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Four Minutes. It took All Elite Wrestling four minutes to sell out The MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. It would be an impressively speedy sell out whatever the event, but is all the more impressive considering this is effectively a debut show for a start-up wrestling promotion. Their rapid growth is testament to the hard work and dedication of all involved and their clever marketing methods.

Rapid Growth in any business, however, provides it’s own problems. If left unchecked, these problems could undo a lot of the buzz that the fledgling promotion has garnered. One such issue is inclusivity, something that has rightfully become all the more important over the last few years. AEW’s current roster should be noted for it’s inclusion of both an openly gay male wrestler Sonny Kiss as well as the first transgender wrestler to be signed to a major promotion, Nyla Rose. Both professional wrestlers were introduced at the AEW ticket rally without any mention of their backgrounds. They were presented, simply, as wrestling characters, which in itself seemed a quite progressive step. If this where, for example, WWE, the feeling is that they would build up the “historic” nature of both signings ad nauseum.

With all eyes on AEW, the inclusion of these talented individuals brings with it a great deal of goodwill, but also a greater scrutiny of the reactions of the promotion’s fans. A vocal minority of AEW supporters have reacted unfavourably to the latest signings, leaving disparaging comments on social media and YouTube videos. It seems like the progressive, forward thinking approach to signings of the company is at odds with a percentage of the core audience, leaving members of the LGBT community concerned about their welcomeness at AEW events.

At first, the AEW response seemed to be one of denial and non-commitment. Cody Rhodes tweeted;

“We are promoting matches that’s causing this apparent debate (which I admittedly have not see and instead have seen only excitement/happiness). The stand is in standing by those matches. Why would we signal boost hatred? Wrestling is for everybody and not everything is a scandal.”

While Cody’s response is understandable, it does little to address the fact that there are genuine concerns amongst a potentially large portion of their audience. You can see Cody’s frustration here; hiring roster members from varied backgrounds should be enough to show they are serious about being a progressive, inclusive company. In a perfect world it would be, but certain fans reactions open the debate further than the company are perhaps comfortable with handling. By promoting matches featuring wrestlers such as Sonny Kiss and Nyla Rose, AEW stands to open itself up to a percentage of wrestling fans who feel uncatered for by other mainstream promotions. Statements like “Wrestling is for everyone” and “Change the world” cannot be empty catchphrases. There needs to be substance behind the claims.

AEW did later make an official statement addressing the issue directly. Brandi Rhodes tweeted;

“As we look ahead to Las Vegas, let’s take this opportunity to make it clear that AEW is totally inclusive. We fully support and celebrate all our athletes, and all of our fans, regardless of their sexual orientation, race, gender, religion or ethnicity. Period. A safe, inclusive, respectful and very cool environment will be central to everything we do at AEW. Be who you are, and come as you are. Because we’re all going to come together as a community and change the world.”

Again, this is a reasonable response and goes much further than Cody’s initial tweet, but fails to address exactly what AEW will do to ensure their events are safe and inclusive for all. AEW certainly have a chance to make a positive change but they need to show a willingness to address issues head on. All Elite Wrestling is on the verge of becoming an internationally recognised alternative to current mainstream wrestling. As such, they should be looking way beyond their core audience.

Aggressively pursuing a genuinely inclusive atmosphere at their shows and among their online community is likely to turn off a small minority of their core audience but this is something they have to be prepared to do. As I stated, AEW (and by proxy Being The Elite and all associated entities) has grown exponentially. I can understand why they would be unwilling to chastise a potentially toxic element of their audience, because, paradoxically, this element has also been the company’s most vocal support in the early stages. In effect, there may be a feeling inside the promotion that they can’t afford to turn away the people who brought them to prominence in the first place.

I think AEW did the right thing in eventually facing this issue and I believe that all involved are genuinely invested in creating a safe, inclusive environment. They seem to be consciously signing wrestlers from different backgrounds and with different lifestyles who merit a place on the roster. It’s something that may hinder their growth in the very short term but also gives them the greatest chance of an even bigger expansion. Signing wrestlers from the LGBT community is a great first step. Addressing a tiny, prejudicial section of their audience is the right way to proceed. Actually creating the environment they want is the next, vital step.

Wrestling audiences are loud, rowdy and often obnoxious. For the most part, that’s what makes them so great. The passionate element of wrestling fans should never be lost as it’s part of what makes wrestling so fun to watch. What should and needs to be addressed is the fringe element of wrestling fans who want to keep the boys club vibe that can permeate a crowd. AEW has gone on record to say that their fans can wear what they want, cheer who they want and boo who they want, which is in direct response to WWE’s failed attempts to manipulate their own audience. It makes sense in that context, but they have to be wary of letting this approach breed a sub section of fans who think it is cool and acceptable to discriminate against performers based on their personal lifestyle. They have the opportunity to prove that wrestling is for everyone and that they can change the world, they just need to be prepared to follow up on their words.

Chris Pilkington