The history of the St. Kilda Football Club is littered with failure, inadequacy and dishonourable off-field mismanagement. Formed in 1873, the club has hoisted the premiership cup just once, that lone triumph coming via a wobbly, ill-directed snap from the foot of Barry Breen way back in 1966 against a Collingwood side in the midst of the most infamous run of misfortune and calamity in football history. For the Saints’ many supporters, it serves as both a high watermark and an irritating reminder of their clubs habitual ineptitude. As with England’s glorious World Cup victory the very same year, it represents a sepia-toned juxtaposition completely at odds with the truth of their plight. For those too young to have witnessed it, its existence is akin to conspiracy theories surrounding the moon landing.
Indeed, 1966 was part of a golden age for St. Kilda. They topped the table for the first time in 1965 before falling short in the big one, then came ’66 and another Grand Final appearance in 1971, a narrow defeat this time at the hands of Hawthorn. Between 1965 and 1973 the Saints competed in the finals seven times. In the days of the final four and then five, this was the record of a successful club, a consistent contender.
Of course, the club would not taste September action again for a generation, yet even when they did the litany of wooden spoons and sacked coaches continued. It was not until the Ross Lyon epoch with a glut of top draft picks in tow that St. Kilda would look anything like reversing their past. Even the brief flirtation with success that was 1997 seemed only to confirm their place in the scheme of things.
Undeniably, 2009 was the greatest single season in Saints history and one of the most dominant on record. 20 wins, two narrow losses and at three quarter time on Grand Final day they had extended their lead at every change. That they would then succumb to a mighty Geelong – and in doing so become the only team in history to lose just the final quarter of a decider and fail to become premiers – says everything about St. Kilda’s existence, as if the players were thespians living up to a pre-ordained role. That the whole rigmarole of heartbreak was to recur the following year solidifies the suspicion.
Two seasons in a row they were just a kick, a leap, a bounce away from immortality. Something that galling could only come to pass at St. Kilda.
Coming into 2014 the club is one of the favourites to register a mind-blowing 27th wooden spoon. To put that into perspective, that means finishing with the worst record in the competition in almost a quarter of all league seasons. They have just sacked another coach and are a club once again in disarray. It is a cycle their fans are all too familiar with.
Contrast this with the fortunes of Hawthorn, another club that was mired in perpetual ineptitude for more than half a century from their formation. It took the Hawks 37 years and 11 wooden spoons before they won their inaugural league premiership in 1961. Unlike the Saints, Hawthorn has parlayed that success into a further ten flags in the ensuing six decades, making them one of the true powerhouses of Australian sport.
The reverse can also be true. Melbourne, the foundation club of the code, was the dominant side in the game throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, winning six premierships in a decade – a run of success the equal of anything ever achieved. When they saluted for a 12th premiership in 1964 no-one could have foreseen that 50 years later they would have failed to add to the tally. The monolith that is Richmond has endured the very same phenomenon.
It seems that a club’s providence can be altered positively or negatively only by a seismic event; a premiership, the arrival of a prominent and influential figure or, as with Norm Smith at the Demons, a shameful decision at board level that tore the club apart. Even then, how do those events in isolation continue to ripple for generations and why did the Saints, unlike the Hawks, return to type? Perhaps players and coaches engrossed in a club culture that is predicated upon being the underdog are more likely to be accepting when they fall short.
Dr Lionel Frost, in his outstanding history of the Carlton Football Club, described it thus:
“In some respects the game is a simple one – great players can make it seem more so – less obvious are the complex factors that impinge on the fortunes of clubs. The result of any given match is thus the outcome of a multitude of decisions made not only by those involved directly in the game – players, coaches and umpires – but also club officials who have in the past made decisions about recruiting and player payments. Every football club has a history that shapes what it can do and how well it can do it. Only an interpretation that takes these forces into account can explain… success, on and off the field.”
Just three clubs have been routinely successful for essentially their entire existence – Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon – and it’s therefore no surprise that they are clearly the three most triumphant in the game. Even when these sides are in a slump there is genuine belief that the next premiership is imminent. Their club culture stubbornly refuses to accept a position of mediocrity even when, as with the Blues and Bombers, they haven’t been near a flag in well over a decade. Is that delusion or well-founded confidence?
Either way, supporters of St. Kilda and the Western Bulldogs, with just a premiership apiece, hold dear the examples of modern fairytale stories in Geelong and the Sydney Swans, both of whom until recently hadn’t succeeded since the advent of decimal currency, or in Sydney’s case, before WWII. The Cats and Swans have been able to capitalise on the changing face of the game to produce golden eras that could well revise the course of club history for decades.
