9 min read
Brandi Rhodes apologizes for being a bit behind schedule. “There’s just no such thing as an easy travel day,” she laments. But despite the pandemic, Rhodes has maintained a busy itinerary as Chief Branding Officer of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the nearly two-year-old, Jacksonville, Florida-based pro-wrestling company. AEW was founded by a cohort including Rhodes and her husband Cody — who performs in the ring while serving as Executive Vice President (Brandi also competes on occasion) — and President/CEO Tony Khan, who also co-owns the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars franchise.
The popularity of AEW’s primetime TNT show Dynamite has helped Rhodes and company upend World Wrestling Entertainment’s virtual monopoly over the industry. Thanks to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s decree back in April that wrestling qualified as an “essential business,” Dynamite has continued rolling tape. And since then, Rhodes has also been nurturing an initiative under the company umbrella called AEW Heels. The self-described “female-focused wrestling community” is intended to provide a safe and engaging space for women fans and talent to celebrate their love of a historically paternal pasttime.
Throughout late spring and early summer, Rhodes introduced Heels by orchestrating events like live Zoom get-togethers with herself and other AEW roster standouts, including openly transgender former Women’s Champion Nyla Rose, while debuting merchandise like T-shirts and tote bags. But last month, Heels ramped up in earnest by partnering with digital marketing agency Wonderful Union to debut a $49-a-year, subscription-based membership platform that provides exclusive access to exclusive AEW talent Q&As, themed virtual (for now) parties and workshops and tutorisals focused on empowerment and inclusion.
A day before Dynamite‘s most recent taping (its first with a limited number of live fans in attendance since March), Rhodes connected with us by phone from Jacksonville. She offered insight into how she first pitched Heels to Khan, reconciling altruistic intent with financial imperatives and her enthusiasm for making Heels more than just an online experience once the current public health predicament passes.
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The initial rollout of Heels coincided with the wrestling industry’s own #MeToo reckoning, the #SpeakingOut movement. How much did that inspire the initiative to begin with?
That was purely coincidental. This is something we had talked about and were trying to figure out what it would look like, especially in this period, for quite some time. The #SpeakingOut movement happened and continues to happen, and that’s something I definitely look at as a separate thing, even though one of the greatest things about Heels is that it’s very topical. Whatever is going on in the world or that people want to discuss is something we’re open to doing.
When you’re an executive and get an idea for an initiative, how do you first go about presenting it to uppermost management?
Sometimes it’s trial-and-error. The number-one thing with something like this is being able to understand. And sometimes when we pitch things, we think because we understand it, everbody else is going to fully understand the scope of it. And sometimes we’re just not clear with our expectations. So I outlined everything I wanted to talk about with [Heels], and I asked for some time with Tony. We talked about it for 30 minutes on our own before presenting it to anyone else, and I think he was able to get a full grasp on it right away.
At what point in the conversation do you discuss how an idea like this can also generate revenue?
One thing we’re seeing, and this has been growing across the board, is that more women are watching AEW. So learning information like that only helps when you want to form a community for women. The other thing is, from a marketing standpoint, this is not something we looked at and said, “Hey, we’re gonna make a ton of money off of this.” It’s not unlike a lot of small business. This is not something we expect to be profitable for a long time, if ever. The only reason we ask for money for membership is because there’s a cost to run it. There’s this big website that’s multifaceted and allows these women to communicate all the time and to do live in-persons and parties and meetings via Zoom. We update with different news and photo galleries and posts. They’re getting access to a lot of people who are putting in a lot of work. We can’t start a website out of the clear blue sky. If we did, the product would not be good, and they would not enjoy it and stick around.
How do you decide to partner with an agency like Wonderful Union when you’re building this out? Is it more a matter of values alignment or expediency?
We’re lucky to have a lot of great partners, and one of them is Activist, who work with a lot of artists and musicians, and they’ve test-driven platforms like Wonderful Union before and are able to say, “The value is there, and the company is attentive,” and that’s really what we need to know. We have that luxury, and a lot of people don’t. A lot of times it’s just taking a shot in the dark when someone says they could do something for you. It ended up being a great fit with Wonderful Union.
Image Credit: AEW
You did host a free event or two early on. How important is it to give people that opportunity to sample a product before enticing them to sign up?
One of our free Zoom sessions was with a donation element towards the Black Lives Matter movement, so we did want to get something out of it for a good cause. Some people did choose to just check it out because it was free, and I think they really were impacted by that. At the first launch of the membership, I wasn’t sure how many members we would get off the bat, and we got exactly what we needed. So it just goes to show the marketing efforts and elements are there.
How do you feel confident that you’re identifying a void for something like this in the first place, and then that you’re the one to fill it?
Having been in the industry for so long, I’ve seen a lot of voids. And I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of voids being a person of color, being a woman. So you recognize those hardships and have to stay grounded in them, because there aren’t that many of us in positions like mine. It’s a delicate balance, because you don’t want to be the person who’s always harping about issues that can be seen as personal to you. But at the same time, you do feel like you represent people like you. It’s something I pick my battles with, but it’s not an actual battle half the time. It’s just, when is this appropriate and how do we most effectively do this?
It can be tricky, knowing when to take a position on something. Given what’s going on as we speak in Kenosha following the shooting of Jacob Blake, do you have a gut feeling about when it’s that moment for you?
One thing that’s always important is don’t feel like you always have to respond to something or publicly say something. Sometimes you’re more effective donating or doing something that’s able to help the cause more than just saying something. It’s become so commonplace to say something, but that doesn’t guarantee there’s any feeling behind it, that it wasn’t written for you. People have come to rely too much on social media as an action, when really it’s just words. I’m also more of a quiet-action person. If I choose to donate something, I usually do it anonymously. I’m not going to immediately align myself with someone because of something they said on social media.
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And have you thought about the presentation of Heels once we’re all allowed to come out from behind our virtual selves?
That was actually what I was thinking about before all of this happened. Then it became, “OK, how do we do this in this current situation?” Because the plan has always been for Heels to be a community thing, and community to me means people get together. Because AEW is known for having pay-per-views where most of the audience travels to them, this is something I saw as an opportunity to get together quarterly and do these large-scale events and meet people. And that didn’t happen because of the state of the world, so that’s something we’re looking forward to. Things have gone so positive given the current affairs, I can only imagine how great it’s going to be when these women who are bonding at a distance do get together. A dream situation would be at [AEW PPV] Double or Nothing in Las Vegas, those girls being able to get together, have dinner, sit together at the show and have an event that’s members-only where we have these parties in person with the same information and bonding. But in the meantime, we’re having an awesome time doing things the way we are.
Whether from your point of view or the company’s, how does success get defined for an initiative like this?
Everything is a little bit different, but with Heels in particular, there’s been consistent growth every week, and growth beyond us having to market heavily, which goes to show there’s great word of mouth. It’s really a satisfied-customer thing. Heels ends up selling itself, which is great, and I think it will continue to do that as we put time and energy in, and it’s gonna continue to grow.