Boardroom sits down with the owner and Chairman of surging pro wrestling promotion AEW and co-owner/front office exec for the NFL’s Jaguars and English football outfit Fulham FC.
Does Tony Khan sleep? It’s hard to say.
Not only is the 39-year-old businessman the co-owner and Head of Football Statistics for the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Director of Football and Sporting Director of recently- promoted Premier League soccer club Fulham FC, but he’s also the owner and chairman of All Elite Wrestling, a promotion that’s emerged as an exciting challenger to WWE — and celebrated its three-year anniversary this week.
Khan is on the road 52 weeks a year with AEW, personally booking and directing the matches with the help of his team, a labor of love for a man who grew up an over-the-moon pro wrestling fan in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. AEW is on cable twice a week, with its Dynamite show airing from 8-10 p.m. ET every Wednesday on TBS and the one-hour Rampage running Fridays on TNT at 10 p.m. ET.
Ahead of the AEW’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view event Sunday in Las Vegas, Khan spoke with Boardroom about All Elite Wrestling’s origins and growth, balancing his three intense, high-pressure jobs, and why Double Or Nothing promises to be the promotion’s biggest show yet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
SHLOMO SPRUNG: How and why did you start AEW?
TONY KHAN: I came up with the idea for AEW on the spot at a cocktail party in Beverly Hills in April 2018. I always wanted to be a pro wrestling promoter. Dynamite is a show that I’ve been writing in notebooks and word processor programs since 1995 when I was 12 years old, and we have a second show called Rampage. It happens to be a show that I came up with in 2011 and started writing because we had such a great roster that I needed a second show.
Now, in real life, we have these two great shows every Wednesday night on TBS that ranks at the top of the cable and satellite charts every single week and Friday night on TNT.
I was with a friend who was a top executive at TBS and TNT at the time, and the idea came up that it would be so huge if we started a new wrestling company and put it on cable, and I could run a business and be a great media partner for them. I’d do it at value versus the competition and produce competitive numbers that would make us a top player in the wrestling business. For the next eight months, I worked on it ahead of the announcement early in January 2019 that we launched AEW. After that, we built a roster of wrestlers that we could launch with and quickly signed them up.
One of the hardest things about it was getting the financial backing from my father [Shahid], which was a commitment of at least tens of millions of dollars to build a company that would look great on-screen and be able to function off-screen as a business. Even down the stretch, he was not super positive about it. It was a big gamble because we didn’t have the TV deal in place that we do now, but we built a staff and roster while making connections using people I knew internationally and domestically in television from working in sports in English football and, of course, in the NFL with the Jaguars.
SS: Why do you think the wrestling landscape as dominated by WWE was ripe for disruption?
TK: I thought it was time to have competition in pro wrestling again. One thing I was able to stress to the media partners that’s come to fruition a few years later is that competition helped drive the wrestling business to the biggest revenue period it’s ever seen in the late 90s, and I believe that competition could help raise wrestling to new highs. We’ve seen the wrestling business is doing very well, better than I think it’s done in decades, thanks to the competition between our companies and the success of the launch of AEW, which is all thanks to the fans, the wrestlers, and the people who’ve come together to make this a revolution.
We’ve hit new highs on pay-per-view. Our last three PPVs have been the biggest we’ve ever done, and our biggest numbers have come as we’ve seen an influx in new stars — household names to wrestling fans everywhere like CM Punk, Sting, Matt and Jeff Hardy, Brian Danielson, John Moxley — from our very first show. And we launched with the credibility of Chris Jericho from the first day.
We also had Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks who had big followings in Japan, and a lot of young stars have become the pillars of AEW like Dr. Britt Baker DMD, Jungle Boy, MJF, Darby Allin, and a whole new crop of young wrestlers. We’ve been able to build the company up, come out of the pandemic, and now it’s the most exciting time in the history of the company as we approach our three-year anniversary.
SS: For the uninitiated, how much work do you put into the day-to-day at AEW?
TK: I work on it every day and think about it all the time. I’m the matchmaker, the booker, and I put the cards and shows together every week.
I’ve been doing it for a few years now and hand-write the outlines of where the matches are going to be and the interviews. I really enjoy formatting the shows, and I think we’ve done very well as a TV show and have had great crowds.
SS: You have your two weekly shows, but also a lot of talent. How do you plan on showcasing and developing all that talent in a relatively short period of time each week?
