How AEW’s Massive Roster Hurts and Helps Its Cause

Tony Khan's roster-building strategy frequently comes under the scrutiny of fans and critics alike, but while there are pitfalls to avoid and improvements that can be made, it has defined AEW over its three year history.

It’s wild to think that when AEW started just three years ago, one of the biggest worries pundits and fans had for the new promotion was their ability to fill out their roster with quality talent. Today, the opposite is now true, as perhaps the most common complaint people make towards the promotion is that they have too much good talent, that the shows are overstuffed and wrestlers aren’t being used to their full potential.

It’s a criticism that has many different branches, some that I agree with, some I completely disagree with, with one huge one that I feel does not get enough attention.

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Before we look at those branches though, let’s acknowledge that as far as problems a wrestling promoter could have go, “Too many good wrestlers” is one of the better ones. It’s certainly better than the opposite of not having enough.

If you’re a talented low to mid-card wrestler in AEW who feels like the talent logjam is stopping them from getting the push and money they deserve, I can understand their anger. But if you’re Tony Khan? I think you gladly take the headache of some unhappy roster members in return for an embarrassment of riches in terms of workers.

But just because a problem is a good one doesn’t mean it still can’t be a problem, so let’s go through some frequently voiced complaints, starting with ones I actually either completely or partially disagree with, before we get to my own personal issue.

Does AEW’s Roster Make Their Product Hard to Follow?

First, there’s the thought among some that by debuting so many indie and foreign stars, by having a television program that is crammed with people and storyline developments, that AEW is too hard to follow and turns off fans.

I pretty strongly disagree with the first part of this because I subscribe to something I call the “80-20 Rule,” which says that if you like and understand 80% of something, you will be ok if there is 20% you don’t.

Think to any comedy show you enjoy. Do you get every single reference, laugh at every single joke? Of course not, and you don’t immediately change the channel when something doesn’t immediately land for you because you know very soon you’ll see something else that will. Some people act like fans are going to run screaming from their TV and never watch AEW again if they see a Konosuke Takeshita or Daniel Garcia on their screen and have no prior knowledge of them. History (and longterm ratings) shows that simply isn’t true.

Daniel Garcia CM Punk
AEW

I do have a little more time for the argument that by having so many wrestlers doing so many things, the show is harder for fans to follow, but I think this too is exaggerated.

If you miss a segment or commentary gave a backstory too fast for you, we live in a time where wrestling fans have never been better equipped to get more information on their own. Written show reviews, recap videos, Wikipedia and YouTube for talent you’ve never heard of. Any question that a speedy episode of Dynamite raises for you can be answered with a Google search. At the same time, I can understand that some fans don’t want to come away from a wrestling show with homework, and if wrestling is more of a casual thing to you and not one of your main hobbies, I can see wanting a TV show to provide every answer within itself and emphasize making things clear to you.

Does the Size of AEW’s Roster Hinder Talent Development?

Moving on, there’s the idea that wrestlers get too little in-ring experience in AEW, due to that glut of talent, and that other major promotions would give those wrestlers more matches.

We have a great recent test case for this in Cody Rhodes, in that he’s a recent AEW star that jumped back to WWE. In 2021, Cody worked 28 matches for AEW, so he basically averaged a match every other week. In 2022 from Cody’s WrestleMania return on April 2nd through his final pre-surgery match on June 5th, Cody wrestled 25 times. In slightly more than two months Cody wrestled almost as many matches for WWE as he had wrestled for AEW in a calendar year.

But what if you think that’s an unfair comparison, as WWE runs a house show schedule and AEW doesn’t? Well, if we take out every dark match and house show bout Cody has had during his two-month 2022 WWE run and restrict our counting to just TV and PPV, Cody still worked eight matches in two months for WWE, an average of one a week. In other words, even just from a TV and PPV standpoint, a top star in WWE is working twice as often as he did in AEW.

cody rhodes shoulder seth rollins
WWE

If one wanted to point out that Cody got injured at the end of that two-month run and suggest that the increased schedule leads to more wear and tear, I would point to the insane run of injuries AEW talent has recently had on a lighter schedule. I’d also note that multiple top AEW stars have noted in media interviews have mentioned discovering the odd reality that when you work less often, taking bumps hurts more.

