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LOOKING AT HOW WWE AND AEW HAVE APPROACHED THE COVID-19 ERA

By Mike Johnson on 2020-05-21 10:00:00

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I watched the recent John Oliver/HBO piece on sports in the COVID-19 era and throwing out the argument as to whether they should be taking place or not (I don't think they should, but I am also a wrestling fan, so I am happy to have wrestling), I was wondering what promotion do you think has done the best job of handling all this among WWE and AEW, as the other promotions aren't taping TV?  I know it's all opinion but thought this was a good one for the Q&A.  Thanks for keeping us on top of things and for doing all the interviews and such.  It makes life a little easier while I wait for my job to tell me, well, I have a job.

First of all, I hope things get back to relative normalcy for you (and everyone reading this) soon.   I would really love some normal in my day to day life again.

As far as who has handled this era the best, first, I give credit to everyone for working as hard as they have in trying to entertain everyone.  I am very thankful there has been as much content as there is for us the cover here.  I appreciate being able to have the structure to keep working, especially living here in New York City, where COVID-19 has literally taken my entire hometown down and everywhere I look, there's someone who's been greatly effected by this in my immediate circle.

So, who's weathered this storm the best?  Let's try and break it down:

Testing:

As of this writing, All Elite Wrestling is the only pro wrestling promotion regularly running that has had their talents and staff undergo COVID-19 testing.  We know that WWE practices social distancing and they wear masks and temperature check everyone.  Anyone who shows any signs of being sick is refused entry into the WWE Performance Center, which changed a lot of what was set for their biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania 36.  We know that Impact did temperature checks regularly at their tapings and kept everyone masked and separated when they were not on camera.  These are all good things, but they are not the same as having the talents and staff tested for COVID-19, which we know AEW is doing to make sure everyone is healthy and cleared before they can enter Dally's Place in Jacksonville, Florida. 

Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer reported last week that WWE isn't testing for COVID-19 and WWE has done nothing to refute that report that I am personally aware of.   I have never been told by any WWE talents or staff that the company tested them or requested they get themselves tested.  We know of instances where WWE has alerted talents or staff to someone within the company testing positive so that they were aware of a potential, minimal exposure, but beyond that, no.  AEW went far beyond that to make sure everyone was as safe as they can possibly be. 

So, to me, AEW is far ahead of everyone else in this area and honestly, everyone else should be following their lead.

Environment:   

Everyone is doing everything they can do to be as sanitary as possible in the COVID-19 era.  We know WWE has gone way above the call of duty to protect everyone and to sanitize the WWE Performance Center, changing ropes and ring aprons in between matches and sanitizing everything in sight.   

AEW does all that but what does give them a great advantage as well is that when they are running Dally's Place in Jacksonville, it's an outdoor venue with the ring, apron, stage, etc. all sitting in the sun all day before they tape.  Given the belief is that COVID-19 dies rather quickly in direct sunlight, this is a massive plus for the company, plus Dally's Place being an open air facility means everyone is in a much less dense environment with fresh air circulating at all times. 

That just lends itself to being a more healthy environment in this era.  Since the Khan family owns Dally's Place, they wound up being able to have the best potential place to tape TV regularly.

Internal Response:

WWE is in the middle of the biggest TV deals of its existence, but made the decision to furlough a lot of its staff and release a lot of pro wrestlers even though one could argue they had the financial war chest to weather the storm.    That led to not only some "survivor's guilt" for staff who remained after seeing their co-workers depart but also, for obvious reasons, hurt the company morale as there were a lot of well-liked talent who were cut.  It was a crappy day for everyone involved. 

I get why WWE did it.  The company wasn't going to be bringing in the revenue it originally projected as there are no live events going forward at the moment, merchandise sales will drop, etc.   WWE is a publicly traded company that was going to have to face its stockholders when they hit their second quarter earnings having a massive drop and in that position, you have to do what's best to keep stockholders happy, but it still sucked for everyone who was cut or furloughed during the most uncertain period in anyone's lives.

AEW, however, hasn't (as of this writing) let one staff member or wrestler go.  They've been paying everyone from talent down to logistical staff on down who were unable or unwilling to come to work in the COVID-19 era their full salary.  Sure they have TV deals, but nothing on the level that WWE has from FOX or NBC Universal and like WWE, they have lost all of their live gate and merchandise money.  In many ways, this environment is even worse for AEW as there's no real way for them to make up for lost time and momentum.    AEW went from building tons of momentum coming out of their Revolution PPV.  They were heading into a series of tapings this Spring that would have made AEW a LOT of money to nothing coming in.   Their postponed Newark, NJ date that would have been their biggest live attendance by far, easily the company's largest seven figure gate and that is, at best, trapped in suspended animation or at worst, going to be refunded to fans. 

Yet, while much smaller company, AEW still absorbed the loss, pivoted and by all accounts, are still in the black when such a terrible turn of events would have wiped just about anyone else out.   AEW could have certainly cut bait and run on a much smaller budget, but even when a good portion of their roster was unavailable to them, that roster was paid as if they were wrestling every week, and so was everyone else who was there.   For a newer company, even one with the financial resources of the Khan family, to be able to accomplish that in this era of uncertainty, you have to point to them and praise them for weathering the storm as well as they have and for being loyal to those who had signed up to work for them.  Business is business, for sure, but if you compare the two, only one company let people go in the face of a pandemic. 

