On Wednesday, All Elite Wrestling announced a collaborative supershow with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Forbidden Door. Immediately, this poured gasoline on one of this era of wrestling’s favorite topics, whether or not AEW is alienating the Casual Wrestling Fan.
Why? When I watch wrestling, I don’t concern myself with what other people think of the product, and I largely do not care about the business mechanisms underpinning the medium, so I’m not exactly hawking television ratings or attendance figures. I like what I like, I don’t like what I don’t like, and with those two things in arm I wade into the thick, murky swamp that is wrestling fandom and try to have fun with people who may or may not disagree with me. A lot of them, I’ll admit, like wrestling more than most, but I also have a fair number of friends who enjoy wrestling but don’t watch it any week, who think wrestlers are cool but not enough to buy their t-shirts, who watch the show but ask to be filled in on some things because some characters and the beefs between them are older than AEW.
In a utopian world where wrestling fans were chill, that’s what I think a Casual Wrestling Fan would be. But we live on a dying planet that is teetering on the brink of 1,000 different catastrophes, and the habits of other people have never mattered more than they do now. So there are theories about the Casual Wrestling Fan, because we’re all behavioral scientists now.
How to Catch a Casual Wrestling Fan
I am generalizing, but so are the folks who get deep in the woods on this non-issue. Maybe the Casual Wrestling Fan matters as an indicator of growth, which would, I don’t know, make wrestling look more respectable, make someone feel better because there are a million other people watching the same thing, put some distance between a promotion and the threat of having their show cancelled, or maybe make wrestling feel more like it did in the 90s, when casual fans watched Monday Nitro and Monday Night Raw in their millions while the hardcores watched ECW and traded for Japanese wrestling tapes, when access to wrestling was restrictive and largely trackable via ratings, ticket sales, and pay-per-view buyrates.
That this is mostly charged against AEW is worth notice, because, NJPW collaboration or not, it isn’t true. I have been watching wrestling for a long time, from when things were “Randy Savage and friends” to knowing everyone on the roster to downloading joshi matches off of Megaupload, to editing a wrestling website, and I think the only roster more accessible than AEW’s is peak WCW, with its blend of Hulkamania era stars, NWA stars, two guys freshly arrived from the WWF, visiting talent from Japan, and a phalanx of luchadors.
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AEW’s roster is constructed pretty similarly and, difference in star power aside, also has a working arrangement with NJPW, bringing in wrestlers like Minoru Suzuki and Tomohiro Ishii. The roster runs the gamut, in terms of boxes checked. It has aging stars like Sting and Chris Jericho, luchadores like Penta Oscuro and Rey Fenix, fun gimmicks like Orange Cassidy, the Jurassic Express, and Danhausen, people who made their names in Japan, the indies, or NXT, major players from around wrestling like Jon Moxley, the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega, and, crazily enough, two of the most important, well-known wrestlers in WWE history in Bryan Danielson and CM Punk, to say nothing for the wrestlers they’re currently bringing up.
More impressive than that, to me, is how Tony Khan has tried and mostly succeeded in lifting up the Eddie Kingstons, Jungle Boys, MJFs, and Orange Cassidys of AEW through smart booking with or against his roster’s more established names. That build is usually pretty slow, but not throwing them into the deep end of globally broadcast wrestling television, those characters got longform arcs that let fans get into their backstory and style until the moment they bloomed, becoming inseparable from the AEW brand. You don’t need to know that Kingston was the first CHIKARA Grand Champion or that Orange Cassidy fought Stokely Hathaway on a bridge to get sucked up into their narrative because AEW is a pretty well-written television show.
The Casual Wrestling Fan, the Hardcore Fan, the Fan
I’ve set up a number of reasons why the Casual Wrestling Fan might, in fact, enjoy a wrestling promotion, but the truth is that I don’t think the Casual Wrestling Fan exists, and not just in 2022. It’s a romantic notion that WCW’s death chased off five million viewers of weekly professional wrestling, but the idea that there was no crossover audience or that people didn’t shift to the WWF as WCW’s booking mistakes mounted is pretty weird. Wrestling was everywhere, it was the #1 property on cable TV, but the slow bleed of viewers that WWE has experienced since the end of the Attitude Era coincided with increasingly bad creative and events like the Chris Benoit murders-suicide and the steroid bust that followed soon after. Were the people who dipped, including myself on several occasions, Casual Wrestling Fans?
No. People who watch wrestling or attend shows are fans doing what fans of any television show or sports team does when they’re bored or insulted: they find something else to occupy their time. Some people come back, most people don’t. The difference between a regular television show or a season of a sport and wrestling is that wrestling never stops, and with 104 or so episodes of Raw and SmackDown a year, there’s an endless number of possible entry and exit points. What’s the point of checking someone’s credentials on the way in or out? Why worry about what enticed or disappointed them?
Returning to the question of why, I imagine there are a couple of reasons. Talking about what doesn’t attract Casual Wrestling Fans is a risk free way of criticizing a promotion’s creative decisions. Talking about what Casual Wrestling Fans don’t like is often done so vaguely that there’s a slight philosophical lilt to it. Most importantly, talking about Casual Wrestling Fans is a means of declaring oneself a hardcore wrestling fan.
That’s all well and good, but the long and short of it is this: If your dollar spends equally and your attention is worth the same amount of money, you’re in the same boat as even someone who just fell asleep with NXT 2.0 on. You’re a fan. You’re a mark. Whatever value you ascribe to adjectives like “smart” or “casual” doesn’t matter, nobody in AEW or WWE is writing a segment or booking a match with the Casual Wrestling Fan in mind. We’re all just members of the audience/universe, which is a blessing. Without worrying about hundreds of thousands of people who don’t exist to worry about, all that exists is the show. It’s pretty good, too. Kazuchika Okada might be on it at some point, how wild is that?