Better than? Less than? Different than? The WWE’s brand split dilemma

The brand split is back! For those who don’t recall in 2002 World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) split its roster between its two weekly shows RAW and Smackdown. For a time it was different and exciting – especially in the era of the “Smackdown Six*” and duelling General Managers Eric Bischoff and Stephanie McMahon – but eventually it fizzled out became less exciting and eventually just dribbled away ending in 2011. Now in a spectacular u turn the brand split is coming back (the draft takes place on July 11th and from the 19th Smackdown will go live – at least in North America). But why?

One difference between 2002 and now is that there is no storyline logic for the split. In 2002 kayfabe owners Vince McMahon and Ric Flair could not stand the sight of each other so the WWE board of directors decided basically to split the roster up so that those two would never have to work together. I thought this storyline reason for a brand split would be repeated when Shane and Stephanie McMahon were arguing over who should run RAW but instead Mr McMahon had them both run RAW and like David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the UK ‘s 2010-15 Coalition government have been working together better than anyone thought they would. So why the split?

To my mind the reason is sinister. The USA Network which televises RAW and Smackdown is unhappy about the latter’s ratings. But Smackdown’s ratings are probably low because the show is taped (in this internet era spoilers are inevitable) so why not have it live with the same roster for a while to see if that would work. What annoys me is that only the USA Network gets a say. Other channels that cover WWE (like Sky in the UK) don’t seem to get a say nor do the WWE fans. That could be a dangerous precedent if the USA Network wants WWE to do something the UK would not accept (say a return to TV14 or intergender matches although I think we are safe from both of  those). The point is the rest of the world deserve a say in WWE’s future. But that said how would I do the draft? Two points first. I’m not doing a draft for every wrestler in the WWE. Secondly this is what I would do not what I think the WWE will do.

1. The World title(s?) If it was up to me there MUST be only one World title in the WWE – the current WWE World Heavyweight Championship. In the last brand split eventually there were two World titles. The problem there was one (the WWE Championship) was regarded as superior to the other (the World Heavyweight Championship**). Another problem was two Championships with split rosters produced long boring reigns (Triple H’s 2002-5 “Reign of Terror” and John Cena ‘s 2006-7 reign come to mind.) Keep one title let the champion float between the two shows and when the title changes hands the deposed champion goes to the show his successor was exclusive to.

2. The mid card titles. Fairly straightforward. There is the US title and the Intercontinental title. One should become exclusive to RAW the other exclusive to Smackdown. I would send the Intercontinental title to RAW and the US title to Smackdown but it could easily go the other way around.

3. Tag Teams. One of the big mistakes WWE made in 2002 was to split up established tag teams like the Dudley Boyz and the APA. This was so unsuccessful the teams were reunited in less than a year. To my mind tag teams should both not be split up or drafted. Instead the Tag Team Title should be allocated to one show and all tag teams should be drafted to that show. If a tag team splits up its members get put into a new draft and can be picked separately or together depending on what creative has planned for them.

4. Women. This is the part I fear the WWE will cock up. The women’s Championship should be like the men’s. It should be one title and the champion should float between the two shows. But I would not put women wrestlers into the draft. The women’s roster in my opinion does not have enough credible wrestlers to be split in two – a relic of WWE’s policy of hiring models rather than wrestlers. With the full women’s roster having only to compete with half the male roster on each show in theory the women might have more than one feud on each show. What I fear WWE will do is either have the women’s title and all the women on one show – which means one show would be all male which is unacceptable in 2016 – or bring back the awful Divas title which they retired only in April. The only women in the draft should be Maryse and Lana who should be drafted with their real life partners the Miz and Rusev respectively.

5. The Cruiserweight title. That would leave one show with four titles and the other three.To balance this another title has to be created. I would not bring back the European title (too similar to the US and Intercontinental titles) nor the Hardcore title (unacceptable in the PG era.) The obvious one to bring back is the Cruiserweight title. I don’t know why they retired it in 2007 or why they buried the title by putting the belt on Hornswoggle. Yes really.

So if I was in charge the title picture would be :

Both Shows : World Heavyweight Title, Women’s Title
RAW : Intercontinental Title, Tag Team Titles
Smackdown: US title, Cruiserweight Title (Or vice versa).

But will the brand split work? I doubt it. And Eric Bischoff supplies the answer why. In his book “Controversy Creates Ca$h” (pages 152-56) he says when he was launching WCW Monday Nitro he had three choices. Be “better than” RAW, “less than” or “different than”. Bischoff did not think he could be “better than” RAW obviously he did not want to be “less than” so he decided to be “different than”. Which at least for the first couple of years he managed. But when he created (against his better judgement) a second WCW show “Thunder” he admitted ” “We didn’t do a good job of making it different, so it became less“. (“Controversy Creates Ca$h, page 271.The italics are Bischoff ‘s.)

And that is WWE ‘s problem. It is easier to make a show different from a competitor’s show than it is to make a spin off from your own show different. Smackdown is struggling just now because it is not different enough from RAW so it becomes less than RAW. WWE can’t afford to have one show be better than the other as the other show will be less than. They must make them different from each other. Different rosters on their own will not do that. Two possible ways of making them different would be to make one TV14 while keeping the other PG or how about relaunching WCW and renaming Smackdown “Tuesday Nitro?”.

I don’t think the WWE will do either of those things. But unless they make the shows different from each other one will inevitably be better than” the other… which means the other will be “less than”. And neither WWE or the USA Network want that…

*The “Smackdown Six” were Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Edge, Eddie and Chavo Guerrero and Rey Mysterio. The six were some of the best wresters in the world and their matches in 2002-3 played a part in making Smackdown “different than” RAW. A lot of people said in fact Smackdown was in fact “better than” RAW in this period.

**In my opinion the World Heavyweight Championship was always inferior to the WWE Championship mainly because the World Heavyweight Championship belt was WCW’s “Big Gold Belt” which to me will always be tarnished by the fact that in 2000 both actor David Arquette and useless waste of space Vince Russo held it.

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