Thursday 1 September 2011

Brand Consolidation

On the August 29th episode of RAW WWE took a first step towards ending the Brand Extension™. For the foreseeable future, storyline Chief Operating Officer Triple H informed us, SmackDown stars will appear on RAW. He mentioned this will be known as RAW SuperShow but I think he was speaking figuratively (or something): there’s no way WWE would change the name of RAW permanently.

The announcement didn’t cover RAW stars appearing on SmackDown but it didn’t really need to. Guys and girls “contracted” to the Monday night show have been routinely appearing on the blue brand for years, and it’s been a long time since any explanation was offered beyond “Teddy Long has invited ‘such and such’ here tonight”.  It was a situation that didn’t need to be addressed, so WWE didn’t address it.

A lot of people have been expressing a desire for the Brand Extension™ to end for a long time now. The reasons tend to be that WWE doesn’t have a deep enough talent roster to keep the thing going properly and that they’ve disregarded the separate rosters concept for so long (particularly with regards to SmackDown) that it doesn’t mean anything anyway. Right now it’s hard to disagree with either argument, but had WWE put in the work they could have made the Brand Extension™ work again.

Neither RAW or SmackDown has enough genuine main event talent right now. By combining the rosters the few stars that can legitimately impact ratings, such as Orton, Cena and Punk, are able to immediately start appearing on both shows. That’s not a knock on the rest of the talent WWE has, but the fact is that John Morrison and Christian (and I prefer both to Orton or Cena, by the way) do not make people tune in to TV shows right now. At a time when SmackDown’s ratings are slumping it makes sense to have Cena and Punk appearing on the show as it will help ratings, while Orton being on RAW will help to combat the upcoming return of the NFL to Monday nights.

The alternative would have been to build new main event stars. Obviously this is going to happen anyway, but if the rosters were still separate it would have been easier. John Morrison, for example, is a perfect guy to elevate to the top of the card. He gets very little screen time on RAW and now he’ll get even less as Mark Henry, Randy Orton and other featured stars of SmackDown show up for a slice of RAW action. If WWE had stuck firmly to the Brand Extension™ they would have had more air time to allocate to advancing Morrison.

Of the two shows SmackDown is clearly worse off for main event talent. Another option WWE have opted against is moving two or three guys who aren’t doing much on RAW over to SmackDown. I’ve already mentioned Morrison and he’d have been perfect in a supporting babyface role on the Tuesday night show (it’s taped, y’know). Miz is another guy who’d have benefitted from the move: for all we hear that Vince McMahon thinks he’s tremendous and wants to push him Miz hasn’t really done much since losing the WWE title to John Cena in May. R-Truth, Jack Swagger and Dolph Ziggler all could have helped to create a solid main event crew for SmackDown too.

There are loads of guys waiting in the wings. Bryan ‘Daniel Bryan’ Danielson, Sin Cara (Hunico is fitting in fine in the role and could easily handle the high level push the character originally had when Mistico was under the mask), Johnny Curtis, Broadus Clay, Colby ‘Seth Rollins/Tyler Black’ Lopez (of ROH and FCW fame), Cody Rhodes, Kofi Kingston and Evan Bourne all spring to mind as men that could handle larger roles in the company. Are these guys (or the Morrison, Swaggers, Zigglers and Truths I mentioned above) ready to go on last on a pay-per-view now? No, of course they’re not, because WWE has spent no time preparing them for the roles and allowing the audience to accept them as top stars. As far as ability goes all of them seem ready for a main event spot: it’s up to WWE to spend the necessary time building them up and making it very clear to viewers that they’re headed to the top.  

They’ve taken an easier option which they’re hoping will deliver ratings increases quicker. I understand the move, and there’s no guarantee they won’t go back to properly separated rosters at some point but I would have preferred the slower option. While the results wouldn’t have been as quick it would have allowed the company to build more acts over a longer period. That would have been better for WWE’s prospects in the long term.

I’ll also be interested to see what happens with the company’s championships. It’s not impossible to imagine the United States and Intercontinental titles being combined in the near future. Personally I think that would be a mistake as mid-card titles can play a big role in preparing guys for more prominent spots. Two mid-card titles allow two men to be groomed for bigger things at the same time, even if they’re both appearing on RAW and SmackDown. A championship means as much as the person carrying it makes out: if each champion were to carry their title like it meant a lot to them then having two belts wouldn’t be an issue. There was never a huge outcry against two secondary straps when the European title coexisted with the Intercontinental title, was there?

The bigger issue will be having two world champions for one roster. WWE has had two world champions for almost nine years now: the World Heavyweight championship was awarded to inaugural champion Triple H on September 2nd 2002. During that time the promotion has become reliant on being able to promote two different people as world champions. It’s a situation that has allowed the promotion to build top acts far quicker than it would have been able to with just one world title as two men can be elevated to the top at once, as was the case with John Cena and Batista several years ago.

The situation has worked out well so far because the world champions were kept apart on what were ostensibly separate rosters. By combining the brands WWE will find itself in the awkward situation of potentially having four singles champions appearing on one show, two of them claiming to be a world champion. They obviously can’t both be the best in the world (which is the bragging right of anyone, in any sport, that holds a world championship) so something is going to have to change somewhere. The mid-card titles may be combined, but that won’t solve the world title situation.

WWE has two options. It can either keep the world champions separate for a while and use the increased viewership to introduce fresh acts before establishing RAW and SmackDown as separate entities with separate champions again (allowing them to keep two credible world champions, as long as the brands don’t mingle for two long and the champs are kept apart during the process) OR they can book a title unification match. I’d prefer the former but I suspect the latter may be planned. If it’s done right I think a unification bout could work well. There’s ample time to tease a feud between WWE champion Alberto Del Rio and World Heavyweight champion Randy Orton in time for WrestleMania. They could even bring it forward a bit and do it at Royal Rumble or possibly Survivor Series. I think we’ll see it sooner rather than later and that a ‘Mania match is a bit of a stretch, but I believe that would be the best setting for a match with nine years of history to it.

As much as I wish it wasn’t so I think we’re seeing the groundwork being laid for an official end to the Brand Extension™. Despite the potential in operating two separate rosters, creating more stars and presenting two credible world champions, WWE is taking the quicker solution of increasing ratings now using their current batch of stars. It’s not a wrong move (I don’t think a decision with so many factors to it can be considered right or wrong), but it is a short-sighted one.

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