15+ min read
When I talked with Tony Khan precisely two years ago, he was exuberant. All Elite Wrestling, the company he co-founded at the outset of 2019 along with a cohort of professional wrestlers aiming to challenge World Wrestling Entertainment‘s status quo, was the talk of its industry. But at the time, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm about a potential offseason acquisition for the NFL‘s Jacksonville Jaguars franchise. His father, auto-industry billionaire Shahid Khan, has been the Jaguars’ principal owner since 2011. At all of 38 years old, Tony is the team’s Chief Strategy Officer.
When we caught up earlier this week, the Jaguars were fresh off claiming former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the NFL Draft’s No. 1 pick, and Khan once again led with contagious positvity about the team’s fortunes. “It was a really, really busy, but good weekend for us,” he says cheerfully. Khan apologizes for dialing into our Zoom on audio only, but insists he’s bustling about his office and wouldn’t want to give me web-cam “vertigo.”
Britt Baker (pictured applying hold on opponent Thunder Rosa) has risen to become the arguable women’s face of AEW.
Image credit: AEW
That’s an apt metaphor for the dizzying day-to-day of a guy who has his hands full being remarkably hands-on with AEW, booking and creatively outlining the weekly card for Dynamite, which airs at 8 p.m. every Wednesday night on TNT. And that’s not accounting for what have effectively become his side hustles: strategizing for the Jaguars and Premier League soccer club Fulham FC, which his father owns and for which he serves as Vice Chairman and Director of Football, as well as being a major investor in sports-analytics firm TruMedia.
“I don’t do much besides work anymore,” Khan concedes. “But I love everything I’m doing, so it’s fun trying to squeeze it all in every day.”
Surely, not all the fans of his respective organizations approve of his executive whims or the ways in which he divides his time, but over the course of an hour-long conversation, Khan takes great pains to detail how he delegates responsibilities and reflects on his own errors in judgment. And given how he continues to innovate and disrupt within the wrestling space in particular — a recent episode of Dynamite drew more than one million viewers, and critics have praised AEW’s willingness to open the so-called “forbidden door” and share talent with ostensible competition like Impact Wrestling — we went deep on the lessons learned amid his most formidable entrepreneurial journey.
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If the idea behind AEW was to disrupt pro wrestling, how do you think the company is doing on that score more than two years on, especially accounting for the pandemic as its own disruption?
It’s been going great. I mean, most of the Dynamite [episodes] have happened during the pandemic, but I think that’s a function of timing. I’m really glad I got Dynamite started before the pandemic, or it would have been impossible to launch. But also [that we launched] far enough in front of the pandemic that we were able to get a big-money TV extension before the pandemic struck. All the major media conglomerates took a big hit, so I’m not sure we would’ve gotten that nine-figure TV contract in the post-pandemic markets. I just think the timing was very good for us.
Khan has figured out how to delegate day-to-day duties across his three primary executive responsibilities.
Image credit: AEW
Did the pandemic put pressure on you to make Dynamite that much more dynamic, and how did that interact with the reality of Covid protocols and mitigation?
Absolutely, yes. There was that much more pressure because certain things we took for granted, like being in a new building with a great crowd every week — that was no longer something we were able to do. And it was many months before we were able to return fans at all, and then we did it safely by running the shows outdoors and with physically distanced seating. I think it allowed us to maintain a sense of normalcy. So, yeah, it was a more challenging environment than pre-pandemic. I think it really brought the best out of us. A lot of the best matches and best stories we’ve done, I think, have been since the pandemic started.
Still, there had to be a risk of some fans or even advertisters disassociating from the product if there was a perception that AEW wasn’t being Covid-vigilant enough.
I think it was good to have all these conversations and talk about what some of the potential repercussions could be. But luckily, we had none of those repercussions in real life. We had no sponsor pushback. We had no fan pushback. I saw on Twitter there were a couple of people who questioned the move, but a lot of those same people ended up coming to the shows and saying they felt very safe. And a lot of people who’ve been advocates for a very slow and safe return to normal life have gone to these shows and thought that they were done the right way.
Another big decision in recent months was opening the “forbidden door” by sharing talent and storylines with competing promotions. Is that all a shrewd attempt to crowd out WWE’s influence?
No, I don’t think so at all. When I was younger, there were partnerships between a lot of the other wrestling companies. And there was the Wrestling Peace Festival, which was a great idea, and some of those companies did keep working together. You saw wrestlers from AAA in WCW, and you saw wrestlers from New Japan [Pro Wrestling] in WCW, and so I think it’s very natural. Twenty years later, things have come back full circle, and now you’re seeing those wrestlers from New Japan and AAA competing again on TNT. You’re seeing [New Japan’s] IWGP titles defended on TNT. I think it’s the natural balance of the universe just coming back.
