Sunday 1 May 2011

Fantasy Booker: WWE part three

In the first two entries of this series I began answering the question of what I’d do if I were in charge of every aspect of WWE, having the final say on every decision. In part one I concentrated on overhauling the developmental system into one I believe would produce more rounded wrestlers for the main rosters to utilise. In part two I talked about who would occupy key positions in the company’s hierarchy, such as senior agent and head of talent relations, as well as changes I’d make to house shows and commentary teams and the current restrictions placed on them. In this third part I’ll be revealing, amongst other things, the rosters for RAW and SmackDown and how I would use the booking team.

RAW and SmackDown are WWE’s most important shows. They are the tools the company uses to introduce new acts, keep its current stars in the public eye, and sell pay-per-views. PPV buys are one of the largest sources of income for WWE. Without them the promotion would likely go under. RAW and SmackDown are basically infomercials for the bigger shows and live events.

So what changes would I make? I want to start by saying that I think they get a lot of things right. It’s just that they get a lot wrong too. They’re running the right size arenas, they’re attracting large enough crowds, they’re producing shows to a high standard, and the sets are relevant and impressive enough. All this is right, and I’d be leaving these areas more or less unchanged.

The areas in which the shows are failing are important ones. Nowhere near enough new main event acts are being created. With retirements, injuries and outside interests continually chipping away at the company’s established batch of top line stars new acts are needed fast. The separate brands concept isn’t being adhered to or reaching its potential either. When it’s SmackDown star the Undertaker appearing on RAW to promote a main event for the biggest pay-per-view of the year I don’t have a problem, but when the Corre are appearing on both shows for no reason then something, somewhere, is wrong. It’s the same with the flagrant disregard for pre-match stipulations: people pay good money to see a match that will have consequences. When said consequences are easily overturned or simply ignored it insults viewers and discourages them from believing in the product in future, harming buy rates.

Upon starting with the company I would immediately inform the booking teams that any advertised stipulations must be adhered to. If they’re going to be overturned they shouldn’t be advertised in the first place. The same goes for the brand extension. If wrestlers are supposedly exclusive to different shows they need to stay exclusive to those shows. If the Undertaker is going to appear on RAW an easily explainable reason needs to be given, while lesser acts (such as the Corre) should stay put altogether. The goal would be to regain the audience’s lost trust.

When it comes to creating stars there are no measures that can be put in place that will guarantee results. It’s a case of finding the right individual, giving them time and being persistent... and lucky. The current creative team have given up on far too many people over the years because the fans didn’t immediately react to them. In the instances that they have stuck with an act there’s not always been a long term goal in mind. The Nexus group is the perfect example of this: the initial angle was shocking, exciting and well executed. People tuned back in to see what was going to happen. There were mentions of a secret benefactor and a reason for the group forming that fans and wrestlers would be incapable of understanding, but neither was ever expanded upon. What happened? People got bored and stopped tuning in.

For the first six months of my time in WWE I would attend a weekly writers’ meeting to give an outline for where I wanted the product to head and sign off on title changes and every television episode, but I would refrain from trying to do too much too quickly. During this period my main focus would be on the developmental league, with the plan being to keep the television product ticking over and reaching a position for me to take over around September or October.

The draft lottery would have looked different had I booked it. Frankly it’s not something I’ve ever been a fan of, but it serves its purpose and I’d have used it this year and then dropped the concept. I always thought the brief period in which wrestlers were supposedly free agents who were permitted to negotiate with the RAW and SmackDown general managers was a better way of performing roster moves. It allowed for wrestlers to be moved at any time of the year, giving greater freedom to the booking teams should one show be hit with a plague of injuries and also allowed for great surprise moments when a wrestler showed up unannounced. With the draft out of the way I would quietly reintroduce this system and be careful not to overuse it.

The Draft itself would have been used to create two balanced rosters. SmackDown would be a show geared more towards longer, more athletic matches, whilst RAW would be a more promo and sports entertainment heavy show. It’s what WWE was doing very successfully around five or six years ago. By placing a different emphasis on each show I’d be appealing to different areas of the wrestling market, providing something for everyone. The amount of time dedicated to in-ring action would be increased on both shows, but it would be more prominent on SmackDown as that would be “the wrestling show”.

