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There are many ways to describe 2020, but the first word that comes to mind for me is unpredictable. Nobody could have predicated what was going to happen next month, next week or even the next day. Wrestling saw unforeseen changes to how the product was presented and explored the reality of hosting shows without any genuine crowd reactions. Despite the fact that 2020 was unpredictable, I’m going to sick my neck out a bit and offer some bold predictions for wrestling in 2021.
NXT moves off of Wednesday night
2020 did offer up some valuable data when it comes to the Wednesday Night War. The first is that AEW is crushing NXT; in 2020 NXT only managed to beat AEW in total viewership six times and never beat AEW in the key demo, with AEW regularly doubling NXT’s total in the 18-49 demographic. 2020 also told us that both shows would do substantially better if they were not running opposite one another. In August, NXT ran two weeks unopposed to AEW on Wednesday and generated 853,000 and 824,000 viewers respectively, much better than in the weeks they competed head-to-head with AEW. AEW on the other hand, ran two weeks unopposed to NXT in September, and generated 928,000 and 1.016 million viewers respectively.
WWE has obviously positioned NXT on television to try and keep AEW’s viewership from growing; so that even if they are losing the week-to-week battle for viewership, they know that they are at least taking a bite out of AEW’s popularity. The reason I see NXT moving is that with RAW viewership down, as well as the USA Network as a whole down a ton from the previous year, eventually I think USA will force WWE’s hand and have NXT moved to another night where it will do better in the ratings. WWE may be willing to hamper it’s own brand to keep a rival company at bay, but I think USA will come to their sense and realize that this is the smart move long term. AEW’s viewership will likely see an increase, and NXT’s viewership will do better as well.
MJF wins the AEW World Championship
Due to MJF being 24, I get that people are willing to hold off on giving him the world title. But being a successful star in wrestling is all about striking when the iron is hot and putting the guy in the right position when he has momentum. I think in 2021, MJF will be part of a storyline where he steals leadership of the Inner Circle from Chris Jericho (turning Jericho into a babyface in the process) and uses that momentum to catapult himself into winning the world title. At this point in his career, MJF has already proven that he is capable of being the biggest star in the company, and there is no more use in holding off or waiting a few more years. If they have the right story to tell, they should go with it.
Triple H’s role in WWE Changes
This prediction centers on Vince McMahon and how management of WWE develops going forward. It’s not a secret that the creative management in WWE has been struggling and that Vince himself is frustrated with the product. I think ultimately that will end up involving Triple H in some manner, who has had a pretty quiet 2020 after he was reportedly demoted back at the end of 2019, going from head of talent relations to a more NXT-focused role. I’m not necessarily sure if Triple H will be promoted back up the totem pole due to concern about the creative process on the main roster, or if Triple H will be blamed for WWE’s lack of creative success and inability to develop talent into true stars, but I think something is going to happen.
RAW’s viewership decline levels off
RAW has been on a very negative trend in viewership over the last several years; going from averaging 3 million weekly viewers in 2017 to 1.8 million viewers in 2020. The drop from 2019 to 2020 is even more staggering, with viewership dropping from 2.4 million to 1.8 million on average, a drop of 28%. One thing I think the data tells us about 2020 is that when WWE had to stop running in front of live crowds, the viewership decline was increased as fans tuned out of the lifeless atmosphere. I think that the pandemic accelerated the decline that was already happening, and has whittled down the fanbase to a much more hardcore group that will continue to watch no matter what. I don’t necessarily think RAW will rebound in viewership in 2021, they will be probably still be down, but I don’t think they can continue to lose 28% of their audience again, that will mean RAW will have averaged 1.3 million viewers in 2021, and that would mean there will be some episodes in 2021 that might not even get 1 million viewers.
NJPW runs a real show in the United States
NJPW had big plans for running in the United States in 2020, with a show scheduled for Madison Square Garden in August that unfortunately was canceled due to the pandemic. With a vaccine hopefully making things much more manageable in the second-half of 2020, I think that NJPW will try to run a large show in US, perhaps in the back-half of 2020. Yes, this means that I think large crowds will be back at wrestling shows, at least in some capacity. It might be at a half-filled outdoor building, but NJPW still desires to break into the American market and I think they will try to bring their major stars over and run a real show. It may be a show at Daily’s Place while working with AEW, but they will try to run in 2021.
WWE fires multiple wrestlers for union-related activity
We already saw this in WWE in 2020, with Zelina Vega getting fired over a dispute involving WWE’s crackdown on third-party deals. Union-related activity is kind of a broad term I’m using for anything involving talent being frustrated with the independent contractor situation, and seeking real representation. With changes possibly coming under the Joe Biden administration, as well as more attention being brought to the labor issues facing WWE, I am expecting increasing tensions between talent and management, and I could see multiple talents getting canned due to those tensions.
In the latest edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@Jesse Collings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) go over their winners and losers of wrestling in 2020. They go over the people, promotions and aspects of pro wrestling that have benefitted during 2020…and the ones that have not. Included are discussions on Roman Reigns, AEW, Monday Night RAW, Hiromu Takahashi, Sasha Banks, NXT and more.