On Wednesday 25th May, WWE announced that they would be undergoing a brand extension. As of July 19th, RAW and SmackDown, for the first time since 2011, will feature two “distinct rosters, story lines and writing staff” as WWE makes another attempt to rejuvenate SmackDown.
Since the announcement, countless words have been typed assessing the potential ramifications of the brand split (on this site, we have two excellent pieces: here and here). The purpose of this article is to invoke the original brand split of 2002 to draw parallels between then and now.
Over the past few years, WWE have proven woefully inadequate at creating new stars-apart from a select few, often relying on stars from previous eras to spike ratings. The current era of WWE has been defined by internet buzz phrase 50/50 booking in which the midcard has been prevented from getting over to any noteworthy extent.
WrestleMania 32 further threw this into light and was widely received as a tacit acknowledgment of the fundamental failure to create new stars. Instead, WrestleMania represented a search for the easily accessible nostalgia pop through appearances from the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, The Rock and to a lesser extent Shane McMahon, HHH and The Undertaker.
Over two years ago, Daniel Bryan contested that “we have not really created enough new stars…we need to not just rely on people from the past. There is almost this mentality these stars are bigger than the current stars”: such an argument is perfectly encapsulated by WrestleMania 32.
With the impending brand split, WWE have forced themselves into a position in which two brands must establish new stars-and fast- if the move is to have any degree of success. Considering the profusion of talent WWE have at their disposal, it is necassary, more so than ever, to create new stars to add depth to the two rosters and ensure the success of the brand extension.
2002: a new era
The division of RAW and SmackDown has historical precedent: like the 2016 brand split, the rationale behind the division of the roster was ostensibly due to the abundance of talent available.
In 2001, WWF purchased two ailing promotions: WCW and ECW. Subsequently, WWF had not only eliminated their competition in one swift coup d’grace but, too, WWF had access to contracts of wrestlers formerly employed by WCW and ECW.
It was an exciting time to be a fan of wrestling as WWF now possessed the ability to assemble previously impossible inter-promotional dream matches under the WWF banner. Although the invasion angle in the fall of 2001 transpired to nothing more than a damp squib, it soon became patently obvious that cross over shows could not sustain consistent story lines with the excess of new talent.
In consequence, the night after WrestleMania in 2002, the tension between the story line owners of WWF Ric Flair and Vince McMahon culminated in the first ever brand split.
On the 25th March edition of RAW, Flair and McMahon divided talent into two rosters: RAW and SmackDown.
Shown below is a table of the picks: a fateful toss of a coin granted Vince McMahon’s SmackDown the first draft pick.
|4||Raw||2||n.W.o (Kevin Nash, Scott Hall& X-Pac)|
|7||SmackDown!||4||“Hollywood” Hulk Hogan|
|8||Raw||4||Rob Van Dam|
|9||SmackDown!||5||Billy and Chuck|
|12||Raw||6||The Big Show|
|14||Raw||7||Bubba Ray Dudley|
|37||SmackDown!||19||Diamond Dallas Page|
|41||SmackDown!||21||Scotty 2 Hotty|
The 2002 draft clearly defined the top stars of each show. First up, McMahon, GM of SmackDown, and Flair, GM of RAW, competed for the services of main eventers: Vince McMahon chose The Rock, Kurt Angle and Hulk Hogan whereas Ric Flair chose Undertaker, the N.W.O, who were drafted as a team, and Kane before Stone Cold Steve Austin was drafted to RAW the following month.
Next up was the battle for the potential future stars of the promotion: McMahon chose Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, who had recently lost the Undisputed World Championship at WrestleMania to HHH, and Edge whilst Ric Flair chose RVD, Booker T and Brock Lesnar.
As RAW went off air, the draft continued onwith Flair and McMahon filling out their roster with midcarders, tag teams and Divas.
In terms of championships, RAW housed the Intercontinental and European Championship whilst SmackDown hosted the Cruiserweight, Tag Team and Hardcore Championships. The undisputed champion, HHH, drifted between RAW and SmackDown until Eric Bicshoff created the World Heavyweight Championship for RAW.
