Off the Top Rope: Wednesday Night Is Best for Business; Brandi Rhodes Interview
Welcome to Off the Top Rope. This week we'll make the case that Wednesday night is the heart of pro wrestling, talk to AEW chief brand officer Brandi Rhodes and select a match of the week. Join us weekly for analysis with a finger on the pulse of the wrestling business.
For more than 25 years, Monday night has been wrestling night for millions of fans across the country and around the world.
Vince McMahon and WWE reinvented the entire genre in 1993, changing what wrestling programming looked and felt like in pretty dramatic fashion. By the third show of what would become the industry's flagship, they were featuring main event quality matches like Ric Flair versus Mr. Perfect.
To say this was a fairly dramatic change is an understatement.
Traditionally, wrestling's business model was built around arena shows and live attendance. That's where a promotion made its real money in the old days. As entertaining as it was, wrestling TV was meant to convince fans to get off the couch and out to the arena, a commercial for the arena shows where the coin was collected.
The best material was saved for the paying crowd and almost never featured on television.
Monday Night Raw changed all of that. Today the live attendance is a secondary objective. The business lives and breathes with television; a giant network rights fee in the happy ending everyone in the industry is chasing.
AEW Dynamite and NXT aren't relics of a forgotten past. They were born into the world Raw created. For them, television is the point.
For years, WWE has seemingly been on autopilot, content after winning the Monday Night Wars of the 1990s to enjoy the spoils due a conqueror. But AEW has ignited the company's competitive spirit. The result has been dueling wrestling television as good as anything we've seen in decades.
Dynamite and NXT fly by, focused mainly on high-octane action and interview segments that drive the narrative forward. By comparison, Raw and SmackDown feel like dinosaurs, lurching ahead with their awkward skits and repetitive matches.
While the audience hasn't quite caught up, the business is being reinvented once again. Perhaps that's why, for the first time in generations, Monday is no longer the center of the wrestling universe.
Sure, Raw and Friday's SmackDown still draw the largest legacy audiences—but the heart of wrestling beats strongest on Wednesdays.
AEW Chief Brand Officer Brandi Rhodes on the Promotion's Epic First Year
When we last talked with All Elite Wrestling's chief brand officer Brandi Rhodes, the entire AEW team was about to embark on a great adventure. It was one thing to put on a handful of events for a mostly adoring hardcore audience, but becoming a touring show with weekly television was something else entirely.
Now, more than two months into the AEW experiment on TNT (full disclosure, Bleacher Report is a division of Turner Sports), we caught up with Rhodes again to see how things were going, both behind the scenes and on television, where her character has taken a decidedly dark turn.
Jonathan Snowden: I know you want to talk about things outside the ring and some of your initiatives behind the scenes at AEW. But first, I just have to ask you: What are you doing with these women's hair? This is very unusual behavior, Brandi.
Brandi Rhodes: Oh man. That's a good question and one that is kind of getting answered over time. But the good news is that I'm slated to speak at Dynamite for the first time since scalping people. So I think some things will be revealed as I'm given the floor. People have had lots of questions and I'm eager to answer them.
JS: This is a very interesting storyline. It's one of the things I really enjoy about AEW. You have this kind of supernatural story sitting side-by-side with comedy and drama. Is this something you've had floating around in your head for a long time? How did this come about?
Brandi: I have to give a lot of credit to Awesome Kong because she came to me wanting something specific for herself and that's always a great thing, a great sign from a talent when they come in and say, "Hey, this is my vision, this is what I see. Can you help me create this?" Because nobody's going to be able to create their own vision better than they do themselves.
It's always great when somebody has something in mind for themselves because they believe in it and they feel it. And that's going to come across on the screen. Cody's a big fan of always saying, "we like to let people play their music how they like to play it." And this is the perfect example of doing that.
She came to me with the sprinklings of this idea, and I worked together with her to make it what it is now and we continue to work on it week after week. I don't think either of us knew exactly what it was becoming the first time we talked about it, but now we're really happy with where it's going.
JS: So after you're done scalping these women on national television, you go into business meetings presumably and make deals for AEW. So let's talk about that. Everyone's always a bit confused about what it means when some of your core wrestling talents are also part of the senior management team. What kind of things are you doing outside the ring?
Brandi: We're coming up on about a year of AEW's existence which means almost a year since I was named the chief brand officer. And a lot has been done in that period of time, and I think this is a great time to kind of take a bit of inventory and show people, or at least let people know about a lot of the fantastic work that's been happening.
It's always a challenge when you have a position that's not as easily definable or concrete like being a firefighter or a doctor. The brand officer role is a newer position and one that allows each company to tailor it to its needs. And, in our case, the position does a lot.
