Just ahead of the January 8, 2019 All Elite Wrestling rally in Jacksonville, Florida, AEW President Tony Khan wrote in a press release that his goal in professional wrestling is to make this a "golden age" for fans as well as performers. Prior to the above-mentioned rally, I wrote a piece here at Wrestling Inc. challenging AEW to really revolutionize the professional wrestling business by employing its talent instead of hiring performers as independent contractors. At the rally, we continued to ask AEW's key decision-makers about health insurance and the possibility of employment for AEW performers. Although there was no groundbreaking announcement coming out of the rally that all regularly appearing AEW talent will be employees of the new professional wrestling promotion, there are reasons to be optimistic about the new startup promotion and the health of the professional wrestling industry going forward.
Even though many AEW performers will be independent contractors, Khan confirmed to Wrestling Inc. Managing Editor Nick Hausman at the rally that AEW would like to hire many professional wrestlers as full-time employees. This seemingly minor development is really a dramatic shift from the status quo in professional wrestling.
"Different people, depending on their level of responsibility within the company, will have different deals. And I think that there's a great opportunity for people to gain full-time employment in this company, not just as a wrestler, but also in the front office. And I think that there were already a lot of people that were very integral in the production today, and getting all these people here, and putting on, what I think, was an exciting first night for us. We already have a lot of people involved and we'll definitely be taking care of our employees." Khan continued, "and also favorable schedules, and I don't wanna run down guys with too many dates or too much time on the road," Khan continued. "I feel really positive about what we're doing in terms of taking care of the guys. We have great management and the guys we're focusing it on, Cody and the Bucks, they are very, very hands on with the talent. And I'm sure, for us, the kind of people we're bringing in, they're gonna contribute to the company in a number of ways. And I think that, yeah, there is a package, a competition package and healthcare package that could be available."
On X-Pac 12360, Khan elaborated:
"Some of the people working with us are still independent contractors. And what I am doing is a lot of people are doing full-time office jobs. The people doing full-time office jobs have similar benefits to other sports executives and I have a lot of sports executives that are currently working with us here in Florida at the Jaguars, so what I've said is 'okay, well you're sports executives so I can set you up with healthcare packages.' But at the end of the day a lot of people are doing office jobs, so a lot of wrestlers are gonna end up with healthcare out of this."
When asked about the possibility of health coverage for all of AEW performers, Matt Jackson of The Young Bucks told Wrestling Inc. at the rally, "maybe one day - never say never."
"We're early on. We're creeping up with that door barely open, so hopefully one day we can swing it wide open." Jackson said, "but yeah, the big thing for All Elite is that we wanted to take care of the boys. So many times you hear stories from wrestlers past or legends now where they don't have anything left and there's nothing to show for it. And one thing that we've always wanted to do is, if we did start a wrestling organization, we wanted to take care of the guys. So yeah, that's one thing we're working on. The executives are gonna have benefits and stuff. And they're gonna get taken care of. We're in the day one process of that and we're still working on it, but that's definitely the plan."
While AEW hiring all regularly appearing talent as employees would have been the best case scenario for performers, making full-time employment and healthcare benefits available to some with the hope that others will be offered similar deals in the future is certainly a step in the right direction.
At the rally, Cody talked about wanting to change the "wrestling economy", principally by making sure talent is paid well.
"It's a disappointing thing about [pro] wrestling, as a second generation and someone who has studied it and learned from it, someone who [has] lived it, compared to sports stars and professional entertainers of comparable influence, pro wrestlers are always the least paid. At All Elite Wrestling we're going to change that. We're going to change the wrestling economy because you can offer somebody opportunity, but opportunity doesn't pay the bills. Money does and happy wrestlers means happy fans." Cody added, "and fans come first."
Cody expanded his comment on the "wrestling economy" to Wrestling Inc., suggesting that he would like to see a body for professional wrestlers akin to SAG-AFTRA in Hollywood.
"A lot of concerns that guys will have is 'what happens if I get hurt in the ring?' because that's the one thing WWE covers with the POMCO insurance and we can confirm that anybody that gets hurt in an AEW ring will be 100% taken care of by AEW, but again getting back to the case-by-case element, the first thing we want to do in raising the profile is raise pay. And we're a startup, so it's kind of backwards, but that's okay. That's our goal. I meant it about the wrestling economy, happy wrestlers means happier fans. Wrestlers should have choices and you can't pay somebody minimum wage to go to a [pro] wrestling school and expect them to be excited about that. We're not doing that and I don't mean to knock anyone who is. I'm just saying we're not doing it. But for now, insurance in the ring, that's all covered and we're going to move forward. Hopefully, after Double Or Nothing, we can tighten up the infrastructure even more and my goal, some people know this, I'd like to see wrestling just like the television industry that I've done a few bit roles here and there, but that treatment and that care you get for your time on-screen, you have a comparable influence as a pro wrestler." Cody noted, "you're just as recognizable and you should be just as taken care of."
