We are still more than two months away from All Elite Wrestling’s debut event, Double or Nothing, and already the fledgling promotion has made its distinct mark on the landscape of professional wrestling.
While high profile signings like Chris Jericho and an EVP panel made up of Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks essentially guarantees AEW will be a force to be reckoned with on day one, some of the company’s more subtle maneuvers behind-the-scenes are what have peaked our curiosity.
Their rapidly expanding roster already sports talent from all around the world, covering a whole spectrum of race, religion and sexual orientation, and an intentional outreach to the marginalized wrestling fan — such as those dealing with autism and PTSD — shows that The Elite’s often quoted mantra, “Change The World”, is more than just a marketable catchphrase.
This week I had the opportunity to speak with Brandi Rhodes, Chief Branding Officer of All Elite Wrestling, about the company’s new partnership with KultureCity. We also discussed her first few months behind the desk in a brand new corporate role, some of the big moves that she has already made in the position, and what’s to come as we creep closer to May 25th and the highly anticipated Double or Nothing debut.
Tell us a little bit about how this partnership with KultureCity came about.
“A lot of my job is to seek out like-minded partnerships and contour relationships with them. In the early stages it’s a pretty rare thing to run across such a great fit. We’re excited and super fortunate that this one was able to pan out so quickly, and align with each other as far as what we want for both sides of the partnership.”
“KultureCity was looking to do something in the wrestling realm for a bit now. They’ve found themselves in over 250 large arenas and they’ve only been going for about five years, so that’s pretty substantial. They’re across NBA teams, and NFL and NHL teams. They’re in zoos, and other large public buildings — any kind of large, public gathering they want to infiltrate.”
It does seem like a pretty obvious marriage for both sides.
“Wrestling is a natural fit for them, it’s just been a situation of them getting in contract with the right people. By chance we have a mutual friend, got introduced, and got talking immediately. I said, ‘Yes, this is something we definitely want for Double or Nothing.’ It’s an honor to be the first wrestling event of its kind to be sensory inclusive.”
It seems like the general reaction from fans, at least what I’ve seen online in the groups that are talking about this new partnership, is overwhelmingly positive.
“The day that the news went out, we put the video out on The Road to Double or Nothing, and the response from the fans was greater than I could have possibly anticipated. I was literally in tears in my kitchen, trying to make myself lunch. If anyone knows me, I hate to label myself, but I appear cold a lot. I don’t cry often, and I’m not overcome with emotion a lot. It’s just not who I am or how I am. So for that to really overcome me, it just let me know, it resonated with me that this is not just a dream, this is something that I should be doing.”
“Working with organizations like these, and helping people experience events that they’ve never been able to experience before and have their most fun and, I hate to be cliche, but live their best life. That’s what I want to do. It was really an arrow pointing in the right direction for me, and we continue to cultivate this partnership.”
I remember you saying on Twitter, shortly after the announcement, that you have sort of found your “path” or your “calling” working with groups like KultureCity to champion these kinds of causes. It’s an admirable goal for a wrestling promotion to reach out to fans that, I don’t know if “marginalized” is the right word, but to those fans that may not be included in the past just because people tend not to see beyond their own experiences.
“One of the things that caught my attention the most, when I first spoke with Julian from KultureCity, he said that these sensory issues are sometimes overlooked or forgotten because they’re not always visible. I think that’s a super important thing, because in life we’re always living our own journeys and telling our own stories, and you never know what someone else is experiencing or going through.”
“In the case of someone who has some of these issues, it’s not always right there on the surface. Being able to open up, and allow people who feel like they are not welcome because of their disabilities — everyone is welcome, and you should have a place to retreat to if you need it while watching one of these events. You should be able to have the headphones available to you.”
“Having sat at ringside for so long, I thought I was going deaf at one point with all the pyro. If I ever forgot to plug my ears it was a shock. I can’t imagine being a child, or even an adult having heightened issues with sound, how that would effect you. Especially if you didn’t know it was coming.”
I’ve spent a lot of my life contemplating my purpose. Today, after seeing the enthusiasm for the @kulturec partnership from so many families and individuals, my path is clear. Thank you all for embracing the inclusive culture and sharing slices of your lives with me ❤️
— Brandi Rhodes (@TheBrandiRhodes) February 28, 2019
As someone who deals with a fair amount of sensory-induced anxiety myself, I’ve been to a lot of live events and people at home have no idea how loud some of that pyro can be.
“One of my favorite stories involving pyro — one time Mark Henry was in the ring, and this was at the time where he was at the height of his career so he was Mean Mark. And he’s skulking around and looking super menacing, and they hit pyro to send Kane out, completely unbeknownst to Mark, and I’ve never seen someone jump so high in my entire life.”
“You can be as prepared as you want to be, but sometimes it’s just overwhelming in that kind of environment. I’m just really happy and excited that we can start to bridge this gap. Hopefully from this event we’ll learn more, and be able to cater to more people.”
It seems like AEW is already lightyears ahead in some aspects, especially when it comes to being inclusive — which is a word I keep hearing over and over again — but also in the diversity and the progressiveness of your talent. A lot of companies, and not just in wrestling, they go out of their way to let everyone know how “progressive” and “forward-thinking” they are, but it’s not always reflect in what we see in their product.
I’ll use WWE as an example. It’s wonderful that they supported Darren Young for being openly gay and gave him a platform to be who he is and inspire and encourage others, but when it came time to write television, where was he? It’s a fine line sometimes, but I don’t see AEW flaunting your progressive values. I just see you making moves and speaking through action.
“I think you hit the nail on the head, in that a lot of times these things can be a fine line. At the core of everything that we’ve been trying to do, wrestling is at the center. Take a look at a lot of our signees, some that you may not be super familiar with. All of these wrestlers are just so talented. There’s not a single person that I could point to and say, ‘Well, they’ve got a lot of growing to do.’ A lot of these people are seasoned, and amazing and that’s why they’re here.”