Below are the rosters I would have established in the draft, consisting of anyone currently active on the roster that would remain on television, along with talent I would call up from developmental. Men noted as being in tag teams with one another doesn’t mean they would only ever wrestle tag matches, it means the two would be affiliated with one another and would be used at least semi-regularly as a unit:

Alex Riley (managing The Miz)
Big Show (used in a team with Kane)
Brett Dibiase (used in a team with Ted Dibiase)
Brie Bella (managing Byron Saxton and Darren Young)
Byron Saxton (used in a team with Darren Young)
Chris Masters
Curt Hawkins (used in a team with Zack Ryder)
Darren Young (used in a team with Byron Saxton)
Dolph Ziggler
Evan Bourne
Ezekiel Jackson
Heath Slater (used in a team with Justin Gabriel)
Joe Hennig
John Cena
John Morrison
Johnny Curtis
Justin Gabriel (used in a team with Heath Slater)
Kane (used in a team with Big Show)
Lucky Cannon
Maryse (managing Lucky Cannon)
The Miz
Nikki Bella (managing Byron Saxton and Darren Young)
Santino Marella (used in a team with Vladimir Kozlov)
Skip Sheffield
Tamina (managing Santino Marella)
Ted Dibiase (used in a team with Brett Dibiase)
Triple H (working part time)
Vikkie Guerrero (managing Dolph Ziggler)
Vladimir Kozlov (used in a team with Santino Marella)
Wade Barrett
Zack Ryder (used in a team with Curt Hawkins)

Alberto Del Rio (used in a team with Broadus Clay)
Broadus Clay (used in a team with Alberto Del Rio)
Bryan Danielson (used in a team with Derrick Bateman)
Chris Jericho (when he returns)
CM Punk (used in a team with Mason Ryan)
Cody Rhodes
David Hart Smith (used in a team with Tyson Kidd)
Derrick Bateman (used in a team with Bryan Danielson)
Drew McIntyre (used in a team with Sheamus)
Jack Swagger
Jimmy Uso (used in a team with Jey Uso)
Jey Uso (used in a team with Jimmy Uso)
Kofi Kingston
Mason Ryan (used in a team with CM Punk, and serving as his bodyguard)
Randy Orton
Rey Mysterio
Ricardo Rodriguez (managing Alberto Del Rio)
Richie Steamboat (used in a team with Tyler Black)
Sheamus (used in a team with Drew McIntyre)
Sin Cara
Titus O’Neil
Tyler Black (used in a team with Richie Steamboat)
Tyson Kidd (used in a team with David Hart Smith)
Undertaker (working part time)
Awesome Kong
Beth Phoenix
Eve Torres
Gail Kim
Kelly Kelly
Michelle McCool
Natalya (managing David Hart Smith and Tyson Kidd)
Rosa Mendes (managing Alberto Del Rio)

I think these rosters provide each show with a good balance of stars. Focusing on RAW first, I think they’re slightly worse off for top line names. This is deliberate. RAW will always do better in the ratings because of its perception as the flagship show, so it makes sense to give SmackDown more of the “ratings getters” because it needs a boost. To make up for this the RAW roster has been given John Morrison, Dolph Ziggler and Christian, who are all ready to be promoted to the top of the card permanently. By not having the luxury of relying on CM Punk, Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio and Alberto Del Rio the writing team will have no choice but to use these three men alongside The Miz and John Cena. On the subject of Cena, as the company’s top merchandise seller and star of next year’s WrestleMania he needs to be on the most watched show.

I’ve given RAW a handful of men that would be used primarily in tag team bouts (Darren Young and Byron Saxton, Heath Slater and Justin Gabriel, Ted Dibiase and Brett Dibiase, Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder) to bulk out the tag ranks alongside Santino and Kozlov and Kane and Big Show. There wouldn’t be too much of an emphasis on tag team wrestling on RAW, but I’d want it to have a presence. I’ve also put Lucky Cannon and Skip Sheffield there. Cannon is someone I think could become a legitimately huge star if given the time to develop naturally. Skip Sheffield is someone Vince McMahon is said to see as the next John Cena. While that probably doesn’t fill anyone with confidence I think he could become a draw if his matches are kept short and he’s not asked to speak at length. He’s another guy that should be permitted to progress naturally. With luck he’d become the next Batista rather than the next Cena (and that’s a good thing: Batista knows his character and his limitations, understands how to get over, and is willing to put people over as long as it’s done the right way... Cena can’t even throw a worked punch).

Looking at SmackDown you’ll notice that the company’s most talented female wrestlers are there. By placing them all on one brand and featuring them regularly I think the divas could very quickly create a division worth watching. I’d possibly push it with thirty second vignettes dubbing it the “Diva-ision”, or something similar. It may not be the greatest of names, but it would signal to fans that something was finally being done with WWE’s women.

