On today's episode of The Wrestling Inc. Daily, Wrestling Inc. President Raj Giri sat down with Brandon Thurston of Wrestlenomics where they reflected the wrestling business in 2020.
On the topic of AEW's numbers, Thurston noted that the pandemic has hurt everyone in terms of viewership, but the numbers recovered for AEW including their best number in a year. He also predicts that AEW and NXT will mostly stay around the same numbers they are doing now.
"I think one of the interesting things that we saw over the year 2020, the long and short summary of viewership in 2020 is how the pandemic hurt everybody in April, May, maybe June, hurt everybody," Thurston said. "Around that time, June, NXT and AEW started to bounce back, and RAW and SmackDown continued to sink until the ThunderDome came out and also Roman Reigns returned around the same time. Dynamite is more decisively than ever beating NXT.
"They had three episodes in December where they did over 900,000 viewers. Obviously, that's 'Winter Is Coming', the follow-up to it, which was their biggest viewership in over a year and then the Brodie Lee episode. I think they're going to, in 2022, they'll probably do similar numbers to what they're doing, and I think the thing to watch is or what I would expect is that AEW and probably even NXT to kind of just stay where they are."
Thurston also predicted RAW and SmackDown will continue to decline and notes that in his history of watching WWE, the numbers don't typically get better. He noted that SmackDown has done better mainly due to a better timeslot and a different network.
"And I would expect RAW, at least, to continue to slowly to decline and maybe SmackDown," Thurston stated. "SmackDown seems to be doing alright right now, but following WWE programming for my whole life has told me, or at least these last 20 years or so, it usually doesn't get better.
"It'll get slightly worse, and I would expect interest in RAW and SmackDown to decline a bit. RAW and SmackDown viewership are declining roughly at the rate of cable overall except for 2019 and 2020 in the case of RAW, where RAW has started to fall harder than cable overall. SmackDown has done a lot better because it's jumped around to better and better timeslots and networks."
Giri and Thurston also discussed AEW's possible second show. There have not been many details about when the second show would air, but Thurston gave his prediction on when it would likely air.
"I would expect in 2022 also for AEW, there will probably be another program for AEW, and I would guess that that would be, if you look at where they were preempted to due to the NBA over the summer, I think the first place that they were preempted to was around 6:00 p.m. on a Saturday," Thurston recalled. "And I know there were some other areas where they were moved to as well, but that would be my guess that whatever the one-hour extra show will be 6 p.m. Saturday, maybe TNT, maybe TBS, who knows, maybe even 6:05."
Giri asked if adding a second show would hurt the main show, Dynamite. Thurston discussed AEW's direction of Dark as of late as well as AEW President Tony Khan's goals for having two developmental shows.
"I would imagine it'll be kind of similar to those other patterns in history where the first couple weeks will be big deal, and if you look at what AEW Dark has become, it's no longer like this B show with a couple of matches," Thurston noted. "It's 15 matches most weeks lately, and I think part of the usefulness of that is that they're developing talent. They have a lot of talent, and they're not doing house shows. They're probably never gonna do house shows. I think that's the structure that they're going to take with it is that this is our second-rung brand, and this is where we kind of develop people.
"We want to do good ratings with it, but we don't expect it to be like a second flagship or anything, and maybe people work their way up from this show to be on the second show more regularly, which is kind of the way that Dark works right now. And I don't think Dark's going away either. I think Dark will remain this YouTube show. Maybe once this show starts to exist, there's not 15 matches on it every week. Tony Khan gave that impression listening to the last Tony Khan conference call. He said something to the effect. He wants to have two developmental shows.
"I guess that could mean an AEW Dark and whatever the secondary one-hour show is. Maybe there's kind of tiers. You put really important people on Dynamite and so on in the second one and the third one. I do think they really need to develop talent and give people match time. They have a lot of wrestlers who have potential but need match time. They're never gonna do how house shows, and there's no indies right now for anybody to get experience on either."
AEW's last PPV, Full Gear, did around 100,000 buys, which is in the neighborhood of what all of the company's pay-per-views have garnered, including two shows before the launch of AEW Dynamite. When discussing the lack of growth in pay-per-view buys despite the new viewers, Thurston noted that PPV is mainly for hardcore fans and discussed what kind of effect TV has had for AEW in regards to them running PPVs.
"I think with AEW, the number of people who are aware of AEW and engaging with AEW -- so they had two PPVs before they went to TV. Then they did one in November just a month after being on TV, and it was, as you basically said, it was the same or even lower than the two that they had done before," Thurston said. "I think PPV is a hardcore product. You're getting your more ardent fans to buy it. It's more valuable than running a single TV show, still, I think for them. Their TV deal is worth $44 million a year, and that's great, but they make a little bit more when you run a PPV and it sells 100,000 buys or 80,000 buys.
"But I think there's a hardcore group of fans who were aware of AEW before it went on TNT, and I think compounded with that, you think about Double or Nothing. Double or Nothing did around a 100,000 buys, and there's sort of a discovery aspect. I think there's a special kind of excitement around their first show. I see this sort of manifest when I look at Google web search. For example, when somebody debuts, there's this huge spike in their web searches, and it levels off after that. And I think there's something similar for AEW in that their introduction, there's this huge spike, and it's sort of going to level off after that. And I guess you could also say that all these PPVs they've done, if they were just an internet product somehow, these buys would be considerably lower.
"I think it speaks to as well how TV matters differently today. If this were maybe even just 10 years ago, you wouldn't expect a product that never had a weekly TV show to do a 100,000 buys. TNA in all of its years are on TV, on Spike, never did 100,000. Something like 40% lower than what AEW has done here, and I think it just speaks to the momentum, and the buzz, and the excitement and credibility that AEW had coming out of the gate and the power of the internet into the present.
Thurston continued talking about what can help make WWE and AEW more popular, a new star. Specifically talking about someone who becomes a big star for the first time like a Steve Austin or The Rock. He also mentioned coming-of-age type stories with Mistico and Kazuchika Okada and explains who it will take a star like that to help a brand break out.
"You could look at these PPV buys and say, 'Well, they haven't gained any momentum here in terms of adopting any new PPV buyers,' but I think when AEW gets more popular, or if it does or when WWE gets more popular, if it does, is going to be because of new stars," Thurston noted. "And who's the new star for AEW or for WWE. AEW started out with a set of stars like Cody and Kenny Omega, but I think what often gains interest is not just a new star but somebody who's becoming a new star for the first time.
"You think of examples in history like Steve Austin in '98 and The Rock sort of parlayed that, and I guess Goldberg is another example. I can think of international examples like Mistico in 2005 becoming a giant star and selling out all these attendances at Arena Mexico and Okada more recently in New Japan around 2012 or so. So these people who sort of burst onto the scene and you have maybe a story arc or coming of age story. I don't know if we're going to get towards a boom era ever again, but if we're going to get towards a point where one of these brands really breaks out, it's going to be on the the wind of a new star who sort of comes of age, and we have sort of a long journey with this star.
"And they finally become somebody who people really believe in and can really deliver not just great matches but stuff that people are really excited about, matches that people are really excited to see. I guess my point is whoever that person is, that person's not a main eventer right now. It may not be somebody who's even in either company right now."
Brandon's full interview aired as part of today's episode of our podcast, The Wrestling Inc. Daily. Subscribe to get the latest episodes as soon as it's released Monday - Friday afternoon by clicking here. You can listen to today's episode, featuring newly engaged pro wrestling couple Teal Piper and Deimos, via the embedded podcast player below: