AEW Is Making Jacksonville A Wrestling Hotspot

Jacksonville-based All Elite Wrestling is disrupting the pro wrestling world - and boosting the River City's profile as an entertainment destination.

The back story

Jacksonville media has been relatively quiet about All Elite Wrestling, the upstart promotion funded by Shad and Tony Khan and headquartered at TIAA Bank Stadium. But within the world of international pro wrestling, AEW’s profile is booming. Thousands of fans have attended each of its live events, and tens of thousands more have watched at home, while the company has inked a major TV deal for a weekly show on TNT to debut on October 2. As both company headquarters and an event location, Jacksonville has been at the center of it all. Likely unbeknownst to most in the city, AEW has turned Jacksonville into an emerging sports entertainment hotspot.

AEW officially launched in January 2019. Shad Khan is the chief investor while Tony Khan serves as president and CEO. The concept originated with a group of ambitious independent circuit wrestlers: Cody Rhodes, the son of late WWE star Dusty Rhodes, and Matt and Nick Jackson, known in the ring as the Young Bucks. They, along with Cody’s wife Brandi Rhodes and Kenny Omega, serve as executives in the company as well as performers. Filling out the the roster are an eclectic group of wrestlers from across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Europe, including longtime stars like Cody’s brother Dustin Rhodes (formerly known as Goldust) and Chris Jericho. To date AEW has hosted three events, the most recent of which was “Fight for the Fallen” at Daily’s Place on July 13.

AEW is seen as potential competition to World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, by far the largest and best known wrestling organization in the world. WWE has had no serious competition since 2001, when it bought out Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. However, in recent years WWE has experienced a decline in both attendance and television viewership, while simultaneously facing a wave of bad PR over its controversial Saudi Arabia events and its treatment of wrestlers - WWE wrestlers are considered independent contractors ineligible for health insurance and benefits, although they are forbidden from working for other companies as a true contractor could. This earned the company a scathing dressing down from - of all people - John Oliver that was widely shared. It would seem the market is prime for a competitor to step in.

Elite competition?

AEW has made waves in part for its promise to treat wrestlers better. Unlike in the WWE, AEW wrestlers can receive benefits and book events with other companies. Additionally, the company has promised to pay women on the same scale as men and has committed to hiring and promoting diverse talent. This was put on display in Jacksonville with matches featuring male and female performers with a variety of backgrounds, body types, sexual orientations, and nationalities.

AEW’s approach seems to be paying off, in that its attendance thus far has been competitive with WWE, despite the lack of a TV show. Fight for the Fallen drew 5,000 attendees, essentially a full house for a somewhat reconfigured Daily’s Place, and was streamed by thousands more. Significantly, almost all of the tickets were purchased, rather than being given away. The last two AEW events performed similarly well, drawing sellouts of 5,000 and 11,000.

For context, WWE averaged 5,200 tickets sold at its U.S. and Canada events in 2018. Their events range from the 80,000-person tentpole Wrestlemania show to regular productions that draw in the thousands to untelevised “house shows” that may draw a few hundred. Recent WWE shows have had attendances ranging from 3500 to about 6000, including tickets given away. Excluding house shows, WWE attendance in Jacksonville has ranged from 3,000 to 6,500 since 2010.

Jax on the Rise - as a wrestling destination

Sonny Kiss in a Jaguars jersey. Image courtesy of AEW.

You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to appreciate how big of a deal this is. We’re looking at a Jacksonville-based company that’s going head to head with the established leader in its field and coming out looking strong. The attendees at the Jacksonville event certainly took it seriously, traveling to Daily’s Place from across the country - one couple held a sign broadcasting that Fight for the Fallen was their honeymoon trip.

And AEW was been showing their base city a lot of love, both in and out of the ring. Scene-stealing newcomer Sonny Kiss entered the ring wearing a cropped Jalen Ramsey jersey and danced with Jacksonville Roar cheerleaders and Jaxson DeVille. Despite declaring Jacksonville - like every city they visit - the “worst town I’ve ever been in,” the tag team SoCal Uncensored donned Jaguars teal for their match. But the biggest and most serious shout out to Jacksonville came in the form of a $150,000 donation from AEW to the Victim Assistance Advisory Council to aid victims of gun violence - the bulk of the event’s profits.

Shad Khan presents a $150,000 donation to the Victim Assistance Advisory Council.

Outside the ring, AEW staff have continued to talk up Jacksonville. During preparations for Fight for the Fallen, wrestlers and executives the Young Bucks expressed their interest in doing a future show at TIAA Bank Field. This would be a massive venue for wrestling, but it may not just be a dream. Pro wrestling expert Dave Meltzer estimated that over 80,000 fans attempted to buy tickets to AEW’s inaugural show in Las Vegas, and that it might well have risen to 100,000 had there been enough tickets, suggesting that the company might indeed pull in big numbers for major events. Following the match, both Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan spoke to First Coast News about hosting another event in Jacksonville later in the year. Expect to see Jacksonville in the regular rotation when AEW’s TNT series launches in October.

AEW’s future will depend heavily on this TV deal, TV being where wrestling makes most of its money. It certainly looks like they have the ingredients for long-term success. And that’s nothing but good news for Jacksonville’s future as a live entertainment destination.

Next page: Pictures from AEW’s Fight for the Fallen.