Hear me out on this: is NXT UK a victim of WWE’s changing focus?

(also known as “the column I needed to rewrite because JP of the GRAPPL Spotlight podcast mentioned the term “wrestling austerity” and I didn’t want to come across like a plagiarist…)

It’s fair to say that NXT UK got off to a bit of a rocky start when it hit our screens via the WWE Network a little over a year ago. Not helped by an early run where NXT UK ran back-to-back episodes to “catch up” on the backlog they’d made for themselves, the show quickly developed a reputation for being “just a show”, with bright spots usually happening so infrequently that a lot of the casual audience had tuned out.

Those first tapings in Cambridge had the first ever NXT UK opening with… Nigel McGuinness and Vic Joseph in front of a green screen. Yup. Nobody was there live to provide commentary for those tapings three months earlier, which started with Joe Coffey vs. Mark Andrews and proceeded to cram in a lot of the big names from the roster, including Toni Storm and Pete Dunne. To be fair, the opening weeks did do a LOT of table setting, with promos, vignettes and plenty of material to introduce a new fanbase to this motley crew of characters… but by the time episode one had debuted on the Network, WWE had already wrapped up THREE weekends of tapings. The NEC Arena in Birmingham and the Plymouth Pavilions had left WWE with enough content for eighteen episodes of NXT UK before a single one had even aired… so there was only one thing to do.

Air EVERYTHING.

Editing down shows seemingly wasn’t a choice, nor was rewriting those recent shows or even just treating those early tapings as pilots that’d never make air. So to catch up, the Network had weeks and weeks of NXT UK airing back-to-back – from 8pm til 10pm every Wednesday, all the way through until the first Takeover special in January 2019 – a three month spell that just killed interest as a lot of folks jumped off at the prospect of watching two hours of a show that wasn’t designed for a two-hour block. Since then, NXT UK doesn’t ever seem to have “recovered” – with the TV format perhaps having chased away fans, and making them “pick and choose” based on whatever gets buzz. Or unless we’re in Takeover season. Ah yes, Takeovers. The “pay-per-view” like specials that had started out feeling irregular and particularly suspiciously-timed.

While “full fat” NXT in the States has a much more mature schedule, with regular Takeover events, so everything’s building towards *something*. As it stands, it we’re looking at bi-annual Takeovers in the UK, which means that we have a LOT of weeks of TV that are just spinning the wheels, particularly because the current format of TV doesn’t even do what Impact does, and signpost regular TV episodes as special editions… even if the “final episode of taping blocks” have had a tendancy to be just that. Only the most hardcore of “consume-all” fans seemingly tune in into the weekly show for the first airing, and not that many more seemingly joining in on-demand. At least, that’s among social media mentions. Of course, there is a market for NXT UK, going by the fact that tickets are sold and people watch the show… but while we rarely see even ballpark numbers for attendances tapings, just what audience is NXT UK serving? Is there a sizeable market of WWE fans who want to see just the UK lads, as opposed to the “stars” of Raw and SmackDown? And to that effect, do casual fans even know NXT UK exists?

In terms of making stars, a quick flick through the TV taping results shows you the kind of spoils that’s generated. Save for Gallus, almost nobody has been given a push wasn’t signed, coming in with some sort of profile from Britwres… and by that, I usually mean PROGRESS. The most recent examples coming in the form of Oliver Carter, whose run so far has consisted of him getting vignettes and a couple of jobs, which is at least a slight step up from the Saxon Huxleys and Jack Starzs of the world. That’s not to say that the equation is simple “you’re a star in PROGRESS, so you’ll be a star in NXT UK” either, as Travis Banks (who was PROGRESS champion until literally hours before those first tapings) hasn’t hit the heights many would have expected, nor has Jordan Devlin, who’s had that become his character’s story arc.

While simply cloning PROGRESS storylines for NXT UK would have had an even bigger backlash, some of the tweaks like (say) the brief feud between Jordan Devlin and Dave Mastiff, or Joe Coffey’s apparent annual title shots just serves to raise the ire of the same group of fans who weren’t high on the brand to begin with. Of course, originally NXT was a developmental “brand” in the US, with the idea of WWE’s fledgling stars using the show to fine-tune their acts ahead of an eventual debut, all being well. The thing is, NXT’s evolved into a third “brand”, not unlike WWE ECW back in the day, so developmental doesn’t really exist in the way it used to a few years back.

