Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Money Talks: Does AEW Overpay Wrestlers? Does WWE Underpay Wrestlers?

A photo of AEW star Kazuchika Okada.

Fans of any sport are experts on their chosen pastime. As fans, we can be armchair quarterbacks, backseat coaches, and managers who knew if you did X it would have resulted in Y. Being from the UK, which is obsessed with football (soccer), I went the other way and chose rugby as my preferred sport.

Yet there is no difference between football and rugby fans in the way they think and talk about what the players, managers, and clubs should do differently.

When it comes to pay, and discussing the monetary worth of a player, the same rules apply. And there is a disconnect between fans and athletes. Usually, we don’t make what seems like a ridiculous amount of money that they do. Also, they get to live out the “dream” life on and off the pitch. They are lucky. No doubt.

Fans debating a wrestler’s value is not unique or new. Fans do it in every sport. Yet wrestling is different for various physical and business reasons. Like other sports, fans are happy to talk about how overpaid Z wrestlers are.

Recently, with AEW’s signing of three of the top free agents Will Ospreay, Kazuchika Okada, and Mercedes Moné, a lot of negative discussion centered on how much they are possibly being paid.

Especially, Mercedes who may be the highest-paid woman in wrestling. Some reports suggested $5 million, but Dave Meltzer has said it is not that lucrative.

There are a lot of other reasons why AEW might be an attractive company for wrestlers. I wrote a whole article on the topic here. However, the negativity especially revolves around money. The thing in life described as the root of all evil, not everything but damn near everything.

Limits of Tribalistic Bad Takes  

There’s been a lot of negative comparisons made through the lens of WWE and AEW tribalism. Legitimate questions and concerns around AEW’s new roster signings can be found here. As for the bad faith comments, well…

Many comments I have read online about Moné being overvalued have bordered on sexism and misogynistic. Some fans talked as if they knew Mercedes’ intentions to ruin wrestling or as if they knew her to contract back to front. One fan told me how Moné has a creative control clause like Hulk Hogan.

These extreme takes where over-exaggeration is rife and the vitriol flows freely. Whether trolling, genuine, or somewhere in between, all flirt with the worst aspects of parasocial relationships. The reality is, that we know nothing about how wrestlers think and feel beyond interviews and tweets.

Others have criticized Okada and Ospreay for just being wrestlers. When writing about The Bloodline’s display of toxic masculinity, I compared a meme contrasting WWE’s Roman Reigns to Ospreay. The meme states that AEW has just presented Ospreay as a great wrestler.

Yes, to an extent. However, Billy Goat’s been on AEW TV for a short period and is adjusting incredibly well to weekly episodic wrestling TV. Something NJPW does not do.

Ospreay declares he is a great wrestler, but the fans in the arena and online are investing in him. Plus, layers are being added to his character slowly. In comparison, it took years for Roman Reigns to be accepted as the next face of the company.

Elsewhere, things have been selective ignored or history is supposedly repeating itself. Mercedes having creative control is an example of many references made to WCW.

It’s becoming too easy and too misleading of a shortcut for some fans to say AEW is just like WCW.

The Problem with It’s Just like WCW 

Comparisons to WCW are becoming more popular. Signing these wrestlers to huge contracts is going to end AEW soon. Insert pictures of half-empty arenas as proof and a caption linking this again to WCW from the company’s dying days.

The problem with this discord, like earlier this year when some fans were re-evaluating The Undertaker vs. Sting, is that our current biases change our views of history.

It’s made easier by Tony Khan stating that AEW is WCW’s spiritual successor. Being on the same Turner networks just makes the comparison more convenient. Ratings are dipping.

Another point of comparison. Compare how AEW went through a creative dip in 2024, with distractingly low attendance numbers in many markets to WWE’s creative and financial resurgence, it looks like the Attitude Era all over again.

