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John Cena. The Rock. Hulk Hogan. The world of wrestling has cemented these names into the minds of kids and adults alike. Their names are known worldwide as are their spider webs of wrestling moments, movies, and controversies.

If you pay attention, the wrestling world will teach you a masterclass in branding.

All these wrestlers come from the same home. Sports Entertainment. It’s a term coined by Vince McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), coined this term to market professional wrestling.

In his forty-plus year career, McMahon – and WWE – have rewritten the wrestling entertainment rulebook, putting “wrestling” in lowercase and “ENTERTAINMENT” in bold capital letters.

WWE’s emphasis on entertainment first appealed to a new customer base – a different kind of wrestling fans. But the purists need their fix too – and they’re getting it from All Elite Wrestling (AEW), a company spawned by billionaire Tony Khan in 2019. The AEW’s mission? To put professional WRESTLING back on the map, in bold uppercase.

In this post, I’m going to talk about spectacle and kayfabe, how WWE and AEW carved out unique identities, and why modern wrestling is so damn fun to watch.

Two companies enter the ring. Their identities as different as can be. It’s a smackdown for the century.

Photo by John Manard, posted to Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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The Basics of Professional Wrestling: Heels, Babyfaces, and Kayfabe

Before talking about the promotions, we need to talk about what a wrestler is.

Modern wrestlers can come from a variety of backgrounds. They come in different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and genders. Famous wrestlers can even be fictional!

Of course, even wrestlers played by real people are fictional in a sense. Like characters in a roleplaying video game, they all have their gimmicks. They have move sets like Mortal Kombat and have Dungeons & Dragons-esque character alignments that define them as good or evil, or, in the parlance of wrestling – babyface or heel.

Then, on top of that, you have the concept of Kayfabe.

Kayfabe refers to the portrayal of events within the industry as real, that is the portrayal of professional wrestling as not staged or worked. Referring to events as kayfabe means that they are worked events, and/or part of a wrestling storyline. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera.

Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, storylines, and gimmicks, in a similar manner with other forms of entertainment such as soap opera or movie.

Ewrestling Encyclopedia, definition of “kayfabe”

Non-wrestling fans often complain that wrestling is fake. Wrestling fans know it is fake, and they’re in on the joke.

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE): Where Wrestling is the Product

Sound like a harsh judgment? It’s the truth – this is the business model that is currently running the WWE.

Vince McMahon is the CEO and creative director of the business, meaning all the writers and wrestlers that pitch storylines, identities, anything to do with the company goes through Vince. This has resulted in the morale within WWE being low and it’s not great for business.

But let’s back up and talk about why WWE has worked so well for so long. (Hint: it’s marketing.)

WWE has slowly created a mold that everything and everyone involved must fit into. Like with many franchises, WWE wants its customers – the viewers – to have a standardized product and a consistent experience. This means as an audience member and consumer of wrestling you know what you’re getting with WWE.

Photo by slgckgc, posted to Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The WWE Mold

There are two big brands on WWE TV: Raw and Smackdown, both of which showcase two different styles of superstars. Raw is to be more entertainment-based and Smackdown is to be more workrate wrestling, which is more focused on what actually happens within the ring.

WWE does not consider itself a wrestling show. It’s instead a manufactured entertainment TV show with wrestling added. Check out these stats from the Queen’s Crown Tournament to see what I mean.

  • Zelina Vega def. Toni Storm – 2:13
  • Carmella def. Liv Morgan – 1:33
  • Shayna Baszler def. Dana Brooke – 1:22
  • Doudrop def. Natalya – 2:59
  • Zelina Vega def. Carmella – 2:41
  • Doudrop def. Shayna Baszler: 2:46
  • Average match time: 2:16

For comparison, the average length for the Men’s King of the Ring matches was 9:48 – almost five times longer than the average match time above.

The matches are short so that more time is dedicated to entertainment parts. That includes backstage promos and entrances.

And if you have the gall to go off-script? You may see yourself with a fine, or worse, a suspension. We’ve seen it many times, but one notable instance is Titus O’Neil, who grabbed Vince McMahon, and was suspended for 90 days as a result.

The promos the wrestlers speak? Written for them. Crowd doesn’t do what WWE expects? Pipe in crowd boos and cheers.

WWE’s show is clearly inauthentic, and they don’t make attempts to hide it. Nor does their audience expect them too. The audience knows it’s fake and is still interested because they like what WWE is doing.

Or at least, they did. WWE has a long history of upsetting fans, with one example being the one-minute match squashing of beloved babyface Bianca Belair. But on the other hand, they do fantastic segments such as Happy Corbin. WWE can be weird like that – hurting itself in its confusion one day, giving out goodies to loyal fans on others.

WWE sells illusions, but fans are increasingly losing interest in the illusions WWE puts forth. And even the concept of kayfabe is starting to wear thin. That created an unmet demand in the wrestling market, which AEW was able to capitalize on by bringing authentic, unvarnished wrestling back into the spotlight. Now WWE’s ratings are down for the count.

