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Less is More? The Trouble With WWE’s Long Shows by Max Grieve

The 2016 edition of Summerslam this past weekend raised a number of deep philosophical questions: If American Alpha are sent out to perform in an arena, and nobody’s there, does it make a sound? At what point does voicing your displeasure at a lazy title belt design officially become showing disrespect to performers? How has Sasha Banks not been crippled already?

In the grand scheme of things, these questions are ultimately unimportant (except maybe the last one; seriously Boss, you gotta stop landing on your damn head). But here’s another one that’s more tricky to shrug off: How much wrestling is too much?

I confess that, for the second year in a row, I fell asleep just before Summerslam’s main event – 11pm Eastern is 4am here in the UK – and had to catch up with Brock Lesnar’s mugging of Randy Orton the next morning.

I’m sure at least part of that is down to age; when you’re younger, you can pull an all-nighter and waltz into work the next day powered by coffee and Red Bull, ready to take on the world. Hangovers don’t last the entire weekend. But oddly I’ve not had that problem with other pay-per-views, despite WWE’s (relatively) consistent 4am finish times. So in my defence, perhaps something else is going on here.

My unscientific conclusion is that Summerslam is now too bloody long.

Last year saw the expansion of Summerslam – the show proper – to four hours. Add the pre-show and it’s six hours. And yes, I watch the pre-show. If you’re going to put Jordan and Gable, Zayn, Neville and Cesaro on the pre-show, I’m going to watch the pre-show. And presumably you want the live crowd to last the distance too (even if most of them aren’t in their seats when you get started). The result, when you get to the last few matches, seems to be that the crowd get jaded and more snarky, having peaked somewhere in the fourth hour for the Cena-Styles match. Or in my case, actually fall asleep. It’s too much to expect a lot of people to take in.

The really telling thing is that NXT continues to kill it with their Takeover specials, yet are getting it done in half the time. A half-hour pre-show (with no in-ring action), followed by two-and-a-half hours of show proper. Even the final half-hour feels like a cheeky overrun allowed by the WWE owning its Network. Less really is more.

hideo itami nxt takeover brooklyn

If you ask people which was the better show this past weekend, most will probably choose NXT’s Takeover: Brooklyn II ahead of Summerslam. Our skipper John Canton rated them at 9/10 and 7/10 respectively. But let’s strip back the Summerslam card as if it were an NXT special and see what happens. Timings are from Wikipedia and star ratings from John’s live reports.

NXT Takeover

  • Jose/Aries – 10:42, **3/4
  • Moon/Kay – 4:35, *1/2
  • Roode/Almas – 10:22, ***
  • Revival/DIY – 19:10, ****1/4
  • Asuka/Bayley – 14:07, ***1/2
  • Joe/Nakamura – 21:04, ****1/4

Total in-ring time: 80mins, 10secs.

WWE Summerslam (comparable length, top promoted matches only)

  • Banks/Charlotte – 13:51, ***1/2
  • Styles/Cena – 23:10, ****3/4
  • Ambrose/Ziggler – 15:18, **3/4
  • Rollins/Balor – 19:24, ****
  • Lesnar/Orton – 11:45, **1/2

Total in-ring time: 83mins, 28secs.

On the basis of this shortened card, if we forgive the Summerslam main event for ending up more of an angle than a match (which NXT isn’t above doing either; Owens and Zayn springs to mind), the two start to compare quite favorably. As John said at the end of his Summerslam review, it was a hard show to put in perspective due to there being so many ups and downs. With no disrespect to Tye Dillinger, the Authors of Pain and the rest of the NXT undercard, there was never any compromise in who was going to make Saturday night’s broadcast and who was going to be held over for Wednesday night’s after-party. Thus, despite having plenty of great wrestling, Summerslam turned out to be the harder show to love.

Despite evidence from NXT that suggests shorter cards are working, direction of travel on the main roster is very much the other way.

The move on Monday Night Raw from two hours to three hours in 2012 has generally got a lot of bad press, artistically speaking. It may be a nice earner from the USA network, but the show-opening promos are more bloated, storytelling is lazier rather than tighter, long matches are not a whole lot more frequent and the show still manages an overrun of up to ten minutes on a regular basis.

With WrestleMania, we’re conditioned to tolerate a little bit more – there’s the tradition, the unique settings, the once-in-a-lifetime matchups – but this year, as observed by a number of commentators, we’ve even begun to find the limits of that. Expecting fans to stay pumped through 27 attritional minutes of Triple H and Roman Reigns, well into the seventh hour of programming, was too much to ask. And Summerslam now seems to be heading the same way?

roman reigns triple h wrestlemania sign

In theory, this should be a pivotal benefit of the brand split. Raw and SmackDown get their own exclusive pay-per-views, a theoretical twelve-match card could become two six-match cards and the company could achieve more, with a wider variety of talent, in shorter sittings.

But if anything, the trend with talent isn’t moving in the same direction. SmackDown adding Rhyno, Curt Hawkins and – had injury not intervened – Shelton Benjamin to their roster places more demand on two hours of weekly broadcast time that already has Cena and Orton considerations. Raw, which has trouble featuring Sami Zayn, Cesaro and any more than three women at a time on a weekly basis, is about to get a cruiserweight division on September 19th which on the basis of the hype packages will be at least partially populated by new roster additions.

It strikes me that, when the brand split should’ve made things easier, the balance is now if anything harder to strike. Either WWE leave popular performers off shows – no Cesaro on Raw this week and no Cena on SmackDown no doubt brought some disappointment to two different demographics – or they continue to cram talent into five-minute matches and increasingly busy pay-per-view cards.

I’m aware I’m sounding very pessimistic here, and I don’t want to come across as an armchair critic who thinks this sort of thing should be easy – injuries and suspensions to talent and the demands of writing for a 52-week season are real challenges. But when the one-hour NXT, who use their small roster sparingly, is widely considered WWE’s best offering; when the two-hour SmackDown, which is dabbling with cold openings instead of long promos to set up main angles on the show, has ‘won’ more weeks based on The John Report ratings since the split; when Raw is three hours and pay-per-views are becoming much, much longer…. Does the evidence suggest that less is often more?

What are your thoughts on this? What’s the perfect length for a pro wrestling show? What’s the perfect roster size? Does the success of the likes of NXT and Lucha Underground mean short-form is increasingly better, or is it more complicated than that? Did you also start to fall asleep during Summerslam? Do you miss being young too? Do things really go further south when you reach 40? Please put me out of my misery here. It’s a kindness.