Tony Khan has plenty to be proud of in the four years since launching All Elite Wrestling. He has AEW competing with WWE in terms of interest, talent, and where fans spend their money, as the organization embarks on launching non-televised live performances in addition to their weekly episodic shows and PPVs. The differentiator in propelling AEW into a true challenger brand starts with their current television deal.
“When we launched, having the availability and accessibility and prestige of TNT/TBS set us apart from a lot of other promotions that have launched,” Khan told Uproxx Sports in an exclusive interview. “We launched with such a strong roster and we had some of the top stars in wrestling from our very first show. And the roster has grown so much and strengthened a lot over the years. Now, I think we’ve just grown to the point where we’re doing our most consistent run of TV shows right now.”
Over time, Khan’s AEW has mixed foundational pieces like Jon Moxley, Kenny Omega, Chris Jericho, and the Young Bucks, with blossoming stars such as Jade Cargill, MJF, Britt Baker, and Hangman Page, while also bringing in established veterans like Bryan Danielson, Sting, Saraya, and CM Punk, among others.
Every great rivalry needs passionate fans on both sides. That passion and yearning to see AEW as the clear top promotion often overflows into demands for the newest hot free agent to join AEW — see Mercedes Moné, Kota Ibushi, and basically any top star who has hit the market.
This hasn’t necessarily been a surprise for Khan, as it was part of his logic for launching the promotion.
“There are always going to be free agents and big names that become available over time in pro wrestling, and I think that’s one of the reasons that the launch of AEW was so exciting,” Khan says. “That was actually part of my presentation to Warner executives five years ago, was that we would be creating the first truly competitive free agent market in pro wrestling in two decades. I felt like there was a disparity, the choices available to a wrestler, as far as which promotions they’d want to work with. And I think now, with the rise of AEW, it’s provided better choices and an alternative for the wrestling fans, but also for the pro wrestlers. And historically, particularly in the cable TV era, that free agent market and the excitement around it can generate a lot of buzz for a wrestling company, and sometimes for multiple wrestling companies as wrestlers go back and forth.”
Not unlike WWE, AEW remains in the crosshairs of the internet wrestling community, with nearly every move drawing visceral reactions, both positive and negative. But for Khan, who to this day participates in online message boards and websites, he’s learned to roll with the punches.
“I’ve been part of the internet wrestling community since almost the very beginning, since I was 12 years old. If I’ve ever taken a break from it, it’s probably not been much more than a day. I pretty consistently have been reading and talking about wrestling on the internet for the better part of the last three decades,” he says. “I love the feedback from the fans. I love engaging with the internet wrestling fans and seeing what they think. And sometimes you’ll get mixed opinion, but when there is a very strong, uniform opinion on something, it can be a good signal or a hint as to what the right direction for us could be.”
Some of that feedback could be as small as making motion graphics for pay-per-views.
— Tony Khan (@TonyKhan) April 29, 2022
On Sunday May 29, the world will be watching when #AEW takes over Las Vegas for #AEWDoN Double Or Nothing! #AEW World Champion #Hangman @theadampage defends his title against @CMPunk LIVE on PPV. Available on all major providers, @BleacherReport & @FiteTV (international) pic.twitter.com/NJMabX7biN
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) May 13, 2022
Other areas include the portrayal of the AEW women’s division. That, specifically, is an area Khan believes has been at its strongest over the past year, citing the mix of “great free agents” and the way they’ve helped foster a “growing rivalry” with some of the women who have been with AEW from the beginning.
“In particular, Toni Storm and Saraya have been very polarizing to the fans, they’ve got great star power and great experience that they brought to AEW and some of their comments and their attitudes towards the homegrown AEW wrestlers who helped build up the company when we launched have done them no favors and made them no friends in the locker room,” Khan says. “And we have a lot of homegrown wrestlers, stars like Dr. Britt Baker and the AEW Women’s World Champion, Jamie Hayter, who’ve been with us from the very first year and are very offended and disrespected by Toni Storm and Saraya and the things that they’ve said about our homegrown women wrestlers. So I think the free agents have really come in and helped shake things up, and it’s certainly made for a heated series of rivalries and intrigue around the championship.”
As he reflects on the last four years and looks toward the future, Khan is bullish on AEW’s future. As reported by Fightful, the organization’s television rights deal is set to expire toward the end of 2023. But Khan was careful to characterize AEW’s future deal as a media rights deal, instead pointing solely to a new television deal.
“I expect big increases in the rights for the AEW programs and we’re on a good pace to make a very lucrative deal for the AEW media rights going forward,” Khan said.
When asked about the recent report that AEW was set to launch its own streaming service, Khan didn’t confirm or deny the rumors.
“We’ve done 174 episodes of Dynamite, 80 episodes of AEW Rampage, our 17th pay-per-view event will be March 5 in Revolution, so we’ve done hundreds and hundreds of hours of AEW content in our library,” Khan says. “I also purchased Ring of Honor last year, which is a great promotion with over 20 years of history, thousands of hours of video in their library. So overall, AEW has access to so many great wrestling events, including some events that are widely considered to be some of the best wrestling events of all time. There’s a lot of interest in this library as well as the new weekly content we continue to produce each week, and I do think there’s a lot of demand for the library and it makes a lot of sense for us to try to make that AEW library available to fans all over the world on demand.”
Despite mentioning AEW and ROH in the same breath regarding a media library, Khan made it clear he sees ROH as a complimentary promotion to AEW, similar to New Japan Pro Wrestling.
“AEW and Ring of Honor both have a great legacy,” he says. “There are some of the biggest stars in wrestling who won championships in both promotions. Even today, Samoa Joe, the king of television, is a TV champion representing both promotions as the TNT champion of AEW and the Ring of Honor World Television champion simultaneously and is a Hall of Fame star, a first-ballot Hall of Famer for Ring of Honor and one of the biggest names in AEW. And both companies have had a great relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling historically. And now I think that the promotions compliment each other very well. But I want to run them as separate promotions that exist in the same metaverse of pro wrestling along with New Japan Pro Wrestling and some of our other partners.”
For now, Khan will continue to steer AEW into its next phase of growth, while launching the next phase in ROH’s journey, which reportedly includes episodic television.