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For pro wrestling to grow, it needs to stop catering to its hardcore fans

AEW and Impact’s cross promotion won’t help the wrestling industry to grow because it caters to an already captive audience.

AEW broke the wrestling internet last week when Don Callis announced on the “Winter is Coming” special episode of Dynamite that newly-crowned AEW World Champion Kenny Omega would explain his actions Tuesday on…IMPACT Wrestling! The surprise move definitely got wrestling fans around the world talking, but is that enough to move the needle in today’s landscape?

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly wrestling podcast, PTW!

This proposed union between AEW and Impact won’t help either company grow because their products are too similar and because it hinges upon a marketing tactic that is ineffective at cultivating new fans. Don’t get me wrong, there are also other glaring surface level obstacles to this venture. After all, I don’t think there are many fans who know Eddie Edwards but are unaware of Kenny Omega. Most cable subscribers don’t venture past channel 60 and many canceled said subscription in 2014. “Dream matches” dreamt by fans don’t include competitors that they have never heard of. But, beyond all of that, this venture will fail to grow wrestling’s audience because it seeks to cater to the already captive “hardcore” wrestling audience. It will make for great television, but will fail to expand the market. 

Now, let me unpack this for you before you angrily take to Twitter to talk about FTR vs. The North is going to be the silver bullet for WWE. General principles of marketing outline several ways to grow a business or industry. An entrepreneur or industry leader could work to develop novel products or services, find avenues via advertising endeavors to expand total market share, expand internationally, or strengthen the reputation of their brand by means of a dedication to quality service, production, and social responsibility. Let’s examine how a proposed co-branding between AEW and Impact does none of these things. 

  • Will this expand total market share? Anyone who watches Impact probably watches AEW. Plus, no one knows how to find the channel Impact is on. Legend has it that Impact is shown on Twitch, though.
  • Will this help the two companies expand internationally? No. They are both based in the United States and AEW already has international broadcasting deals.
  • Will this strengthen the reputation of the brand by means of creating a quality product? Yes, but to no effect as we’ll talk about later. 
  • Will this strengthen the reputation of the brand by demonstrating upstanding social responsibility? Impact got banned from Twitch for a bit because Rob Van Dam felt the need to have a threesome

This co-branding will not lead to growth for either AEW or Impact, as dictated by the above bullet points I got from reading a marketing textbook while cramming for a test. I got an A on said test so I’m going to speak to you as if I’m an authority on marketing and draw your attention to the third bullet point. AEW/Impact, yes, will likely strengthen the reputation of each brand in the eyes of professional wrestling fans, but will fail to create new fans simply because those fans would have watched regardless. 

Professional wrestling caters to a small niche market in entertainment that has eroded significantly since the industry’s apex in the early 2000s. It is currently segmented into two, disparate age groups: young adults and adults older than 34. Exact numbers and studies are hard to find but it was noted that 22% of fans were between ages of 2 and 17 years old and 56% were older than 34 in 2012, and that the median age for a wrestling fan had increased from 28 to 54 between the years 2000 and 2017. The prevailing explanation for this trend is that current fans are likely the aged old guard from the Attitude Era that simply stuck around and, more importantly and damningly, that professional wrestling can entice fans in the YA age range but can’t retain them. The question is then, what does WWE and AEW, Impact, and the rest of the wrestling industry do knowing this information?

WWE makes money by targeting young adults. WWE is a billion-dollar, multinational entertainment conglomerate that can produce all sorts of peripheral products for children and young adults via its licensing agreements. As such, their mainline television product is devoted to making simple characters that can be understood by young fans and plaster said characters all over action figures, video games, clothing, posters, decorative home goods, cereals, school supplies, nightlights, vitamins and even bandages. Meanwhile, they can appease their older fanbase via NXT, a brand of WWE television that is designed to appeal to older fans seeking a more mature, wrestling-driven product, and the WWE Network where subscribers can view an exhaustive library of professional wrestling events from yesteryear and documentary style shows. The lattermost is meant to forge emotional bonds between viewers and the product by presenting the personal stories of performers and the inner workings of production. This allows WWE to simultaneously create simplistic, cartoonish, and soap-operatic television for the sake of marketing toys to children while also retaining older fans who won’t buy Band-Aids with Randy Orton on them. 