For a while, the brand split worked: the distinct division of the two brands led to story line inter-brand competition, brand specific PPVs whilst providing a platform to create new stars. Stars of the previous era like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and Hulk Hogan gave way to Edge, Eddie Guerrero, JBL and eventually the much lauded Ohio Valley Wrestling class of Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton and John Cena.
Vince McMahon was reluctant to put WCW and ECW guys in top positions despite their varying degrees of success outside of the WWF, with only a couple of exceptions breaking the booking trend: a trend that has, to an extent, defined McMahon as a booker. Simply, he wanted his guys in top positions.
As time progressed, the brand extension that started auspiciously was plagued by issues of presentation. After a few years, a pervading notion that SmackDown was the B show developed: something WWE have struggled to combat ever since.
The reasons for this are multifarious: three immediately spring to mind, however; SmackDown lacked a distinct identity and often came off as RAW-Lite after the initial success of the split; SmackDown titles were positioned as being less than their RAW counterparts; RAW, due to its staus as a perceived institution of Monday night television, was always presented as the premier brand, housing the bigger stars during the late years of the split. As a brand, RAW would pillage any talent that achieved any degree of success on SmackDown to further confirm the sentiment that SmackDown was the B show. Subsequently, particularly in its closing years, SmackDown suffered from an astonishing lack of depth.
As the years progressed, SmackDown became increasingly lacklustre. In 2011, WWE reverted to the single roster format with stories, although rarely main event story lines, crossing both shows: a move that was greeted with celebration.
2016: a new era revisited
Despite the negativity surrounding the brand extension in its final years, the reaction to the news that WWE would be revisiting the brand split has been met by cautious optimism. Framed by the nascent tension between Shane and Stephanie McMahon, there is a feeling that, with the current wrestlers featured in both WWE and NXT, the brand extension has potential to providing a new edge to WWE programming.
According to WON, John Cena and Roman Reigns will be featured stars of SmackDown and RAW with both shows featuring their own main championships: both of these championships, if rumours are true, must be presented as equals. The comparision between Reigns/Cena and Stone Cold/The Rock is egregious but the two most protected stars of the modern era provide a solid foundation to build around.
The WWE main roster features numerous wrestlers ready to feature consistently on top of the card of either brand; Bray Wyatt, Dean Ambrose, AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, The Miz, Sami Zayn and Big E are all capable of featuring in main event angles on a regular basis. A failure to capitalise on these acts would result in a 2011-esque situation in which rosters do not have enough depth and not enough star power to carry two seperate brands.
Like 2002, the impending brand split represents an opportunity to develop new stars in two distinct environments. Admittedly, NXT doesn’t possess the transcendental stars that WCW possessed, but the WWE has an abundance of talent in the locker room. Although NXT has eclipsed the label of a developmental system for WWE, now is the time to utilise memebers of the NXT roster such as Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, Austin Aries and many more to provide further depth. Like the WCW and ECW guys, NXT possesses acts that have main evented in other promotions. Taking advantage of this expereince will give the 2016 brand split every chance of success.
Of course, pillagining NXT’s talent in such a manner is poetenally harmful to the NXT brand. However, the independent scene is arguably hotter than ever, featuring an unparralelled depth of talent ready to receive an opportunity in WWE. In recent times, under the auspice of HHH, NXT and WWE more broadly have exhibited a new approach to the recruitment of new talent that is accepting of talent that have made a name outside of the WWE.
Part of the reason why NXT has proven so sucessful with hardcore fans is due to their unique identitywhich is defined as the antithesis of the main roster: stories are simple yet compelling with a satisfying conclusion, fan favourites are protected and it is always referred to as “your show”.
If WWE has learned anything from the success of NXT, it is that the creation of two distinct brands under the WWE banner is possible.
Will five hours of wrestling back to back be too much? Will wrestlers float between the two render the brand split redundant? Will the brand split be used exclusively as a means of furthering McMahon family feud #132224?
Those questions will be answered over the coming months but if revisiting an ultimately unsuccessful idea is going to be successful, it is incumbent on WWE more than ever to invest in talent and allow them to become superstars in the OED definition not the WWE definition.