“I remember when there was a scandal with one of the Victoria Secret executives saying that there wasn’t a place for certain people on their runway. There was a whole lot of backlash for that statement. You don’t know — you could not possibly ever know who all your models are. What if they’re just not out about their situation? What if they just don’t want to speak about their situation? They shouldn’t be forced to. That’s everyone’s personal choice what they want to be known about their life, and what they want to be shared. Everyone is entitled to their own privacy, how ever they want it. If they are super comfortable with whatever it is, and they want to talk about it and be front-and-center about it, that’s up to them. That’s never going to be up to me though. I would never approach anyone making them feel as if this is something we want to portray for them. It’s all about what they want for themselves.”
It’s wild how your career has evolved in such a relatively short period of time, and I’m sure in ways that were totally unexpected to you as well. To find yourself in this position now as the Chief Branding Officer of a major company, and yet it all comes back to wrestling.
“If you fall in love with wrestling, you’re in it for the long haul. If you see people kind of come in, go out and then you don’t see them anymore, they just didn’t fall in love with it and that’s totally okay. Wrestling caught up with me seven years ago and I haven’t put it down since. All of thees different roles I’ve had have all been heavily involved in the wrestling business. It’s the first time in my life since figure skating that I’ve been able to say, ‘this is home, this is family, this is where I live, and this is where I’m safe.’”
“In this particular job there’s always that thing in the back of my mind where I consider myself a professional student. I just enjoy learning. If you were to give me a scholarship tomorrow to go and get a doctorate, I’d be like ‘great, sign me up!’ I want to learn, and figure out what I don’t know and expand upon it. I’m one of those people that could have gone to school forever.”
“I always wanted to utilize some of the things that I’ve learned, and utilize them in a way that wasn’t just to please somebody else. I wanted to feel like I really loved what I was doing. When I took on this job I was 100% confident that it was for me. It needs time, of course, to establish things. This company has grown in strides from how tiny it started, and it’s only been a couple of months. With all of the growth, you’ve seen the roster grow, the executives grow and start making real moves — it’s really kind of astonishing, and we’re lucky to be here because we love it so much.”
People don’t really leave the wrestling business very often, do they?
“I can’t imagine doing anything else, ever. I feel like if I were to get out of wrestling, I’d be back pretty quickly. I don’t think anything else would cause me to feel the passion that I do in this industry.”
Are you feeling that itch to get back in the ring?
“I’m still training all the time. I’m kind of itching, yeah, to get back into competition, but in the front of my mind are these girls who haven’t had a chance yet. It kind of stinks to sit out Double or Nothing. Of course I’ll be in and around whatever Cody is doing, if we end up having a match for Cody given his knee situation. It’s tough, but I keep training, and that’s what keeps me alive and hopefully we can get some of these newer talents out there and rolling. You’ll see me again, I’m sure.”
In the meantime, a big part of your job has been scouting some of these new signees. AEW has already brought a lot of exposure to different wrestling scenes like China, with the OWE group. Do you have your eyes on any other up-and-coming markets that you’d like to explore?
“We recently signed Bea Priestly. She’s from England and there are so many talented women on the English independent scene. I love that we have her, and definitely there are other women out there in England and Australia especially that are really talented.”
“For me, there’s always an interest in the ladies abroad. I learn of new talents all the time, which is crazy because I’m paying attention pretty close right now. I have friends in the business send me things, and send me links, and I’m just so amazed by these ladies and what they can do already. The pool of talent out there isn’t getting smaller any time soon. I’m really happy with the growth we’ve brought on board. Keep your eyes and ears open because there’s more, and we’ll let you know about their status and situations when I’m allowed to.”
I don’t know if you’re necessarily the right person to ask about this, but it’s a fan question and I like it so I’m going to ask on their behalf. When you consider the importance of sound to the overall presentation of wrestling, how has AEW looking to incorporate and have you considered working with someone like Jim Johnston?
“Music is super important in wrestling. We have a lot of people who have taken a lot of time in growing their image, and a big part of that is their music. And we also have a lot of new people who are coming in and still trying to find that. It’s an important part of the identity of a wrestler.”
“We’ve had some conversations with certain people, and we continue to, as far as what we’re looking for going forward. Definitely not married to anything at the moment, but sooner than later we will probably nail down a specific track as far as how we’re handling music going forward.”
“For now we’re lucky to have so many talents that have great music already, which is really cool because people who are familiar with these talents, they’ll have that music available to them. It’s hard when people change courses and have to change everything about them, and there’s a little bit of their identity missing. Luckily for a lot of talent, they’re not running into that issue coming into AEW.”
Another fan question — what do you want the takeaway to be for a new fan watching AEW?
“I just want it to be a really good portrayal of wrestling. I want them, when they watch it, to just be in awe of the talent, and to be a fun presentation all around. We’re definitely going to be able to accomplish this. Double or Nothing should be a great indicator of what people can expect more frequently, but I’m just envisioning a super fun atmosphere with the best wrestling out there, and a lot of talent being able to showcase why you liked them in the first place.”
Finally, an important question… Who is the real Executive Vice President of AEW?
“Oh man. You know I can’t touch that! That’s a terrible question.”
Is it Pharaoh?
“Pharaoh has a big head now. I’m starting to get irritated with him now, and so I have been showcasing the Cheese Boys a lot more. Somebody told Pharaoh that somebody died and he is king, and I’m getting tired of his little attitude. We gotta bring Pharaoh back down. He’s demanding milk bones at all hours of the day. Pharaoh is very spoiled. But he’s still a good boy.”