January 06, 2014

Why TNA Doesn't Need AJ Styles

Yeah. Bet that title got your attention, eh?

I know what you're thinking. Just read.

A few days prior to this writing, AJ Styles' agent was reportedly telling indie promoters to book the Phenomenal One while they could because TNA had made him the offer he wanted and he was likely heading back to the company soon. A day or two after that we learned that negotiations between the two sides had once again broken down and AJ would in fact NOT be returning to TNA after all. Today? Who the hell knows for sure... Styles is making some appearances for ROH, but beyond that it's anyone's guess.

One thing is for certain though... AJ Styles is currently not employed by TNA Wrestling. And I've got news for all you people out there predicting doom and gloom: this is not the end of the world.

While compiling questions for a recent Ask FK... column, I was asked how I felt about AJ leaving TNA, and I realized that the prospect didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. Maybe it was because I felt that TNA had gotten everything out of AJ that they possibly could and he had risen as high as he was ever going to. Maybe after watching well over a year of storyline build up climax at Bound For Glory I was feeling frustrated that months and months of time and effort had once again gone into putting AJ Styles in a position to win the world title and headline the biggest PPV of the year -- two things he'd already done before with questionable returns.

My eventual answer was that I felt Styles was a symbolic loss for TNA, but this was not the crushing blow signaling the impending demise of the company that some people seemed to believe it was.

If you think about it, TNA have essentially been without AJ Styles since Bound For Glory. Yes, he was/is the world champion, but he had been off TV for the purposes of the storyline with Dixie Carter, forcing the company to fill the hole he left in the show with other talents. Has the quality of the product suffered greatly in the 2+ months since then? No. In fact, the general consensus seems to be that the show has actually been much improved. Granted, this has more to do with backstage shakeups and reported changes to the creative process, but it can't be ignored that the popular opinion is that iMPACT has become a good deal more enjoyable in recent weeks.

Have the television ratings suffered in any major way without AJ Styles' supposed drawing power? No. Actually they've gone up. While this past summer and fall the TV show was struggling (and often failing) just to get enough eyeballs on the screen to garner a 1.0 rating, recent weeks have shown that number creeping back up into the 1.1 range (not counting the hit they took for the episode that fell on Thanksgiving). In fact, the 12/26 iMPACT scored 1,354,000 viewers, the highest that number has been since September. So the episode that aired on the day after Christmas garnered more viewership than shows featuring the build to AJ Styles challenging for the world title at Bound For Glory with a year-long story behind it.

We can debate the details of the ratings until we're blue in the face and many of us often do, but the fact remains, AJ has been off TV for over two months, and rather than decreasing, viewership has shown signs of increasing. Then when he made his big return to iMPACT this past Thursday, that number ended up as 1,128,000, a decrease of over 200,000 viewers! Yes, you can chalk that drop up to the Sugar Bowl doing a monster rating that night and you really can't put it all on AJ, who didn't appear until the final minutes (though viewership did decline slightly for the segment he appeared in), but it doesn't change the fact that there is a pattern developing here of the show doing stronger viewership when AJ Styles doesn't appear on it. That doesn't say much about the drawing power that a man who is meant to be one of the company's top stars is supposed to have.

The reason I call this a symbolic loss for TNA is because its biggest impact will be felt in the fans' point of view; "TNA lost their top homegrown star for the last 11 years? Those fools! How did they manage to screw this up?" The thing is, I don't necessarily feel that this is as big a loss from a business perspective as some might have you believe.

Is AJ TNA's top homegrown star because he did the most business, drew the biggest ratings, put the most asses in the seats, or is he the top homegrown star simply because TNA got behind him and hammered him so hard into that spot for so long that it was impossible to imagine anyone else ever filling it?

Since TNA's inception AJ Styles has been their go-to homegrown talent, the guy they would rely on more than any other. When it came time to push someone who wasn't a more recognizable name from WWE/WCW/ECW, he was always at the front of the line. Even when others like Bobby Roode were getting the big push, AJ remained a prominent character and never had to sit out and wait to be featured like so many others have. And over the years they've pushed him, packaged him, repackaged him, branded him, gave him Ric Flair as a manager, put him in high profile angles, devoted countless hours of development to making him the man that fans think of more than any other when they think of TNA. But why? To what end? I ask this because from an outsider's point of view, their efforts seem to have yielded rather limited results.

