AEW’s first big initial promise was that it have a more athletic, realistic presentation compared to its chief rival, WWE. How many times did we hear some form of that? AEW promised to “sports-centric” and “sports-focused,” featuring a narrative driven by wins and losses. You remember all of that. “Wins and losses matter” is still dished out to this day.
And so most of us went in expecting, well, exactly that. Last year, while watching the first Double or Nothing with me, my wife asked three minutes into the Casino Battle Royale, “so, this is the serious company?” She had a good reason to ask: the Casino Battle Royale had to be one of the sillier things I had seen and not at all like anything resembling a legitimate sport. Granted, my wife absolutely loves the sillier stuff and loved the match, but she was right — it was a strange way to kick off a “sports-centric” promotion.
So, what happened? Well, one could argue that has always been ‘sports oriented’…
Phrases like “sports-centered narrative” are fairly vague. It’s very easy to find interviews of people talking about the “sports-centric” narratives they wanted, but nowhere do they explicitly say “realistic”. “Sports-centric” implies realistic without explicitly saying it.
One could make the argument that the intent was to have narratives more heavily focused on outcomes of matches. Brandon Cutler and Peter Avolon both fight weekly on Being The Elite over their terrible win/loss record. Last year, Joey Janela, Jimmy Havoc, and Darby Allin got a three-way match because they had lost a match together as a tag team and blamed each other.
For the first half of Dynamite’s run so far, Kenny struggled to win, which really devastated him. Kenny and Pac’s feud was solely based around getting another win, ending in an Iron Man rubber match. The rankings (usually) determine who will get a championship shot. All of these are narratives focused around sports-based plot points.
Sure, there are aliens and dinosaurs in AEW. We have multiple cults, and for a brief time, a faction with a voodoo theme to it. “Sports-based” and “silly” are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Games like NFL Street and NBA Jam are silly, but are still considered sports games, are they not?
And yet, I realize that I am being a bit pedantic with what “sports-centric” means in this context. The obvious implication and the build up around AEW was that it was going to be more realistic in contrast to WWE, which has historically erred on the “entertainment” side of “sports entertainment”. With the repetition of terms like “sports-centric” and with Tony Khan slinging out quotes like “AEW offers fans less scripted, soapy drama and more athleticism and real sports analytics”, everyone rightfully took “sports-centric” to mean “realistic” more along the lines of NJPW. Understandably, a lot of people were let down.
So why the disconnect? What happened? I think the issue stemmed out of two things, the first being giving wrestlers more creative control. The issue here is if there is a clear cut and somewhat narrow vision for a story, letting characters be more open with how they want to present themselves is going to cause issues. A real sport would not have an athlete who was too lazy to compete. A real sport would not give Chris Jericho time to have a pep rally as the main event of the week. A real sport would not have “Broken” Matt Hardy.
But a lot of what makes AEW appealing to wrestlers (and fans as well) is that wrestlers are able to have more creative freedom. It’s honestly exciting to see lots of different takes on what a wrestler can be that hasn’t been reviewed twenty million times and cleaned until the life has been sapped out of it.
I suppose Khan could have had that same excitement and avoided the problem had only picked more serious characters but it in the end I think Tony saw what fans wanted, which brings us to the second thing. People like silly, people like cartoonish and comicbookish. Khan said in a recent media scrum that he enjoys the more realistic stuff but knows that others, including more casual fans, prefer things like Hardy’s character.
Matt Hardy himself pointed out the same thing in his New York Post interview. “Some of the die-hard fans (say) ‘Well, this ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy this isn’t what we want to see. We don’t want to see the flying drone, the costume change,’ whatever. We don’t call it sports entertainment but there is an entertainment component to it and always will be, and that’s also very attractive to the casual fans”
It was obvious that there would have to be a trade off somewhere down the line. Creative control for wrestlers and a desire to appeal to a larger demographic was going to always win out against catering to the smaller niche of fans who want to see what is portrayed as nothing but a legitimate competition.
However, I do not mind the shift. I am very vocal on liking the more fantastical elements of wrestling and embracing the medium for all sorts of different types of storytelling. The “sports-centric” definition I provided of “narratives built around wins and losses” is just the right amount of “sports-centric” for me.
Yet, I do feel for those who were legitimately excited for a more realistic alternative to the main card of WWE. I believe that AEW’s eyes were bigger than their stomach on this one, and really earnestly wanted so many different things all at once. Hopefully once the crowds start coming back and wrestling picks up again, AEW will help bring wrestling to those casual fans Hardy talked about and create a market for a mainstream realistic promotion.
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