So, the Internet rumour of the day is suggesting that WWE are on the verge of bringing back the brand split. That is, if you believe a rogue Ticketmaster listing that advertised “WWE Monday Night Raw vs WWE”.
This isn’t the first time that WWE has flirted with split rosters. Back in 2002, after the WCW buyout and the subsequent rushed invasion storyline, the company was left with a bloated roster and not enough spots for them. Splitting Raw and SmackDown into distinct travelling shows, with their own dedicated rosters and pay per views, the brand extension – as it was labelled – effectively created competition for the WWE within itself.
Back in 2002, the WWE had an excess of talent at all levels. Buoyed by the arrival of former WCW talents, WWE truly had two companies’ worth of wrestlers, and were able to create distinct brands – Raw and SmackDown – with 57 superstars drafted per brand. In the process of the draft, some titles became brand-exclusive (such as the European title, which remained on Raw, and the Cruiserweight title, which became a staple of SmackDown), whilst WWE duplicated other titles (such as the tag team title, which went to SmackDown, so Raw created their own set).
As a reminder of the talents available in 2002, Raw ended up with the likes of the Undertaker, the nWo (Kevin Nash, Scott Hall & X-Pac at the time), Rob Van Dam, a rookie Brock Lesnar, William Regal and Jeff Hardy. SmackDown’s top 20, on the other hand, included the Rock, Hulk Hogan, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit and Edge – the latter three forming a part of the blue brand’s golden era.
Throughout the life of the Brand Extension, we saw tweaks to the program; the creation of ECW in 2006 saw the brand “take” stars from Raw and SmackDown, whilst the group’s difficulties in succeeding as a travelling brand saw their roster merge with SmackDown’s, leading to occasional appearances from ECW talent on SmackDown TV shows and house shows. When ECW disappeared in 2010, the roster was disbanded and allowed to “join” whichever brand they wanted… until Raw started featuring SmackDown-branded wrestlers on a regular basis in August 2011, thus ending the experiment.
Every year during the Brand Extension, WWE held an annual “draft lottery”, where wrestlers would move across shows, supposedly at random. These announcements would be held live on Raw, with a “supplemental” draft following on the WWE’s website afterwards. Ironically, the website draft was seemingly more random than the televised portion, and would usually be a lot more low-key than what you saw on Raw. For instance, the final Draft Lottery in 2011 saw John Cena move from Raw to SmackDown and back again, whilst Randy Orton, Big Show and Alberto Del Rio all switched side. Meanwhile, on dot-com, Daniel Bryan moved to Raw, as did the Usos (albeit in separate moves) and Sheamus, whilst Kofi Kingston, JTG and Tyler Reks made the move from Raw to SmackDown. If you don’t remember some of those… there’s a reason!
Whilst the headline Draft Lottery moves were all storyline driven, the “supplemental” moves were all done with the hope that a change of scenery would kickstart a resurgence. However, that wasn’t always the case; in 2005, Kenzo Suzuki and Hiroko were moved from Raw to SmackDown, but were released from the company before appearing on TV. 2007 saw Hardcore Holly drafted from ECW to Raw, but instead it was on SmackDown when he resurfaced, whilst Chuck Palumbo’s draft to Raw in 2011 saw him released before appearing on TV.
With that being said, assuming that the now-fixed Ticketmaster listing was more than a genuine error, is the landscape at the moment right to go down the brand split route again? In 2002, we ended up with 57 acts drafted per brand – resulting in 30 names per brand. Today, WWE currently has 76 names in their current Universe, and that’s not including anyone currently on NXT, or anyone who is “just a manager”, or indeed, not removing the twelve who are either injured, suspended, or just hasn’t been used in forever.
In theory, WWE has enough bodies to split them in two, with NXT call-ups adding some extra freshness. So, with another shout-out to the Animaniacs, here’s some Good Idea, Bad Ideas for the potential brand split…
Good Idea – restrict some titles to a show
Whilst WWE isn’t in the same boat as they were fourteen years ago, with far too many titles to mention, if they are going to create their own competition again, then at least the secondary titles need to be brand-exclusive. Sure, have a WWE “World” champion defending the title across both shows, and I’d copy that with the Divas title too, but the Intercontinental and United States titles should be the modern day equivalent of a territorial championship.
Bad Idea – keeping two sets of tag team titles
WWE’s tag team division, save for a few brief periods, hasn’t been bustling with viable contenders. With each show’s roster limited to thirty guys (give or take), randomly throwing guys together just for the sake of having a tag team division on each show isn’t worth it. Instead, keep the tag titles as “floaters”, much like the WWE and Divas’ titles. Granted, there’s the risk of having established teams getting lost in the shuffle (a la Blake and Murphy in NXT), but just because you’re on a smaller roster doesn’t mean that you have to be on TV every week.
Good Idea – Brand-Specific Specials
Since the advent of the WWE Network two years ago, it’s fair to say that pay-per-view has become extremely devalued. The concept of ditching the $50 PPV in lieu of a $9.99 Network subscription has been pushed down our throats so far it’s come out the other end, and the main shows haven’t yet seen a drop off in interest that’s been tied to the shows not costing as much.
The key here is that WWE retain their “one-show-a-month” format. During the first Brand Extension, the company flirted with the idea of adding extra pay-per-views, and that did nothing but harm for the overall concept. Retain the Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam and Survivor Series as “joint” shows, and split the remaining eight specials between brands, with potential for extra shows to be added as Network exclusives, much like they have done lately with the “Beast From The East”, “Live From MSG” shows in 2015, and the upcoming “March to WrestleMania” special from Toronto.
Bad Idea – keeping things the same
SmackDown between 2004-2006 was something of a golden era – the aforementioned Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Edge and Rey Mysterio (among others) were setting the WWE on fire with their in-ring work. That was mostly in part due to the fact that it was such a contrast to what Raw was providing; SmackDown was the home of the “hot youngsters” (let’s ignore Hogan and gloss over ages here!) whilst Raw was the home of stars from the recent past.
That part is key – if you’re splitting the company in half, there’s little point having both halves being the same. The talent roster at the moment isn’t deep enough – or respected enough – for the roster split in itself to be a unique selling point. Perhaps in a year or two of decent booking (read: not 50-50), that may be the case, but right now, WWE would need to present Raw and SmackDown as two distinct shows… and crucially, different to what NXT is, seeing as how it would also make no sense for WWE to kill off their own developmental show for the sake of their latest big roster’s idea.
Whether the Shane McMahon/Undertaker match at WrestleMania leads to another brand split – much like how Ric Flair/Undertaker at WrestleMania 18 did, fourteen years ago – remains to be seen. On the surface, a brand extension can be good, but WWE’s recent track record with long-term planning on the main roster will leave a lot of people cynical of this idea.