore that. The next Monday, he pulled the scheduled Bobby Lashley vs. Randy Orton WWE championship match from the Extreme Rules pay-per-view, moving it to free television. In addition, he had Big E promise to cash in his Money in the Bank contract on the winner, meaning a second title match after the first on the same show. It almost guaranteed there would be at least one championship change that night. And McMahon needed all of that, given Raw also had the disadvantage of going against the first week of Monday Night Football.
AEW two nights later in its debut in the New York metropolitan area at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on a show headlined by Jon Moxley & Eddie Kingston against the tag team of 2.0, who had also just been fired by WWE, a far cry from what Raw offered on paper, won the week by a .44 to .43 margin.
This past week, WWE not only moved its biggest star, SmackDown's universal champion, Roman Reigns, who is generally exclusive to SmackDown on Fox, to Raw, but also had him wrestle twice. In a six-man tag to open the show, then a unique match where Reigns, new WWE champion Big E and Lashley, the company's three biggest stars at the moment, faced off in a second match the same night.
AEW had advertised Kenny Omega, its champion, in a non-title match against Danielson, in the latter’s first match in AEW. To hardcore fans in particular, this was a dream match. It paired two of the best wrestlers in the world over the past decade who nobody, except a few hundred fans at a small show in Los Angeles in 2009, before they were close to the stars they are today, had ever seen wrestle each other in a singles match.
Danielson had made his name in WWE and at one point was the company's most popular wrestler. Omega made his name in Japan, where he was the key in generating the largest amount of interest in wrestling from that country in the U.S. market in history. He was then one of the building blocks in the formation of AEW in 2019.
It was the biggest match ever on AEW television, and after it was over, many thought it was the best match the company has ever put on its flagship Dynamite television show. It was also playing before the biggest crowd in AEW history, 20,177 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. It was the largest U.S. crowd for a non-WWE show in 22 years. The $960,000 live gate was the second-largest non-WWE gate in American pro wrestling history. It was the largest wrestling crowd in New York City since the Hulk Hogan era.
The 30-minute draw opened the show rather than closing it like a traditional main event. Essentially, AEW sacrificed a slight amount in the ratings to have the better presentation, taking only one commercial break in a 30-minute match. But it allowed viewers who came only to see that match to leave when it was over. As it turned out, that made the difference, as this time Raw won close, with a 0.49 to 0.48.
The competition has led to both shows in recent weeks beating everything on cable except football, 90 Day Fiance and The Walking Dead.
When Big E won the championship on Sept. 13, one would have figured he and Lashley would have a rematch at Extreme Rules on Sunday at Columbus, Ohio's Nationwide Arena. Instead, the match will be held Monday night on Raw.
Breaking down the competition as it stands right now: WWE, which started as a Northeast regional promotion run by McMahon’s father (Vincent J. McMahon) in the 1950s and went national in ’84 behind Hogan, has a huge head start. Raw has been a tradition since ’93, and the company started on USA Network in ’83.
Dynamite started on television two years ago. It's largely unprecedented that an upstart sports (or quasi-sports) franchise can come too close to a dominant market leader in such a short period of time.
Year-over-year, based on the last complete month (August), Raw was up 2.2% in 18–49. SmackDown on Fox was up 5.7%. WWE's third show, NXT, was down 19.9%, but it has gotten an overhaul over the past two weeks that thus far has increased numbers. AEW Dynamite was up 27.5%, but August was helped by CM Punk appearing for the first time in the final episode of the month. It will end up increasing even more in September, but the exploding numbers are likely a short-term effect of the newness of the latest group of stars. October will be a better look at how much long-term television growth there has been. But these increases are in a television environment where most things are down significantly in 18–49.
While WWE has the edge in live events, there are markets, including New York, Chicago and Cincinnati, where AEW has been selling tickets faster than WWE since both groups started touring in July. WWE has had a big edge in Philadelphia, Houston and Dallas. But markets like Charlotte and Milwaukee have been close, even with WWE playing in the major NBA arena in those markets and AEW running in a secondary building.
In recent weeks, AEW has had the edge with male viewers in 18–49, while WWE has had a strong edge with women. Generally, AEW crowds are much louder. AEW skews younger, battling the NBA and soccer for the youngest sports viewing audience on television. Still, WWE is bigger with young kids and the gap over 50 will likely always be large in WWE's favor.
There are a lot of major differences in the products and mentality. WWE favors bigger and more muscular men, while AEW favors a more athletic style of wrestling with smaller and younger wrestles. Of late, both have doubled down on that philosophy, with WWE’s heavily recruiting people with size and sports backgrounds while AEW recruits younger wrestlers who work on independent shows. WWE is built around constant rematches and will do disqualification and count-out finishes; AEW does much fewer rematches, and matches that end without a winner or loser are rare. Disqualifications and count-outs don't exist on its television or pay-per-view shows. WWE is heavily scripted by an army of writers. AEW scripts ideas, largely decided by owner Tony Khan, but not word-for-word verbiage; it has no writers at all and only a handful of people in creative.
Whether AEW ever consistently beats WWE, while great for bragging rights, isn't as significant as the level of success it’s reached over the past two months.
When WCW folded in 2001, it appeared that was the last time WWE would ever face pro wrestling competition. This round of competition has given wrestlers and fans a viable alternative and created an industry with more jobs and higher salaries on both sides of the aisle.
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