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'I really love wrestling': How Tony Khan brought AEW to life

Anthony Sulla-Heffinger
·9-min read

If you ask Tony Khan what a “typical” week is like for him, you likely won’t get a definitive answer. This isn’t because Khan is ducking or dodging the question, rather because the 38-year-old businessman and executive juggles enough responsibilities that he should be in some kind of record book.

“There’s no such thing as a typical week, they’re all different,” Khan told Yahoo Sports. “It depends on what kind of TV scheduling we have for that week, what’s going on with Fulham, what’s going on with the [Jacksonville] Jaguars, if there are any NFL owners meetings, board meetings.”

Khan’s myriad titles include: Co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars; Owner, Director of Football, General Manager and Sporting Director of Fulham FC; Owner of TruMedia Sports and, last but not least, President, CEO and General Manager of All Elite Wrestling.

Despite All Elite Wrestling being Khan’s newest business venture, it is arguably the one he is the most emotionally invested in.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Khan was a teenager as professional wrestling entered into the heralded “Monday Night Wars” between Vince McMahon’s WWE (then WWF) and Ted Turner’s WCW. It was a period in the industry where fierce competition led to weekly ratings battles, lucrative deals for talent and engrossing content for fans of the genre.

Prior to AEW’s creation, there had been a void in professional wrestling for nearly 20 years. After McMahon bought out his competition in WCW and ECW, there was rarely a moment where WWE was challenged by an outside promotion, but as foreign and independent wrestling grew in popularity, an opportunity presented itself for Khan to pursue his passion for the industry.

AEW Owner, CEO and General Manager Tony Khan. (Photo Credit: Speedy Ruiz/AEW)
AEW Owner, CEO and General Manager Tony Khan. (Photo Credit: Speedy Ruiz/AEW)

“I really love wrestling, I always loved wrestling and I love being in the wrestling business,” Khan said. “There was a unique opportunity to get into the business in 2018 because the television rights for big wrestling shows had gotten very large. The TV rights had gotten so potentially lucrative that I knew that if I could start a wrestling show, a wrestling company and build a roster that would be competitive that there would be opportunities to earn a big TV contact, which we have done. That was the business model I was going to try and pursue.”

The goal of television: Leave people ‘wanting more’

Alongside professional wrestlers Cody Rhodes, Matt & Nick Jackson and Kenny Omega, Khan brought AEW to life in January 2019. Fast-forward nearly two years and AEW has breathed fresh air into the entire professional wrestling industry.

Khan’s vision has come to life as AEW is currently in a lucrative television contract with WarnerMedia and produces two weekly shows, “AEW Dark” which airs on YouTube on Tuesday nights, and “Dynamite” which is broadcast on TNT and goes directly against WWE’s “NXT,” creating an air of competition that had been missing from the industry for two decades.

“I think it’s a throwback in a positive way to an era when there was good competition in the wrestling business,” Khan said. “There was really a competitive market for the fans. I think it was a great time to be a fan then and we have recreated that. For the fans and the wrestlers, it makes it a better environment. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get in this, to improve the quality of life for the fans, the wrestlers, for everybody in the business. For me, it’s really been a lot of fun.”

Chris Jericho during an episode of All Elite Wrestling's "Dynamite" program. (Credit: AEW)
Chris Jericho during an episode of All Elite Wrestling's "Dynamite" program. (Credit: AEW)

As with most things in business, there’s a balancing act for Khan to master with AEW, and the landscape is constantly changing. While the response from both critics and fans have been overwhelmingly positive since AEW’s inception, Khan has had to resist the urge to expand the content offerings simply in an effort to increase the revenue stream.

“There are things that wrestling companies have done when it comes to over-saturating pay-per-view or TV markets with too much content and trying to make as much money as possible,” Khan said. “I do like when AEW makes money, but frankly, this is a developmental company, too. We started this company from the ground up and our revenues are amazing — our TV contract alone pays $45 million a year — but our costs are very, very high.

“Eventually we can add an extra hour of TV in 2021. I think our big four pay-per-views are great, but it doesn’t mean we won’t add additional specials or streaming content in the future. I think right now, one of the things we have done really well is leaving people wanting more.”

