A Closer Look at the Impact of CM Punk and Bryan Danielson on AEW and WWE

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you have likely read the reports from Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful and Cassidy Haynes of Bodyslam about CM Punk and Bryan Danielson (aka Daniel Bryan for the last 11 years in WWE) signing contracts with All Elite Wrestling. It got the entire wrestling world excited and rightfully so. CM Punk and Bryan Danielson are two of the best pound-for-pound professional wrestlers of the last 15 years. It has not been confirmed by any stretch, but the assumption is that it is happening. There’s been a lot of debate and speculation as to what kind of impact will the arrivals of Punk and Bryan have on AEW and even WWE. The answer, however, is not as simple.

CM Punk wrestled for WWE from 2005-2014, last appearing at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view in 2014 before he essentially walked out of the company the next day. Now, I have my own opinions on that. I don’t agree with it and I personally think it was irresponsible. I know he had his issues but once you sign a contract, you fill that contract. I’m not here to talk about that. What kind of impact can he bring to AEW? Well, in the short term, quite a bit. You can get your dream matches, a ratings bump, ticket sales will increase. Everything will be great. Long term, however, is the bigger issue. When people point to CM Punk’s drawing power, they usually point to two things. First, the loud CM Punk chants at WWE live events. The chants have not been an issue outside of Chicago in years so I wouldn’t look at that as an indication that CM Punk will draw big numbers. The second reasoning is his UFC fights drew numbers. Let’s take a look at those UFC fights.

UFC203 (first event with Punk on the card): 475,000 buys.

UFC204 (first event without Punk): 290,000 buys

UFC 225 (with Punk): 250,000 buys

UFC 226 (without Punk): 380,000 buys

What this tells me is that CM Punk likely drew a good portion of those 475,000 buys for UFC 203. It was his debut and people wanted to see if he could convert to an MMA fighter. He lost, horribly. The next event did 290,000 buys so there was a 185,000 buy drop with Punk not on that card. UFC 225, which was Punk’s second and final match, drew 250,000 buys which most considered a huge disappointment. By comparison, UFC 226 did 380,000 buys. The 225,000 buy drop-off indicates to me that people paid to see Punk’s first fight out of curiosity and he didn’t give them enough to keep that momentum going for the second fight. Now people can talk about cards all they want, but Conor McGregor and Brock Lesnar draw huge houses. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the card looks like. Once the novelty wears off in AEW, how big of a draw will he actually be?

I know the AEW or CM Punk faithful are going to have an issue here, but CM Punk was not a big draw in WWE. He was WWE Champion for 434 days, but John Cena was the draw during that time, not CM Punk. Smackdown wasn’t exactly drawing packed houses when he was World Champion over there either. Sure, the Summer of Punk in 2011 was a hot angle. Yes, it was ruined by Triple H, but CM Punk has not proven he can be a draw as Champion or otherwise. He was like the Ultimate Warrior only with more wrestling ability and better promos. Warrior was WWF Champion after beating Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania 6, but everybody knew Hogan was still the draw even during the following months with Warrior as champion until he finally lost it at the Royal Rumble. Maybe Punk can do that in AEW, but after seven years and two embarrassing UFC losses, I have my doubts. Yeah, he wrote for Marvel comics but what casual wrestling fan knows that? Probably less than 5%. CM Punk will likely draw a short-term bump in ratings, but will it last once the novelty wears off and he is just another guy? In my opinion, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Bryan Danielson is one I think hurts WWE more than CM Punk. Bryan has been with WWE for over 10 years and has done everything there is to do there. I’m sure WWE could’ve done more to keep him, but it is what it is. However, much like CM Punk, Bryan has never been a proven draw. His most successful title run was probably as a heel in 2018-2019 that led to Kofimania at WrestleMania 35. He’s as pure of a babyface as anybody besides maybe Rey Mysterio. The way the fans responded to him after his 18-second loss to Sheamus at Wrestlemania 28 was unlike anything I have seen in my 30 years watching wrestling. However, something happened this year that I thought would never happen. The fans actually started to turn on Daniel Bryan for being placed in the Wrestlemania 37 main event with Roman Reigns and Edge for the Universal Title. The same fans that forced WWE to change course and give the ball to Bryan at Wrestlemania 30 were now complaining online that Bryan should not be inserted into that match. Of course, those same fans also complained that Edge won the Royal Rumble, but that’s another story.

It’s a possibility that maybe Bryan doesn’t have the overwhelming support he once had. Bryan Danielson was always one of my favorite wrestlers ever, but the most exposure he got outside of wrestling was being Mr. Brie Bella on Total Divas and Total Bellas. Not exactly a box office star there. At the end of the day, most of CM Punk and Bryan Danielson’s fan base likely already watches AEW anyway. How many casual viewers will they bring in? If you didn’t watch WWE from 2007-2014, you probably have no idea who CM Punk is. I think Punk and Bryan will do strong merchandise sales. They did so in WWE, so I think that will carry over. Live event sales will increase for events they are advertised for. However, the impact on viewership depends solely on what AEW does with them.