Sure, but how do you and other promoters determine that these arrangements are mutually beneficial?
I mean, I have to make sure we’re getting taken care of, and obviously the promoter we’re working with is going to have stuff they need to make sure they’re getting taken care of. And I’m pretty reasonable. I don’t want to screw it up for anybody. So whether it’s Konnan with [Mexican promotion] AAA or dealing with the New Japan office or talking to Scott [D’Amore] and Impact, I just generally go into it like I’m dealing with another party in sports if you’re making a trade or something. You know, you just try to work it out and be a good person and a fair partner in the negotiation.
As an analytics guy, how much of that plays into real-time, week-to-week decisions about who to push on your roster and on Dynamite versus the idea that it’s purely creative thinking?
It’s a great question. It’s a mix. I look at the numbers — the minute-by-minutes, the quarter[-hours] — very closely. Since there’s not a head-to-head competition on Wednesdays [against WWE’s NXT, which moved to Tuesdays] anymore, the patterns have changed a bit. So we’re learning new things based on the data that has been coming in the past few weeks. But since we began, I’ve studied these trends really closely and it can be a good indication of what’s getting hot, what’s getting a good response. Conversely, I don’t want to knee-jerk react if something doesn’t get the biggest number right away. It doesn’t mean that it won’t turn around and draw.
Khan invested time in developing the dynamic Darby Allin, and it’s paying off.
Image credit: AEW
I’ll give you a really good example of this. I’ve put a lot of effort into Darby Allin and really trying to emphasize that he’s an important person for AEW because he’s a creative artist who puts together short films and artwork for his matches. It’s the kind of thing I could never come up with in a million years. That’s why I love collaborating with him. because he comes in with really awesome ideas that nobody else would think of that are in his own voice. Darby wasn’t the biggest draw [right away], but we’ve kept building and building with him, and now he’s not just a future star for us; he’s a big star now. That was a result mostly of his hard work and great presence and the great thought he puts into his character and the way I booked him, which is very strong. When you put all that together, now we’ve got a star who consistently is drawing ratings for us and is a big part of the show. And there’s a lot of good examples of that. Britt Baker turned into a real star for us, and we put tons of time in on developing her to the next level. So I think it’s a good mix of people we’re building for the future and then stars that the audience recognizes from watching wrestling for years.
Unlike with, say, the Jaguars, where there’s a hard salary cap on what you can spend to fill out your roster, it can seem open-ended when it comes to AEW. What’s the reality of how you decide when to spend big on talent?
At the end of the day, it’s similar to sports, where you have a budget and have to decide. It’s not like a mandated salary cap by the league or some sort of wrestling governing body, but it is a budget that you need to stick to. So it is similar to operating a sports team, and in lot of ways I would describe myself as somewhere between if you were owning and coaching a sports franchise, or if you own the studio and were directing movies. It’s a mix of being a showrunner of a TV show and a coach of a sports franchise. And, you know, you’re making decisions about playing time. As a general manager of a sports team, you have to decide which athletes are going to get the contracts and who’s going to get extensions, who’s going to get a tryout and who’s not, and these are things you deal with in wrestling too. When you’re producing a TV show, you’re dividing up the screen time and creating storylines. And so it’s really a mix of the two things.
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What’s the approach to cross-promotional integrations on Dynamite? I’ve talked to AEW personnel in the past who didn’t exactly relish too many forced campaigns, but were confident there’d be constructive conversations if it came up.
There are things that we do for cross-promotion. Godzilla vs. Kong was something we were able to integrate into the show and help one of our partners, and we’ve done other integrations, like a “Cracker Barrel Clash” and things of that nature. You don’t want to do too many sponsorship partnerships like that where it feels like you’re a sellout or something, but I’m always open. For the wrestlers, the biggest focus is always the show itself. I’ve never felt like we had to promote a product where it was cumbersome to the show, and we haven’t really had a lot of pushback. Our audience is very vocal, and I listen to them and try to make changes based on what the audience wants to see, because that’s who we serve. And so we’ve never gotten pushback on that, and if we had, I think we would be listening for it.
You mention serving the fans. Your ultimate competiton, WWE, gets some criticism for being disinegnuous that its product exists to serve its fans. How do you convince your audience that those claims about AEW are genuine?