The issue is this is confirmation bias and pattern spotting. It’s easily done but not accurate. For example, Jade Cargill is not Goldberg, despite some overlap. Some fans will magnify the tiny segment of the Venn Diagram to prove their points. But this misses the larger picture and the bigger differences.

Another issue with this default narrative is simply this isn’t the 1990s again. Also, history itself, especially related to contracts and money, has been rewritten post-Monday Night Wars by WWE. Some truths have been bent out of shape.

Monday Night War Propaganda

Studying history, you learn that the person controlling the pen, spreading the information, shapes the narrative on they like. War propaganda often does not end with the war. It continues long afterward with old myths and new myths being built to put more shine on the victor.

I remember being a young teenage fan watching WWE specials on Sky Sports or YoutubeLegends of Wrestling Roundtable or documentaries like The Death of WCW were two notable sources of post-war propaganda. These sources and the legends who spoke on them usually told me there were good guys and bad guys.

Vince McMahonand WWE- Good. Eric Bischoff and WCW- bad.

The Undertaker and the guys who stayed in WWE- good. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall who left- bad. Very bad.

Even when WCW guys were featured, they would also rewrite history to show themselves more favorably. Especially on the Legends Roundtable. Eric Bischoff took credit for some things and avoided blame for others. 

Diamond Dallas Page’s most notable defense of WCW was for how David Arquette handled being given the WCW World Championship.

Kevin Nash either confused events accidentally or purposefully lied when he justified the NWO Elite’s failure. Nash stated Goldberg injuring himself by smashing his arm through a limousine window stopped the creative plans for Goldberg to blitz through the entire faction to re-establish him as the top guy.

The issue was the NWO Elite formed in January 1999, Goldberg’s injury happened in December, way after the Elite petered out.

Nash and Hall, The Outsiders, were turning point players in wrestling history besides helping start the Monday Night War. In many ways, their legendary WCW contracts changed wrestling for the better, depending on who you believe.

The Excessiveness of WCW Contracts was Bad 

Let’s be clear, in many ways, the excessive amounts and bonus clauses given to some WCW wrestlers, like Hall and Nash damaged the company’s finances in the long term.

It contributed, along with a range of other factors such as bad creative, bad management, mistakes, and missed opportunities in marketing and merchandising, that contributed to WCW being unprofitable. WCW had an issue with accounting and contracts played a big part in this.

This is well documented. I am not rebuking the countless articles and historical books that point out the financial issues created by ridiculous high-paying contracts, minimal dates, creative control, and nepotistic deals (that guys like Larry Poffo benefitted from).

This helped (partially) to sink WCW and contributed to a creative and business nightmare.

The issue with the myth is that overall, the idea that paying more to wrestlers was unfair because WWE could not compete with that, and also long-term this was bad overall for the industry.

Excess was the problem, not the fact that wrestlers got paid more. Yet it seems now that the idea of AEW offering more money instantly means more money for wrestlers is a bad thing because of this longstanding myth and their WCW links.

Yet, as far as we know, AEW isn’t offering favorite nations clauses or giving celebrities who have appeared for the company like Dennis Rodman $1 million. But as stated, some fans are talking as if they are.

The Underdog Myth of WWE 

As stated already, history is written by the winners. Those winners have talked up the ridiculous nature of the WCW contracts, and yet WWE contracts in the early 1990s, do not get mentioned. There is the famous story of the WWE being nearly bankruptcy and the watercoolers being removed from Titan Towers to save cash.

But WWE rebounded. It has always had the feeling of a classic Hollywood film where the underdog loses their wealth and then has to rebound.

But WWE as the underdog historically is a false narrative. What WCW did tactically with contracts and money was the same as what Vince McMahon did to destroy the territories. Also, this famous story focuses on the corporate HQ and the office’s experiences rather than the wrestlers on the road and their struggles.

Also, when money has been discussed, it’s usually linked to the headliners and with the narrative of WWE, desperately having to offer everything they could to keep their top talent.

The millions offered to Bret Hart for a twenty-year contract at $1 million a year stands the test of time. What isn’t mentioned is how much/ (little depending on your perspective) the rest of the roster was paid.

