Laying the Values Smackdown

How a wrestling start-up is showing the importance of employee empowerment

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has been the undisputed champion in professional wrestling for decades. Competitors have come and gone, but never gave the champ a true challenge. Until now.

All Elite Wrestling (AEW) is having a moment. Big name stars are switching from WWE to AEW. Young talent is choosing AEW. One of the biggest names in the industry, CM Punk, came out of a 7-year retirement to join AEW. Ratings are soaring, moments are going viral, and pay-per-view buys are rolling in. Legendary WWE wrestler Mick Foley recently said WWE “is no longer a place for talent to aspire to.”

Poaching talent from the WWE is not a new strategy. In the 80’s and 90’s, the WCW, backed by media mogul Ted Turner, stole some of WWE’s (then WWF) biggest names, including Hulk Hogan by writing multi-million dollar checks. This time is different. AEW, founded in 2019, is not poaching talent — they are attracting it. And it’s not just about money, it is about values.

One of Vrity’s 20 values categories is “Employee Empowerment,” which recognizes brands that differentiate themselves based on treating their employees well. For example, earlier this year Vrity found that 71% of consumers said they would rather shop at a retail store that had a $16 minimum wage rather than $12. AEW is taking Employee Empowerment into an industry where that value has been nowhere to be found.

One of the dirty secrets of professional wrestling (and there are plenty!) is that the treatment of wrestlers has been historically awful. In WWE, each athlete is classified as an independent contractor, which prevents the company from having to provide health benefits and protects the company from litigation. John Oliver had a thorough breakdown on the topic in 2019: link.

AEW provides medical and dental. They allow wrestlers to earn income from doing Cameos and Twitch streams. They allow wrestlers to appear in independent wrestling events.

In addition to Employee Empowerment, AEW is also passionate about Equality. AEW wrestler and executive Cody Rhodes said, “We wanted to put a product out that’s congruent with today’s society and a snapshot of America and the world actually looks like. We’re doing a good job, but that work is never finished.”

AEW is the values-based wrestling brand and it’s working, both for fans and wrestlers. In AEW, fans see employees celebrating themselves and are connecting with them in-person, on TV and on new media channels. There’s an authenticity that is resonating and driving brand growth through employees.

It may seem strange to take business lessons from a wrestling brand that employs Luchasaurus, but AEW’s strategy shows that the Values Economy works. Employees and consumers want to support companies that are making the world a better place. When your brand can demonstrate your values, you create loyalty stronger than a figure four leglock.