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One of the reasons AEW has been successful is that there were a significant amount of available talent that could be used to build a wrestling organization with real star power, enough to secure a national television deal that would guarantee viability. Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, etc. all played a role in making sure that a start-up wrestling company would have a solid amount of star power to get the company off the ground.
The same luxury was not available for building a women’s division. The reality was that if AEW wanted to have a women’s division that could rival the quality of its men’s division, which is what WWE has managed to do over the years and thus set some form of industry standard that other promotions would have to follow, it would take years and years of internal development, or the chance to poach away talent from WWE. When it came to available female talent, there was no equivalent to Chris Jericho, or Jon Moxley, or even Kenny Omega or Cody Rhodes. The company was going to have to start from scratch with mostly inexperienced talent who would need time to develop to reach a certain standard.
That issue has led to what has probably been the most common criticism of AEW since their foundation; that the women’s division is bad. There is no arguing that the division needs a lot of work; and that it pales in comparison to the women’s division on the WWE main roster, NXT and even Impact Wrestling. Why is that the case? AEW’s singles division for men is arguably the best out of all those promotions, and their tag team division is definitely the best division of its kind in the world, but it’s women’s division needs a lot of work.
The major problem for AEW is that lack of available women’s talent. In general, there are far less women’s wrestlers than men’s wrestlers in the industry, meaning that the talent pool is going to be smaller. At the same time, WWE has been aggressively building its own women’s division, starting in NXT and translating to the main roster, making the market more competitive for a smaller amount of resources. Throw in Impact, with its long history of pushing women’s wrestling, and the field becomes more crowded.
It is hard to come late to the game and build a strong women’s division. With most of the experienced talent already signed to other companies, AEW was left to gamble on talent that is still green and will need time to develop. In most cases, it takes years and years for talent to improve and get to the level where they can be put on national television and deliver each week. Ring of Honor found this out when they belatedly launched their women’s division a few years ago, the result has been a small talent pool, with some below-average wrestling and something that feels like the company is just checking a box and not really trying to promote women’s wrestling as a legitimate attraction.
To their credit, AEW has tried hard to find the best talent possible. Indie names that had little experience but had gained some momentum, such as Kris Statlander, Big Swole and Penelope Ford have been brought in. The company has also tried to bring in veteran joshi wrestlers, including original women’s champion Riho, current champ Hikaru Shida, as well as other names like Yuka Sakazaki and Emi Sakura, to work with the less-experienced talent and help them improve. Reaching out to the NWA and bringing in Thunder Rosa gave Shida a legitimate challenger for All Out.
There have been additional problems that have led to the women’s division suffering. The pandemic prevented joshi talent from entering the US, except for Shida who had moved to the US already. It also stopped European-based names like Bea Priestley and Jamie Hayter from working for the company. In addition, major injuries to Britt Baker and Statlander have kept them out of the ring. Right there, the company lost 7 or 8 wrestlers for a division that already had serious problems with its depth.
So the company has tried to piece together a women’s division, but it has been an uphill battle. A problem for AEW is that the company is still in a phase where it has to prove that it can consistently deliver good TV numbers in order to ensure its survival. With weekly competition in NXT, the company can’t afford to put on sub-standard wrestling for long stretches of time. Week after week, viewership numbers show that the women’s matches lose viewers, so they are kept to a minimum. Obviously, the women still need to be featured and put on TV, but it is a balancing act each week.
There is also the fact that putting out below-average wrestling ultimately could end up hurting the talent in the future. There is a reason wrestlers work dark matches until they are deemed “TV ready.” A match that took place last week on Dynamite, between Big Swole, Reba, Ford and Baker (who did not actually get in the ring) was, to be blunt, very bad. It was short and contained a number of obvious botches. That can be expected when you are talking about wrestlers who only have a few years of experience; they might have potential but things are not always going to look great when they are put on TV.
That is why when people question why AEW only has a minimal amount of women’s matches, it needs to be taken into consideration that the company is fighting to be a viable entity over the long term, and they can’t risk running off viewers by having a string of below-average matches. At the same time, wrestlers who perform badly on television and are exposed, can do long term damage to their careers by creating a negative perception. To this day, even though the standard has risen an incredible amount, there are still fans who roll their eyes when they see WWE’s women’s division, because for years the division produced (generally) bad wrestling matches.
Another problem for AEW is that while people like Swole, Ford, Baker, Statlander, Nyla Rose, etc. have potential, they need to be in the ring frequently to reach it. WWE did sign some talented women’s wrestlers from the independents, but in a lot of cases the company trained and produced the talent right in NXT at the Performance Center. When it comes to training wrestlers to be future stars, WWE has had more success producing female stars at the Performance Center than male stars. For years, talent like Charlotte, Alexa Bliss, Liv Morgan, Mandy Rose, Sonya Deville, etc. worked frequently on small NXT shows to hone their craft and improve to an acceptable standard. Even names with more experience, like Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, Shayna Baszler and Paige certainly improved greatly once they signed with WWE and began working more frequently.
Due to the pandemic, as well as the limited amount of screen time that can be afforded, the promising young talent in AEW is not getting the kind of ring time they need to improve quickly. Having AEW Dark certainly helps, and perhaps when the second AEW show launches later this year more time will be available for those women, but they are not going to develop as quickly as maybe WWE’s women did down in NXT, because WWE invested so much in getting talent that valuable ring time.
With all of that being said, it is hard to really judge how well the company has handled women’s wrestling at this point. While the division has struggled to stand out, there are a lot of obstacles that the company has had to deal with along the way that have hindered the product. The company has tried to bring in as many names as possible, but the talent pool is so small, finding a real game-changer is going to be difficult. Being in a competitive spot on Wednesday night hurts their ability to dedicate a lot of screen time to matches, which slows the progress of the women and hampers their ability to get over.
One thing I think AEW can improve on is the creative end of the women’s division. Oftentimes, it has felt like Shida has been the champion without any storyline direction (hopefully the feud with Rosa lasts past All Out). The segments with Brandi Rhodes, either with the Nightmare Collective or her confusing tag team with Allie, have been some of the worst parts of AEW. Britt Baker and Big Swole has been the only feud lately that has really gotten weekly attention and showcases both women’s personalities.
I’d like to see more vignettes, backstage segments, short promos and other profiles on Dynamite each week highlighting the women. They don’t have to have long matches, because time on the show is tight, but to feature the women and get their personalities over, is something that a good creative team can do without a lot of screen time or in-ring talent to work with. Moving forward, as pandemic restrictions eventually ease and some key talent get back from injury, the division should be improved, but they will need creative direction and so far AEW has kind of dropped the ball in that regard.