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WWE’s Brand Split: Six Ways To Make It Sizzle by Mike Holland

World Wrestling Entertainment’s live draft will be airing in less than a week, and with it likely travels the fortunes of the world’s most successful and recognized purveyor of sports entertainment. If you’re among the many looking forward to next Tuesday and the myriad of opportunities it presents, I don’t blame you. Rarely as a writer do you get an opportunity to engage in so much fun (and idle) speculation with the possibility that a large amount of it could indeed come true. It’s the scribe’s equivalent of Christmas Eve. Whether you wind up with that sled you wanted or a couple of frozen ham hocks, however, remains an elusive mystery.

If you’re among the lesser, but no less vocal group who can be considered a little less than certain about the outcome of this momentous occasion given the WWE’s past history with the draft concept, you’ll get no argument from me on that score either. I consider myself a skeptic in every sense of the word, and while that sobriquet has given me my fair share of trouble along various stages of life, it’s a boon when you’re examining the world of sports entertainment. You don’t need to be Doubting Thomas to see that ascribing to the theory of “fool me once, shame on me” can be quite appropriate chain mail when attacking the various inhabitants of Titan Tower’s Dungeon of Discarded Plans. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and this particular restaurant’s kitchen has a rather spotty history when it comes to delivering the dessert on time and in a state one might consider palatable.

Whichever side of the aisle you count yourself on, though, there can be no doubt that we are in momentous times. There isn’t a period I can recall which boasted a deeper roster than what WWE has at the moment, an astounding embarrassment of riches that is more than enough to fill out both Raw and Smackdown as well as keeping the up-and-coming NXT well stocked for the future. While their amount of sure-fire superstar ticket sellers may have dwindled a touch, Vince’s appropriate reassessment of allowing part-time contracts should ensure we haven’t seen the last of yesterday’s mega-names. When guys like Goldberg and Kurt Angle are bandied about weekly in the trades as potential players, you know you’ve tunneled into the sort of bizarro world Jules Verne would envy. Thanks to Triple H’s usage of the whole atlas instead of the first couple of pages, things like the Cruiserweight Classic and Tough Enough have allowed us to retain the hope, however fleeting, that the days of cookie-cutter Mr. Universes strutting around the ring with their championship gold one after another like some demented spray tan conveyer belt gone wrong may be behind us. To sleep, perchance to dream.

I recently read comments from Jim Ross which boiled down to the general idea that die-hard enthusiasts may not be happy with the outcome of the draft before it even begins, as it might shatter their preconceived notions. While JR is typically old-school, a mantra of which I approve, I’m not sure he’s entirely right on this score. Much of the rampant pessimism regarding the potential outcome is not based on some random irascibility of cantankerous basement dwelling denizens of the interweb, but rather a fair observation given the company’s past history with such an event. It wasn’t that long ago that WWE, desperate to give itself some sort of competition that reality failed to provide, came upon the fairly brilliant premise of splitting its roster in order to develop loyalty to both of its flagship programs. While the original dispersal of talent made sense, and things like checking their web site to see what lesser stars had been shipped off provided a more in-depth experience unheard of in that day and age, it couldn’t sustain itself when it became clear that Smackdown was being booked like a second-tier brand. This is not a recent development. Smackdown has in essence always been seen that way, pinballing around from evening to evening while Raw remains Ol’ Reliable each and every Monday. Smackdown didn’t air live as Raw did, giving everyone an opportunity to pull their own Eric Bischoff and see what happened without even having to tune in. Even the connotation of Smackdown itself, red-hot during the salad days of The Rock, had cooled to a tepid turn of phrase, the sort of thing your grandfather says to you in the quintessential moment when it dawns upon you that it’s not even close to being cool anymore. Word to your mother.

That ennui regarding the Smackdown brand, itself a subsidiary of the WWE’s willingness to treat it like a red-headed stepchild, made it easy for your average wrestling fan to skip their house shows and brand-exclusive PPVs alike. It’s a shadow that looms over the brand to this day, and it’s one of the first things the company needs to make right if it wants to exorcise the ghosts of the past this time around. They are off to a decent start, with the news that Shane McMahon would be heading the show as well as making it live, but there’s much more road to hoe if they want to prevent the previous path. What follows then, suitably randomly, are a list of six things I’d like WWE’s brand split to achieve. While there’s no standard formula to follow, my belief is that implementing some or all of these approaches would help to strike while the iron is hot and take advantage of some of the hard-earned buzz this event has garnered thus far.