Let me be clear, CM Punk and Bryan Danielson on name value alone will not increase long-term viewership. I had somebody try to tell me on Twitter that AEW will creep up to two million live US viewers by the end of the year. I think you might need to see a doctor if you are of that mindset. Cody Rhodes, Sting, The Elite, Jon Moxley, Chris Jericho, etc. have drawn a million viewers a handful of times since January 2020. So I’m to believe that CM Punk and Bryan Danielson by themselves will draw an extra million? They didn’t do that in WWE. I don’t see them doing it in AEW. Is CM Punk a bigger draw than Chris Jericho? Is Bryan Danielson a bigger star than Jon Moxley? I would answer no to both questions. I’m not saying these aren’t big signings because they are. I’m saying they are not going to shift the balance of power as many are predicting.

AEW, for its many successes, doesn’t really have a good track record for debuting talent. Sting? Came in with great fanfare his first week. Then they had him do interviews with Tony Schiavone for a month that kept getting interrupted. He’s doing great with Darby Allin, but Darby was a champion and hugely popular before Sting arrived. Miro? Everybody complained about how WWE was wasting Rusev, especially during the wedding angle with Bobby Lashley and Lana. AEW brings Miro in as the best man for Kip Sabian’s wedding. It was horrible. He feuded with Best Friends because they broke his video game! Come on! For seven months I’d argue they booked him just as bad as WWE did those last few years. Finally, after seven months he became TNT Champion and he is finally being pushed as the monster he should’ve been all along. Christian Cage? He debuted at Revolution to much controversy (due to Tony Khan overhyping the surprise and many expecting a bigger name). After that, he had that in-ring segment with World Champion Kenny Omega, and then……. proceeded to feud with Matt Hardy. It’s great. If it was still 2003. Bringing Cage in and immediately feuding him with a guy he faced thousands of times in WWE was weird to me, and the feud is still going. It just now includes Jurassic Express. Andrade? Came out to a lukewarm reaction with no music. Then he cut promos the next few weeks before an okay but nothing special debut against Matt Sydal. Malakai Black is somebody they got it right with. I’m not crazy about him feuding with Cody right off the bat, but you could not debut him any better than what AEW did. Any sustained bump will depend on how they are utilized.

I know they are popular, but a popular theory making the rounds is that CM Punk will be the one facing Kenny Omega at All Out for the AEW World Title. I have my doubts, but I wouldn’t do it. First, it would completely piss on their ranking system that has already been loosely adhered to at times. Secondly, you would be bypassing Adam Page for a second time in three years for a more established name. I understood why they did it in 2019. They were a new company and needed an established guy like Chris Jericho holding the title. In 2021, they are not in the same position. You have lightning in a bottle and Adam Page will likely never be more popular than he is right now. To throw that away just to force Punk into a title match in his hometown may start to cost AEW some of that goodwill and trust they’ve spent the last two years trying to build.

Bryan Danielson, to me, is the bigger hit to WWE. He was an ambassador, he was on the creative team to some degree, and everybody liked him. His value to WWE extended way beyond viewership. Guys like Big E, Chad Gable, Cesaro, etc have credited Bryan for being an advocate of theirs backstage. I do worry about his health. The AEW style is fast-paced and rough. The amount of injuries that have piled up just this year alone is a who’s who of talent and that’s saying something for a company that usually only has shows one day per week. I trust his decision-making, but it is enough to make me pause a bit.

The matches will be great. Punk or Bryan facing the likes of Kenny Omega, Darby Allin, Miro, Malakai Black, etc. will be a sight to behold. I suspect Bryan Danielson debuts at the Arthur Ashe Dynamite episode on September 22nd. They want to make that show feel big. I would not put it past them to debut Bryan at the United Center on Friday, August 20th (a live episode of Rampage) instead of CM Punk. I think Bryan is a big enough name for the fans online to not crucify Tony Khan for not producing Punk at that show. They also have three other Chicago shows during the week of All Out. However, my money is still on CM Punk debuting on Rampage on August 20th. I think it’s not wise because you want to debut him where the most eyes are going to be watching and let’s be honest, they’re not drawing a million viewers on Friday night at 10:00 PM.

I think short term, CM Punk and Bryan Danielson can bring in about 300,000 extra viewers. If they’re hovering around 1 million then that’s 1.3 million. If they drop to 850,000 then that’s 1.15 million. CM Punk and Bryan Danielson by themselves are not going to bring in 800,000-1 million extra viewers. They’re not The Rock. They’re not Brock Lesnar. Anybody expecting that kind of bump needs to take a step back and look at things from a business point of view and not a fan point of view. There aren’t as many sole WWE and AEW viewers as you think. There are some, but the majority of wrestling fans who watch AEW also watch WWE. Most of Bryan and Punk’s fans watch AEW anyway. Can they really bring back lapsed wrestling fans? I don’t think so. I just don’t see them as big enough names. You need guys like The Rock, or Brock Lesnar, or John Cena, or Steve Austin, to bring back those fans who may have stopped watching after they left, and I don’t see any of them walking through the doors at AEW. They are top-tier megastar talent that can shift the balance of power. CM Punk and Bryan Danielson are one, maybe two tiers below that. They’ll give AEW a ratings bump and in the short term, they might hit 1.4-1.5 million live viewers, but they’ll settle in at 1.2-1.3 million viewers. Unless there are circumstances around their debuts that keep enough fans interested. I’m not focused on the initial bump. Call me when the novelty of seeing them in a company other than WWE wears off, which should be around the third or fourth month. Then, and only then, will we have an accurate picture of their true drawing power.

Thanks for reading. I’m very active on Twitter @GiftedMoney talking about wrestling among other things, so feel free to message me on there with any thoughts or comments.