Ever since World Wrestling Entertainment purchased its main rival World Championship wrestling in 2001, no pro wrestling promotion has proven much of a threat to WWE’s popularity. Until now.

With a solid roster, a growing fanbase, and multiple weekly television shows, All Elite Wrestling (AEW) has quickly become a leading wrestling brand in just a few short years. 

The company was founded in 2019 by Tony Khan, who is also an executive in both the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL and Premier League club Fulham organizations. It didn’t take long for this upstart company to gain a loyal fanbase and pose the first real threat to the WWE juggernaut in over 20 years.

How has AEW become such a successful challenger brand in such a short timeframe?

We can’t pretend that money has had nothing to do with it. The Khan family’s deep pockets have given AEW a boost that other small promotions haven’t had. High production value, television deals with TNT and TBS, and the ability to afford recognizable names like Chris Jericho and CM Punk certainly have helped.

AEW star Jon Moxley
Photo: All Elite Wrestling, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

But AEW has made many smart moves in building its brand. Let’s go over what those are as well as what anyone, regardless of industry, can learn from them.

A focus on in-ring action

The biggest differentiating factor All Elite Wrestling has in contrast to WWE is that AEW puts a premium on in-ring action. Matches are typically fast-paced with multiple exciting moments throughout. The company has a roster of talented wrestlers who are known for their athleticism and ability to tell stories in the ring.

This isn’t to say that WWE doesn’t employ talented athletes. But a major complaint many fans have is that rarely does WWE owner Vince McMahon allow wrestlers to reach the top unless they look a certain way. Often that means being large and muscular, regardless of in-ring ability. AEW has had no problem elevating smaller, more technically skilled wrestlers to main-event status.

AEW star Dr. Britt Baker, DMD. Photo: Adam Marantz, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

What AEW got right here is that it saw a need that was not being served by the industry’s major player, and it filled that gap. Tony Kahn was confident that he wasn’t alone in wishing there was more in-ring wrestling action available on national television.

What are your competitors not doing that their target audience craves? Rather than trying to copy your competition, ask yourself how your business can exploit that gap to stand out in your market.

A focus on long-term storytelling

AEW takes the time to build long-term storylines, which gives fans a reason to tune in week after week. Whereas WWE has monthly Pay Per View events, AEW often has a two-month gap in between. That enables them to build storylines and develop characters over time, creating massive anticipation for the matches. When it’s finally time for a Pay Per View, fans are shouting “Take my money!”

Are you taking a similarly measured approach to your brand’s storytelling? Or are you bouncing from one story to the next? If your messaging is disjointed, you could be causing customer confusion and leading the public to tune out. Be patient and stay consistent in your messaging.

A more attractive workplace

Many former WWE stars who now work for AEW have stated that one of the main reasons for choosing AEW was the creative freedom the company grants its wrestlers. While WWE shows tend to be heavily scripted, AEW wrestlers are allowed to come up with their own promos or improvise in-ring spots mid-match. While many wrestlers are happy to sacrifice that freedom for a larger paycheck or more television exposure, many others place a higher value on autonomy.

AEW's Dark Order
grenwail, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s something to consider when running any business. More than ever, workers are placing a higher value on things like flexibility and creative freedom. Are you micromanaging, or are you trusting your employees’ judgment and expertise? Are you a stickler for being in the office every day, or do allow for staff to get their job done remotely when possible? Salaries aren’t the only ways to attract top talent, so take a lesson from AEW when deciding the type of work environment you want to foster.

A strong sense of identity

All Elite Wrestling is not trying to WWE. It has its own unique style and presentation and isn’t afraid to be different. Other companies have tried too hard to be another WWE. That’s a quick path to failure. WWE has spent decades building itself into a pop culture institution. Why would fans want to watch a knockoff promotion when the real thing is still going strong?

Rather than be WWE, AEW has presented itself as an alternative to WWE. The number of fans that appeals to may be smaller, but it’s a large enough niche to be very lucrative for the upstart company.

AEW is still a relatively new company, but it’s already made a big impact on the wrestling industry thanks in part to smart branding moves. Applying lessons from this upstart promotion just might help you piledrive your competition.