1) Break Up Some Teams

WWE has already teased this, of course, which is generally a bit of a red herring. Tag teams are one of those things in professional wrestling that have an inherent shelf life. It makes special events a bit more challenging to book, like Survivor Series elimination matches and Royal Rumble entrance selections. The balance of the team must be kept in mind just as largely as the fortunes of the respective members. It can also provide for some juicy (and easy) shock moments. Who can forget Shawn Michaels launching Marty Jannetty out of the business by tossing him through the barbershop window? If you’re into recent memory, Seth Rollins not only defined himself when he turned on his former Shield squad mates with that steel chair, but each member of the trio in one fell swoop. That is powerful, potent stuff. WWE has a couple of teams in NXT that are clearly ready for prime time (American Alpha, certainly; The Revival, equally likely) and that allows for some decisions to be made regarding tandems not gaining traction on the main roster. While low-hanging fruit like Golden Truth or The Ascension leap immediately to mind, better choices would be the unexpected (The Usos chase single stardom) or teams where one member has already had significant singles runs (howdy, Dudleys and Lucha Dragons). Breaking up teams will cause some high drama during the draft itself, and new rivalries with built in backstories, which is important when rebooting. Sometimes the simplest stories to tell are the most effective. It’s old ground to cover, but well worn for a reason.

2) More Titles Please

I’ve bandied this about a bit on a personal level, but separate brands looking to build unique identities will require some help in the form of championships. It’s understood that WWE will have two heavyweight champions when all is said and done, but the details are scarce. Presumably those belts will both be defended at the bigger events on the calendar, while each brand’s PPV during a particular month which feature only “their” champion. Things get even more complex when the secondary titles start getting involved. Will The Miz and Rusev go between brands, or hang their shingle on a particular show? I don’t envy a future like boxing, where belts are so plentiful you could confuse them with Italian political parties, but there’s something to be said for exclusivity. It could mean bringing back the European belt, the Hardcore championship, or the Cruiserweight title. Any and all of those would allow for a certain type of wrestler to be “special” to one show’s roster. Recall how WCW exploited the cruisers to their advantage during the Monday Night Wars. Those folks gave Nitro a feel that was unique, and were a major reason why WWE’s momentum was halted, however fleetingly. Blindly doing what the competition does has resulted in a stale product, but it’s also given rise to cool and unique ideas like much of what Lucha Underground has done as well as TNA’s recent social media sensation Final Deletion. Additional titles bring with them different feels to the individual shows, hallmarks that can tell the average viewer what the show is about. As for the tag teams and women’s divisions, logistic difficulties abound unless the decision is made to make them exclusive as well. While anything’s possible, I can’t see it making sense. Both of those categories are deep enough to allow for belts representing them on each brand. The case can be made that it waters down the importance of the belts, but champions are important and both brands need identity early. Fans that tune in expect to see tag team wrestling as well as equal gender representation. That’s one solid way to present both shows as must-see in their own way.

3) Part-Time Problems

Much has been made of WWE’s contract construction in relation to Brock Lesnar, who’s able to work a very reduced schedule under terms that would have been horrifying to Vince’s predecessors or perhaps even an earlier version of himself after a trip in The New Day’s time machine. Most of those shouts of protest have been drowned out by the credible job Lesnar has done at making his matches larger than life, something WWE has tried (and often failed) to do. Whether this will start an avalanche of former talent flocking back to the land they once called home remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt names like Jeff Hardy, Kurt Angle, and Goldberg are capable of triggering some fantasy booking that could keep you up all night. That’s one good reason why these individuals should be reduced to “Big 4” appearances unless they are working significant dates for one of the brands. Whether they work house shows is less relevant, particularly since each and every one of these guys has put their time in and should be afforded the luxury of enjoying the fruits of their labors. In short, “special” talents like Lesnar and Undertaker should be held out of the draft and free to pop up on whatever brand they see fit to set up the big match they’ve been brought in for. Not only does this prevent the technical implications of divvying up guys that won’t be around for the long haul, but it makes those big events look and feel much more special. That’s another thing that needs to be a goal for the WWE with this draft. When is the last time YOU cared about Survivor Series? You might if it’s the only time you see a future Hall of Famer like Undertaker. Those larger events that feature both brands will live up to their billing if part-time talent is brought in to bolster the ranks.