A ‘double-edged sword’ when it comes to talent

Along with juxtaposing the desire for more content with the costs of producing it, Khan also has to weigh how his roster is built. Initially, as AEW was getting its feet wet, Khan admitted that “anyone who had merit or skill whatsoever” was considered as the company built its talent pool. Now, things are a little more selective, from both a cost and creative standpoint.

“I have been cautious about keeping the roster manageable while at the same time building it up. It’s a double-edged sword,” Khan said. “It’s great when you find somebody you really like. It’s helpful if you have an idea for them, but if you don’t, you either need to find a way to use them or [make a tough call]. Some good people you just don’t have a spot for. The great thing about where we are at is that we have a really good roster and are in such a good place, that while we are constantly scouting and looking for really talented people, it’s hard to just walk onto the show right now.”

Khan doesn’t simply just run the company from a business standpoint, though, he also serves as the booker, which is the most powerful position in a wrestling promotion. As the primary creative force behind AEW’s narratives and angles, Khan has helped break the mold several times when it comes to moments on “Dynamite” or during pay-per-views.

In recent weeks, “Dynamite” has featured a musical number titled, “Dinner Debonair” featuring Chris Jericho and MJF, a Parking Lot Fight between Santana & Ortiz and the Best Friends, and even a moderated Town Hall involving the aforementioned Jericho and MJF.

“Not everything is going to get a rave review or be positively looked upon, but I think for the most part when we have gotten people talking it’s been for a good reason and a positive reason,” Khan said. “We put on a lot of great things that have created some indelible memories. I struggle to think of a show I haven’t had a great time at. Our wrestlers make it appointment viewing for our fans.”

It’s in the creative process and the product that reflects it every week on TV where you see Khan’s passion for the industry shine. Although AEW is carving its own path as a promotion, there are moments that will trigger nostalgic feelings for a generation who grew up watching the medium like Khan did.

While Khan certainly can play the nostalgia card when he needs to, AEW is also opening its doors in a way that hasn’t been seen from a mainstream wrestling promotion in decades. One week Khan may march Eric Bischoff out for a segment while simultaneously featuring talent — and even a championship belt — from the NWA.

“There’s this wrestling canon, and anything that got to a certain level is in that wrestling canon. Absolutely stuff from peak WCW is in that,” Khan said. “I think any wrestling fan should know Eric Bischoff and should appreciate what he did for the wrestling business, what his accomplishments were, who he was and why he was important. We love wrestling. We have used other companies' stories, other companies’ champions and belts and created an environment on Dynamite where we are open to all kinds of wrestling.”

‘Hopefully people will be able to enjoy wrestling like they have in the past’

Like virtually every other business, AEW has been impacted by COVID-19 in 2020. After roughly six months of touring for “Dynamite,” AEW was forced to relocate to Daily’s Place, an open-air arena near TIAA Bank Field, where Khan’s Jaguars play on NFL Sundays.

It was an unexpected hurdle for Khan, who credits the wrestlers on his roster for delivering in trying times.

“When I look back we have done a lot of great TV shows under pretty challenging circumstances,” Khan said. I’m really thankful that the roster came through. There was so much uncertainty around the future of the world and how it would affect everything, including AEW.”

The Young Bucks celebrate with Kenny Omega after winning the AEW Tag Team Championship at 'Full Gear' on November 7. (Photo Credit: AEW)
The Young Bucks celebrate with Kenny Omega after winning the AEW Tag Team Championship at 'Full Gear' on November 7. (Photo Credit: AEW)

As the global pandemic continued through the summer and now into the fall, AEW has allowed fans back in smaller capacities over the past few months. With social distancing measures strictly enforced, it’s been somewhat of a welcome return to normalcy both for fans and Khan.

“Slowly, we trickled back, we had about 1,000 people at Full Gear and I think it added to the show,” Khan said. “Even though it’s a far cry from where we were for previous events, I really appreciate the people who came out. [There] were moments that provided huge crowd pops. When [Jon] Moxley retained the title, I hadn’t heard a reaction that big in a long time. It was pretty cool.

“I have really high expectations for our shows for the rest of the year and I have some big plans for 2021. The pandemic has made things more challenging, but all things considered, hopefully people will be able to enjoy wrestling like they have in the past.”

Regardless of what the immediate future holds, AEW seems poised to continue shaking up the professional wrestling industry and Khan’s weeks aren’t likely to become “typical” anytime soon.

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