By Kevin Wilder @kevwilds
All the news this week about a brand split…or roster distinction as WWE is referring to it as (I am paraphrasing, of course), has got me thinking. Thinking mainly about where I left my keys, but also about an opportunity World Wrestling Entertainment has now to make some changes, not only to the pacing of both RAW and Smackdown storylines, but to the overall presentation of the product. When the news broke (I was texted by fellow pro wrestling Iowa columnist and podcaster, Dusting Smothers, who shared the news with me while I was at work), my immediate reaction was disdain. My first thoughts went right to the first “brand split” that transpired in 2002, and came to an end roughly in 2011 official, or non-officially actually, since it was never really announced (RAW became a “Supershow” around that time, and eventually just fizzled out). The first “brand split” started off ok, improved over the next few years (remember the Paul Heyman written Smackdown around 2003 that ended up beating RAW in the ratings briefly?), and then like everything else, Vince & Co. got bored with it and Smackdown went right back to being the “B” show once John Cena was drafted to RAW and never looked back. I mean, what WWE needs is less content rather than more. Three hours on Monday, followed by 2 more hours the next day, and then NXT a day later. Don’t even get me started about there being a PPV/Special the Sunday before. It just seems so daunting if you have any semblance of a professional and/or personal life, that it almost annoyed me. Last thing I want is watching wrestling to seem like an obligation. Later that day, however, after reflecting on it a bit, I realized that this could be not only a blessing in disguise, but a golden opportunity to make some much needed changes. Just because WWE did not execute it right the first time, does not necessarily mean that it will not work right this time. For starters, WWE has as deep a roster as they have ever had, since perhaps 2001 when WCW and ECW merged with the then WWF. Now with WWE finally embracing the independent scene and TNA as a viable source of signing talent, splitting the rosters is actually a good thing. Storylines can be paced slower, and feuds can get the appropriate time to build, thus not wasting too many big matches on free TV. Plus, talent will now have the opportunity to go from being over exposed and over saturated to simply just being over and leave us wanting more, which is a strength NXT has been afforded to implement. Not to mention that this could cut out on injuries with only having to showcase your talents on TV once a week, as opposed to two. The possibilities are endless. This leads me to selfishly want a few of my wishlist items to be realized, and there is no better time than now to actually see this occur. Now, I freely admit that I do not expect all of them to come to fruition, but I figured this is a good time to express my dream of combining an old school presentation, with the new school talent and styles; and seeing which, if any, actually come true. Here are the things that I would like to see change:
This is something that is long overdue. It may seem trivial on the surface, but I believe it’s a lot more important than WWE realizes. Even casual fans notice this. I was trumping this cause long before this new roster split was even a thing, but now seems to be the a perfect opportunity to make it happen. If indeed both RAW and Smackdown are going to be separate shows with its own distinct rosters, then for the love of god, actually make it look different. It has to be more than RAW is red, and Smackdown is blue. Nothing should be neutral (with exception of the world, womens and tag team championships). If RAW is going to remain with the same look, then fine. I will concede on that. RAW can keep the same aesthetics, but Smackdown should look completely different. I believe a more scaled back approach, almost old school presentation. After all, what is old is new again. If Smackdown had black ropes, and no ramp that would be a start. Let’s take it a step further though, maybe just a smaller square titantron next to the WWE logo that is placed right by the curtain where the wrestlers make their entrance. The aisle and barricade can be more narrow making is seem more intimate and interactive with the fans. This would really make Smackdown look unique and exciting. Just a thought.
BRING BACK 2 HOUR RAWS
I know, I know…this will never happen. The revenue dollars that WWE can’t pass up, USA Network demands it, yadda, yadda, yadda. Please indulge me here. I do not believe I am alone in this. Hell, I am likely in the majority. It’s a fact that the 3 hour era (in reality, 3 hour 15 minute era) is killing the product. Ok, perhaps that’s dramatic. The 3 hour format at least negatively affects the momentum of the product heading into a big PPV or special. A just ok RAW can be considered slow and plodding when over 3 hours. A good RAW within the confines of a tight 2 hour RAW can easily be considered a great episode, and leave you feeling satisfied and wanting more. This is something that I haven’t felt for some time. With this split of the rosters, here is a time to start fresh and make it an even playing field. If WWE wants to avoid Smackdown from seeming non consequential, or the lesser brand, RAW has to be 2 hours…just like Smackdown. Both shows will be live with distinct rosters. If RAW remains 3 hours, it will forever appear the dominant, top show. Of course, Smackdown will likely excel in quality, and be preferred by the bell weather fans, but the perception will still be that it is the lesser of the two brands. I think it is imperative that both shows are 2 hours…not just for Smackdown’s sake, but also for the fans.
