EDITORIAL – KROL: The Summer of Tony Khan’s Discontent – Communication issues, TV rights fee uncertainty, major changes in WWE, injuries fuel concerns

By Eric Krol, PWTorch contributor

Tony Khan comments on G1 style tournament in AEW
Tony Khan (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)


It’s been a rough summer for Tony Khan, and how AEW’s owner handles his numerous challenges will be one of pro wrestling’s biggest stories of the next year.

Since the weather turned warm, Khan has found himself dealing with a series of problems that can be put into four buckets: the Warner Bros.-Discovery merger fallout, the impact of Vince McMahon exiting WWE, a rash of wrestler injuries, and issues with wrestlers caused in part by his communication style (or lack thereof).

The injuries are temporary, and Khan recently moved to address All Elite Wrestling’s communication issues, even if he hasn’t publicly apologized for them. Negotiating a new TV contract remains at the top of Khan’s list, and how well he does with the new deal will impact how much money he has available as he tries to keep talent and sign new wrestlers in the post-Vince landscape.

Let’s look at each of Khan’s major challenges and how he has responded or might respond:

•The merger. AEW scored a well-timed extension of its TV deal in January 2020, just before the world shut down. As ratings grew, the question was how big its next contract would be. Could the startup promotion score three times its current contract, which is estimated at $44 million a year and runs through 2024? Maybe four times? After all, until WWE’s recent surge, Dynamite was at least in the ballpark of WWE’s 18-49 demographic.

Now, with Warner-Discovery attempting to trim $3 billion to $5 billion from the new company and cutting a ton of projects, the question is whether AEW will get any raise at all. It doesn’t make sense for the new company to drop AEW – Dynamite is one of its highest-rated shows and a relative bargain to produce under its current deal. But Khan has been banking on a lucrative renewal to make the company highly profitable and allow him to sign the promotion’s talent to new contracts and compete for free agents as all boats are lifted with rising TV rights fees.

Khan’s obvious move would be to copy what WWE’s Nick Khan did before the last round of TV rights talks – get another major network involved, and play the two (or more) sides off each other to extract the maximum money. One hurdle is that with WWE already airing on NBC Universal and Fox networks, and AEW on TBS and TNT, there aren’t many obvious top landing spots left on cable TV. Who can Tony Khan bring into the mix as leverage against Warner-Discovery?

He hasn’t publicly talked about that, though. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want to antagonize his broadcast partner with more than two years remaining on the current deal when talks may not have even started as Warner-Discovery finds its footing. There’s another possibility, albeit one that’s murkier: Does Warner-Discovery own a piece of AEW? Brandon Thurston of Wrestlenomics has posited that Warner Bros. has at least some ownership stake. While it’s speculation, it’s informed speculation.

After all, Thurston took over Wrestlenomics from Chris Harrington, who is AEW’s senior vice president of business strategy. If it’s true, Khan would have cut that deal to get AEW on TV. Why does it matter? Warner-Discovery owning even a small piece could restrict AEW from negotiating with other potential TV partners. That reduces its leverage and could leave it at the mercy of Discovery, which so far has only shown an interest in deep spending cuts. AEW’s public relations team did not respond to a question about whether Warner-Discovery has a stake in the company.

Khan told the Associated Press in September 2021 that AEW already has turned a profit (which was later amended to some version of “AEW is profitable if you take out the video game investment”). “Our TNT deal is very fair; I think we’ve performed at such a high level that we’ll justify a big increase on our next deal,” Khan said at the time, which was a few months after merger talks were known.

But contract costs for top wrestlers will increase as they come up for renewal, and WWE will have virtually unlimited money to spend on talent. Is Khan willing to bankroll losses to keep key wrestlers and attract newcomers? Absent a decent increase in rights fees, he may have to – and debuting new talent is one of his go-to booking moves.

•The post-Vince landscape. Ever since AEW was just a whispered rumor in 2018, Khan has greatly benefited from his competition in the fight to attract talent. The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega had offers from WWE, but chose AEW instead. The company might not have gotten off the ground without them signing up, along with Chris Jericho.

For certain talent, AEW has been a better fit, and the only option. Vince McMahon’s narrow views of who could be a star were well known. Those not tall, super muscular, or conventionally attractive need not apply. Plus, there was WWE’s stifling, lame scripted promos, ridiculous banned word list, and formulaic matches. Those who didn’t meet McMahon’s mold, or who put craft above salary, chose AEW for the most part, or ended up there after the many waves of WWE roster cuts.

Now AEW’s advantage has been neutralized to some degree with McMahon’s departure amid a shameful sexual harassment and payoff scandal – removed from the equation are all of his quirks and bad creative ideas that many wrestlers found tough to bear.

Taking Vince’s place is Paul Levesque, the onetime NXT chieftain who’d been on the outs after losing a key early wrestling war battle to AEW. A decent chunk of AEW’s roster was used well in NXT when Levesque was in charge, only to see Vince misuse them (or in the case of Adam Cole, lay out an unappetizing role) on the main roster before cutting them or their deals came up for renewal.

Levesque is still implementing his creative vision and making changes at the margins, but his track record in NXT is likely to take away (at least to some extent) Khan’s advantages of being hands-off on promos, embracing pro wrestling over sports entertainment, and being generally better creatively.

Wrestlers who privately thought “never” or “never again” about WWE might no longer hold that view. Playing both promotions off each other at contract time is smart business, and so they have options.

For his part, Khan was asked about the post-Vince world and acknowledged “it’s going to change the competition” but he thinks that’s a good thing and it’ll be good for fans and wrestlers at free agency time.

•Injured reserve. From the start, AEW has made its mark with an in-ring style heavy on flashy moves and realistic, snug work (for some of the wrestlers, at least). It’s somewhat surprising the promotion didn’t have a rash of injuries sooner. Eventually, the working style and the mileage on some of its top performers exacted a toll.

