Outlook On Professional Wrestling In 2021: WWE, Impact, AEW, ROH, NJPW, NWA, & MLW

A few weeks ago, I had the idea to write a comprehensive column looking at every single major professional wrestling company and where things may be headed in 2021. While stuck at home for ten days, I reached out to a few contacts I already had in the business and a few guys/gals I had never talked to before that may have some insight. A few got back to me; a few did not, and a few gave the usual ‘thanks but no comment’ kind of response I’ve heard for over a decade.

No sweat.

Thus, without any more stalling, here is what I came up with for wrestling over the next 12 months…

WWE

Let’s start at the top. From a business point of view, WWE will be fine. In fact, they will be more than fine. Mostly due to their television rights fees but also because the pandemic has not hurt them as many had originally imagined. What has been lost in live event gate and merchandise sales on the road has been offset by bunkering down in the ThunderDome and saving a bundle on travel, set up, production, etc. In a new city every single night, all week, every month, year round? No, they are just hanging out in Tampa Bay with the stages already done. As we saw in their financial reports from the latter half of 2020, it has not made a single dent into their bottom line, believe it or not.

Ultimately though, the reason the company is projected to have nearly a billion dollars in revenue in 2021 is because of television. FOX is paying Smackdown $1 billion dollars to air live Friday nights, just as USA Network is paying Raw $1 billion to air live Monday nights. Sure, that is spread out over 4-5 years, but you can do the basic math. It equals a whole ton of dough every quarter, guaranteed. Add in NXT airing live on Wednesdays (for now) on the USA Network. Add in merchandise sales on WWEShop. Add in the WWE Network currently with 1.4 million subscribers, at $9.99 a month. Add in any potential Saudi Arabia shows at $25 million a pop. In terms of business, whether they have fans in attendance or not, TV rights fees will carry them to a record year.

For the on screen product, the sense I got was optimist. Shocking, I know. Somebody in the company happy? Not all gloom and doom, as many online like to try and paint. Wrong. The talent roster is beyond loaded and with all that TV money, it is never out of the question for WWE to simply sign even MORE talent. As long as the Covid-19 testing is under control and all health/safety protocols are followed, talent are more than thrilled to be at home for the majority of the time. Especially those living in Florida (Tampa in particular). When it comes time for a new contract, yes, the offer may be lower than before, but that comes with the current layout. If you are truly skilled and have proven yourself, then you shouldn’t be worried about a low ball offer and be ready to cash in. The cream rises to the top, right?

Bottom line for WWE – not having fans in attendance sucks. Big time. They are the lifeblood of the product, and 2020 has taught us that in spades. However, even with artificial noise and a made up atmosphere in the ThunderDome, guess what? Life will move on in WWE. The Royal Rumble will be in a few weeks. WrestleMania will be held in a couple of months, and we will move forward.

All Elite Wrestling

The crossover story line with Impact Wrestling is covered below. While that is big news for Impact, it is pretty minor for AEW.

All Elite Wrestling is in an interesting spot come 2021. Their TNT contract is already renewed. They supposedly have a second TV show coming for a Turner network, maybe not necessarily TNT, and they have plenty of options to tape television with limited fans (Florida regulations). Their ratings/viewership defeat WWE NXT most Wednesday nights, but the thrill of a “war” has long since worn off. What they should be focusing on is bumping their numbers up. Who cares about “AEW vs. NXT” when both shows can’t even hit a million viewers?

AEW just presented a hyped up show with Cody Rhodes wrestling, Sting appearing, Jon Moxley speaking, Chris Jericho on commentary, their TNT Champion Darby Allin showing up for a rare in-ring, a big tag team match, AND a jacked up AEW Title main event with their hottest star AND a teased appearance by Impact Wrestling stars…and Dynamite didn’t even hit 700,000 viewers. That is a problem. The Sting signing is barely a month old. Next week is a make or break moment for them with the legend. Either turn him heel or don’t. Every week for the past four weeks has been the same, and numbers have gone down each time. The message is being sent loud and clear.

