Home Bryan Danielson would be a bigger help to AEW if Tony Khan treated him like a star

Bryan Danielson would be a bigger help to AEW if Tony Khan treated him like a star

Chris Graham
bryan danielson
Photo: AEW

Bryan Danielson has been in AEW for a minute – he debuted with the company at the All Out pay-per-view in 2021.

It would have been hard to think then that, three years later, Danielson would never go on to a run with the AEW world title, would not get the one dream match that we all wanted with Danielson facing CM Punk, that Danielson would be stuck in a meaningless stable doing jobs and wrestling in tags and trios matches that lead to nothing.

Of all of Tony Khan’s failures, Bryan Danielson going from main-event megastar to mid-card popcorn match guy is the most glaring.

To Danielson’s credit, he’s a team player.

“Over the summer, we sold 81,000 tickets at Wembley,” Danielson said, speaking at an industry panel at SXSW earlier this month, notably, sitting alongside Khan and top AEW women’s star Britt Baker.

“We’re constantly in the top 10 ratings for cable. So, what are we looking at to get to the next level? What level are we trying to achieve?” Danielson said. “I would say from a business endpoint that the next media rights thing is going to be the #1 thing, so how do we do that, keeping our ratings high, and improving them where we can?”

I’m hesitant to join the chorus of observers who minimize the challenge that Khan has faced with his launch of AEW, now in its fifth year.

The pro-wrestling industry has a hegemon, WWE, valued at $9 billion upon its merger with UFC last year, and various underfunded upstarts – TNA, Ring of Honor chief among them – have barely made a dent in market share.

It’s been WWE’s world since the demise of the Ted Turner-owned WCW in 2001, though Khan’s AEW is giving fans thirsting for an alternative something to latch on to.

The approach has been, blend the best of the non-WWE talent available in the marketplace – Khan has raided the roster of New Japan, signing top stars like Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada and Will Ospreay – with the top young performers from the U.S. indy scene (MJF, Darby Allin, Britt Baker).

The trick to getting lapsed U.S. fans to tune in has been the acquisition of former WWE top talents like Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, and the latest, Mercedes Mone, the former Sasha Banks.

Punk and Danielson were the top free-agent signings, though the Punk experiment didn’t work out – backstage clashes between Punk and Khan’s anointed executive vice presidents, Matt and Nick Jackson, who also perform in-ring as The Young Bucks, led to Punk’s departure.

That still leaves Danielson, a former five-time world champ in WWE, as a pillar that Khan could build around, though, curiously, Khan has chosen a different role for Danielson.

Danielson has been used sparingly at the top of the card – he had memorable world-title matches with Omega, Adam Page and MJF, and a top-shelf two-match series with Okada – but for the most part, he’s been relegated to the Blackpool Combat Club stable, with Moxley and Claudio Castagnoli, floating around in going-nowhere stable feuds in tag and trios matches that have contributed nothing to storylines or the company’s bottom line.

Khan has said in interviews that he also leans on Danielson for insight on booking the company’s weekly TV shows, “Dynamite,” “Rampage” and “Collision,” but Khan also stresses in these same interviews that, ultimately, the creative direction of the company comes down to what he wants.

Which, hey, it’s his company, and his money funding it – his nine figures on the line, as AEW enters the make-or-break year of its brief history, with its TV-rights deal coming up for renewal.

Khan has been gambling his time and hundreds of millions of dollars of money invested on getting a massive deal along the lines of what WWE has been able to get for its TV products, which, coincidence would have it, were also up for renewal this year.

WWE landed an earth-shattering $5 billion, 10-year deal for the rights to “Raw” from Netflix, on top of getting $1.4 billion for five years for “Smackdown” from NBCUniversal.

“Smackdown,” which has been broadcast on Fox the past five years, routinely gets three times the weekly TV audience that AEW’s top show, “Dynamite,” gets, which is in the range of 800,000 average viewers per two-hour episode.

The numbers for “Smackdown” are expected to decline back toward the 1.6 million to 1.7 million range that “Raw” has been in on NBCUniversal when it makes the move from Fox next year.

With those TV numbers, and TV deals, setting the parameters, we should expect AEW to be able to land a deal in the range of $150 million a year, which would more than double what Khan is currently getting for his three weekly shows.

AEW’s critics seem to assume that any momentum toward a big deal has been stalled because the company’s TV numbers have been stagnant for the past 15 months, and as they point this out, they point their fingers at Khan, whose attention to detail, or lack thereof, with his week-to-week booking is seen as the reason why things are stagnant with the company.

Having a megastar like Bryan Danielson reduced to being a mid-card guy because of lack of attention to detail with his booking is a flashpoint for Khan’s critics.

But again, to Danielson, the team player, it’s part of the plan.

“It would be easy to just take stars of the past and make them your champion and make them your top guy, that’s the easy way,” Danielson said at the SXSW panel. “It’s much harder to take somebody like MJF, who had not been on national television, and turn him into a star that draws ratings. That was my bigger goal, to transfer stardom from one generation to another.”

My unsolicited advice: Danielson would be better able to transfer his stardom if AEW treated him more like a star.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].