The PopCulteer
October 4, 2019

We have two updates on previous PopCult posts this week, one short, one long.

Let’s get get the short one out of the way first, shall we?

First up, news came out this week that the toy company, NECA, who make licensed collectible action figures and board games and own WizKids (HeroClix), have reached an agreement to purchase the embattled “geek” subscription service, Loot Crate.

Loot Crate, the unsustainable subscription surprise box service, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy a few weeks ago, and seemed to be doomed to a quick demise. Dozens of people were suddenly laid off with no warning or severance pay, and things looked grim for the company that popularized the subscription box industry.

Since that filing, they started sending out subscription boxes for the first time in months, and have still be accepting new subscriptions (presumably from people who never use Google before signing up for anything).

Aside from what seemed like an inevitable crash-and-burn for Loot Crate, this may turn out to be a good business move by NECA. They have renamed Loot Crate “The Loot Company,” and I would presume that they got the company for next to nothing, and using the bankruptcy proceedings, managed to eliminate, or negotiate downward, most of the crippling debt that Loot Crate had accumulated.

Although Loot Crate laid off most of their warehouse and inventory staff, I’m sure they still have the accounting infrastructure in place to process periodic subscription boxes on a grand scale. Given that NECA’s core businesses are perfectly compatible with that type of marketing, this could be a match made in heaven.

Action figures and gaming are a good fit with a business designed to deliver collectibles to fans, and with NECA owning The Loot Company, they have the chance to pre-finance some pretty cool exclusive products, and possibly gauge consumer interest in whether or not to take a product line to a wider audience.

Next up, and the much bigger story, is the changing face of professional wrestling.

Last May I wrote about the emergence of AEW, a new and very well-financed wrestling company that is poised to challenge the WWE monopoly that’s existed for the last eighteen years. Since I wrote that piece, several new developments happened, and more information about the genesis of the new company has come to light.

AEW debuted on TNT two days ago, and their fourth weekly television show will originate from right here in Charleston, West Virginia.

As I wrote last May, WWE was at a creative low point, sort of flailing about while killing time until their new big-money TV deals began (which is also happening this week). RAW drew a large audience for their “season premiere” on Monday, and Friday evening Smackdown debuts with a guest star-packed spectacular on the Fox broadcast network.

Since my earlier post, WWE’s Vince McMahon unexpectedly reached out and brought in two former competitors, Paul Heyman of ECW and Eric Bischoff of WCW, and turned over the creative reins (sort of and almost) of RAW and Smackdown, respectively.

In truth, McMahon still has final say, but it’s also clear that the shows have become more interesting over the summer, and the ratings seem to have stabilized and may have even begun to rebound (judging from the most recent weeks). Occasionally they even show signs of making sense. The talent is being utilized better and more attention is bing paid to detail.

Also making the news since May is that AEW secured a timeslot and announced that they would air “AEW Dynamite” live each week on TNT, Wednesday’s at 8 PM. Wednesday at 8 PM has been the timeslot of NXT on The WWE Network for the past five years. Reports are that AEW wanted to debut on Tuesday, in the spot vacated by WWE’s Smackdown just this week, but TNT’s deal with the NBA made that move impossible.

Faced with the prospect of moving NXT to another night, WWE instead cut a deal with the USA Network to move NXT to their longtime cable home, expand it to two hours and go live weekly. Reports had Fox interested in acquiring the show for their FS1 channel, but as with AEW, an already existing deal with another sports league had that timeslot tied up. USA pursued NXT pretty aggressively, because they were looking to offset the drop in ratings from losing Smackdown this week when it moves to Fox.

NXT, while owned by WWE, is largely under the creative control of McMahon’s son-in-law, Paul Levesque (right) who is known as the wrestler, HHH. As such, the product seems markedly different than mainstream WWE programming, with younger talent and more innovative and experimental production and wrestling.

This is being framed as “The Wednesday Night Wars,” which, to be frank, is really doing a huge favor to AEW. Rather than competing head-to-head with one of WWE’s two flagship shows, AEW Dynamite gets to run against what was designed to be the TV outlet for WWE’s developmental talent.

Given that AEW is spending an estimated ten to forty times as much producing Dynamite, and has the full marketing power of the Turner Networks promoting them, it would have been a huge embarrassment if they didn’t easily beat NXT in the ratings.

When the numbers came in Thursday afternoon, AEW had pulled down 1.4 million viewers, to NXT’s 890 thousand. They beat them by about half a million viewers, and AEW boosters are crowing about it like they slayed the beast.

Which brings me to another point. Something AEW has very successfully cultivated is a strong “us vs. them” mentality, where their most rabid fans see WWE as the evil empire (with no small amount of justification) and see defeating NXT as driving a stake through WWE’s heart.

While this is extremely silly, it’s also a lot of fun for the fans, so I’ll try not to puncture any illusions here, since basically professional wrestling is the art of illusion combined with combat sports. However, it’s worth pointing out that Dynamite‘s numbers came in more than half a million shy of what Smackdown had been drawing in recent months, and more than a million fewer people watched Dynamite than watched RAW this week. Essentially, WWE handed AEW an easy victory for them to crow about. WWE also issued a congratulatory message Thursday on their successful debut, which was a pretty classy, if suspect, move.