Tangent aside, Dynamite performs well for TNT, has already earned them a contract renewal as noted, and the show usually gets over with the fanbase, so there is very little pressure to change anything. Numbers are good, money isn’t an issue with Tony Khan’s father’s money funding it, and no pandemic is going to stop them with everything being done in Florida. Should be smooth sailing for AEW, truth be told. My only suggestion is to maaaaaaybe watch spending. We still don’t know how long this health stuff will last. WWE has two $1 billion TV deals they can rest on. AEW is still a startup trying to grow. You can’t keep throwing money at Sting and others with no movement in ratings. Eventually, those contracts come up for due, and tough decisions have to be made. Can’t always be happy happy joy joy behind the scenes.

Impact Wrestling

The big takeaways from Impact in 2020 were putting their own “World Title” on a female, Tess Blanchard, creating their own little world where ANYTHING could happen, and the fact that they are now working with All Elite Wrestling in some kind of crossover. Not exactly the best headlines. During a time when the company dances a jig when Twitch viewers top 5,000 and viewership is even close to 200,000, that tells you their place in the industry. Since Tessa is no longer with the company and their universe crap seems to be basically over, that just leaves the AEW thing for 2021.

Why AEW is even working with Impact is beyond me, as their initial ‘bump’ in buzz and interest is already gone. Plus, you know, AEW is light years ahead of Impact on every scale, it just makes little sense to even associate yourself with them right now. I don’t get it, but hey, for Impact, they will take any kind of hand out imaginable. Despite their ownership basically being in charge of their network (AXS TV), I see more of the same for 2021. There will be appearances by AEW stars (actual stars not originally from Impact), and it will be cool. After a few months of some fantasy ‘dream match’ showdowns, that will be it. You can’t really do much after that. Unless Tony Khan wants to buy them for more AEW Dark talent, it isn’t anything that interests me.

Ring Of Honor

I don’t have the slightest clue what is going on with ROH. Their two positives are: Marty Scurll has been shown the door, mutual or not. It had to happen. Remains to be seen if he is signed elsewhere. Also, the Covid-19 testing ‘bubble’ looks to be effective. For a company like ROH that tapes on occasion and isn’t live multiple times a week, this is a must. Without any rumors or even rumblings of a better television deal, I would guess 2021 is more of the same. No major movement from them, unless it is a dire situation.

NJPW

Similar to ROH, I will not even pretend to know the ins and outs of New Japan Pro Wrestling. I do not follow their product and could not care any less to watch. Sorry. I do know they had a big financial year in 2019 but was slowed a bit in 2020, obviously thanks to the pandemic. If things can slowly move towards a normal lifestyle again sometime in 2021, NJPW should be able to regain its momentum from 2019.

NWA

Oh boy. You know, I really wanted NWA to work and catch on. In a lot of ways, Lucha Underground was supposed to be the alternative to mainstream wrestling. I sniffed that out after two seasons and even predicted it would end in 2019. Correct! Then it was supposed to be NWA that was going to come ‘save’ us from big bad WWE. Well, that has since sputtered, and now all hopes and dreams lie with AEW. Back to NWA though, I think only a couple of talent are even under contract in 2021. One talent I spoke to made it very clear he will not be sticking around in 2021. Another expressed excitement saying big plans were ahead for 2021. Mixed signals I know, Tough to buy into much, if they simply stick to a Youtube show. I did reach out to Billy Corgan for a comment on what the heck he has in mind for NWA. No shock- I received no reply. I didn’t expect to but yeah, unless they go on a signing spree and come up with a bunch of cash soon, what are they to do?

No shows, no revenue, no talent, no buzz, etc. I see rough waters ahead in 2021.

MLW

A recent live special, rumors of a big time network being interested in their program, new outlets working with MLW Fusion, Roku Channel announcement, and a couple of key signings is good news to start 2021. One talent I reached out to didn’t give me much but like WWE, the feeling was positivity. Of all the ‘lesser’ companies currently fighting it out to stay afloat and THRIVE this upcoming year, I have MLW doing the best of the bunch. Too much trending in the right direction right now to totally dismiss them. Time will tell come June or July. If nothing has materialized by then, it will be a disappointing, lost year for MLW.

At the end of the day, we’re all wrestling fans. Let’s enjoy it in 2021.

By Justin Watry (Twitter: @JustinWatry)

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