To be clear again, WWE was in dire straits. Regarding WCW, they were the underdog financially. Nonetheless, focusing the myth on the struggle while avoiding the little wrestlers who were paid avoids debate about whether WWE was tight-fisted and treated their wrestlers fairly.

New Generation Era: Business was Bad and So Was Pay 

When discussing the New Generation Era, the emphasis always focuses on how business was down. It was and WWE made less money on TV tapings and house shows. How this affected top talent like Scott Hall and Kevin Nash was it eventually forced them to go to WCW.

When I say forced, if you have listened to various interviews with both men, they make it clear neither of them wanted to go to WCW. To what extent there is hindsight bias there is uncertainty. But when they talked about the money they received despite their value to the company, it seemed silly to begrudge them for wanting more money.

WWE did have guarantees to an extent, but at a sustainable level to live comfortably:

“My [WWF] contract, as was everybody’s, except for maybe Hulk [Hogan] and stuff, [Ultimate] Warrior, [was] 10 days at $150 a date, guaranteed.” Hall said, “Yeah, you made more than that, but that was what you were guaranteed. $1,500 and you give up everything for $1,500.”

Scott Hall, Wrestling Inc.

“We got paid $75 for a TV Day and that was to cover hotel, food, and a rental car. 90% of TVs were done in the northeast. You tell me how many people, even in 1994, $75.It didn’t cover the room, let alone a town car, gas, going over a couple of bridges. Horizontal Bridge was $7 back then. You could get a $200 draw against your Pikeville house show payment of $170. I’ve actually seen people get checks and owe the company money, not even making $200 a day on the road.”

Kevin Nash, Kliq This #75

Other Voices Besides Nash and Hall

If Nash’s claim some wrestlers owed the company money sounds iffy, Duke “the Dumpster” Droese confirmed elements of this on an Instagram story:

“New Generation payoffs was brought up earlier and I felt compelled to share this little turd nugget of truth. During the early to mid 90s WWF payoffs were the sh#ts for most of the roster. Houses were pathetic and money was way down. … On house show loops, the office made available a certain amount of cash for each wrestler should he or she need it for road expenses. This payment was called a “Draw”. Each night the road agent would ask each wrestler if they wanted to take their “Draw” for the night… 

At one point in my illustrious career, I realized that the office was getting over on me for certain towns and buildings… On many house shows, as opening to mid-card match, there were MANY nights where my payoff was less than $200. There were tours where I knew to take my $200 draw because my check would be less… the smallest check I ever got from the WWF was a payoff for a small Canadian tour for a whopping $1.99 (yes in Canadian). Not every broke former wrestler squandered away millions of dollars… So you are welcome current WWE roster. Your publicly traded billion-dollar company was built on the broken backs of many guys like me.”

Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, Instagram.

It has been estimated by some that lower card wrestlers like Droese may have made money in the region of $65,000 per year, around $100,000 in today’s value. Now the average wage annual salary in America last year was $59,384. Wrestlers then earned more. But that’s without taking out all the expenses and taxes.

Like DDP Said, That’s a Good Thing 

In any sport, the promoters and those at the top want to ensure they control the amount of money paid to talent. The changes in contracts did not benefit the promoters long-term, but it benefited the wrestlers.

Guaranteed money existed in wrestling before Hall and Nash went to WCW, just not that high an amount. In 1996, Vince started offering downsize guarantees to counter-act WCW’s tactics.

This benefited those wrestlers who stayed in WWE. Over time, as business got better, WWE offered its wrestlers better pay. Competition, like today, created a healthier environment for wrestlers. Gave them choices in terms of earning more money, a better schedule, better creative, etc. It’s a win-win for talent.

More places to work and more competitive wage means companies must make changes. Improvements have to happen to retain and attract new signings. Diamond Dallas Page, who also called Kevin Nash the smartest guy in wrestling for changing how wrestlers earned more money, improving their livelihoods. As Page would say then, that’s a good thing.

