WWE SmackDown has become the inessential "B" show to Monday Night Raw’s prioritized "A" show. Nothing of storyline consequence ever happens on SmackDown, and on the off-chance that something does happen, a fan can watch the highlights on Raw the following week.
But come July all of that will change. The WWE is splitting its roster between the two main shows. SmackDown will now have exclusive Superstars and storylines, separate from whatever’s happening on Raw. And like Raw, this “New Era” SmackDown will be a live show, which will substantially increase its spontaneity and dramatic tension.
This is not the first time that the WWE has attempted a brand split. From 2002-2011, in fact, this was the WWE’s status quo. Raw and SmackDown (and for a minute, ECW) were completely separate brands. Over the next two months, before SmackDown goes live, the WWE should take stock of what worked in the past to inform their actions in the present.
What They Did Right: Separate PPVs
For this new brand split to be successful, it needs to be utter and absolute; the only way that a wrestler can appear on a different show is by being drafted to that brand. No crossovers. No surprise guests. This mentality should extend to the PPVs as well. Years ago, each show had its own PPV lineup. No Way Out and Judgment Day, for example, were SmackDown events, whereas Backlash and Vengeance were Raw events. Fans felt compelled to watch both shows, because their contextual enjoyment of the PPVs were tied to their investment.
Of course, the rosters should perform on the same show at a handful of events—‘big’ events like Wrestlemania and SummerSlam. There can even be the occasional ‘brand versus brand’ PPV like Bragging Rights. But these sorts of intersections should be kept to an absolute minimum.
What They Did Wrong: Split Up Successful Acts
Shaking things up is good. The WWE Draft is a great time to break up stale stables and tag teams, and allow their individual pieces to thrive on their own. Being drafted away from tag team partner John Morrison was the best thing that could have happened to The Miz in 2009.
But shaking things up, just for the hell of it, is counterproductive. Back in the day, there were several drafts that broke up established, popular acts. Was it necessary or well-advised to break up the Dudley Boyz in 2002? No, and that’s why they were back together later that same year. Remember when they surprised drafted Jim Ross to SmackDown and Michael Cole to Raw in 2008? It deprived us of Ross/Lawler, the best WWE commentary team to ever do the job. It reeked of pettiness and shock value; neither man was ever as engaging or entertaining since that moment. For this new brand split to succeed, the WWE should err on the side of caution. If it isn’t broken, then don’t attempt to fix it.
What They Did Right: Highlight Young Talent
The first WWE brand split took place because there were too many names on the roster. The WWE was absorbing every major talent from both WCW and ECW, and there was a glut of talented people who deserved the spotlight. Before the brand split, WWE creative tried to give everyone exposure by booking numerous, multi-man tag matches. Three-on-three. Four-on-four. This didn’t solve the problem at all. It just turned every match into a confusing mess.
Today, the WWE is faced with a similar situation. The company is in the process of poaching the top talent from Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground, TNA, and New Japan. At the same time, there’s also the homegrown talent that’s coming out of developmental brand NXT. Something has to give, and a brand split is an elegant solution. The WWE just need to keep things moving, and not get bogged down in a single Superstar’s story. They should tell multiple, complex stories on every single show, every single week.
On last night’s Raw, again, the main event was overcrowded: Dean Ambrose, Sami Zayn, and Cesaro versus Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, and Alberto Del Rio. Fans want to focus on one storyline at a time. Hopefully, a brand split will do away with these sorts of messes, and allow each wrestler some individual time to shine.
What They Did Wrong: Diluted Tag and Women’s Divisions
Two things have happened over the past two years that are particularly commendable. One is the revival of the Tag Team division. For years, it seemed like the art of tag team wrestling in the WWE was dying. Many tag teams in the '00s were just two singles wrestlers thrown together, rather than a cohesive unit of collaborative moves and matching costumes. Today, the New Day, the Usos, the Vaudevillains, and Enzo & Cass are changing that perception.
The second commendable change is that the Women’s Division is undergoing a renaissance. Charlotte, Sasha, Becky, and Bayley are all young, skilled competitors, and are changing the perception of how women are received in the WWE.
A brand split has the potential to halt progress. Neither the Tag Team Division nor the Women’s division have enough depth (yet) to be split into two different rosters. In fact, the brand splits between 2002 and 2011 were major, contributing factors to tag wrestling’s decline in the WWE—the tag talent pool was simply too diluted to tell a meaningful story.
So what’s the best solution? Make Women’s wrestling exclusive to Raw and make Tag wrestling exclusive to SmackDown, or vice versa. That way, both divisions aren’t fighting over scraps, and each division can have up to three segments per show as opposed to the current 1-2 segments. The alternative—to evenly split the tag teams and the women across two shows — would be ill-advised. It’s better to have a single, competitive division—with multiple, must-see matches and multiple feuds—than two lesser parts.
What They Did Right: Two World Titles
Here’s the most contentious debate: Should the WWE have one world champion per brand or should a unified champion split his time between both brands?
In past brand splits, there’s always been one champion per brand. Having two champions came with a unique set of problems; no matter how the WWE spun it, the Big Gold Belt was always seen as slightly inferior to the namesake WWE Championship belt of the company. But even so, it’s unclear how the WWE could go back to that, even if they wanted to. They made such a hullabahoo about unifying the two belts and having one grand champion. And now, they’re going to split them? Again? Done improperly, that could lower both championships in the eyes of fans.
But despite the drawbacks, having two world titles is the lesser of two evils. For Raw and SmackDown to be truly separate entities, there has to be a top prize for both brands. To have the WWE champion bounce between two shows and stay healthy—especially when those two shows have two different traveling tours—is too taxing and too extreme. And even if a team player and living Superman like Cena managed it for a few months, a single Champion is not a sustainable business model. Inevitably, the champion would favor one show over the other, and that would lead the WWE right back to the "A" show and "B" show dynamic.
The Final Word: What’s Best For Business?
Between both SmackDown and Raw, the WWE will be asking its fans to watch 5+ hours of its programming each week, not including PPVs and NXT on the WWE Network. There needs to be a damn good reason for that level of investment, and the easiest way for the WWE to justify it is to create a distinct identity for each brand.
The last time they attempted a brand split, the WWE seemed more concerned with evenly splitting the talent pool by skill rather than splitting the rosters thematically. What if Raw was the more traditional ‘wrestling’ show that employed greater technical skill and athletic competition? What if SmackDown could be the “sports entertainment” show that went for more comedy and dramatic storylines? The current product tries to meld both approaches under a single banner, and the result is a mess. But by thematically splitting the brands, the WWE can "spread the wealth" and give both types of wrestling fans a cable show to enjoy.
There have been several, intriguing rumors over the past couple of days. Triple H sent out a tweet that set the WWE Universe ablaze. Would the brand split mean the end of NXT? Would the developmental roster be entirely absorbed into Raw or SmackDown? Yesterday, a rumored roster draft circulated online, substantiating those fears. Who knows if it’s real; we should expect to see a lot of speculation throughout June. But raiding NXT to flesh out the main rosters could backfire. It could leave the WWE with the exact same problem they have right now: Too much talent and not enough airtime to do all of them justice. And if the WWE gets rid of NXT entirely, then where does the developmental talent go to ply their skills before being thrown onto primetime television?
It’s an exciting time for the WWE Universe, and fans will be looking forward to the upcoming draft (it’s always better to have a war in-house than with an upstart promotion). But the WWE brass should bear this in mind: SmackDown will never stand on its own unless it’s given the chance to do so. They must either do the brand split properly, without compromise, or not do it at all.