The body is incredible at adapting, and things you grow numb to when you work three times a week sting when you’re only doing them two or three times a month. Does that translate to more injuries or just more pain? Will a lighter schedule pay off long-term for wrestlers who spend large chunks of their career doing it? The jury is still out on both of these questions.

Does the lack of ring time affect the development of younger stars though? Well here too I’d argue we still don’t know because we’re getting mixed signals. In my opinion, wrestlers like Jungle Boy, Will Hobbs, and MJF have continued to grow in the ring on an AEW schedule. On the other hand, there are acts like Private Party, who early on in AEW were praised for having a lot of raw physical talent and potential but were desperately in need of seasoning. Acts like Private Party still feel like they’re roughly in the same place in their development and push three years later.

Does the Size of AEW’s Roster Prevent Them From Getting the Most from Talent?

That brings me to my problem with the overcrowded roster of AEW, one that actually affects the product in multiple ways. It’s pretty simple really: this is a promotion that rarely gets the most someone has to give.

Look at AEW’s roster and really ask yourself “How many wrestlers that I like here do I wish I could see wrestle more often, cut more promos, and generally have more screen time”? How many wrestlers in AEW are being put in a position to achieve 100% of their potential rather than say, 60-70?

Before I get into the ways I think this negatively affects AEW, what it costs them, let’s mention what it gives them, because there are actually positives that come from their current strategy.

First of all, the cost of depth in any industry of life is generally that there are going to be some talented people who aren’t used to their full potential. The reason why AEW cards are so often good from top to bottom, why they’ve been able to weather some big injury storms so well, is that they have a roster full of people in low card positions that are capable of more, so whenever they’re called upon to step up, they generally step up.

Does this also mean that sometimes you get wrestlers publicly venting about their push, as Brian Cage has done? Yes. Does that mean you’ll get talented prospects like Alan Angels who willingly leave because they feel like they’ve hit a brick wall in terms of career advancement? Yes. But those are the costs of depth, you don’t get the benefits of it without those problems.

And while AEW often leaves you wishing you had more of certain performers or aspects that you really liked, that does have the benefit of nothing on the show overstaying its welcome. Rarely in AEW do you ever get sick of something, or feel that it’s being shoved down your throat, because AEW focuses on so many different wrestlers. If there’s an act you don’t like, they’re never going to dominate in terms of TV time.

AEW Dark Order and Hangman Adam Page
AEW

In fact, while AEW gets maximum value out of very few, Tony Khan deserves credit for juggling his roster and getting something out of so many different people in a given month. When an AEW show goes well, and they usually do, you almost feel like you’ve just watched a great heist movie. There are so many elements, so many people involved, so many moving parts, all rushing by in a blur, and when it all hits, you feel like you just saw a minor miracle, something that just barely finished in time, without a second to spare, with no wasted moments. A great AEW show feels dense but I’d argue that even average episodes of AEW TV are rarely boring, there’s simply too much going on, too many talented people involved for them to be.

On the other hand, a lot of complaints about AEW can be traced back to the fact that sometimes it feels like getting as many members of that gigantic roster as they can some screen time is the top priority. Most of the roster is in some kind of stable or alliance, which I don’t personally mind — it has worked in Japan and is actually a great way to have young wrestlers get some shine off established stars. But it also means so often AEW matches feature a bunch of forgettable run-ins or post-match beatdowns or ringside brawls among faction members because that is the quickest, most efficient way to cram more people into an episode of a show.

Likewise, AEW promos get interrupted, often almost immediately, so frequently, that it has basically become a meme. My best guess for the reason behind this is again about trying to feature as many people as possible in a limited amount of time.

If Wrestler A cuts a promo on Wrestler B and then Wrestler B gets to respond in their own promo later in the night, that’s two segments used on one feud. If Wrestler A cuts 20 seconds of a promo and then Wrestler B attacks him and cuts 20 seconds of their own promo, now that feud only takes up one segment of the show. Sometimes that works, but sometimes it’s not as impactful as giving two individuals some decent time and a spotlight just on them.

AEW’s Massive Roster Means Everyone Goes Underserved

Yet the real problem with booking to try to simultaneously serve 30-40 people at once isn’t that they’re all mildly to moderately underserved. As I said before, that’s the price of depth, some people will get a little bit wasted. The problem is that your current top stars and your soon-to-be stars are as well.