When WWE had a monopoly, Vince McMahon had full control over their finances and how they paid wrestlers. Wrestlers earned more than before, but without competition, costs can be controlled because where else can you work? TNAROH, NJPW, or the indies at the time and likely earn less on a smaller platform?

No competition meant WWE could dictate terms and several experts have rightly pointed out that WWE wrestlers, compared to other top athletes elsewhere are underpaid.

What CM Punk Said 

“Guaranteed money ruined professional wrestling.” 

CM Punk, The MMA Hour.

Like any statement, it can and will be weaponized. Especially against AEW who this shot was directly aimed at. When breaking down CM Punk’s MMA Hour interview, I avoided as much as possible making inferences about the man’s intentions or feelings.

I am not Punk, but context is key. The context of this statement seemed primarily related to Punk’s feelings that some young AEW wrestlers feel entitled and ungrateful.

Punk talked about how some talent wanted to get weeks of vignettes and segments taped so they could have several weeks off the road. His point was if they had to survive on money drawn from the gate, rather than a guarantee, this would motivate them more to perform and be better.

This connects to the “old-school” myth that things were better back then. The idea of experiencing the constant grind makes you worthy of your position; and makes you better exists beyond wrestling.

Because the newer generation is luckier than the past, if they did what previous generations did, they would understand. It’s another version of kids today who are soft.

It ignores, as I stated in my article why wrestlers want to work in AEW, and how they can have a better work-life balance, especially for those with families. It also ignores some of the reality of the house show circuit. When the office gets things wrong, the talent’s pay suffers.

Lynch in her autobiography, in a screenshot that has been shared on X, points out that when on SmackDown, weekly Monday house shows (the same night as Raw).

“Oftentimes meaning it costs us money to go to work.” 

Becky Lynch: The Man: Not Your Average Girl

You Wouldn’t Want to Get Paid More? 

Perhaps due to WWE mythmaking, but some fans still have this opinion that some wrestlers are not worth the high amounts of money they earn. This isn’t again a wrestling issue. Fans of all sports complain how X isn’t worth the amount he’s paid.

Complaints made when Tokyo Sports reported Okada might earn $4.5 million a year drew criticism of why he would earn so that much. My counter to that would be, that is as much as Randy Orton makes in WWE. Also, according to estimated WWE figures, both Becky Lynch and Seth Rollins earn $3 million per year.

Why isn’t WWE paying them more? Especially given how impactful Lynch has been for women’s wrestling and the company’s historic record profit and rights fees. Shouldn’t the talent performing on the shows earn more?

Is it wrong that competition might lead to people being paid more?

Here Comes the Money! But From Where? 

Last week, Raw drew a record gate. House show business and merchandise are booming, but this is not where the biggest sources of money are coming from.

When tribalistic commentators attack AEW’s attendance with photos, they miss the fact, that both WWE and AEW get the majority of their money now from TV rights deals. WWE gets money from streaming rights and is paid generously by some cities to host huge PLE events, like Clash at the Castle last year.

AEW gets revenue from PPV. Now despite difficult creative last year, AEW consistently drew upwards of 100,000+ buys for PPVs with an expanding schedule also.

Both businesses are doing well. WWE has more money than Scrooge McDuck could likely fit in his fault. AEW business has increased year on year. Observer Newsletter suggested 2023 the company made $170-175 million. That’s a 67% increase from 2022.

Year on year the money AEW has earned has increased from $64 million in 2020 to $86 million in 2021. Then to a $100 million-plus in 2022. Yes, AEW might spend more. They have a billionaire’s son backing the promotion. However, WWE is no mum-and-pop company. TKO Holdings is a billion-dollar business.

Ratings and attendance may be down, but money is money. Math is Math. Given not just long ago, WWE made money, just as CM Punk stated in his pipebomb “Vince McMahon is going to make money despite himself,” shows a big issue of selective memory.