So, you have to point to AEW here.  They may get to a point where they have to make cuts as well for all we know, but thus far, they haven't even made one move in that direction.  When the upstart doesn't and the industry leader does, you can't give the nod to the industry leader, although, to be fair, again, they have a much larger infrastructure to maintain and concerns as a publicly traded company that Tony Khan wouldn't.

Broadcasts:

Pro wrestling is, by nature, what you make of it.  What you like may not be what I enjoy and vice versa.  It's never going to be one opinion of what works and what doesn't, across the board.  Now, AEW has a big advantage in that they are, as I mentioned before, running an open-air stadium, so they can a bigger stage, pyro, etc.  That is a plus on their side, so I am throwing that out of the conversation since WWE couldn't do such a thing in the PC.

That said, in my opinion, AEW has been much more proactive with trying to find ways to keep their broadcasts fun and fresh in comparison to WWE.  WWE's initial broadcasts looked very dark and droll, changing their camera angles and the look of their shows from a visual standpoint after the first AEW live broadcast in Jacksonville.  It was like AEW flipped the light switch and WWE realized, hey, we can do that too!  I feel like AE has tried to take the intimacy of a good pro wrestling show and broadcast it, while WWE still presents their shows as if they are producing larger than life spectacles in a major arena setting, but the reality is, they aren't, and we all know it and everyone knows that's OK except WWE.

AEW have continuously tried to find ways to maintain the traditional energy level of their show by experimenting - heels and faces on opposite sides of the ring bringing the background noise that is needed for a wrestling match to come across stronger on TV for example.  They have also crafted a show that as times is very much patterned after old school Southern style studio wrestling; directing its talents and the stories to engage the audience directly, plus pure silliness and fun character stuff like The Bubbly Bunch that allowed talents to be involved and endear themselves to the viewers even if they weren't physically at the TV tapings. 

Add that to the hard-hitting in ring style and the character-driven development and it's a fun show.  Plus, for many weeks, AEW did this with 50-75% of their regular roster stuck at home but still, with good booking and performances, they kept the viewing audience entertained.   Has it been perfect every week?  Of course not, but there's been far more positive than negative.

WWE, however, often feels like Raw and Smackdown are treading water until they hit a date, like a PPV, where something *has* to happen.  A big part of the issue, in my opinion, is that after the first few weeks where they leaned into the fact that this is an out of the ordinary set of circumstances, WWE seemed to have taken the strategy to produce their TV shows as if it's any other normal week, but in the PC environment, that often make the shows feel like you are watching a dress rehearsal for a play, not a Broadway performance.  Due to that, in my mind, there remains a disconnect between the show and the audience, despite the hard work of everyone involved. 

AEW feels like the closest thing to a 21st century version of a studio wrestling show with talents reacting as if this is "real" in the moment and speaking directly through their camera to the audience to make them feel as if they are an important part of everything, the way Dusty Rhodes and Hulk Hogan might have invoked that feeling in fans generations ago.   It's not a perfect translation or recreation but it's been entertaining.

Meanwhile, WWE performers react to a non-existing crowd, which is fine if you are R-Truth but for anyone else, it just comes off clunky and odd for viewers, a reminder that they are without an audience.  Why would talents look out around the building when they come out when they know there's no one there and there's ovation to take in?  WWE has always been about that over the top expression, but it doesn't click here and with the exception of the NXT brand, there's been no real pulling back of that presentation and that makes the show feel "off" even with the best pro wrestlers performing inside the ring.   There have been some really great wrestling matches, but the overall broadcasts lack the burst of energy that pro wrestling needs to grab their audience's attention.  I remain amazed that on Raw, they aren't doing more to get the most out of the least, since that's always been one of Paul Heyman's calling cards.  That to me means it's likely a Vince McMahon edict that they are just traveling the same trails as usual.

WWE's interviews and promos are a great example of what doesn't really click in the current environment.  With the exception of Drew McIntyre, no one in WWE regularly looks into the camera and speaks directly to the audience at home, which is something really needed right now.  In AEW, talents do and it adds that unspoken feeling of "we are in this together" and that the babyfaces especially need the audience's support.  In WWE, most of the body language and verbiage during interviews remains the traditional WWE presentation and that sort of cadence and back and forth feels so dated when there's no audience to play off of. 

I also believe AEW has been able to pivot quicker because they aren't stuck in their ways and I think WWE at times needs to allow themselves more experimentation instead of approaching it as "this is the WWE way and this is how WWE does things."  We are all navigating the great unknown right now, so what better time to figure out what works and what doesn't?  The audience drops for WWE show that what they have been doing isn't connecting with a portion of their viewership, so perhaps trying something else can turn the tide.  WWE NXT has been far ahead of Raw and Smackdown in that regard and it shows.

WWE Raw and Smackdown sometimes feel as if their content is being produced in a big cavern of a room.  AEW has been able to produce and tape their material so the audience member at home feels like they are watching a small, intimate show being produced for them.    The announcers break down the show with a sports presentation while WWE announcers are still the hype machine they always were.  It's just a different flow for each company and right now, AEW has been far more consistent and vibrant in figuring out what works for them, while WWE keeps doing what they always did - with far more squash-style matches now obviously - and they often feel like the shows are handicapping themselves because only so much has to happen while AEW is still swinging for the fences every week.  

So, right now, I don't think it's wrong to say AEW deserves a TON of credit for their approach to the current situation.  I think WWE can learn a lot of lessons from them right now.

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