4) Keep Management Minimal

We don’t yet know how much of a role Shane and Stephanie will play once they’ve appointed their general managers, but we can logically assume it will still be a good-sized one. The McMahon Family segments have been among the most disappointing of the last few cycles, and it’s because we don’t really care. There are no real or feigned repercussions for failing to do your job effectively. It says something when Vince comes out Monday and craps all over the job both of his kids have done, and then promptly offers them the opportunity to run his shows after the draft. Makes perfect sense. The “general manager” role is a good opportunity to offer a familiar face to fans with someone who’s not actively lacing up the boots, and wrestling has plenty of entertaining possibilities for that. One hopes that a HHH vs. Shane angle is not the reason to create this position. Someone like Mick Foley or Ric Flair, both of whom have ample projects going inside and outside of WWE, would be solid picks to inject some fun and history into the role while bringing their own unique viewpoint to the weekly goings-on. I’d also advise considering someone like Jim Cornette or Paul Heyman, as manager roles are all but an afterthought and these guys bring plenty of opinion and juice to what they do. Most critically, don’t overdo it. The GM should be there to announce the lineup and act as needed given the circumstances, but not dictate the action or bore us silly with weekly monologues. Done correctly, this could really get a large portion of the audience on a particular show’s side from the jump.

5) Watch the Wording

Part of the issue for both of WWE’s main programs is that they don’t have enough distinction at the announce desk. The interplay between announcers is critical, even now when their primary job appears to be endlessly shilling the product. WCW made a great call years ago when they had Mike Tenay lend his expertise and gravitas to matches featuring cruiserweights. His knowledge would allow for the casual fan to understand what was going on without a ton of build, while encouraging the more veteran watcher to check out additional resources for a wrestler they had only fringe knowledge of. In today’s media-obsessed culture, this has actually gotten harder to do. Ironically, with so many choices, we often don’t see anything at all. Daniel Bryan’s performance during the Cruiser Classic has convinced me he is a vital part of an announce team for one brand. He’s hugely relatable, incredibly popular, and has worked everywhere. That’s experience that is second to none. Think of his ability to get newer talent over in record time. Raw’s desk is super stale and needs a shuffle. Let Lawler call NXT and work with the talent of tomorrow. Allow Corey Graves to become the next great heel announcer. Whatever you do, shake things up and make it sound different from the jump. I don’t know that we have to revisit announcers being drafted, as that was rather ridiculous, but the feel of the show will benefit greatly from an audio facelift.

6) Make Darwin Proud

One main concern I have is that both shows will be so evenly divided as to be indistinguishable. This is especially dangerous when the folks doing the division are so rarely in lockstep with what the fanbase is asking for. One of the burning questions on the table right now is how all the ready for prime time NXT talent will be dispersed. Rather than sprinkling them liberally over both lineups, I’d make Smackdown’s roster heavier with the “newer, younger” talent and stack some significant amounts of known quantities on Raw. Raw starts with an advantage, and therefore can afford to make do with reliable types like Kane and Big Show. They have a place on your television week to week, especially in a three hour program, and the Sheamus/Apollo Crews storyline made a lot of sense with the old guard getting worried about being phased out. That also enables you to present Smackdown as the next generation of wrestling, the place you go to see the future champions of the company in a setting different than your average Monday show. I love the possibilities inherently existing in this strategy, as viewers decide for themselves which roster they want to invest in. There still needs to be a mix, of course, but making one show a little hipper and more cutting edge establishes the idea that we are boldly going where none have traveled before. WCW tried this angle before, but had way too many egos and guaranteed contracts to let it really float. The time is right to commit to showing in a major way that times really have changed.

So there you have it: six ways WWE can use this draft to establish some unique identities and recapture some of the momentum lost as viewers have tuned out over recent years. We’ll see on Tuesday how individual performers shake out, but overall hopefully you’ve gotten a sense of some strategies Vince and friends could implement to demonstrate to skeptics everywhere that they have learned from the sins of the past. One thing is certain: It will be incredibly entertaining to see how they do. We’ll all be watching. Expectantly.

Closing Thoughts

I’d be remiss not to include in my article that my thoughts and deepest sympathies go out to those affected and impacted by the terrible events occurring Thursday night/Friday morning in Nice, France. We live in troubled times and there are often no words to truly express how we feel when confronted with horror of this kind. I can only offer that humankind must rise up as one against this kind of vile behavior, for that is the only way it can be resoundingly defeated. I also, as with most matters, defer to Winston Churchill. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Liberte, egalite, fraternite.

Agree with the points above? Disagree? Feel free to let me know in the space below or hit me up on Twitter @DharmanRockwell and I’ll reply. Also feel free to give me your take on how the WWE can most effectively handle the brand split. Thanks for reading!