Cody elaborated on this idea while speaking with ESPN:
"We should be actively working towards some sort of body, and this is outside of what I'm talking about with AEW and as me in the executive role, but we should actively be working to have the happiest talent you can possibly have," Cody said. "Whether that starts as a talent feedback system, or a players' league, or some sort of body where there's a complete, transparent communication between those in the office and those in the locker room. That's massively important, especially when you are traveling the world. I think taking those steps, even if they are baby steps, is great."
While Cody's comments above seem to indicate that AEW will only take care of its talent to the degree WWE takes care of performers who have been injured in the ring, he does advocate for raising the pay of performers as well as some form of unionization in pro wrestling, ideas likely not on the agenda of any Executive Vice President at any other major pro wrestling promotion.
In addition to employment benefits for some performers and "favorable" schedules for all performers, Cody divulged to Wrestling Inc. at the rally that AEW performers will be able to take on outside opportunities.
"I can actually confirm that Joey [Janela] will be able to do his Spring Break shows," said Cody. "Chris [Jericho] will be able to do his [Rock 'N' Wrestling Rager At Sea] cruise."
Another interesting note to come out of the rally is that female performers will be paid equally to male talent in AEW. AEW's Brandi Rhodes shared with the Jacksonville crowd:
"We care about our women," Rhodes began. "They are top talent, so they will be paid equally. There's no sliding scale."
When fans questioned whether a female enhancement talent would earn as much as a male main eventer, AEW's Chief Brand[i] Officer took to Twitter to clarify her comments from the rally:
"Equal pay means equal opportunity regardless of sex. It does not mean that everyone will be paid the exact same salary regardless of their position. It means the gender pay gap does not apply. An entry level woman won't make less than an entry level man because of her gender."
Khan is on track for reaching his aforementioned goal of creating a new golden age of professional wrestling for fans and performers, even if he is not rolling out employment status and health benefits to all AEW performers from the outset. Incremental change is change nonetheless and building slowly could still result in the desired outcome. The young professional sports executive wants professional wrestling performers to be treated with unprecedented "respect" and "warmth", but creating this new "golden age" for performers will be a journey through uncharted waters.
Perhaps the boons envisaged by Khan are really representative of the changing tide in professional wrestling. During a media conference call, David McLane of Women Of Wrestling divulged to our own Nick Hausman that WOW co-owner Jeanie Buss demanded health insurance for WOW talent.
"Each of our wrestlers has already and has always been insured, so unlike any other [professional] wrestling organization, we have full coverage for the talent if they get injured, and many of the performers have appreciated that, and said 'thank you' to Jeanie Buss for that. And [that is] one thing Jeanie demanded. She demanded it because I come from the wrestling world and I basically said, 'hey, there's no other wrestling organization that does this' and Jeanie said, 'I don't care! We're changing the status quo, David. And I'm going to make sure our talent is protected.'" McLane said, "and so, we already do it and we've been doing it from Day One due to Jeanie's concern to make sure that the talent is protected."
Khan's stated goal, "to make this the greatest time ever to be a wrestling fan", is reason enough to be hopeful. As Cody said, happy performers means happy fans, and surely "the greatest time ever to be a wrestling fan" would entail higher quality content, consumer choice, and a new deal for pro wrestling performers. As WWE Hall Of Famer Jerry 'The King' Lawler recalled on Dinner With 'The King', 'The Monday Night Wars' was the best time in professional wrestling because of the competition between WWE and WCW.
"I hope [AEW] does well because believe it or not, competition is the best thing for anything. The best time that the WWE ever had was during 'The Monday Night Wars'. You had two wrestling shows on at the same time on Monday nights. Two different companies, and they were getting 7 and 8 million people watching each one of them. And now you struggle to get 2 million to watch the only show in town."
The competition between WWE and WCW during the Monday Night Wars led to some of the most memorable moments in pro wrestling with 'The Attitude Era'. Also, the rivalry between Titan Tower and Turner resulted in more opportunities for talent and some form of guaranteed contract for WWE performers. Hopefully, AEW's presence in the industry will similarly create a thriving ecosystem for new opportunities and better treatment for talent. AEW's big free agent acquisition Chris Jericho told Busted Open Radio that his signing with the company signaled to talent that AEW is a viable option.
"By me joining the company, fans and wrestlers most importantly go, 'holy s--t, this is the real deal - if Jericho went there, this is real' because a lot of people don't know Kenny [Omega], or Cody, or The [Young] Bucks." Jericho explained, "we know them, but your average fan doesn't, and your guy that's in the WWE making a decent living, but thinks they can do better, now knows that, 'wow, Jericho can go there, I can go there too.'"
AEW's braintrust claim to be committed to listening to the fans and 'Hangman' Page declared as much to the TIAA Bank Field crowd.
"Today has been my favorite first day on the job because my boss is you. It's every one of you here in Jacksonville and everybody watching at home, you are my boss. And for that reason, I will work harder than I have ever worked in my life to make this a success because you deserve it!" Page later told Wrestling Inc., "our intention is to give the fans the best wrestling in the world, the best roster in the world and to have a company that listens to the fans and responds to the feedback. I think all of our minds are set on that goal and that's what we're really looking forward to doing."
If you use any of the quotes from this article, please credit Wrestling Inc.
Source: Wrestling Inc.