As I mentioned above SmackDown has more established names in Orton, Mysterio, Punk and Del Rio. I think that’s a very good main event team, and guys like Bryan Danielson (yes he’d be called that!), Sheamus, Jack Swagger, Sin Cara and Kingston would all be capable of working a PPV main event with just a few months preparation. Then there are men like Tyler Black (currently competing in FCW as Seth Rollins), Derrick Bateman, Broadus Clay, and Titus O’Neil to put together a strong undercard and become stars to watch. The Friday night show also has notably more tag teams than RAW. The reasoning for that is that by having more men working as part of a regular tag team, or being affiliated with a tag partner lower down the card like Punk, Del Rio and Danielson are, more men can be featured per week without having to cut anyone from the broadcast. It would also help to distinguish SmackDown from RAW as the show with the hotter tag team division.

During the six months before I took creative control on fulltime both mid-cards would receive a lot of attention. The trouble at the moment is that newcomers are arriving and very quickly going after world championships. The importance and prestige of the United States and Intercontinental championships, particularly the Intercontinental title, has been diluted because of this. Those titles used to mean a lot and winning them signified that a star was on the rise.

A long term goal would be re-establish the significance of the mid-card belts. This objective would be explained to the writing teams, with the plan being to have them restored to their former glory by mid-2013. This would be done in numerous ways. I would start by having the belts defended with greater frequency in longer matches. Title reigns would be planned as far in advance as possible and the majority would be measured in months rather than weeks. I would put an end to former world champions capturing the secondary belts. This used to be an unwritten rule but in the last ten years or so that’s gone out of fashion. Having former world champions holding mid-card titles gives the impression they’re just killing time between world title reigns and denies a mid-carder the opportunity of a push. Multi-time mid-card champions also seem to have gone out of fashion. By having men wanting to regain the title and treating it with as much importance as a world title it will become more important. Kofi Kingston is someone I’d be doing this with, as he is one of the few men currently in WWE to have been a multi-time Intercontinental champion without having had a world title run. I’d be giving him a number of United States title reigns to illustrate that it’s a title wrestlers care about and want to obtain.

Most importantly I’d make sure that whoever wins these belts is ready for the spot. By 2013 I would want anyone holding these titles to be seen either as a main eventer in waiting or a main eventer in their own right.

I would put a halt to talent winning a world title without first proving themselves with a secondary strap. It’s okay for a select few, such as the Undertaker and Batista, but the majority should be earning their way up to world title runs.

This seems a good point to discuss which belts would be on which show. With RAW the longer running flagship show I would want the titles with the most history there. The WWE and Intercontinental titles would both be there, with the World Heavyweight and United States championships on the younger, fresher SmackDown. The WWE tag team titles would become exclusive to RAW and SmackDown would have a tournament to crown World tag team champions.

The number of world title matches on free television would be gradually decreased over time, my belief being that matches for such a sought after prize should be rarer than those for the less prestigious titles, and that people should pay for the majority of them. This would help achieve the goal of more televised matches for the secondary titles as the writing team wouldn’t be able to rely on featuring world title matches all the time to try and get ratings.

Hopefully you’re already getting the idea that RAW and SmackDown would have different strengths as brands. This would be emphasised further by treating each brand as a separate company, which was one of the original ideas behind the brand extension. There would be no more RAW recaps on SmackDown (or vice versa). Realistically, why would you be promoting your competition like that? Instead thirty second vignettes would air promoting a particular talent or match from the opposite brand, under the guise of advertising time having been “purchased” by the opposing show’s general manager. It’s simple but effective, and makes more sense than the current product does.

Single brand pay-per-views would return. This was a concept scorned by many fans, but I’ve always felt it was the booking that was inadequate, not the concept. Look back to when single brand shows first began in June 2003 to see how solid the cards were. They may not have been great from top to bottom, but a show that features nothing but brilliant matches is rare. The first year’s worth of single branded shows were all very strong, particularly from SmackDown. Such pay-per-views would give a greater number of young wrestlers the chance to perform on bigger platforms and earn more money, allow feuds to run longer before becoming stale from overexposure, and necessitate more attention for mid-card feuds. Duel brand shows all year round is a lazy approach that puts another obstacle in the way of building for the future.