A Quick Note

Before we go any further, I would like to say: I was a WWE man – particularly with their show, NXT, but following their recent changes, I’m now solely an AEW man. I enjoy that style of wrestling much better.

But even though I have my allegiance to AEW, we should still pay attention to what WWE did for the industry. Their marketing worked so well for so long, and I want to talk about why.

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WWE Sells Superstars, Not Wrestlers

The first point to consider is that WWE markets their wrestlers as Superstars – a Hollywoodesque term that instills a sense that they are superheroes/supervillains. Put another way, this is not people in tights doing catch wrestling like in the 1870s.

But the reason why comes from an interview with Kane via Wrestling Inc: “I remember Stephanie McMahon once saying there is a reason why we’re not called wrestlers. We’re called Superstars because there is so much more that we do.”

Now I agree, wrestlers do more than wrestling every week. They also attend meet and greets, community events, charity events, commercials, and so on. Still, to give wrestlers the title of Superstars is a deliberate branding move made to reinforce WWE’s brand identity.

The Muscular Obessions of WWE’s Vince McMahon

The image of what a wrestler is in WWE has fluctuated throughout its legacy. But, one thing has been consistent. Vince McMahon loves big sweaty men and he cannot lie.

Earlier this year WWE, changed their hiring process to seek out younger talent – under 30 years old. On top of that, they are looking for bigger, beefier wrestlers. And if that weren’t enough, they are hiring smaller refs to make their Superstars look bigger.

This model fits right in line with WWE’s successful run of Superstars such as Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, and John Cena, to name a few. These big Superstars have all been champions, and are all on Vince’s S-tier list.

So what does this hiring practice tell us about WWE’s identity? Well, it tells us that they’re not looking for wrestling as a core trait. Remember: wrestlers can come in all shapes and sizes. Being built like the dudes from Predator don’t necessarily make you a good wrestler. They are looking for star power first, wrestling skill second.

And when you see wrestlers such as Omos in the ring, you really get a sense that this guy is a big deal. So it’s working. Just looking at the photo, you get a sense of domination, strength, and power – all things Vince loves. And honestly, as a fan of wrestling, Omos is fantastic.

WWE’s Target Audience

WWE shows are PG-rated which means they appeal to every age group. And, indeed, a lot of kids like WWE. Many of them are decked out in merch, especially when John Cena was the headliner in the company. This is why it makes sense, for example, when John Cena granted more than 650 wishes to sick children over the years.

But John Cena’s not the headliner anymore, and he hasn’t been for a while. The top merchandise seller of 2021 is Roman Reigns, another seasoned Superstar, homegrown by WWE. Reigns is doing the best work of his career right now as a heel, and he’s keeping Smackdown afloat as the best show on WWE TV.

But what about the showier WWE Raw? Their show used to do wonderfully with wrestling fans aged 18-49. But unfortunately for WWE, those ratings are on the decline.

SEScoops reported that the October 181 episode of Raw drew its lowest rating yet – a paltry 510,000 viewers within the 18-49 demographic. But even this is just the most recent statistic in a very long trend downward.

The Superstars of Tomorrow

It sounds like a movie title, but WWE has set a mission plan to create new Superstars from other sporting backgrounds. They want athletes from MMA, football, the Olympics, bodybuilding, gymnastics, and other fields. It’s called the NIL.

Why? WWE is looking to hire wrestlers to eventually appear on NXT 2.0, a WWE show that has new Superstars wrestle to make a name for themselves.

But why do NXT 2.0 in the first place? It’s an attempt to remedy falling ratings by using WWE’s history and accolades why producing a whole new crop of Superstars.

It sounds like WWE is turning over a new leaf, but take a closer look at this list of attributes that WWE is seeking.

Sounds like a lot more of the same, right?

Sure, there have been some breakout stars, most notably Bron Breaker. Breaker is a good example of what WWE is looking for in their future Superstars. He checks all the boxes.

✅ Young

✅ Athletic

✅ Built like a T-Bone Steak

But overall, NXT 2.0 is looking a lot closer to RAW than the more successful Smackdown. And it’s nothing like NXT 1.0, which had all the indie darlings that had Triple H at the helm and, it prided itself on doing professional wrestling rather than superstar wrestling.

NXT 1.0 was an attempt to step closer to grittier, realer wrestling. But during the two year Wednesday Night War for television ratings, NXT 1.0 – and by extension WWE – was consistently smacked down by AEW. Hence WWE is trying to double down on what they’re known for right now.

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WWE’s Collapsing Audience is the Main Problem, But Their PR Issues are the Finisher

However, a new show and new stars can’t fix WWE’s reputation. WWE’s writing and stories have slowly gotten worse over time, with one particularly ill-considered promo telling stories about Superstars that they already fired.

Wrestling critics and fans are rightly emotional over this because since the pandemic started, there have been a jaw-dropping number of Superstars released. Laying off wrestlers in the most difficult period of time for wrestling and then trying to spin it into a marketable script is a bad look.

And it’s not just the fans. Wrestlers and other staff members are getting sick of it too.