I think what happened was TNA management latched onto AJ early on because he was a big standout back in the days of the Asylum, decided that he was their poster boy representing the TNA-branded talent and it just never really occurred to them to consider anyone else for that role since then. And how many times have they pushed him? How many times have they chosen him as the young guy to roll with instead of giving someone else a chance? Isn't it conceivable that if management gave the kind of support they gave AJ Styles to someone different instead that that person could possibly rise to greater heights than AJ has?

There have been plenty of times over the years when there was a spot that needed filling and management took it to AJ Styles instead of someone else. How many pushes of stars who might offer more qualities that a mainstream audience would look for were ultimately delayed because Styles was always firmly ensconced at the top of the heap? James Storm? Samoa Joe? Had Styles not forever been the company's favorite homegrown workhorse, these men and others like them might have become world champions a lot sooner, might have actually stayed in the world title picture, might have not seen the ball dropped on their characters when they were at their hottest, might a whole lot of things.

In a way I liken AJ to Gail Kim. Both of them seem to get no end of attention and get pushed over and over, even when it comes at the expense of other potential stars who could be in line for these things themselves if they could just get an opportunity, which rarely seems to come. Both are so firmly entrenched in their respective top spots that there's no kicking them out of it unless they leave the company. And management seems so adamant about keeping them there that it ends up holding a lot of other people back -- other people who might have a lot to offer.

It's been like this for so long now that AJ had almost become a crutch for TNA that they seemed afraid to discard because the thought of walking any other way was frightening to them. He's like that car that you've had since you got your license and still drive year after year; it might not be too fancy, it might not have lots of expensive features, it won't turn many heads when you drive passed a crowd of people, you probably couldn't get much money for it if you tried to sell it, but it's safe, reliable transportation that gets you from A to B, it rarely breaks down and most of all, it's got a lot of sentimental value and, damn it, you've become very attached! So as long as you've got it, you feel secure and you don't really need to look for a new car, even if a new one might be able to take you to places the old one can't. That's AJ Styles.

But has Styles really been a breakthrough star for the company? Has he attracted huge crowds of fans? Has he crossed over into the mainstream media? Has he drawn noticeable ratings upticks when he's on the screen and delivered enthralling mic work? Has he been a star that causes a downswing in business when he's not there? Not really. He's certainly over, but that seems to be where his ceiling is.

To an extent, AJ Styles has been a manufactured star. He's thought of as TNA's top homegrown guy because TNA have put years and years of work into making people think that. If a company points to someone and says, "This is the guy! This is the guy!" for eleven years straight, you're going to think that's their top guy whether he is or not. And yet after all their effort, I question how high his star has really risen and wonder if TNA simply wanted AJ Styles to shine brighter than he actually has.

For all the work that they've put into him, his promos are still hit-and-miss, you don't see him on talk shows and the like or branching out into other forms of media (ex. Jeff Hardy has an album out, Brooke Tessmacher and James Storm are developing their own reality shows, etc). He's over with the TNA loyalist fans, he's popular with that crowd, and in the past when that was the only audience the company had to draw from I can understand how he would seem like the obvious up-and-comer to push. But when you're trying to grow your business and expand its appeal to more of the mainstream audience and casual fans, is he going to be someone that will appeal to those types of people more than a guy like Magnus will?

