The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Wrestling Inc. or its staff.
There is no denying that WWE's fanbase in the US is in decline. No matter how WWE and loyalist fans try to spin the image that the company is gaining fans and not losing them, all traditional business metrics suggest that more and more people are tuning out WWE.
I don't think a lot of fans realize just how much fan interest has declined in the last year. Viewership for RAW and SmackDown has completely cratered, with RAW drawing an all-time non-holiday low of 2.37 million viewers on Monday. That number is staggering, during this same time last year, RAW was averaging around 3 million viewers per episode. That means that over the course of a single year, WWE has lost approximately 700,000, or 30 percent, of their fanbase. I think because numbers have been on the decline since the end of the Attitude Era, fans are kind of numb to hearing statistics about viewership declining year-over-year, but viewership declining 30 percent, not from 2000 but from 2018, is incredible.
Some fans will argue that just because viewership is lower, that doesn't mean fan interest is any lower. There are of course cord-cutters and people who watch RAW on Hulu, and there are also just easier ways for fans to follow WWE, including following along on Twitter or reading recaps and watching all of the segments on YouTube. However, that line of thinking also neglects the fact that not just viewership, but other barometers of WWE's business are down as well.
Live event attendance is in decline, merchandise revenue is down 14 percent over last year and subscribers to the WWE Network are down compared to this time last year. If WWE's loss in viewership can be attributed to cord-cutters and people following along online, then why are all the other business metrics down as well? The fact of the matter is WWE is losing fans at an alarming rate; there isn't a debate about that.
The decline of WWE's popularity leads to many questions, one of the most important being how will this affect All Elite Wrestling as it tries to get off the ground. In theory, it could be argued that WWE's decline should benefit AEW. Since there are 700,000 fans that were watching wrestling last year, but stopped over the course of the last twelve months, it can be believed that those fans can be encouraged to watch wrestling again, they just need to find a better alternative.
Historically though, that hasn't been the case. When WWE bought WCW, people expected that all of the WCW fans who were still watching Nitro, would start watching WWE and WWE would greatly increase their audience.
That never happened, in fact viewership began to decline almost immediately following the purchase of WCW and has been going down ever since. The WCW fans didn't just hop over to WWE when Nitro was canceled, even when WWE tried desperately to recruit them by bringing in Hulk Hogan, Bill Goldberg and re-launching the nWo. Most WCW fans stopped watching wrestling entirely.
Another thing working against AEW is that for a lot of people, WWE is professional wrestling in the United States. When they stop watching WWE, the thought process isn't to look for another company doing pro wrestling better than WWE, the thought process is that wrestling in general is passé.
It is often stated that wrestling fans are longing for an alternative to WWE, and if just the right company with the right talent and the right financial backing came along, it would be great for the wrestling business. AEW may just be that company, but in reality, the more time goes by the less likely an alternative to WWE is going to succeed at the major league level.
WCW and ECW both closed 19 years ago; a whole generation of wrestling fans, myself included, have grown up in an era where unless you are a hardcore fan who reads about wrestling online, WWE is the be-all-end-all of professional wrestling. The idea that another company could emerge and do pro wrestling better than WWE is like believing another football league could do pro football better than the NFL.
The other thing is that WWE is losing those fans, and faster than any other demographic. In WWE's Q1 report for 2019, fans under the age of 35 are declining at faster rate than declines of fans over the age of 35, according to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. The potential wrestling fans for the future are not sticking around to watch WWE, and they aren't exactly looking for a new promotion to latch onto.
Something else that may end up adversely affecting AEW is TV executives viewing WWE (and by association, the professional wrestling industry) as being on the decline. While WWE inked a massive, $2 billion TV deal last year that will carry the company to new heights in the coming years despite its popularity with fans declining, the declining television ratings are something that TV executives notice and that may make them more hesitant to dole out money to an unknown wrestling company such as AEW, who has still not signed a TV deal.
TV is a copy-cat industry, when FOX turned an amateur singing competition (American Idol) into a massive hit in the early 2000s, suddenly television was flooded with various singing/talent competitions. If WWE was doing record ratings, it would increase the chances that a TV network would be willing to attempt to get a piece of the wrestling pie.
Instead, WWE is on the decline, and networks may figure that since WWE is losing viewers, any other wrestling company doesn't stand a chance at becoming a hit.
One positive for AEW is that wrestling fans in general are more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago, and smaller companies have far more exposure through social media. The stars behind AEW have already shown a knack for being able to promote themselves and build a following through the power of social media. If the company can draw 12,000 fans to a show without any real television exposure, how well can they do if they have a weekly show on a good cable network?
While AEW's fanbase is dwarfed by WWE's, there is something to be said for a company that has managed to grow its fanbase instead of having it diminish. There is often a discussion about whether or not Vince McMahon understands what WWE's fanbase wants. There is no discussion about whether or not the creative minds in AEW know what AEW's fanbase wants. WWE may be burning off wrestling fans, but modern technology and a more contemporary creative approach may be able to salvage those fans before they walk away for good.
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