TK: I’m able to now look at potentially expanding a lot of opportunities for people in the wrestling business now that I recently purchased Ring of Honor, a great company that just celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Our first Ring of Honor PPV was a huge success, a transition show. We haven’t launched a new weekly Ring of Honor TV show yet, but it’s something I’d really like to do and am gonna be having more conversations with Warner Brothers/Discovery about it as they’re entering a new era too. The best-case scenario would be continuing and expanding the amazing partnership we have with Warner Brothers/Discovery for Ring of Honor. It’s perfect timing for all of us to hopefully expand and, and build on.
We also have AEW Dark and AEW Dark Elevation, shows where we’ve really been able to showcase a lot of talent and build stars for ourselves from the ground up. We have millions of YouTube subscribers and these shows every Monday and Tuesday give wrestlers a lot of opportunities and many big stars will come and make appearances also.
SS: How has your analytics role with the Jaguars evolved and what are some examples of players you found to help the team?
TK: I’m still in the office in Jacksonville a good amount, but we’ve hired a much bigger staff of analytics people than what we started with when I launched the analytics and football stats department in 2012. [Vice President of analytics] Eugene Chen has a great background and is a highly educated and brilliant person and researcher.
I love the end of the NFL Draft when you finally see the players who didn’t get drafted and you get a better idea mathematically of who could be there and the undrafted free agents; I really like to come in and try to help the team by finding unheralded players and hidden gems. Some of those players include James Robinson, Tre Herndon, Brandon Rusnack, Jarrod Wilson, Mike Hilton, Corey Grant. It’s mostly been running backs and players in the secondary that I’ve signed that have done well, but I love that part of the game and undrafted free agency. That’s where statistics and using my eyes and trying to find some good players flying under the radar that I think has helped the team at times.
SS: Fulham FC won the EFL Championship and is now back up to the Premier League. Now you’re in charge of their transfers and you obviously want to keep the club up this time as opposed to last time when you guys went down right away. How will you be able to do that?
TK: I think we had a really strong squad two years ago. I thought I’d learned a lot of lessons from four years ago when we also went down. I thought the ’20-21 squad was very strong and there’s a lot of players that are still on the team today and really good contributors. I think we can now build on our most successful season yet in the Championship. A lot of it comes down to, of course, great contributions from the players and amazing coaching from Marco Silva. I think he’s the best relationship I’ve ever had with the coach.
We have a great thing happening at Fulham right now, and I think it’s our best chance we’ve ever had now to capitalize, partially because going into the [transfer] window, we have more time knowing that we’re already up instead of having to compete in the playoffs. I’ve never been more optimistic for the club than I am right now. We have the best opportunity with the squad we’ve built and players we’re targeting.
Aleksandar Mitrović just had 43 goals in 44 matches, which is pretty special. Tosin Adarabioyo was tremendous for us. He’d been on loan at Blackburn, which is the first time I saw him in person, but we used data to try and make informed decisions in the transfer market. Tosin has been tremendous for us at center back. Our fullbacks, Kenny Tete, Antonee Robinson, and Joe Bryan have been great. We’ve had players come on loan and join us permanently like Harrison Reed, Mitrović, and Harry Wilson, and I’d be remiss not to mention guys like Tom Cairney, Bobby Decordova-Reid, Josh Onomah, Marek Rodak, Rodrigo Muniz— a great young striker prospect who Marco highly recommended— and guys like Tim Ream.
SS: Why should fans watch Double Or Nothing?
TK: Double Or Nothing is the biggest event we’ve ever had since we launched three years ago. It’s our three-year anniversary of AEW’s first event, the original Double Or Nothing. We’re in a bigger venue. It’s the biggest gate we’ve ever done. And it’s [got] the biggest main events ever on the show. We have CM Punk wrestling for the world title against a great champion, Hangman [Adam] Page. He won the title at Full Gear and Hangman Page has taken on all comers — Bryan Danielson twice, Lance Archer, Adam Cole, and Dante Martin. CM Punk represents the toughest challenge to Hangman yet.
We have Thunder Rosa, the women’s world champion, facing a very tough test against somebody who’s undefeated and been dominant in AEW this year, one of the best wrestlers in the world in the professor Serena Deeb. Also one of the biggest rivalries in pro wrestling week to week right now on television is MJF versus his former bodyguard and still employee Wardlow. Wardlow is fighting to get out of this terrible, awful one sided deal that he’s made with MJF, where MJF has abused him and treats him terribly. And hopefully I think the fans will get to see a little bit of comeuppance, but on the other hand, MJF is probably the most dominant young wrestler in the world. We’ll also have the men’s and women’s finals of the Owen Hart Memorial Foundation Cup. It’s gonna be great.