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THe New Brand Split

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    Posted: 06/November/2017 at 21:36

Last summer, WWE reintroduced the brand split as part of Smackdown moving to be a live show on Tuesday nights on its new home channel. The previous split, introduced after the end of the Monday Night Wars and a poorly executed Invasion angle by WCW and then ECW talent, was finally put out of its misery in August of 2011, after nearly a decade of uneven booking, “elevated enzymes”, Cena saturation and a December WWE would really love us to Dismember. While many things within the WWE have remained the same, several things have changed enough for a new split to be a very good business idea, but is it still going to suffer from a fan point of view.

Well, one major issue during the original extension were the Pay-Per-Views. At their height, there could be as little as two weeks between a Raw exclusive event, and a Smackdown one. While Raw has long maintained a steady audience that rarely dips much below four million in its North American home market, the issue has always been getting that audience to pay for events. WrestleMania comes the closest to gaining the type of numbers the WWE would crave for each event, and even then, it’s around one million buys globally, so far less than a quarter of its free television market in the States and Canada. Smackdown struggled far more; always seen as the B brand, it suffered from only gaining around a quarter of Raw’s numbers, as well as being recorded several days before airing. It could lack star power, and this could be said to be the reason for the Cena effect we’ve seen for so long. Despite having been moved to Raw once he really began to get over, he was loaned out for several Smackdown events to try and boost buyrates, whether that be because of injuries forcing changes to the scheduled card, or because the previous event had not done the numbers hoped the year before, so a marquee name was added to try and lure in viewers.

But expecting dedicated fans to pay $40-50 a time for events, again, sometimes with only two weeks between each shows event, was always going to be asking too much, especially when quality wasn’t assured. Fans starting only really investing in the big four; Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, Summer Slam, and Survivor Series, though when Survivor Series began to fall out of favour within the WWE, it fell off the fans radar too. WWE didn’t help themselves, as they began to cater to the PPVs that were guaranteed draws, and the others overall were afterthoughts.

There were also major problems with the depth of the rosters. Smackdown suffered more, as once someone proved they could draw even a little, they were more often than not drafted to Raw, meaning an already struggling brand was left to rebuild yet again. But Raw also suffered. We ended up getting the same matches over and over, most of the time the only changes being who was the face and who was the heel, and whether they were fighting on the blue or red brand. 2006 saw the introduction of an ECW brand, doomed to failure from the start, but used in much the way that NXT currently works now. It may have given us perhaps the worst PPV of the modern PG era, but we got CM Punk, the prototype of Hall of Pain Mark Henry, the elevation of the Miz from joke to dedicated main roster performer, a Matt Hardy singles title run, and, erm, Kelly Kelly, so it wasn’t all bad.

ECW was killed off a year before WWE finally called an end to the brand split. Inter-promotional matches had started becoming the norm yet again outside of PPVs where such matches belonged. PPV numbers were pulled back, titled reunified, talent would again work both shows. Angles like Nexus taking on the established WWE took the place of internal power conflicts from a talent perspective, while The Authority angle that threatened to run out of control a la the NWO. At some point, the roster had grown again to the point where a new split was deemed worthy.

Titles were split again, and we’re seeing the brand extension again spread to the number of PPV events, though this time, cost isn’t an issue. Thanks to the WWE Network, fans can view new events as they happen, catch up later in the week if they miss one, and watch older and classic events at their leisure for the fraction of the cost of a single PPV under the old cable provider market. This is perhaps one of the better things to come about as part of the current split, and is ripe for exploitation. For instance, during the previous split, a yearly draft, where talent could be “won” by any of the brands in inter-promotional matches, was a Raw special. With the old PPV market no longer a factor for the number of PPVs held per year, The Draft could be a new, joint event. We no longer need to stick to just the Big Four, especially in situations where it helps maintain a real competitive feel between the two shows.

It all comes down to how willing WWE are to get behind this as a serious thing. The signs, right now, aren’t good. Money in the Bank became a Smackdown event, rather than being a joint event. At the very least, WWE could have injected the potential for shock by not making it clear that the briefcases won could only be used for the WWE Championship and the Smackdown Women’s Championship. If it were blurred enough for the holders of the contracts to appear at a Raw event and cash in, that would be one thing, but it still leaves Raw short in a way that having regular Cruiserweight action doesn’t make up for.

A joint Money in the Bank event could easily feature four ladder matches, again, without being specific as to whether the contract related to a specific brand, the top two titles on the line, and a further title match from each show, leaving a substantial choice between either Women’s titles, either Tag Team titles, the Intercontinental or the United States titles as gaps between each ladder match.

So that’s six joint events. Royal Rumble in January, WrestleMania at the end of March, Money in the Bank could fit in May time, The Draft squeezed in around the end of June/start of July, Summer Slam in August, and rework Survivor Series as the new start of the road to WrestleMania by having a traditional elimination match that holds consequences for the Rumble match in January. An advantage for the winning brand, perhaps, such as not having 15 Raw guys and 15 Smackdown guys fight for a main event spot at Mania, but a 20/10 split. Positional advantage could also be won, but that would perhaps be too niche over a simple statistical advantage of having more chance of one brands talent win over a particular superstar gaining the 30th spot in the match.