My job is really equal parts public relations, partnerships, community outreach, marketing and establishing of the brand and the messaging. Someone told me the other day, "you know, Brandi, those are all full-time jobs on their own but you do all of these things and, at the end of the day, you are an in-ring talent and on-screen persona."
Juggling it all is a real challenge. Thankfully, I like to be a busy person because I don't really get a lot of sleep.
JS: What does a typical day, as much as one exists in the wrestling industry, look like for you?
Brandi: I split my time pretty equally between everything on my work day and on my days off. Even some of my days on the road, even on Wednesday when we have Dynamite, until about 2 p.m., I'm the chief brand officer and then I turn into Brandi Rhodes the character, switching to my more creative side and actually appearing on the show.
But most of the time, my daytime is spent really working on the PR elements, working with our partners, working on new partnerships or community outreaches, which we're starting to contour now.
It's been a really, really busy and great year as far as finding ourselves and where we fit in, what companies we fit in with, who we like to work with.
Some of the relationships that we've been involved with have started to blossom. One of those is Kulture City. We started working with them at Double or Nothing to be sensory inclusive. Since then, it has grown so much, which is fantastic.
The need was so great and it was so well-received by people who come to the shows that we wanted to do more and we were able to make that happen. Today, Kulture City is involved with every single show. We have sensory bags that travel with us from arena to arena so that our fans can check out a sensory bag when they need it.
JS: You and I have talked about this, but my family has found having Kulture City at your events invaluable. And it's the kind of thing most people never even think about. Really well done on your end.
What are some of the other partnerships you're most proud of? You guys have really started from zero and now you're a national wrestling brand. What are some of the partnerships you've made along the way to help grow AEW into what it has become?
Brandi: We started working with the Illinois chapter of the Special Olympics in Chicago at All Out. We invited them in to do a DDPY workshop hosted by DDP and some of our AEW athletes were able to do DDPY with Special Olympics athletes and kind of start to build relationships.
It was a really cool outing and went so well that we decided to have them back again at our Chicago show last week. We had six of the Special Olympics athletes paired with three AEW athletes and about 30 minutes before we went live on TNT, we did mock entrances. We had two of their athletes paired with one of our athletes, and they all made a grand entrance together and made their way to the ring just like they were getting ready to wrestle a tag team match. And it was the most fun I've had in such a long time.
Those Special Olympic athletes rose to the occasion. They were milking the crowd, they were in the ring, hitting poses and the audience loved it. They loved it. They got there early just so they could be a part of it and cheer these guys on. And it really was so much fun, and it just showed us there's so much more that we can continue to do with organizations like that, and we're going to absolutely keep doing it.
JS: That sounds like so much fun. And it's great to see you form partnerships with like-minded groups. One of the things that I think has traditionally been a challenge in the wrestling space is convincing businesses and organizations of various kinds that they want to partner with professional wrestling.
For a long time wrestling would have these huge television ratings, but correspondingly low ad rates because people just didn't want to be in business with wrestling. What have been some of the challenges for you as the chief brand officer, as you try to sell partnerships with AEW? Have you had any struggles with that?
Brandi: There are always some people who haven't quite caught on yet. At one point in my life, before I got into the wrestling business, I was one of those people who hadn't caught up. You have an image in your head of what you think wrestling is and it's hard to change that and see what wrestling is today.
We are different, we're alternative, we are inclusive and we are absolutely a sport that has become really attractive to a lot of people. Like you said, we started from zero and we've climbed so high in such a small period of time. I think people are really attracted to the fact that we love this and we wear it on our sleeves And we're willing to roll our sleeves up and get the work done.
JS: What do you think are some of the most important ways that you've gone about spreading the word of AEW's existence? The wrestling world was very familiar with AEW and very excited that you guys were coming to national television. But there's a much larger group of people who likely had no idea you have entered the fray. What are you doing to spread the word that AEW is here and ready to do business?
Brandi: Well, we're working a lot with various sponsors. We've got sponsorship with State Farm and we're going to be at State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois. Last week, we had a State Farm partner call a match on the air. That's risky, of course, and not something that's typically done. But that's how much we value being able to work with people. We're open for business, open-minded, creative and like to work together to showcase you. We really do value our sponsors and we listen to ideas. We want to work with you as much as you want to work with us.
JS: What about connecting with potential fans who may not follow wrestling closely anymore but might be interested in checking out something new and different?
Brandi: A good way of getting the word out is the grass-roots method of showing up in the cities where we have events. Cody and myself, Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, you'll see us all in markets ahead of the show doing media, traditional media. We are going into the TV studios, we're going into radio stations, we're interviewing with newspapers. We're just out there spreading the word, getting our names out there, meeting people, meet-and-greets in various communities.