As such, the pipeline that some may have thought would emerge, with the big names from the scene starting through NXT UK, to “full fat” NXT, and up to Raw or SmackDown, simply isn’t materialising. Ignoring Rhea Ripley, who was already signed to NXT and thought of as a hot prospect before the UK division was created, only Pete Dunne has made the move from Enfield to Full Sail. We’ve just had WWE’s Survivor Series – a show that heavily featured Raw, SmackDown and NXT wrestlers, with some of the NXT UK names having been absorbed into NXT for the duration of the build. Looking at the recent lay of the land, and it’s only the tippy-top guys from the UK brand that got shots on the “main roster” shows during Survivor Series season. While it’s cool to see the likes of WALTER on the big stage, when “the rest of British Strong Style” didn’t get a look in (with Mark Andrews and Flash Morgan Webster ahead of them in the queue on Raw) what message is that sending for those who are nowhere near the title pictures?

Peeling back the layers a little exposes the problem: if nobody’s leaving – either for the “main roster”, the US, or leaving the NXT UK system entirely, there’s only so much you can do. Tyler Bate, the first NXT UK champ, is kind of floating around the shows these days with little to do – and with he and Trent Seven already having had the “full fat” NXT tag titles, it feels like going for the UK straps would be a step down. Likewise, you could argue the same with WALTER once he drops the NXT UK title – does he move “up” to NXT, or will he continue to float around the cards? If the opportunities away from NXT UK continue to remain limited (or even releases away from the brand), then any change within the brand will remain glacial. After all, if you don’t know who you may be losing, and you think you’re onto something, why would you switch away? Especially if the brand seems to exist to provide “content” for 48 weeks a year.

If you look at the taping results, it’s become clear that anyone who’s either local or has garnered a modicum of buzz is getting some form of tryout in the form of a quick television outing… Starting with Jay Melrose at last November’s Liverpool tapings – which turned into a contract offer and the formation of the team now known as the Hunt – we’ve seen the likes of Screwface, Josh Terry (remember that time when fans thought he was KENTA/Hideo Itami?!), Beano, Danny Jones, Lana Austin, Debbie Keitel, Pretty Deadly, Jamie Hayter, Shax, Roy Johnson and most recently this month, Amale, Man Like Dereiss and Michael May getting these appearances. Have many of them been signed? Not really, but if promoters are twitchy about using talent connected to NXT UK, those getting try-outs are more than likely going to be on the same list.

Some thirteen months after NXT UK began airing as a television product, has it been beneficial or harmful to the UK scene as a whole? Some will point to the list of promotions that have shut down, slowed down, taken a hiatus or announced their final shows since NXT UK became a thing: Pro Wrestling Chaos, Pro Wrestling Clash and Breed will have an effect on a local level, while IPW:UK’s closure at the end of the year has the flag-bearer of “super indie” shows in the UK finally put an end to what’s been a very turbulent few years. Southside rolling up into Rev Pro takes another distinctive brand away, while Defiant’s closure in the summer had the same effect. Would all of those companies have survived had WWE not gone full steam ahead with NXT UK? Probably not – although Defiant were absolutely harmed by WWE talent at short notice, without being able to use another relationship like Rev Pro had with New Japan. As for the rest, well, you could argue that an over-reliance on existing stars and a failure to make new ones… even if there was the risk that they too would get snapped up.

Add in the inception of AEW, which in turn accelerated the number of indie stars being signed away – either to WWE or to AEW themselves – and you’re left with a drastically reduced pool of wrestlers for indie shows over here, with appearances by AEW names being reduced, so as to keep it special. You don’t need to be angry to realise that’s left us with us a scene that is a departure from the heyday we all experienced as recent as three years ago. The “wrestling austerity”, as JP put it, and one that’s left us with arguably fewer fans travelling to these “run of the mill” shows from the bigger promotions, as witnessed by the slowdown in ticket sales, with Rev Pro’s monthly Cockpit events and PROGRESS’ Electric Ballroom dates not being the rapid sell outs or hot tickets they once were. As they should, promotions now have to work harder to earn ticket sales, as the combination of the proliferation of indie shows and the relative dearth of stars has meant that just having “live wrestling” on a poster doesn’t cut it for a lot of fans.

Now, as a fan, can I condemn anyone who’s signed to WWE, taken a tryout, or done “enhancement” duties? Not at all. A pay day is a pay day – especially so if you’re a Ligero, swapping the travel, the bumps and the grind of 300-plus matches a year for residency at a training centre in Enfield and one or two matches a month. Despite what we’ve said about how narrow the pipeline is these days, if your dream truly is to work regularly for WWE and perhaps main event WrestleMania, then yes, this may well be the way. Not everyone can make it to number one though, and (ambitions aside) while you can understand the mindset of those who’d perhaps opt for the relative safety of a WWE shot as opposed to the turbulence of the indies, it’d be nice to see the NXT UK TV shows be a little more even-handed when it comes to giving people a chance or two.

While I’m not advocating for 50-50 booking, given that a lot of indie wrestlers have been taken off the table in Europe, (at least in terms of being able to get regular, meaningful bookings to work storylines), it’d be nice to see some of the names that weren’t big stars elsewhere given a chance to freshen things up.