The promotion reached a peak in TV ratings and PPV buyrates in fall 2021 after C.M. Punk, Bryan Danielson, and Adam Cole debuted within weeks of each other. Kenny Omega, Chris Jericho, and Jon Moxley already were in place. This summer, AEW faced the downside of losing several top stars to injury, with the 42-year-old Punk going down in late May after winning the top title and the 41-year-old Danielson suffering what’s presumed to be a concussion a month later. Omega, who turns 39 in October, already was out for an extended period attempting to heal numerous injuries that in some cases plagued him for years following years in hard-hitting New Japan Pro Wrestling. Dynamite ratings dipped below 900,000 for some weeks.

Injuries happen in wrestling, and it seems unlikely Khan will ask performers to tone it down in the ring. The promotion largely has weathered the storm this summer by focusing on a New Japan joint show for June, and then a Ring of Honor PPV for July. Now, it’s building toward All Out, and the injured stars are expected back soon. To Khan’s credit, Dynamite ratings have remained north of 900,000 most weeks despite the reduced star power.

The spate of injuries might cause Khan to lessen the risk by having top performers cut promos on TV instead of wrestling a couple times a month. Khan already has faced criticism for being stingy about booking matches between top stars, and the injury bug could make it even less likely he’ll change course and start giving away those matchups on TV. One caveat: Khan needs to peak ratings to make a better case at contract negotiation time, and one way to do that is to put some dream matches on Dynamite. Three years in, Khan hasn’t shown a propensity for hot shot booking, however. [Editor’s Note: This editorial was submitted before the announcement this week of a C.M. Punk vs. Jon Moxley match to unify the AEW titles next week on Dynamite.]

•Communication, or lack thereof. If there’s been one steady behind-the-scenes criticism about AEW, it’s Khan’s communication style. Mostly, it’s that he doesn’t deal with complaints and allows them to fester. At times he has punched down when the problems become public. Apologizing publicly has not been a tool in his arsenal so far. To make an outdated Bobby Heenan-style reference, Khan is akin to The Fonz – the cool, leather-jacketed character Henry Winkler played on “Happy Days.” The Fonz was known for having a hard time saying “I’m sorry” and admitting “I was wrong.”

Talent has complained about not knowing what their role is, or even whether their contract was going to be renewed. Khan is busy, juggling his wrestling company with the family’s NFL and Premier League teams, but it’s human nature for people’s own problems to be top of mind and to ascribe motive that may or may not be there when they’re not quickly resolved.

Big Swole observed that AEW’s “structure is a little off.”

“There’s no writers in a sens,” she said in late 2021. “Not everyone is comfortable writing their own things. Closed mouths don’t get fed. That’s exactly what that environment is. If you are shy and don’t know how to write or are not creative, it’s not going to work unless they want it to work for you. That’s one of their biggest issues.”

Khan responded that he let Swole’s contract expire because “her wrestling wasn’t good enough.”

That led to a backlash and much discourse about Khan’s temperament and the lack of Black wrestlers, both in numbers and high-profile roles, in AEW. While Khan didn’t apologize for the cutting tweet about Swole, he has taken steps to remedy both of those issues, though critics say he still has some miles to go.

Beyond Swole, Brian Cage, whose wife publicly complained about how he was used, said he was surprised to hear his contract rolled over. And Marko Stunt said he didn’t receive any communication as to whether his deal would be renewed. Joey Janela said he had a similar experience.

Last month, there was the Jonathan Gresham episode. While you can roll your eyes at Gresham for not wanting to do a job or being salty about the lack of time his match got and where it was placed on the card; the big takeaway here is that Gresham felt there was a lack of communication with the company that left him feeling disrespected, according to Fightful.com.

Then there’s the MJF situation, which is more difficult to parse because it has had trappings of being a work. The last thing wrestling journalists and analysts want to do is be part of a work. Khan has declined to publicly address his star wrestler’s status, whether that’s because it involves actual personnel issues he can’t talk about or he doesn’t want to lie to the press and get called out for working reporters. Still, it’s been reported that in addition to MJF’s salary demands, a lack of communication between Khan and MJF led to the blowup. Again, Khan is reported to have waited months before carving out time to talk to MJF about the situation (assuming this is not all an elaborate work).

The repeated complaints of a lack of communication by Khan could be reflective of his busy schedule, but they also could be a signal he doesn’t like to have tough conversations. That’s natural for many people, but it’s going to lead to frustration building up in a wrestling locker room.

This month, Khan moved to respond to his communications crisis by publicly announcing a series of promotions and one addition to the talent relations team to work with the Women’s Division.

“The expanded talented relations team will strengthen the infrastructure required to facilitate the development, health, and safety of AEW’s” roster, the statement read in part.

Critics can question why communication with talent wasn’t better even though much of this team already was in place. Perhaps staff members now will be empowered to speak on Khan’s behalf if they weren’t previously. Still, the changes are about as close as Khan will get to admitting mistakes were made.

(Eric Krol is a former Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter columnist, circa 1990, and a long-time writer and editor at the Chicago Tribune. He currently contributes regularly to PWTorch as a podcast cohost.)

2 Comments on EDITORIAL – KROL: The Summer of Tony Khan’s Discontent – Communication issues, TV rights fee uncertainty, major changes in WWE, injuries fuel concerns

  1. The bloom is definitely off on Tony Khan. Though there are still some sheep who kiss his butt online, more and more fans and wrestlers are turning on him. I am not surprised either because he comes off as an arrogant pr*ck and not a likeable guy. He also has thin skin, I remember a few months ago when he tried to claim that anyone on Twitter who criticized him was just a troll or a bot.

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