The history of wrestling — and boxing and MMA, for that matter — shows us that combat entertainment is driven not by roster depth or having a ton of 8 out of 10 level draws, but by creating one or two megastars, those 10 out of 10s. I’m not saying depth does not have its benefits, but history shows us the biggest success, the boom periods, always comes from creating one person, a Hogan or Austin, a McGregor or Rousey, a Tyson or Mayweather, whose rising tide lifts everyone else around them.

So how do you make those truly special stars? Well, you need truly special talent of course, but you also have to position and promote them as special. You have to treat them differently than everyone else on your roster, you have to treat them better than everyone else on your roster.

Now, I’m not saying AEW treats Jon Moxley or Adam Page just like they treat Lance Archer or Evil Uno, but there is not as much of a gap in some ways as there should be. You have to give them far more screen time, you have to talk about them far more on the show. They should be wrestling more often. So often in AEW it feels like everyone on the show, even the biggest stars, have “their” one segment, and while some segments are bigger than others, everyone just gets their one segment.

Jon Moxley AEW
AEW

Watch Excalibur’s now famous rundowns of upcoming matches and segments for the next week or two of AEW programs. The man speeds through things like the old speed talker from the Micro Machines commercials just to get through it. The flaw here isn’t that it’s too much for fans to absorb, it’s that everything in those segments gets the same amount of attention and time. Promotion time, mic time, ring time, sheer screen time, it’s a precious commodity, and in AEW the priority often feels like trying to give so many hungry mouths a taste when it should be about making sure the most important few are full.

I realize why some fans, usually more hardcore, long-time fans, enjoy this. If you’ve watched wrestling long enough, you have plenty of memories of wrestling going too far in the opposite direction. Maybe you remember WCW in the 90s having the announcers ignore half of every show because they had to hype the main event nWo segment for the 12th time. Maybe you remember the NWA in the 80s where sometimes every babyface had to awkwardly put over Dusty Rhodes in the middle of their own promos about completely unrelated topics.

Wrestling has a rich history of pushing stars to the point of making everyone else look like small potatoes and boring fans by hammering the narrative point home over and over again. But somewhere between that and AEW is a happy medium — the fact is, repetition does work. The more you see and are told about something, the more important it seems.

How to Make a Megastar

AEW should be looking to create those megastars, those wrestlers that seem above everyone else, and to do that they need to designate a handful of top names and give them more, almost too much more. If you don’t agree with me, if you don’t think this is something AEW should do, just know that they already do it to a certain degree with one man. The biggest star in the promotion. They do it, somewhat, with CM Punk.

Punk gets to stand apart. Who else in the history of AEW got to break the format of the TV like Punk did with The First Dance? A show that basically gave half its run time to one ring entrance and promo. Look at how Punk is booked. While his debut and first few TV matches were used to boost the new AEW Rampage. Punk stopped wrestling on Rampage in October, once that show was established as the B-Tier. Punk is now entirely saved for Dynamite, and even there, only rarely wrestles in a segment that isn’t either the opener (which always has a large initial audience from its Big Bang Theory lead-in), or the main event. Punk doesn’t ever do some things that most of the roster, even the bigger stars, do. He’s treated as special, which helps make him special.

CM Punk AEW Return
AEW

A few other wrestlers need more of that treatment. Hell, I’d argue Punk himself could use even more of that treatment. AEW needs to ride their top talent harder than they have. So many of their top names are on borrowed time. CM Punk is 43, Bryan Danielson is 41, Chris Jericho is 51, Kenny Omega is 38. All of them have a lot of miles, all of them have had recent injuries or health scares. Any of them could be gone or in great decline at any time.

The biggest mistake you could make with any of these guys isn’t overpushing or overexposing them, it’s underutilizing them. The biggest mistake is they end up like Cody Rhodes, no longer available to you with a whole bunch of dream matches left unbooked because he was too busy feuding with Anthony Ogogo and QT Marshall.

AEW is a great product and an inefficient product. It’s one man who has surrounded himself with the ripest of oranges and he’s working really hard to juice as many of them as he can. As a result, he doesn’t get full extraction out of any of them. He can’t.

The secret of wrestling is that you don’t need to try to get something out of everybody, you just need to get everything out of the a few choice people. When you do that, everything else figures itself out. AEW’s roster bloat does not hurt the product much from an entertainment standpoint; in many ways it strengths it. But while Tony Khan’s attempts to serve as many people as he can, to keep 40 balls in the air at once, doesn’t cost him a great show, it does cost him some great opportunities.