Cody and I just did the billboard for the Atlanta airport. We're now official Atlanta airport ambassadors. The billboard is obnoxiously large. So you can't get in and out of that airport without seeing All Elite Wrestling. If we keep getting the name out there, you keep seeing things related to us, it's only a matter of time before you tune in. And that's the goal. That's what we want. Because I know that once they turn it on, they're going to be hooked.
So, sometimes it's about a billboard and other times it's about getting out there in the community and getting to know people. All good ways in my opinion of spreading the word.
JS: You guys do one of the best jobs of any organization I've seen connecting with your core audience of fans. I've never seen a group more in touch with its fanbase.
Reaching outside that group seems like a big challenge. How beneficial is it to have a partner like Turner that allows you to, for example, send Chris Jericho to hobnob with the Shaq and Charles Barkley and those kinds of things that reach the broader, wider world?
Brandi: We're lucky to have partners like TNT that are able to get us into positions like that. And you're going to see a lot more of that coming in the new year, more of us pushing out into the mainstream media. You're going to turn on your TV more often and see some of the AEW stars beyond what you see on our show.
The first year, having been so successful, it's only strengthened our relationship with Turner. They trust us. They're starting to get to know our audience and starting to get to know us and how we do business, the integrity of the brand. They're putting their backing into us, which is really fantastic.
JS: I love the outreach you do, especially to underserved groups. And my understanding from following your Twitter is that you're also going to be working with Stella's Wish, a non-profit that grants wishes for adults with a life-threatening cancer?
Brandi: We're really proud to be working with Stella's Wish and bringing a family into Corpus Christi to see the show. They're getting front-row seats, they're getting the full meet-and-greet experience, meeting all of their favorite stars, and they're going to be getting some of the latest, hottest AEW merchandise. We're hoping it's going to be a fantastic experience for them.
We'll also be working with Dreams Come True in Jacksonville, Florida. We're able to start granting wishes for people and we definitely want people to know about those organizations so that if they do have wrestling-related wishes, they can feel free to reach out.
JS: While this is your primary job at AEW, it feels like much of your social media engagement is on the creative side. A lot of fans believe you're a part of the creative team, especially for the women's division. Is that on your plate as well?
Brandi: That comes up frequently on social media. Sometimes people get really hopeful for things and they hope they can contact me and that I'm going to do these wonderful things. But at the end of the day, I am not the booker of the women's division. I do not book the weekly matchup for the women. That's just not my role.
I do make the suggestions for new talent, for instance, signing Kris Statlander. I make creative suggestions where I can, such as with Awesome Kong. I only have so many hours in the day and I already have four full-time jobs.
JS: So who should fans direct the credit toward when it comes to the women's division in AEW. And who should people direct all their griping toward if not you?
Brandi: People have been pretty good as far as not being gripey is concerned. I know a lot of people have hopes and dreams and love certain talents. And I love when people tell me about their favorites because I can look into them, and if there's anything I can do to help, I absolutely will. And sometimes I have that magic touch and it works, and sometimes I just don't.
The final say on booking with women comes down to Kenny (Omega) and Tony (Khan). And I think they've been doing a great job with that, and we'll continue to make suggestions where we can here and there and it's all going to work together harmoniously.
When it comes to the women's division we've been able to lean heavily on Awesome Kong and Dustin Rhodes as coaches to help the women with their in-ring skills and promo work. They make themselves available weekly to the women, myself included.
Dustin is extremely creative and just a really positive force to have working with the women. We're very fortunate to have him.
JS: You guys offered the promise of inclusivity and equality. And some people took that very literally. I see journalists online calculating the match times to compare women and men in AEW.
What would you say to people who feel you aren't doing enough with women or with people of color or the LGBTQ wrestlers on the roster?
Brandi: There's always going to be critics, and you can't expect everybody to be 100 percent happy with your best efforts. I can say that our best efforts have been made and will continue to be made.
You know, that's one of the good and bad things about being very open with your plans. We want to be a very inclusive place, we want everyone to have their time and want everyone to feel like they're important. When you voice things like that upfront, you open yourself up for criticism because things don't always go exactly as planned.
We do take the criticism with a grain of salt as well, because one thing that I've learned in all my years of being in this business is if you rapidly change plans just to satisfy one person, you'll upset someone else. So it's best to stick to what your plans are and hope people will allow you to let that flourish and let it all play out. In the current world, everything is now, now, now. Everyone wants answers now, now, now.
