I started writing this in May, following the brilliant, but bloated, Wrestlemania 32, and I was eager to talk about the first month or so of the the New Era. For no real story-line reason, Vince McMahon had allowed his son, Shane, to run Raw alongside his sister Stephanie, and the company was turning a page in the post-Wrestlemania season. New stars like AJ Styles, Apollo Crewes, Big Cass, The Vaudevillians, etc., were finally get their chance on the main roster and in the main event, while the fading stars of yesteryear were falling away into the distance. Meanwhile, on the already thrilling NXT, the addition of the astounding Shinsuke Nakamora and “the Greatest Man That Ever Lived”, Austin Aries, to the already stellar crew was stepping up a game that was already far superior in many ways to weekly WWE TV.
But just as I was about to send my original column off to Tim, an announcement appeared online: from July 19th, Smackdown would be going live on Tuesday nights. To accompany this change, WWE would once again be implementing a “brand extension” via a draft: creating distinct, bespoke, separate brands on Raw and Smackdown.
Hmmmm, I thought. Interesting….
Long-time fans know that this is not the first time this has happened. Back in 2002 we saw the first brand extension when WWE didn’t know what to do with all the surplus of talent they had suddenly acquired after their victory over rival organizations, WCW and ECW. At first it was very exciting – the idea seemed sound: rather than one oversized brand oozing across two weekly shows, offering the same old main events and a crowded-out undercard of wasted talent, each show would offer its own main events, its own undercards, and even its own championships. Fans were eager to see which previously overlooked stars would finally get their day in the sun once space was made in the main events, and the novelty of a draft provided a much missed sense of danger and surprise to an audience nostalgic for the weekly shocks of the Monday night wars.
At first, the brand extension seemed like a stroke of genius for WWE. There was an attempt to really make each brand feel distinct. Each show had its own announce team, with the Raw team’s announce position moved up to the entrance ramp to create a different visual, and after an initial set up of shared pay-per-view events there was even, eventually, brand exclusive pay-per-views. However, in a bid to maintain the integrity of the WWE championship, the main WWE champion and woman’s champion, were allowed, initially, to wrestle on both brands, and the “big four” pay-per-views each year continued to offer inter-brand competition in some main event matches.
However, while on paper the WWE wanted to pretend it was offering us two distinct brands, in practice it was painfully clear they remained two branches of the same company. No amount of red or blue shading was able to hide the fact that, ultimately, with the same pay-per-view calendar, and the same television schedule, this was one, thinly spread, roster being given no real freedoms to create a brand with any real distinction from the other. The unique selling point of each brand was only the specific roster of wrestlers they had, and the fact that one was on a Monday night, the other on a Thursday/Friday night. Beyond those minor details, there was little room to develop any identity except for the fact that Raw was live, and the company’s flagship show, whereas Smackdown was pre-recorded, and treated very clearly as a secondary concern. To try and rectify this, the decision was made to give each brand their own champions, so soon we had a World Heavyweight Champion on one show and a WWE Heavyweight Champion on another, two sets of tag champs, a Women’s Champ and a Diva’s Champ, the Intercontinental title being defended on one show while the US championship was defended on the other…While the brand extension had begun life as a way to grow the company, in practice it ended up watering everything down. Instead of having two distinct brands on WWE TV, we simply had the A show and the B show of the same thing, and two of each championship made neither championship feel like the belt. Once the prestige of being champion went away, it was harder to invest in the importance of pay-per-views: the idea of a “main event” becoming laughable when one “top” championship match opened a show and the other closed it (if your brand’s “main event” is the third match from the end of the show, it isn’t a main event!). Soon came the era of two Hell in a Cell matches, two Elimination Chamber matches, two MITB matches, etc., and all things lost their shine in an era of repetition.
That’s not to say there weren’t some benefits to the brand split. During the short era in which Paul Heyman had control of the Smackdown brand, the TV show was notable for its logical booking and the welcome resurgence of tag-team wrestling; without the brand split we wouldn’t have enjoyed seeing Vicki Guerrero blossom into the fantastic heel character that she was, nor would we likely have seen her late husband, Eddie, reach the great heights that he did. I’m fairly sure neither JBL nor Edge would have had the Hall of Fame careers that they did without the brand extension giving them some time and space to evolve their characters and get out of the shadows of their former tag-team lives, and certainly in the early days, when the brands were kept strictly apart, there was a genuine buzz created by the rarity of inter-promotional match ups, which gave events like Wrestlemania a unique “big fight” feel when they happened.