LESS SCRIPTING OF PROMOS
For the love of all that is holy, let these wrestlers sink or swim. Let their natural personalities shine and come through. Things that made the likes of Austin, Foley, Rock, Flair, Savage, Piper, Rhodes, or any of the other top performers who set the stage for what we see know, it was their real personas turned up to 11. Guess what? They are among the most influential and respected performers in the history of the wrestling business. It’s a lost art that you don’t see any longer on the WWE platform, and it’s difficult to see anyone that will be joining those ranks from the current era. Don’t get me wrong, I am positive that many of them are more than capable of pulling it off. Ambrose and Owens specifically come to mind that would be unstoppable if the reigns were loosened on them by the WWE brass. Hey, speaking of Reigns, it’s this exact thing that has held Roman Reigns back. By simply allowing him to go out there with just some bullet points to get across, but let him be himself and cut his own damn promo. If he stinks up the joint, then you can pull back on him while he works on it. Or he actually relates to the masses and gets over…whether it’s as a babyface or heel. This is the only way that WWE will truly be able to know what type of talent they have, and be able to finally have that next once in a lifetime performer that can move the needle, and make a difference in the ratings, buyrates, merchandise and general crossover appeal. This is of course, if WWE wants that, or if they would rather have the WWE brand bigger than any one single performer, which seems to be the current mindset. This is an example of a tried and true formula that has worked for decades, along with clear heels and faces, that allows fans to emotionally invest in the characters, and to pay to witness it unfold and conclude. No reason it cannot be implemented in today’s WWE environment.
CALLING UP OF NXT TALENT
I love NXT…I truly do. But, c’mon! Let’s call up Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka, Bayley and the team of Chad Gable and Jason Jordan. These are the names that I feel are ready now. If you have talent that are ready, willing and G-able (see what I did there?) to contribute to the main roster, call them up! With Smackdown being positioned stronger, then there is a greater chance of these acts being utilized correctly. You can use some of the talent going nowhere on the main roster at the moment and put them in NXT to be part of the system. Dolph Ziggler, Heath Slater, Bo Dallas, even Sheamus are a few names that I feel with a fresh coat of paint (one of the New Day’s first name options, in case you didn’t know) and working in NXT can work wonders for. Then, they can come back fresh to the main roster with a renewed vigor. If NXT is going to be its own brand, then rotate stars in and out. Also, by calling up these NXT talents I mentioned earlier, it further extends the roster depth even deeper with fresher opponents and feuds and matchups. Always a good thing.
MAKE PRODUCT PG-13
There is a caveat or asterisk to this one. I do not have an issue with PG. As a matter of fact, I prefer it. The business needs to go full circle, relying on more simple storylines to sell the matches and less on the cuteness and forced comedy. These are all things that WWE has done a good job in doing as of late (but far from perfect…R-Truth and Goldust anyone?). The PG-13 element is something that can be thrown in the mix in moderation. When the feud or promos call for some salty language, go for it. It will only add realism and assist in telling the story. Speaking of realism, when there is a hardcore, TLC or cage (especially the cage) match, some blood has to be used for affect. I do not want to see blood used haphazardly or even frequently. Then, it loses it loses its effectiveness. In situations of grudge gimmick matches where weapons (or toys that WWE annoyingly refers to them as) are used, it makes no sense for blood not to be utilized. For safety purposes, only one wrestler bleeds in the match, and perhaps research a way to get the blood without blading. Just some suggestions. Hey, here’s another one that may help blood not having to be used very often. No more gimmick PPV’s!!! There, I will just add it here. No need for its own section. Get rid of TLC, Extreme Rules, Hell in a Cell, Money in the Bank and TLC as mandatory, scheduled PPV’s every year. Use these matches as a way to settle a feud when needed, add some blood for drama and VOILA! All ingredients for a logical, well rounded professional wrestling product. It kills two birds with one stone. And finally…
COMMENTARY TEAM SHAKE UP
This one is subjective perhaps. There may be some fans that do not even notice how dreadful the commentating team on RAW is. I even tune them out myself sometimes. But, when you actually pay attention, it is apparent that something needs to change. I believe a remedy could simply be having the 3 man team experiment to go in the vault of bad ideas, right in between the Punjabi Prison match and the Katie Vick angle. Having so many voices at one time just muddies the announcing waters. Michael Cole and Byron Saxton are basically the same person, and JBL gets annoying and overbearing much of the time. I do like his wrestling history references, but his voices grates on me. I am aware that Vince himself is making JBL his voice, and that everyone is so over produced that they all are doing the best they can. I would like a clear heel announcer too. It could be nostalgia for Bobby Heenan and Jesse Ventura, but I feel it’s effective for the heel in the match to have an obnoxious cheerleader justifying and praising every dastardly word or action they do. On the other side of the coin, a neutral company man that can get fawn over the babyface and tout how evil the heel is, will help get both heel and face characters over, and allow them to be taken seriously. I long for the days of Bobby Heenan laughing at a despicable act the heel just performed. Heenan truly was a weasel. JBL kind of goes a little heel, but is so inconsistent. In one segment, he is putting over Kevin Owens for doing whatever it takes to win, and then the next segment claiming how great John Cena is. On Monday’s RAW, JBL was acting all disgusted when Charlotte told off her legendary father, Ric Flair. The whole broadcast team went to serious mode like someone was legitimately injured. That’s ok if Cole does, but not JBL. Jesse Ventura would have said how proud he was of Charlotte for kicking her dirty, overbearing father to the curb. Here is what I would like to see: Find another role for JBL and Saxton and have Cole and returning heel Jerry Lawler. Good chemistry and a history between them. Then on Smackdown, keep the amazing Mauro Ranallo with a heel Corey Graves. Graves is superb on NXT and those pre-show panels and would love to see him bring that to the main show roster.
Well, there you have it. I know there are other elements that could be tweaked, and I have likely only scratched the surface, but if you start with just these minor changes, I believe the company could rebound, and perhaps even lay the groundwork for another boom period. Even if only one of these are implemented, I still believe that if done correctly and with discipline, the brand split/roster differential, will be a positive for both WWE and the fans.