I cut somebody's hair and people want to know why right now. Sometimes you just have to let yourself get lost in it. For instance, I'm really loving The Mandalorian, but I don't have all the answers right now. I don't know where baby Yoda came from. I don't know if his name is actually baby Yoda. But I don't care because it's so great.
I'm going to be watching it every week. I don't need to know all that stuff. I just need them to keep coming up with those GIFs so that I can keep using them. A baby Yoda drinking tea, that's my new favorite one. That's the new tea GIF.
JS: Depending on who you read in the wrestling media, or what fan circle you fall into, sometimes you'll read that AEW is failing; other times, AEW is doing great. I just wanted to ask you directly are you guys where you need to be in the ratings? There are people who are legitimately nervous about this.
Brandi: Oh man, I feel like I must be missing some of the media articles. I haven't seen anything with a really dire outlook.
We're good, we're happy. There's nothing for anybody to worry about. As long as you guys are happy and continuing to support us, we're grateful.
JS: Weekly, there is this really intense focus on the ratings and incremental television viewers. Like the differences between 950,000 and 930,000 viewers is less than the margin of error on the Nielsen ratings. But to wrestling fans, it means everything. Are you guys watching it really carefully and biting your fingernails every week?
Brandi: We definitely pay attention to the ratings. Numbers can fluctuate, of course, for various reasons here and there. But one thing that hasn't fluctuated is the target demographic and that has been very strong for us from day one. TNT watches all of that and pays attention to it. They've been pretty happy with how we've fared. And that's all you can really ask for. When they're happy, that's a good thing.
JS: You guys are about to finish one year and it's been quite a year. Looking forward, as you go into Year 2, what are some of the goals you'd like to achieve? Where would you like to be when we have this call next December? What would you like to accomplish?
Brandi: We'd like to just continue to grow. We set out at rocket speed. I guess it's a little unrealistic to think that everything will come easy. It's just not the way of the world. But if we always continue to have forward motion, I think that we're going to continue to be successful.
For me specifically, I would like to see more of our partnerships continue to flesh out. Through working with Kulture City, I've seen how beautifully something can grow. And I would like to see that happen with some of our newer relationships. I want to see more people be able to be helped. I would like for us to be able to continue to do more in our communities and just be a positive light out there for people who need wrestling.
Match of the Week: Akira Tozawa vs. Lio Rush (NXT, November 27)
My family and I went to SmackDown this week, our first time checking out WWE's television programming live and in living color. It was a fun and educational night, a chance to see the world's preeminent sports entertainment company work its considerable magic.
And the crowd seemed to love it just as much as we did...right up until the official show went off the air and the credits rolled on the big screen.
When the staff descended on the ring to set up for 205 Live, the audience started leaving their seats in droves, a trickle becoming a wave of people leaving the arena. As one lady put it as she sidled past, "I'm not going to sit here and watch a bunch of nobodies wrestle."
Sadly, that's the perception many casual fans have of both 205 Live and the cruiserweight division by proxy. It's why, all too often, great technical matches play out in front of half dead, less-than-enthusiastic crowds.
Perhaps, that's part of what made this cruiserweight title match between Lio Rush and Akira Tozawa at Full Sail in Orlando so special. In front of an audience that actually cared, the two put on a display of speed and wizardry worthy of the greats who preceded them in wrestling history.
This was spectacular—and, for once, WWE fans noticed.
Three-Count: A Look Ahead
AEW Dynamite (TNT, 12/4)
- The Inner Circle vs. Young Bucks/Dustin Rhodes: In many ways this is the battle that defines AEW in its early stages, the most powerful heel faction taking on the most popular babyfaces. This is about pride more than rankings or standing, especially for Dustin as he looks to gain some measure of revenge for a brutal parking-lot attack last month.
Prediction: Good triumphs over evil in the match, but evil has a surprise or two up its collective sleeve and walks away gloating while good is laid out in the ring licking its wounds.
- Trent vs. Rey Fenix: Last week the "Best Friends" star upset Lucha Brothers standout Pentagon. Now it's little brother's turn, as Rey Fenix comes looking to settle the score.
Prediction: Can Trent do it again? I'm terrible at guesswork. But one thing is for certain: Trent's associate, Orange Cassidy, will do something to get one of the biggest pops of the night.
- Brandi Speaks: Why have Brandi Rhodes and Awesome Kong declared war on the AEW women's division? And just what are they doing with all the scalps they take? Perhaps this is the week we get some answers.
Prediction: I got the sense in our interview that Brandi isn't quite ready to fully explain her bizarre actions. But this interview will most definitely propel AEW's most intriguing angle forward. Will we see Allie emerge to say her piece as well? This one's going to be good.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report