But back to the wrestlers, these changes in revenue streams do impact how wrestlers in WWE have been paid.

Losses of Revenue

Maven Huffman, a former WWE Tough Enough winner, wrestler, and now YouTuber, has released several videos breaking down wrestler’s pay in WWE. Granted, Maven left WWE in 2005, but he reveals several ways the WWE pay structure has changed and impacted the wrestler’s paycheques.

In the early 2000s, Maven had a guarantee of $50,000, $1,000 a week, if injured or off the road. The year Maven had a broken leg and was injured for a large portion of the year he made $80,000.

That’s also without the added costs on the road. Yet being paid on paysheets, based on % of ticket sales, paid on level on the card, Maven estimated he earned $2,000 a week. Again, this seems like a huge amount of money.

PPVs allowed wrestlers to receive a pay bonus. Money could go “threw the roof”. The most Maven made from one PPV was $30,000 as a midcarder on his best day. Top-level talent made $100,000 per PPV. However, the WWE Network “destroyed” this.

Similarly, the sale of DVDs significantly “dramatically killed” quarterly royalties. Pre-Network, Maven estimated he earned more than $5,000 per quarter. Post-network that has shrunk to $300 per quarter. The rest of that money comes from video games and merchandise like action figures.

In his best year, Maven earned $430,000. Take away 42-45% for tax. Take away road expenses, daily expenses, travel, hotel, food, rental cards, etc, it still leaves a decent chunk of change.

But for men and women putting their bodies on the line and who statistically may not make it to retirement age, is this fair? Especially when compared to other athletes in other sports.

Trickle Down Economics 

In 2021, Forbes’ Blake Oestriecher pointed out Dave Meltzer’s assertions that even WWE’s top earners, Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns with their light schedule are making less in comparison to sports stars in the NFL, NBA, and MLB where some of the biggest names earn $40 million a year.

In the UK, the average Premiership League Football (soccer) player earns £3 million a year. The top players, like Marcus Rashford, earn £300,00 a week!

“On any sports franchise, they’re [the athletes] getting roughly 50% of the revenue. In WWE it’s under 10%. So, you could put everyone’s salary up five times and then you’re getting the level where you would be equal to the other sports.”

Dave Meltzer, Wrestling Observer Radio.

Consider the fact WWE wrestlers are still “independent contractors”, still having to pay for flights, accommodation, and various other travel expenses.

Also, consider the physical toll on their bodies performing day in and day out in comparison to other sports stars. Now consider the rates of injury, risk, and difference in timespan for a wrestler compared to any job, beyond sports.

This isn’t early 90s WWE and the water coolers aren’t being taken out of the building. So, if WWE and TKO Group Holdings do not change their stance, it’s not the wrestler’s fault for wanting something more. If AEW offers more than just money, why would they not take it?

Beyond Tribalism 

As fans of wrestling, we should want what is best for wrestlers and the wrestling industry. On the one hand, some fans need to appreciate the benefits of competition AEW brings. Like WCW, AEW has brought improvements that have or will slowly impact how WWE does business.

Yet regardless of company, it’s pretty clear that wrestlers, across the board, are not earning enough for a dangerous profession where one wrong move could mean paralysis.

Although some of you may retain the old-school beliefs and keep the myths of WWE and the “old school”, please keep in mind many of those old-school names knew that things favored the promoters before them. That with time they were broken down doing what they and we love.

Again, shared on X in the wake of CM Punk’s guaranteed money comments was something stated by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper when he returned to WWE at 49.

What would you have me do at 49 when my pension plan, I can’t take out till I’m 65? I’m not going to make 65. Let’s just face facts, guys.” 

Piper died at the age of 61. Things are changing. Athletes now in their 40s are not the same as athletes in their 40s ten years ago. Yet wrestlers put themselves at risk more regularly and more consistently than other athletes every week. Regardless of the company, paid enough for this?

More From LWOS Pro Wrestling

Header photo – AEW – Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.


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