My pay-per-view calendar would start with the Royal Rumble as a duel brand show, featuring two regular matches from each show and the Rumble match itself (which would return to having thirty participants). February would have a second RAW and SmackDown joint venture in the form of No Way Out, with each show promoting four matches. WrestleMania would take its regular mid-March to early-April spot with the number of bouts being changed as necessary. I’d aim to have RAW and SmackDown supplying the same number of bouts, and possibly one or two inter-brand matches (for top guys like the Undertaker, Triple H and John Cena) with a major build to them.

April and June would host RAW brand shows while May took care of SmackDown. July would be a duel brand King of the Ring PPV. This would be an eight man tournament focusing on young stars yet to reach the top of the industry. That’s when King of the Ring was at its best. The first round matches would take place in the weeks leading up to the pay-per-view as a way of hyping it and creating TV storylines, with the semi-finals and finals taking place on the show (with the final, as you may have noticed, being a rare RAW v SmackDown match). I think with the correct level of build and the right participants the tournament could really begin to mean something again and help to elevate the winner.

August would remain the home of SummerSlam. Each show would get four matches on the show and enter four men into an inter-promotional Money in the Bank match. I think the ladder bout is a better fit for SummerSlam and it helps to free up space at WrestleMania. I’d try to make SummerSlam the huge event it used to be, moving it away from the “just another show” feel it has at present. It should be one of the company’s highest grossing pay-per-views of the year, featuring matches that have been building since WrestleMania, as well as setting up storylines for the rest of the year.

September and December would play host to SmackDown shows, with a RAW pay-per-view in October. That leaves only November. Fear not, Survivor Series is safe! It would be overhauled though. I like the idea of doing one show a year around the RAW v SmackDown concept and I think that’s a good fit for Survivor Series. Seven matches in total, three non-title champion v champion contests, a traditional Survivor Series match, and three storyline “special challenge” matches. Having no titles on the line may seem an odd decision but with the correct marketing and by sticking to the separate brands rule more strictly I think a RAW v SmackDown event could feel special and do good business. It would require a lot of long term planning, but that’s an aim for my regime anyway.

This calendar would ensure WWE’s biggest names were all on pay-per-view during the boom period between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, grant younger talent more opportunities, and reinvigorate the King of the Ring, SummerSlam and Survivor Series shows by providing them with a fresh focus. It would also mean that feud-enhancing gimmick matches were only used when they were needed, rather than because of a pay-per-view’s name. Half the year single brand shows, half the year duel branded shows: the perfect balance.

The focal point of the WWE year would remain WrestleMania. That should always be the platform for the biggest title switches and feud conclusions, with one or two guys getting the chance to make their name with a standout performance on the undercard in a meaningful match. I also think the recent emphasis on building central matches farther in advance has been a wise move and something I’d continue. The annual post-‘Mania influx of new talent would still happen, as it gives a year to build new acts for the next year’s spectacular.

The Hall of Fame ceremony would remain untouched. It’s something nice for fans, wrestlers and the business and there’s no need to alter it. I think retirement matches, whether they’re part of a storyline, a pre-match stipulation or just a straightforward announcement, have been very well received too. They work well at WrestleMania and allow for the company’s top stars to go out on a high.

Also on the subject of WrestleMania: the host cities. WrestleMania XVIII is confirmed for Miami. I’d have The Rock inducted into the Hall of Fame the night before his much-hyped match with Super Cena, followed by Edge and Trish Stratus the year after for WrestleMania XXIX in their hometown of Toronto. There’s only one place for WrestleMania XXX and that’s Madison Square Garden in New York City. My goal would be to have Mick Foley back in the company by this point, and this would be his year to be inducted. I’d make a real effort to get Bruno Sammartino far that year too, but I think that’s one of the longest shots in wrestling. Thinking even more long term WrestleMania XXXI would be in Philadelphia, with the Hall of Fame having an ECW theme to it. Taz and the Dudleys could have been hired for agent roles by this point, and Sabu and Heyman would likely agree to appear for a one night deal. Joey Styles is already under contract and he’d be a must for an ECW induction class.

Aside from the above I would personally like to see the New Age Outlaws, Randy Savage (unlikely I know), Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, Booker T, Davey Boy Smith and William Regal inducted at some point. Guys like Triple H, Jericho and the Undertaker are all obvious candidates and all men I’d expect to be involved in big angles when they decide to wrestle their final match. In the case of the Undertaker he’d retire with a win. I wouldn’t want to finish The Streak.

This seems like a good point to finish part three. In the concluding part of this series I’ll detail what the major storylines would be for this year’s SummerSlam and next year’s WrestleMania, as well as giving an idea of what I’d be doing with the mid-card of both shows and who I’d be relying on as stars of the future.

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