Last week’s episode of AEW Dynamite was a huge one, and it ended with a real shocker: Kenny Omega won the AEW World title from Jon Moxley, which was kind of expected, but did so with the help of Don Callis, one of the executive vice presidents of Impact Wrestling. Yes, that’s a different real-life wrestling promotion, owned and managed by a completely different company than AEW, and with its own weekly TV show on Tuesday nights that goes head-to-head with AEW’s YouTube show Dark. Omega got the win after walloping Moxley on the noggin with a microphone, and promptly fled the arena with Callis, who promised that Omega would be making his first statement as AEW champ on tonight’s episode of Impact Wrestling on AXS TV.
It remains to be seen how extensive the cooperation between AEW and Impact will be, but reports from Dave Meltzer indicate that pretty much anything is potentially on the table between the two. Interpromotional angles and matches aren’t entirely uncommon in other countries (Japan has a solid history of them), but legitimate ones have been rare in America since the death of the territorial system in the ‘80s. In 1996 WCW briefly became the biggest company in the industry on the back of a fake invasion angle, with contracted WCW wrestlers best known from WWF forming the NWO and trying to take over the company. WWF / WWE has tried to run interpromotional angles several times since, first off with the remains of WCW and ECW, and then with its own brand split that tried to position Raw and Smackdown as separate entities. Those attempts never worked because ultimately it was always just WWE versus itself, with no real stakes or drama in seeing wrestlers who regularly face each other suddenly fighting for “brand supremacy.” Even when NXT, which has traditionally been kept at a distance from the rest of WWE, was roped into Survivor Series last year, it lacked the spark of a real interpromotional angle.
AEW has already shown itself ready to work with other promotions. It’s featured defenses of the NWA World Women’s Championship on Dynamite, and that title is currently held by Serena Deeb, who is contracted to AEW. Thunder Rosa, who remains under contract to Billy Corgan’s NWA, has made multiple appearances on AEW TV. Wrestlers signed with the independent promotion Major League Wrestling have long been regulars on AEW shows, from Brian Pillman Jr. to the main eventer MJF. This arrangement with Impact goes far beyond either of those, though, with Omega, one of AEW’s biggest stars, and its brand new World champion, promising to make some kind of appearance on Impact’s regular TV show.
As almost every wrestling fan and pundit has pointed out this past week, this really seems like a one-sided deal. Impact has been producing solid if unspectacular weekly wrestling for the last couple of years, but its reputation was long ago ruined through mismanagement and incompetence—perhaps permanently. Despite a talented roster and competent storytelling, the current version of Impact hasn’t been able to generate much buzz among wrestling fans. Other than Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, who were recently featured in WWE and have history with Omega and the Young Bucks as fellow members of the Bullet Club in New Japan, there aren’t any Impact wrestlers with established relationships with AEW’s roster—meaning there are no other obvious feuds or matchups that fans would be waiting to see. AEW is hoping the sheer novelty and unpredictability of two independently owned wrestling promotions working together will excite fans, even if one of the two companies is significantly smaller and less popular than the other.
A war with Impact might get the attention of wrestling fans, but AEW is also trying to expand its audience by bringing in a couple of stars with some mainstream cache. Sting, the former WCW legend who had a long secondary career working for Impact’s predecessor TNA, and then ultimately wound up in WWE six years ago, made a surprise appearance on Dynamite last week, and has signed a long-term deal with the company. That might bring in some lapsed viewers from the ‘90s heyday of the Monday Night Wars, although Sting’s years-long presence didn’t help turn TNA into a legitimate rival of WWE.
Far more notable from a mainstream perspective is Shaq. The NBA legend and co-host of TNT’s Inside the NBA is getting involved with AEW, and is scheduled to make an appearance on this week’s episode of Dynamite. Shaq’s name was first mentioned on AEW TV a few weeks ago, when newcomer Jade Cargill appeared to challenge Cody Rhodes on Shaq’s behalf. It’s hard to tell if a 48-year-old former basketball player who retired almost a decade ago can draw much interest to a wrestling show, but if anybody could do that it’d probably be Shaq. This move is also right out of the Monday Night Wars playbook—WCW reaped a ton of mainstream attention when Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman worked matches for them, and WWF’s turnaround in the struggle against WCW can be attributed to Mike Tyson dusting it up with Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels. Of course those stars were all still in their prime and active in their respective sports, unlike Shaq. Still, Shaq remains a huge name, and a hugely beloved mainstream pop culture figure. And with both his show and AEW airing on TNT, expect some major corporate synergy to promote whatever Shaq does in the world of wrestling.
With the fragmentation of the viewing audience and WWE’s effective monopoly turning wrestling into an insular, niche pastime over the past 20 years, it’s possible wrestling will never be truly mainstream again. There’s reason to think AEW can still grow its audience from current levels, though, as Smackdown’s ratings on Fox prove wrestling shows can still attract up to two million total viewers a week. Last week’s Dynamite showed growth in the key 18-49 demographic, with roughly 543,000 viewers from that demo, out of a total of 913,000 viewers. It wasn’t the show’s highest ratings, but it was the best 18-49 number it’s pulled this year. It also drew more men between 18 and 34 than the more established and higher viewed Raw did this week, indicating that AEW is doing something that appeals to younger male viewers more than WWE’s programming. These three big moves—the interpromotional angle with Impact, the debut of Sting, and the mainstream crossover with Shaq—are all big swings geared towards expanding AEW’s viewership and visibility. It’ll be fascinating to see not just how these three angles turn out, but where AEW’s creative flexibility and willingness to work with others takes the company next.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.