Overall though, when the brand extension was formerly ended in 2011, I was glad to see it go. It’s time had been and gone and I felt it was a failed experiment. I couldn’t believe it took nearly two more years to finally unify the two World titles back into one, meaningful, WWE World Heavyweight Championship that was once again the top prize in the company, but once that too had been restored, at last we had a WWE with a clear main event picture again, and no more trying to suspend our disbelief about a pseudo-competition between two brands which no one had ever believed were really in competition with each other in the first place.
It was the dissolution of the brands in 2011 that marked the start of WWE’s slow return to form after years of creative complacency. A few months before the brand split ended, CM Punk dropped his infamous “pipe bomb” promo about how bad the company had become. The central beneficiary of the unified roster, and one of the driving forces behind rejuvenating WWE, was Punk, who won the WWE Championship from Alberto Del Rio that November and went on to hold the belt for 434 consecutive days. As champion throughout 2012, Punk’s matches with people like Daniel Bryan, John Cena, Dolph Ziggler and Chris Jericho both elevated new main event talent and helped remind us what a championship match should feel like, meanwhile the return of The Rock was made easier by the fact that “The Great One” did not need to feign any particular brand loyalty for his homecoming, and exciting debuts from new groups The Shield and The Wyatts made a real, company-wide, impact instead of being limited to a single show. As the “Yes Movement” exploded into 2014, it was the unification of the World Championship that gave Daniel Bryan’s memorable victory at Wrestlemania XXX such gravitas: it was the championship he finally was holding aloft amongst the confetti at the end of his Cinderella story, not just a championship
As we approach the July 11th draft for this latest brand extension, we have a WWE in 2016 with a Heavyweight championship we actually care about, a tag team division which could main event any pay-per-view, women’s wrestling which is finally being treated as wrestling in its own right and not demeaned on the sidelines as “Divas” wrestling, and a roster full of young and hungry talent capable of turning any television match into a five star match of the year candidate. Meanwhile there is a developmental league in NXT which is keeping the main roster on its toes an preparing us for an even brighter future. We have a product that has finally ironed out all the kinks caused by the brand extension years and now, at its pinnacle, the naming of this “New Era”, we are suddenly doing a U-turn and returning back to those dark days of dual branding again? You’ll excuse me if I feel somewhat apprehensive.
However, I am not going to dismiss the brand extension idea immediately. The success of NXT has shown what WWE can do if it genuinely seeks to give a roster free-reign to create its own identity and allow a writing team to develop by itself, outside of the micromanagement of Vince McMahon. It is also true that having Smackdown be on equal footing with Raw as a live show is a game-changer. During the previous split the superiority of Raw to Smackdown was a foregone conclusion because it was simply inconceivable to imagine the pre-taped Smackdown show being treated with the same importance as the live Raw. However, we have seen in recent years how a genuine sense of competition between the NXT developmental brand and the main roster – stoked mainly during NXT’s live Takeover specials – has led to each brand trying to raise their game to outdo each other. If genuinely allowed to develop and compete in the same way, a separate Raw and Smackdown in direct competition with each other could be huge. Indeed, we would no longer just have NXT to compare Monday Night Raw to, but Smackdown as well. With genuinely separate rosters, writers, storylines and pay-per-views, a brand split which actually allowed real brands to emerge instead of simply being the same company with a different colour scheme, could be exactly the thing to make the New Era more than just a slogan.
History tells us two things: the previous brand extension did not successfully do this, and that the previous brand extension ultimately failed. It would be a strange move for WWE to repeat the mistakes of the past at a time when the company is doing ok. However, it would make perfect sense, and be a very savvy business move, for WWE to recognise the success of NXT lies in its autonomy and distinction from the wider WWE brand, and for it to try and replicate this energy with its two flagship shows.
Bizarrely for wrestling, the failure of the first brand extension came primarily from the fact that the competition it was trying to sell us was so obviously fake: whether you called it Raw or you called it Smackdown, it was clear you were still watching WWE. The success of NXT comes from the very real sense you get when watching it that this is not the sort of thing you would expect to find on Raw; that it might be better than Raw. A sense which invokes real competition between the respective brands which is palpable as each brand’s next event tries to outdo its rival’s.
While in the ring, worked competition is the foundation of great wrestling matches, outside the ring it is only legitimate competition which causes wrestling companies to try something different and break the mold that is keeping them lazy. We saw it during the Monday Night Wars, and we’ve started to see it again with the explosion of NXT. It’s become clear that no other wrestling company in the world is up to the task of getting WWE worried, so perhaps it is finally the time that WWE allows its wrestlers and its writers the freedom to genuinely worry themselves.
Until next time.