With draft and salary cap measures designed to have all on an level playing field, it defies logic that some teams are hindered by constant incompetence while others continue to thrive regardless. Surely with all things being equal, that indefinable thing that is club culture must have its invisible hand somewhere near the wheel.
AEW and the Way Forward for Pro Wrestling
With their first PPV success in the books, a new TV deal signed, we crystal ball what is in store for AEW, as well as predict the future for WWE.
In the second part of our AEW special feature, we continue the discussion of fledgling professional wrestling promotion All Elite Wrestling. In our first part, we covered their new television deal with WarnerMedia channel TNT- once home to WWE’s chief competitor and losing pugilist in wrestling’s Monday Night Wars that took place in the late 90s.
We now turn our focus on AEW’s future in the ring and talk about the current and future stars of the promotion and ask the question, who will be their rising star and first champion? We also spotlight the year ahead for AEW and what fans can, and should, expect from the company before wrapping up the feature with our look at the next 5 years of professional wrestling. We crystal ball what is in store for AEW and the mountain of sports entertainment, WWE.
Who Will Be the Rising Star of AEW?
It is perhaps a bit strange to nominate Kenny Omega as a rising star, considering he’s been widely regarded as the best wrestler in the world for several years now and was subject to a huge cash offer to join WWE, but the reality is that Omega isn’t really known to people outside the Internet Wrestling Community. With the might of the TNT corporate muscle behind him, it’s time for the Best Bout Machine to be delivered to the masses.
Beyond Kenny Omega, the most obvious pick to be a breakout star is Pentagon Jr. From his days on the much loved Lucha Underground where he transformed from evil villain into badass anti-hero, Pentagon Jr has already developed a cult following that seems ripe for expansion. With the best catchphrase in wrestling (Cero Miedo) and an incredible moveset, it won’t take long for Pentagon Jr to get over with the crowd despite the language barrier.
Managing Fan Expectations
So far AEW hasn’t put a foot wrong; it’s constructed an exciting roster of talent, signed a big TV deal and its first show was a runaway success. Since Double or Nothing, social media has been awash with praise, rave reviews and think pieces about AEW’s golden future. Yet all the positivity and good vibes need to be taken with a grain of salt. While Double or Nothing was a terrific show, it was made to feel all the better against the drivel that WWE is force feeding its audience. Anything looks brilliant when compared with the current state of affairs in Stamford and it’s not surprising that fans are flocking to AEW and its promises of a better, more intelligent wrestling product.
But it’s worth remembering that the highest point is reached just before the fall. Fans will need to prevent their emotions from running too far ahead. AEW will have missteps along the way. Some storylines won’t go exactly to plan. Some angles will not work out and some feuds will be disappointing. It will be important for fans to expect some bumps in the road and to keep a fair perspective on the product before rushing to snap judgments in the heat of a social media moment.
Who should be the inaugural AEW Champion?
In the aftermath of Double or Nothing, it was announced that Chris Jericho will face off against Hangman Adam Page for the honor of being the first wrestler to raise the championship belt that Bret Hart debuted to a shocked Las Vegas crowd. The match will take place at their next major show, All Out, in Chicago at the end of August.
This booking is smart. Jericho is the legend whose presence automatically brings legitimacy not just to AEW but to whoever he’s in the ring with, while Page is immediately been pegged as one of the young studs that AEW is hoping to build around.
Diehard fans will want to see Page be crowned champion, but pro wrestling is all about, long term storytelling, gradual builds, and delayed gratification. Page is undoubtedly championship material and AEW is wise to hitch their wagon to his star, but he’s still a relative unknown. What better way to build him up by having him lose to Jericho in their first match, most likely through nefarious means, then tell the story of the rookie chasing down the veteran over several months.
Jericho winning now will give prestige to the belt and make Page’s eventual victory all the more meaningful and satisfying for the crowd. As wrestlers since time immemorial have always said: “the money is in the chase.”
Predictions for the next 12 months
Last week Jon Moxley gave a tell-all interview on Chris Jericho’s podcast Talk Is Jericho. Over 90 minutes Moxley pulled back WWE’s curtain to reveal a stifling and idiotic creative process that has seemingly led to several unhappy performers biding their time until they can escape WWE for pastures new. Fans were shocked by what they heard, yet they weren’t surprised by what Moxley said, rather they were shocked by how much Moxley’s revelations corroborated the rumors and innuendo that have been haunting WWE’s creative process for over a decade.