However, AEW is not exactly “David” in this battle. Tony Khan (left), of the mega-wealthy Khan family, the owner of AEW, has revealed that he began organizing this company back in April, 2018, when an executive at TNT guaranteed him a prime-time timeslot. Khan knows wrestling inside and out as a fan, and was well aware that you could spend billions on talent and produce the best wrestling show on the planet, and it wouldn’t mean anything if you couldn’t get it on a primo TV channel. Khan has deeper pockets than McMahon, but isn’t going to empty them out on a fool’s errand.

After that Khan lucked into a perfect storm where former WWE wrestler Cody Runnels (Rhodes) and super-talented free agents, The Young Bucks, decided to put on their own Pay Per View, All Out, and sold out a 12,000 seat arena in Chicago,and pulled down over a hundred thousand buys on PPV. This show performed better than any non-WWE show had in a long, long time.

Khan aligned himself with these talents, and made just about every brilliant move possible, bringing in a beloved veteran announcer in Jim Ross, one of the best minds in wrestling in Chris Jericho and a disgruntled top-tier WWE star whose contract was up in Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose in WWE). He also made great moves behind the scenes, hiring some of the top agents, producers and other creative talents to shape this new wrestling federation.

AEW still has an uphill battle. WWE has just begun two very lucrative television deals that guarantee that they don’t really have to worry about losing money for the next five years. That means they can afford to pay millions of dollars to wrestlers just to keep them from going to AEW. AEW s also on a cable channel that hasn’t had wrestling for almost twenty years.

But by moving NXT to the USA Network, and having it go head-to-head with AEW, WWE has given AEW a quite a gift. NXT is basically WWE’s minor league. They put on a fantastic show, and have a loyal fanbase, but they are still largely an unknown quantity outside of subscribers to the WWE Network. Instead of being compared to RAW or Smackdown, Dynamite was basically handed a squash match.

This week was the first time the two shows went head-to-head (NXT had a two-week headstart on USA). Both of the shows Wednesday were terrific, and this is a great time to be a fan of professional wrestling.

I gave the edge to NXT, which I think produced the superior show. They had the better matches, much better women’s wrestling and I thought the pace was more exciting than AEW. NXT also had the better surprises. The announcment that WWE main roster A-lister, Finn Balor, would be returning to NXT completely overshadowed AEW’s surprise of Jake Hager, who used to be Jack Swagger, a minor player in WWE who has since moved on to success in mixed martial arts. The return of former NXT champ, Tommaso Ciampa, who has been out of action since March after undergoing neck surgery was also bigger than any surprise on AEW.

NXT fell short in promising “limited commercial interruptions,” which gave them a commercial-free first half hour, but also loaded the rest of the show with too-frequent commercial breaks, making it a bit hard to follow the action at times.

AEW delivered a very hot show with top-notch production values that easily matched anything WWE has done on their main shows. They also delivered two incredible matches, and hearing Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone on the announce team was pure bliss for any long-time fan. For their first-ever weekly broadcast, AEW checked off every box and hit a solid home run.

The live crowd (over fourteen thousand in Washington, DC) added so much to this show. They reacted wildly to everything that happened, even if the wrestling was unremarkable, or in one case, even pretty bad. This gave AEW a major advantage over NXT, who are commited to doing their show from a 200-seat studio at Full Sail University through the end of the year. If the live crowds are this hot every week, it’ll make AEW’s television program look more exciting than it already is.

However, there were some weaknesses. The comedy segment with a wrestler imitating President Obama would have been right at home on the worst episode of RAW. The celebrity guests, Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, were awkward, and their segment added nothing to the show (author’s bias note: I’ve never been a fan of Smith). Another issue was the interference in the main event, which didn’t draw a disqualification.  The brawl into the back between Moxley and Kenny Omega was great, but the match Omega was part of kept on going, which is exactly the kind of logical miscue that AEW fans complain about when they happen in WWE. It marred what would have been a third incredible match to close the show.

This point betrays a bit of a double standard among the folks rooting against WWE.

There was also a women’s championship match between Riho and Nyla Rose. The crowd reacted to this match like it was the greatest wrestling match ever to happen anywhere.

Only the match wasn’t very good. The wrestlers had no chemistry, and each one seemed like an indie-level talent who stole their gimmick from current WWE superstars. Riho was like a poor-woman’s Kairi Sane, while the transgender Nyla Rose is sort of an imitation Nia Jax. The wrestling ranged from sloppy to inept, but the crowd made it seem like a million bucks. When it comes to women’s wrestling, AEW lags far behind NXT.

Overall, NXT delivered a show that was on par with their best-ever Takeover PPV specials. That was great for the first week, but if they try to do that every week, the talent will burn out in no time. In week one, AEW handily won the ratings war. NXT easily prevailed when it came to quality.

AEW delivered a show that was not exactly the drastic reinvention of the wheel that some fans are claiming. The truth is that AEW Dynamite was almost exactly what you’d get if you produced a “What If?” show based on the premise, “What If they did a really good episode of RAW, without any input at all from Vince McMahon?”

Dynamite followed the WWE formula, only without the annoying quirks of WWE’s owner, and delivered a show that was as good or better than any episode of RAW has been for twenty years. To be honest, I think that’s really their point. They don’t want to do anything drastically new. They want to do a wrestling show that’s drastically better than what WWE has delivered for the last 18 years.

Putting aside any rooting interest, it’s a good time to be a wrestling fan. With the rooting interest, it might be even better. It’s going to be fun watching the ratings come in every Thursday afternoon, and then watching the online reaction and spin.

That’s this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for our regular features.