AEW, Impact, and every other promotion that is not WWE focus on creating rugged, gritty, traditional “rasslin” programing to cater to the older audience. These promotions do not have the luxury of lucrative licensing agreements and thus do not see value in marketing their product towards young adults. This is, of course, a huge impedance for the ole revenue streams, but they do their best to turn this weakness into a strength by promoting themselves as edgy alternatives to WWE. As such, these companies appeal to the “hardcore” wrestling fan that longs for the raunchy, subversive days of the Attitude era. 

But who and what exactly is a “hardcore fan?” “Hardcore” professional wrestling fans have a stubborn, often maladaptive fixation on backstage rumors and the inner workings of wrestling production and devoutly subscribe to an underground narrative of what and how professional wrestling is supposed to be. These fans flock various tabloids on the internet and social media in hopes of finding rumors regarding upcoming storylines or happenings behind the scenes and use this incomplete and incorrect information to try to predict what will happen on television or make unqualified criticisms of a company and industry they have never worked within. Many fans believe that this makes them more sophisticated or “smart” viewers but in reality, they’ve only become susceptible. WWE and other promotions, since the early 2000s, cater directly to the hardcore by producing various documentary style productions, employing “reality” based storylines on television, and purposefully gearing the mainline product to placate their sensibilities. Unfortunately, this has never worked. The market for professional wrestling has only diminished despite these strategies, showing that marketing to hardcore fans does not retain or create new fans. 

Do you get it now? Yeah, Jon Moxely vs. Sami Callihan, The Young Bucks vs. The Good Brothers, and FTR vs. The North all sound like great matches, but anyone who would watch them is already watching. AEW and Impact have very similar creative sensibilities which will appeal to the same demographic, so you wouldn’t even be getting a different flavor of wrestling. There is nothing in AEW’s corporate infrastructure that Impact does not have access to and vice-versa (aside from Billionaire Tony and people knowing how to find TNT). And again, whatever good will for social justice that AEW may earn from helping Impact can and will be negated if RVD stumbles in and uses his air-time on TNT to have another threesome. There is no potential for growth from this proposed co-branding. 

For pro wrestling to grow, it needs to stop catering to its hardcore fans

#midlifebestlife

So what should AEW, Impact, NJPW, ROH, and their cohorts do? They can’t cater to nor create the merchandising opportunities the way WWE does for the young adult audience. So, WWE has viewers 2-17 years old on lock. Signing ex-WWE stars, having them make snarky remarks about WWE during their debut, and then start using a Canadian Destroyer as transition move does make people go apesh*t on Twitter, but those people are 43 and go apesh*t on Twitter. Maybe they shouldn’t rely on them too much. It’s almost like there’s a group in the middle that everyone is completely ignoring. It’s like there’s an entire population of people that are old enough to drive, vote, drink, join the military, and drive the economy who often have enough disposable income to buy some T-shirts, disposable time to constructively engage with products and media, and disposable friends they’ll drag along with them. Professional wrestling needs to target the 18-34 year old demographic and AEW needs to be the one to do it.

AEW is a truly marvellous wrestling company that negates many negative stereotypes about professional wrestling. It produces a realistic (sort of), storyline-driven product with a wonderful roster of current, past, and future wrestling stars from all walks and creeds of life. They have progressive talent relations and labor practices that are impregnable to criticism from the entertainment industry. And, more than anything else, they have an uncanny ability to cultivate a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for any fan who engages with their product, which is a f***ing miracle in today’s society. I have been a wrestling fan for over 20 years and, from the bottom of whatever is left of my heart, I have never been more proud to love wrestling because of AEW, but AEW needs to forget about people like me.

AEW needs to target the 18-34 year old demographic to grow because they’ve already saturated the 34 year old plus market. Any fan who would watch their current product, is watching their current product, and will always watch their product regardless of a partnership with Impact or any other promotion. WWE knows this. Hell, WWE made the WWE Network so the “hardcores” could watch The Great American Bash 1986 while Akira Tozawa trips on a banana-peel while chasing R-Truth on Raw as that’s an easy play set for Mattel to make. WWE saw their market and claimed it, and it’s time for the rest of pro wrestling to do the same. AEW and their colleagues need to stop catering to current fans that will, frankly, never leave them and think about ways to penetrate the 18-34 year old market. How should they do this? I don’t know (I only read that one marketing textbook), but I know it’s not by catering to fans they’ve already earned.

Food for thought, though. The Stadium Stampede match and Le Dinner Debonair were not classical wrestling tropes and were loved by my friends who hate wrestling, and the latter got MJF just got recognized by The New York Times. Hmm.

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