Before the Brand Extension went into effect, I did two columns on how I would organise the reforms. My ideas were for a heavily unified structure with the retention of unified world and secondary champions, and no duplication of the Women’s or Tag Tag Team titles.
As I’ve seen the titles start to be devalued as duplicate champions are prepared and as SmackDown drifts to being a throwaway secondary show in less than a month, I’ve now reconsidered how WWE should have approach this brand extension endeavor. Why? Because at the same time they have failed to protect their live Tuesday investment, they once again have done a stellar job at making NXT seem incredibly important.
As the lineal WWE world title match was buried in the SummerSlam mid-card whilst the NXT Championship headlined before 15,000 rabid fans, I can’t help but wonder whether there is a way to present SmackDown as a second WWE weekly television programme without it always seeming…well…secondary. Maybe they should have gone for the nuclear option: have NXT takeover SmackDown.
Here’s how it would work on-screen. Rather than Vince McMahon dividing the shows between his two children, he would keep them as co-General Managers on RAW, and invite HHH to takeover SmackDown. HHH would then reject an equal roster split in favour of a limited number of draft picks to enhance the pre-existing NXT roster. The result would be a hard roster split.
WWE would then be de jure synonymous with RAW with all WWE-branded championships and network specials exclusive to the show.
SmackDown would inherit an expanded version of the NXT brand developed over the past two years with its television centred around the NXT championships and building towards the NXT TakeOver specials.
The only SmackDown involvement in major shows would be its stars crossing over for ‘dream matches’ ala Kevin Owens’ first match with John Cena whilst still being NXT Champion and maybe the occasional dual-brand overseas special like last year’s Beast in the East Network show.
The immediate advantage of this approach is that the two brands would be significantly stronger.
Not only RAW would continue with virtually the same roster it had before the Extension, but SmackDown would have a roster to match. Acts such as Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, Austin Aries, American Alpha, The Revival, Bobby Roode, and Asuka are all well positioned to carry SmackDown with only the lightest strengthening needed. I would say as few as ten wrestlers would need to be taken from RAW to give NXT a roster worthy of weekly cable television.
Such a merger would also build on NXT and SmackDown existing reputations.
Over the past two years, NXT has became the hardcore fan’s favourite due to the quality of the wrestling it presents, especially for its Takeover specials. Even at its lowest points, SmackDown retained a reputation of being “the wrestling show” due to the legacy of Paul Heyman’s tenure as head writer and the tendency of exhausted creative teams writing basic, wrestling-heavy shows.
Because of that legacy, it would be easy to present SmackDown as the more serious, wrestling-centric brand. Additionally, branding SmackDown as a NXT television show would enhance its brand. Whereas SmackDown repeatedly struggled to draw in the past, NXT has shown a remarkable ability to draw large crowds without television. With more talent and greater exposure, there’s no reason to doubt that NXT could successfully run a full house show schedule. And with a larger RAW roster, WWE could still be able to run two separate tours.
The hard roster split would also better organise talent.
In theory, there is no limit to how many main eventers a promotion can have but the clue is in the name: you have to headline to be accepted as a headliner. Sure, Dean Ambrose, American Alpha and Becky Lynch will have ‘real’ world titles defended on the main roster, but when those defenses are in throwaway matches in the first half of the card, they’re always going to be meaningless.
Having the secondary show build to entirely to a separate special would bypass that problem. SmackDown’s titles would successfully headline major shows and so acquire the respect that goes with that success. This is why HHH was always shrewd to choose holding separate events on PPV weekends over having NXT talent make guest appearances on SummerSlam or WrestleMania. On the Takeover specials, they’re the main event while on the main WWE shows, they would be the opener.
There are those that accept that RAW would be better with a strong roster and that SmackDown would have a greater sense of purpose, but removing NXT from the WWE Network would hurt subscriptions. I feel that is mistaken for three reason.
Firstly, the key thing NXT does is push subscriptions for the TakeOver live shows.
Many people do not regular watch the weekly television, but tune in for reliably excellent specials. If SmackDown is dedicated to promoting these specials, more people will purchase the Network to watch them than before. Pre-existing viewers would be better informed about the special’s matches and why they’re important, and the new NXT: SmackDown would recapture lapsed hardcore fans who have been chased away by the mainstream WWE presentation.
Secondly, the WWE has already developed an alternative model for original wrestling content on the Network with the Crusierweight Classic.
The CWC has seen the WWE successfully produce three months of hardcore-friendly product off of only three television tapings. You could easily arrange similar quarterly tournaments that showcase WWE and other promotion’s best wrestlers to take NXT’s current timeslot. An annual schedule could see additional Women, Tag Team and Openweight tournaments. And, because the live schedule is so limited, there is no reason why it couldn’t extensively feature talent that already appears on Mondays or Tuesdays.
Thirdly, having NXT takeover SmackDown does not preclude the WWE from featuring developmental talent on the Network.
OVW and FCW both presented high quality and well-received shows on a fraction of NXT’s budget because there’s a natural audience for young and hungry pro wrestlers performing on logically booked shows. A WWE: Next Generation show could easily be produced for the Network, only now there would space for the young talent to actually be given the space to learn in front of the Full Sail crowd. And like with OVW, you can always have stars from the two cable show rosters or outside promotions make guest appearances to support the rookies.
The arguments for NXT taking over SmackDown are overwhelming, especially as the alternative has already been so thoroughly tested to destruction. Maybe such a radical shift in how the WWE structures itself wouldn’t work. But imagine if the past month had been spent building not one but two massive supershows. Imagine if NXT: TakeOver had also featured AJ Styles, Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows, Cesaro, Kevin Owens, Dolph Ziggler, Becky Lynch and Nattie Neidhart.
Imagine if RAW had still been able to use the Wyatts, Dean Ambrose, Randy Orton, and John Cena. Imagine if Neville, Hideo Itami, Apollo Cruz and Kalisto had all been added to the Cruiserweight Classic. Imagine if the excellent NXT: TakeOver had been promoted through cable television rather than solely the WWE Network.
But above all, imagine if SmackDown had a clear identity and purpose that was independent rather than secondary to Raw’s. You may say I’m a dreamer, but wouldn’t that be a better WWE?
Will Cooling is a freelance writer who cover combat sports for Fighting Spirit Magazine. In this month’s edition, he casts his eye over UFC 200 and argues that WWE needs to break free from the broadcasting format it stole from Eric Bischoff by embracing greater use of pre-taped reality-show style segments.