Twenty years ago, a professional wrestling match featuring two women tearing off their nightgowns to fight each other wasn’t uncommon. Neither was a segment where an anti-American Middle Eastern character pays an audience member to lick a dirty foot for money (thus proving Americans dumb and money-hungry). For wrestling fans, that would be just another Monday night. To say that professional wrestling was, historically, not the most progressive sport would be putting it lightly.
That’s been changing over the last several years. Women are no longer treated as sex objects doubling as valets, and the presence of the anti-American foreigner gimmick is…well, it’s still there, but the gimmicks are less extreme than say, wrestling personality Sgt. Slaughter portraying an Iraqi sympathizer during the height of the Gulf War.
But progress has been slow, and that might come down to one simple fact: the lack of competition. In the 18 years since the WWE purchased billionaire Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling back in 2001, the company hasn’t had direct competition on a nationwide scale. Without another major wrestling promotion to push the sport forward, the WWE has largely been left to pilot the industry.
All Elite Wrestling is looking to change that—and it’s also becoming the most inclusive wrestling promotion in the world.
Backed by billionaire owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan and his son Tony, and co-founded by former WWE star Cody Rhodes and popular independent wrestlers Matt and Nick Jackson, AEW differs from the WWE in some big ways.
For one, it’s a wrestling organization run by wrestlers, though it does have financial backing from a family whose net worth exceeds that of WWE owner Vince McMahon’s. AEW is currently in its nascent stage; it’s setting up one-off pay-per-view shows and is reportedly looking for potential television deals.
Unlike any other wrestling promotion in history, AEW is structured so some wrestlers may be considered full-time employees and receive benefits including health care. That’s a huge boon for wrestlers, who generally work as contractors from promotion to promotion and are responsible for providing their own health insurance (some companies, like WWE, will pay for in-ring-related injuries).
And women wrestlers, who have historically been paid much less than men, will receive pay equal to their male counterparts—and not just for the top wrestlers.
Wrestling with the gender pay gap
The gender pay gap—and just taking women’s wrestling seriously—has long been an issue for female wrestlers. In WWE, it wasn’t until 2016 that women wrestlers were no longer called “divas” and a professional-looking title replaced the flowery pink butterfly belt. Dave Meltzer, arguably the most prominent pro wrestling journalist, says women didn’t start making comparable money to the guys until two to three years ago. Even then, according to TSM Sportz, women in the top tier of the 2018 women’s division were slated to make a fraction of what the men made during that year. For example, Alexa Bliss, a once long-reigning women’s champion, reportedly made $200,000; many men in the mid and lower cards made well over $100,000 more than that.
Meltzer does note that in the current market, “The average of the women [salary] and the average of the guys is much closer than it has been in the past.” He points out that Becky Lynch—the most popular female wrestler on WWE’s roster and possibly the biggest fan-favorite of any WWE wrestler—“probably makes more than most guys” currently. And former UFC champ Ronda Rousey is said to be making $1.5 million a year, also more than most of the male roster.
It is also worth noting that the TSM Sportz article explicitly states that some of the salaries are verified and some are estimated, so not all salaries are accurate.
Along with closing the pay gap, AEW is also looking to increase the diversity of its wrestlers across a variety of demographics. For example, among its diverse roster, the organization became the first major promotion to sign a transgender wrestler when it signed Nyla Rose in early 2019.
The world’s first sensory inclusive wrestling promotion
Perhaps the most overlooked fan base of all sports, real or sports entertainment, are fans with disabilities. Outside of charity events and donations—which the WWE does an enormous amount of—there has not been a push to make the wrestling events themselves more accommodating to people with sensory disabilities such as autism or PTSD.
Enter KultureCity, a nonprofit based in Birmingham, Alabama. KultureCity works with venues to make their show, whatever it is, more inclusive to people with sensory disabilities.
“We go to a venue or event, and the first thing we do is train the [event] staff,” says KultureCity co-founder Julian Maha. Staff are trained to increase inclusivity in four main ways: learn what sensory needs are, understand why they should care, recognize when someone is going into a sensory overload episode, and know how to help.
The startup provides the venue with sensory bags, which include noise-canceling headphones and fidget tools. If the venue has enough space, a quiet room is designated for those who need to leave the event to decompress.
AEW announced its partnership with KultureCity in late February 2019; its first pay-per-view event, “Double or Nothing,” scheduled for May 25, may very well be the world’s first sensory-inclusive wrestling show.
“The amazing thing about AEW is they just got it,” says Maha. “They’re for the fans, and they know it’s for all the fans.” He says AEW has expressed interest in making all its shows going forward sensory-inclusive as well.
It’s a great time to be a wrestling fan—and it’s also a great time to be a wrestler. Ever since AEW officially launched in January 2019, reports of WWE wrestlers looking to exit the company have increased. AEW has already grabbed one major wrestling legend: Chris Jericho signed a three-year deal with the promotion, apparently for a hefty paycheck.
After nearly two decades of slow progress and minimal competition, professional wrestling may have just entered the inclusiveness era.