But PR crises don’t often sink giant companies. If this were the WWE of 2000, they might have gotten away with something like this. It’s a lot harder to shrug off if your target audience is already losing interest in you, though.

AEW is Putting Blood and Guts Back into Professional Wrestling

If WWE is a manufactured entertainment facility, then AEW is a bloody beating heart of professional wrestling. Because WWE has been acting like such a heel, AEW has positioned itself as the babyface of the wrestling world. Their mission: put on the most authentic show possible. In other words, they’re acting as the anti-WWE.

Going toe to toe with WWE is like swimming with a shark. But AEW jumped into the waters anyway. Weirdly, WWE has even claimed that AEW not competition. (Maybe they need to read our article on competitive analysis?)

AEW Wrestlers are Indie

Wrestlers within AEW are the polar opposite of WWE, as they all have their own striking identity. None of the wrestlers have to fit a mold like WWE Superstars do.

Sure, if you look through the roster, there are some similarities. But there are some wrestlers like Luchasaurus who go out of their way to craft their own identity.

Want more examples? Check out this diverse roster over homegrown AEW stars:

You even have ex-WWE Superstars like Chris Jericho, Dean Ambrose (Jon Moxley) and, indie darlings such as Jay Lethal, Orange Cassidy, and Lee Moriarty.

The point is: AEW isn’t just big, muscular men. This diversity is thanks to Tony Khan, the CEO and creative director of AEW. He has been a wrestling fan for a long time, and this is his passion project. He strongly believes that it’s important to give wrestlers creative freedom.

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Goodbye to Scripted Promos

AEW has no scripted promos for their wrestlers to read. There’s no script to go off. It is all on the wrestlers to promote themselves in a feud. And sure, the wrestlers are still tightly manufacturing their own image, but in a way they would prefer. It’s the real fakeness of self-driven self-promotion, not the fake fakeness kayfabe.

This works wonders when you listen to a promo from one of these wrestlers. You can feel what they’re trying to say. Even if the promo doesn’t hit all the notes, there are no piped-in boos or cheers.

To quote Chris Jericho: “there are no writers because that is what wrestling is. That is where it came from! ‘Austin 3:16’ was written by Steve Austin, ‘Y2J’ was written by Chris Jericho, ‘Never Ever Again’ was written by Chris Jericho. All that stuff came from my head because I am the one who has to deliver it.”

This allows the wrestlers to form their own identities as wrestlers, beyond just being “the one who does that certain move.” And we have seen some incredible promos, especially the one below from CM Punk and MJF. And, of course, AEW builds their own brand by letting wrestlers build their brands, making them, in a manner of speaking, “indie wrestling” to WWE’s “mainsteam wrestling.”

However, with creativity comes great responsibility, and not everything AEW does has gone as smoothly or as cleanly as the well oiled WWE machine would do. For example, there was an exploding barbed wire deathmatch that failed to explode at the end.

Then again, the roughness is the product here. For every barbed wire deathmatch technical issue, there’s something like the accidental ad placement in a deathmatch between Nick Gage and Chris Jericho. (It’s the one that involved a pizza cutter and a Domino’s ad).

AEW’s Target Audience

On a surface level, you can say AEW’s audience is the 18-49 demographic which both companies aim to capture. And as we can see, AEW is beating RAW in that demographic. But why?

Well, over the two years, AEW has gained serious traction and love from its fanbase. With each passing year they’re put on incredible shows, and expanded their roster, and improved their production quality.

One thing that makes AEW unique is that its show is rated TV-14. Which according to the FCC “may contain crude humor, drug/alcohol use, inappropriate language, strong violence (may include some amounts of blood and gore), and moderate suggestive themes or dialogue.”

And that’s the magic – AEW is for the viewers who want something a little ugly, and a little bloody. WWE is rated PG, making it a much more sanitized viewing experience. Hence why kids like it.

What AEW is doing is appealing directly to that demographic. And they are very comfortable with using the blood and gore to the fullest effect. (With some wrestlers taking this to the extreme with the practice of blading to look good on the screen.)

Final Thoughts

WWE and AEW both sell wrestling as entertainment. But that’s where their similarities end.

WWE has made a name for themselves by creating manufactured, clearly fake wrestling matches where the viewers are in on the joke. Maybe there will be some surprises every now and again, but on the whole you know what you’re watching. It is, essentially, predictable.

WWE’s homegrown talent program might be the future of sports entertainment, but unless their scripting changes, it won’t solve the basic problem WWE faces. Wrestling fans are craving authenticity more, and WWE Superstars just aren’t providing that.

As for AEW, you’re going to be watching wrestling. Yes, it’s entertainment, but it’s also chaotic, bloody, messy, creative wrestling. Many viewers find that more appealing these days, and the ratings show it.

At the end of the day, though, WWE and AEW are going to keep their core audiences for a long time to come. Even if WWE’s ratings contract, it will still have diehard fans.

The real winner of the smackdown between WWE and AEW, though, are the wrestling fans. We now have a choice – to watch the kind of wrestling we like.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, AEW Dynamite is about to be on TV.

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