There’s a lot of differences. I don’t do really cheap DQ [disqualification] finishes to prolong something. There are other wrestling programs where you might see multiple DQs and countouts in a week. I believe in giving the fans a finish to the match. I believe in not false-advertising programs and people. I might hype something I really believe in, but there’s a big difference between hyping something and false-advertising outright, and I’ve never done the latter. I think that’s why we have a lot of goodwill with the audience. Following through on the things you say you’re going to do and trying to deliver a show that’s in the spirit of what the fans want to see week in, week out and offering fresh matches and fresh programs is a big part of it. You know, not doing the same matches 17 weeks in a row over and over again.
That said, AEW has had its missteps, like any new business does. Can you cite a few and how you bounced back from them?
I want to talk about three things, but the third one is not a failure; it’s just about trying to get the best out of a bad situation. So at the end of 2019, we were in a head-to-head battle on Wednesday nights, and this went until very recently. And that was clearly the time where we just weren’t giving our fans what they wanted. We’d started with this great audience, and there were a lot of people with good ideas, but there were too many people, too many ideas, and there was just too much. It was overwhelming. I promised myself I was going to work harder and come up with my own ideas. I would still solicit outside suggestions, but I was only going to do stuff I really believed in, and I was going to be more meticulous. I believe it made a big difference and we came back much more focused, much more organized and with a great response to our next several shows. From the end of 2019 to the beginning of 2020, the numbers turned around, and I was really proud of that.
We were doing the best business we’d ever done, and then the pandemic hit. All of a sudden we went from having our full roster to having less than 30% of them available. In the month of April, 29% of our roster appeared, and the 71% that did not appear included a lot of the biggest stars in the company. And with that 29% of the roster, we fought on. We did win the demo every week, but the ratings were tighter than I wanted. Every week was a dog fight. For these tapings, I really felt like we had to keep the momentum going, but also so that we’ve fulfilled our obligations to our TV partner by producing new shows. The last thing I ever would want to do in this situation with everybody’s livelihood at risk is breach the TV contract. That is our lifeblood revenue stream. And so we taped enough wrestling matches to do up to six or seven weeks of Dynamite. We kept the stories alive, found fresh ways to do it, and I was really proud of the way we literally put over a month’s worth of shows together in 15 minutes; the work held up. As an entrepreneurial object lesson, it’s trying to make the most out of what you have even if your resources are limited, and sometimes it’ll be your best work.
And a big part of those shows was Brodie Lee [aka Jon Huber, who passed away last December]. He was a huge draw for us, and he was a locker room leader. In every way, he was one of our most important stars. And he got sick last year, not from Covid, but from something else. Suffice to say, it got bad. We knew he wasn’t going to come back to wrestle, but he was really fighting for his life, and we were all praying and hoping and trying to rally around his wife and sons. They really became part of our family here, and I don’t say that lightly. They were with us at the shows, and we were with them through the most difficult times and trying to take care of them and do right by that great family.
I think when you’re building a business, there’s going to be times where you lose a loved one, you lose part of the team. That’s important for everybody too, remembering it’s a family and you have to support everybody. I felt enormous pressure to put a show together that would be a great tribute to him. I’m prouder of that show than anything else we’ve done as a company, and I’m also really grateful for the fans that we had. That was real, and that was one of those times where you forgot we’re in a pandemic. So that was a really special moment for the show and an example of, something that was a terrible circumstance that we just tried to make the best of.
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Lastly, for the Jaguars and Fulham fans out there: Your passion for AEW is clear, so how do you decide when it’s time to delegate day-to-day operations in your other businesses?
I’ve done that at the Jaguars to some extent, in terms of managing the data myself and being the person overseeing the dissemination of the data to the coaches. I hired an amazing person named Karim Kassam at the Jaguars. He’s a really, really capable person with a great football knowledge, but also highly intelligent and really good with programming and systems and statistics. So that has freed me up to focus on the personnel and scouting at Fulham, as well as writing AEW shows and running our roster.
You have to make choices. There’s only 24 hours in a day, so hiring really intelligent people to work with you helps a lot. Delegating some of your responsibilties [helps], but if you’re an entrepreneur and you bootstrap the business, there’s a good chance you have some kind of special skill that got you to where you are, and I wouldn’t quit doing that. For my dad, I think it’s managing his autoparts business. He still manages the relationships with the auto companies. He’s not actually designing the molds anymore like he was at the beginning, but every once in a while, he’ll still get it on the ground floor and do some of that. For me, I don’t think I’ll ever get far enough removed from AEW where I will remove myself from the process of signing or the creative process.
My thought on it is, if you’re running multiple different businesses, find the places you add the most value and find the places where the most things can go wrong if you weren’t paying attention and focus on those. And then for the stuff in between, find really good people to delegate to. I think that’s a good rule of thumb.