Some people may not like what I'm about to say, but here it is: IMHO, there's more money in Magnus as the top homegrown star than there is in AJ Styles at this point. At 6"4', 250 lbs and with the aesthetics he's got, Magnus has the look of a big star, whereas AJ has more of an everyman look to him. He's been confident and charismatic on the mic since his first night in the company while AJ had to work and work to make the improvements he's made and still can't really match the natural speaking skills of the Brit, or others like James Storm, Bobby Roode and Austin Aries. Magnus has a lot of crossover appeal on the other side of the pond from his time on the UK Gladiators show as well as his various TV hosting gigs, AND has a lot of built in cache now that he's become the first British wrestler in 108 years to become the world champion of a major American wrestling promotion. This, in my mind, is a marketable star with a lot of mainstream appeal that can potentially make the company a lot of money. And whether some of you see this as a positive or not, this is a star with everything the WWE typically looks for in potential talent. And this happened without TNA having to put in countless hours of work and development, giving him push after push after push to drag him up to this level. By many accounts, Magnus didn't have the kind of support in the company that AJ had. Yes, Dixie Carter was a fan of his, but he definitely had to wait his turn. And as it turned out, he made the most of whatever he was given, proved naysayers with a lot of stroke in the company wrong (ex. Eric Bischoff) and made it to the top with a lot less effort on TNA's part to get him there than AJ did.

Yes, AJ Styles played a big part in getting TNA from weekly PPVs in the Asylum to primetime TV on Spike. The hand he had in that can't be denied. But they've never really stopped pushing him, they've kept him in the same prominent spot for years since and business hasn't really increased beyond that point. Of course, there are many other things that factor into this, but it's a fair theory that without them realizing it, TNA's business model outgrew the Phenomenal One to the point where he no longer has the necessary star power to elevate them any more than he already has. And you can hate that theory all you want, but I think there really is something to it if they can devote an entire year of storyline material (a year and a half if we start at the beginning of the Aces & 8s angle) into his world title win at BFG, and then take him off TV for months and see the ratings increase during his absence.

If AJ were the star some say he is, then you would think that with all the importance they placed on building to his big title win and everything that had lead up to it, him then disappearing from the show directly afterward would leave a hole that would be very difficult to fill, and yet it seems they filled it pretty easily. They simply put some different people in that spot without missing much of a beat and are starting to see promising results.

Is it a coincidence that we're suddenly seeing a renewed emphasis on the creation of new stars and characters, new people to fill the void left behind who, dare I say it, might even be able to do things for TNA that the Phenomenal AJ Styles couldn't? Ask yourself if we'd be seeing that same emphasis if Styles had never been taken off TV and no hole had needed to be filled. Ethan Carter III might not be getting the attention he's getting, Magnus might not be the world champion right now, etc, etc.

To sum up my point in simple terms, it's like this: AJ Styles was a big fish when TNA was a small pond. But over time, as the pond grew, I don't necessarily think he grew that much with it. And I think people who have been saying that losing AJ will be crippling to TNA or be the death of the company or be some kind of game-changer for whatever promotion he winds up in next are somewhat exaggerating his importance simply because he's been the sentimental favorite for so long.

Hell, as I'm writing this AJ made his return to ROH last night, and where's the buzz for it? Is there any buzz? I haven't seen any. Sure, even at the best of times ROH really don't have the advertising muscle (or the creative capacity for that matter) to properly exploit a major talent acquisition for all he's/she's worth, but if they really had a big star on their hands, you'd think it would have made more waves than it has.

If AJ were so important, wouldn't TNA have found some way to keep him? How much money could he possibly have been asking for? Even after they had lightened the load on the payroll department a great deal by dumping numerous contracts, they still couldn't afford to pay him what he wanted? With all the belt-tightening that's been going on in TNA and them having to be smarter about all their financial decisions, maybe they finally decided that it was time to try out a different car, so to speak. Maybe the reason TNA couldn't pay AJ enough to make him happy was because, if they were brutally honest with themselves, they didn't think he would get them a big enough return on their investment to justify that many zeros on his check.

According to Magnus, he re-signed with the company to a better deal not that long ago. So they decided to shell out more money for Magnus, presumably because they thought he was going to be worth the investment, but negotiations with AJ Styles somehow just couldn't be worked out when it came to money? That's definitely worth thinking about.

AJ is a loss, yes, but not as terrible a loss as some might think. And regardless of what happens next in TNA, a potential future without AJ Styles doesn't really terrify me. When you've done things a certain way for so long and have stopped seeing any real progress, maybe it's time for a change. And the landscape may look different soon, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. It might even turn out to be a good thing if the fans (and TNA for that matter) give it a chance.

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