Naturally, upon hearing Moxley’s account, fans immediately began fantasy booking all the wasted WWE talent that will be gracing an AEW ring in the near future. Yet while we can’t stop rampant speculation over who might jump ship, we shouldn’t expect more than a handful of WWE stars to switch to AEW. There also won’t be any main event or upper card talent leave WWE. What we can expect is to see some overlooked and wasted lower-card performers move over. Tag teams such as The Revival and The Club seem tailor-made for AEW and now that they have a viable alternative to languishing in the WWE doldrums, there’s a good chance that some of them will head to TNT’s new show.
The great unknown is Sasha Banks. The victim of misuse and bad booking, Banks is allegedly unhappy with her status in the company and wants out. In the past, WWE might have granted her wish, comfortable in the knowledge that there wasn’t anywhere she could go, but now that AEW is on the scene, there is no way WWE will fathom allowing someone like Sasha Banks and her potential for megastardom to join their competition. If WWE was unwilling to release the unused and forgotten Luke Harper from his contract despite not having anywhere near the star power of The Boss, there’s zero possibility of WWE setting Sasha Banks free.
TLDR: One or two ex-WWE talents will join AEW at some point in the next twelve months but don’t expect a stampede. Instead, AEW will need to rely on its creative booking and match quality to build their roster of unknowns into stars.
What will wrestling look like in five years?
The last few years really have been the best of times and the worst of times for pro wrestling. The standard of in-ring action has never been higher with breathtaking athleticism almost taken for granted in every match, the WWE roster has never been this loaded top to bottom with incredible performers and thanks to the power of the internet, indie wrestlers have been able to build huge fanbases by themselves that would have been impossible even a decade ago. Wrestling has also gained a level of mainstream recognition that it hasn’t had for twenty years and in October WWE’s second show, Smackdown, will debut on Fox Sports in a huge multi-million dollar that will flood Vince McMahon’s wallet with even more cash.
Yet for all that, there is an undeniable smell about the WWE product. Repetitive booking, various members of the McMahon clan putting themselves over at the expense of the actual wrestlers, a never-ending series of pointless and meandering promos that always end up with a three-man tag match that already happened the previous week and that’s just the first hour. Then when you factor in the prevalence of juvenile and childish angles at a time when the wrestling audience is skewing towards older men who want more logical and sophisticated storytelling that doesn’t make them feel stupid for spending their time watching men and women fake punch their enemies, it’s unsurprising that there’s considerable dissatisfaction with WWE.
It’s in this context that the arrival of AEW has been so eagerly anticipated among wrestling fans. Given the state of WWE, AEW has a golden opportunity to carve a market share for itself.
While it’s nigh impossible that AEW will ever supersede WWE as the biggest and most well-known wrestling company in the world, the very presence of AEW on a major television network will force WWE to look more closely at what it’s presenting to audiences on a weekly basis. For the first time in nearly twenty years, WWE is facing external competition. If AEW can garner any kind of critical acclaim and further momentum behind it, logic suggests that WWE will be shaken from its creative stupor and begin rejuvenating its storylines to keep pace with the upstart company from Jacksonville and keep the attention of a fanbase that will suddenly have a viable alternative to WWE.
What could this rejuvenation look like? Believe it or not the best wrestling brand on the market right now, isn’t AEW and it certainly isn’t Raw or Smackdown but rather it’s WWE’s third brand, NXT.
While NXT is still nominally WWE’s development brand where young prospects hone their craft and characters before being promoted to the bright lights of Raw or Smackdown, NXT has grown into something far more than that. Its incredible matches and long-form storytelling that add layers to the characters and culminate in the quarterly Takeover specials have become the modern pinnacle of the artform. NXT by itself is enough to justify a subscription to the WWE Network.
So far NXT has existed mostly in its own little universe and none of its unique flavors has found its way to Raw despite its obvious success. The emergence of AEW could force the WWE to integrate more elements of the NXT style into the rest of its products and finally put aside the stale and frustrating crutches that have plagued Raw and Smackdown for years.
Long term it’s hard to project where AEW will be in five years. There are so many variables. Its best wrestlers could get godfather offers from McMahon, the ratings may not be there or TNT might decide to pull the plug. Regardless, wrestling fans can’t lose. More wrestling shows means competition and competition will compel WWE to stop resting on its laurels and lift its game. Even if you’re the biggest WWE mark this side of a McMahon family dinner, you should be cheering for the success and good fortune of Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega and AEW because their already considerable achievement of building a wrestling promotion from nothing will go a long way to determining the quality of the wrestling we will be watching into the future.