From a personal perspective, I’d love to see one of the brands bring back the Championship Scramble match. As a filler event to lead into a new feud from an ending one, it’s perfect as it requires no storyline leading in, and again can be utilised for both the main men’s and women’s titles, which then easily covers one whole hour of a three-hour event. That the gimmick PPVs are still popular, with the Elimination Chamber still being used, Hell in A Cell matches still being popular, two events that deal with hardcore action in TLC and Extreme Rules and Survivor Series this year being a showcase of Champion Versus Champion matches, as well as the traditional team events, there is definitely room for such a quirky gimmick that, done right, can feel like anyone can walk out as a champion.

However, there has to be the worry that the roster is still not deep enough to keep the split alive. If anything, the actual roster is smaller than it was in 2002, and while there is a wealth of talent that could be picked up from the NXT ranks, either new talents like Aleister Black, or veteran talents like Eric Young, it still doesn’t seem deep enough. Under Paul Levesque, NXT has done an excellent job of contracting some of the hottest indie talent, giving us main roster talent like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens, Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka, Bayley, Charlotte and Sasha Banks, so there is hope it can keep bringing in both name and new talent that will work, but can it do so fast enough to make sure there are no cracks in the brand split?

Again, right now, the answer seems to be no. a case of mumps put Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt out of action at last month’s Raw TLC event. While Roman’s spot was filled in-brand by GM Kurt Angle, an issue in and of itself given his addictive personality and how long it took him to finally step away from the ring of TNA/Impact after putting his body through over a decade of abuse, and the very fact that he will again work the Raw elimination Survivor Series match, are WWE risking Angle going off the rails again for the sake of a name draw in two matches that didn’t need that (TLC not only had Rollins and Ambrose as current top names, Strowman as a future player, the capable hands of The Miz, and the nostalgia hit of Kane back in the mask, but it had such a convoluted ending that the result of the match, and therefore who, apart from Strowman, Kane and Miz, actually took part didn’t matter. Survivor Series has clearly been made about the showdowns between the respective champions of each brand, and as such is a “brand pride” issue, especially in the traditional elimination tag matches) while at the same time refusing to allow Daniel Bryan to even enter the ring once, who seems unlikely to risk going back if he feels there is any serious risk?

Wyatt was replaced by bring in AJ Styles from Smackdown, which begs the question: was there really no one else, either on the Raw roster or perhaps in NXT, that could have been elevated to the card, even just for one night? Perhaps it would have been worthwhile if the #UnderSeige angle the next night on Raw had made any sense and didn’t look and feel like the very worst Russo booking from the last days of WCW. But it’s not the only place that Raw is looking dangerously low on talent.

Once again, we have Brock Lesnar as Raw Universal Champion. A man who yet again hasn’t defended his title since Summer Slam in August, and because of the set up for this years’ Survivor Series, will work the event, but not put the title on the line. Sadly, there doesn’t look to be anyone on Raw who could legitimately look good taking the title off Brock. WWE at least appears to be listening to fans in regard to Reigns, but WrestleMania season will see if that was just delaying the inevitable push for him. Strowman and Samoa Joe both could have been viable contenders, and it’s not like being “green” is an issue, as Finn Balor was the first Universal Champion, and Kevin Owens has also held it, both of whom have as much experience in the industry as Joe, while Strowman could very easily be used at this point of his career to be a transitional champion.

So, who is there who can realistically win the belt off Lesnar? It does feel dangerously like we’re back to Reigns and Lesnar, and this time with no Rollins to have a run in and get the cheers.

By contrast, Smackdown have a plethora of talent who could take the belt off champion Jinder Mahal. The problem is that, until literally just before Survivor Series, he has faced off with only Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura. He will face Styles this week after a brief build, but right now, the belt is staying on him. Why? Well, WWE are due to tour India at the start of December, and as his recent visit showed, they will get more publicity if Mahal is champion. It feels like instead of pushing Mahal, who is still struggling to get over with a majority of fans due to his passable, but certainly not star calibre, promo work, and steady but not outstanding ring work, and the fact that his title win came out of nowhere. It leads onto the problem with how different Smackdown and Raw are still treated within the WWE: Mahal has seemingly been held back as champion, not given a chance to show any real improvement or ability to carry the brand, whilst Raw has done nothing to build anyone as a serious threat to Lesnar’s title. Strowman had an okay match with him, but it’s obvious the spot is reserved for Reigns, and anyone who remembers the last Reigns and Lesnar feud will be able to attest that the best thing about it was Rollins.

Smackdown is still the B show. As long as that remains the case, then brand splits are not going to work, so why not actually go the whole hog and have three creative teams? One for Smackdown, one for Raw, and one for the angles that involve them facing off. After all, if you up the amount of PPVs to 18 a year, and have six Raw, six Smackdown, and six joint, and begin to have a plan of who you’re going to push, who you’re going to call up from NXT, and really have a long-term plan, and a couple of contingencies, then there is no reason why Smackdown couldn’t now start to climb to the point where it could have the same audience figures as Raw. There’s no reason why WWE Network subscriptions could easily go passed one million users in North America alone. There’s no reason why this brand split could not only last longer than the previous one, but also be much better in terms of the stories told and the money made.

Or, of course, WWE could continue to bank on the fact that they are still the only major supplier of “sports entertainment” and not change a thing…

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