With WWE’s Draft taking place next week, I wanted to writer this brief column to offer some thoughts on the entire concept of a draft in the year 2021. Namely, this is an idea whose time has come… and gone. It is time for WWE to move beyond the Draft concept and reintegrate the RAW and Smackdown! brands back into a single, stronger WWE roster.
Way back in March 2002, amid the unmitigated glory that Vince McMahon and his close compatriots were feeling after one year of dominance in a professional wrestling landscape with no reasonable or legitimate competition, WWE started something called the brand extension. I wrote about it back then and offered the idea that there should be distinction between the brands. Shortly after writing that column, I began to strongly criticize the brand extension noting that it was not a “brand extension,” but rather two separate rosters for two separate shows. That is not a brand extension. Rather, it is a certain approach to undertaking business in the television industry. Almost like putting on two separate shows under the same feeling and perspective. Think CSI: Miami and CSI: Vegas as a comparison.
In the beginning, WWE tried to make the shows different by having them look and feel different, too. Different sets, different ring colors and styles, different announcers, etc. And while much of that has stayed the same, the overall look and feel of WWE programming across RAW and Smackdown! is so identical that the idea of separating them into two separate brands is borderline silly at this point.
Let’s think about how other professional sports leagues go about managing large rosters of performers. In the National Football League, you have the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference. Thinking about the NFL’s AFC and NFC, is there a discernable difference between the two? What about in Major League Baseball? Between MLB’s American League and National League, can the average viewer or fan tell the difference? Of course not. Are trades prohibited between either the NFL’s or MLB’s conferences? No, not at all. Do they conferences in either of these professional sports leagues try to compete for dominance over each other? Okay, well in that scenario maybe there is a little bit of competition, but nothing of significance (certainly nothing like exists in college football).
But narrowing down to the world of professional wrestling, think about WWE’s primary competition in AEW. The team at AEW has an extensive programming schedule with four hours of programming on YouTube each week and three hours on TNT in primetime. They have not indicated any desire to break their roster into different groups. In fact, you can see someone compete on all four of their shows in a relatively short period of time, depending on how they progress with their skills and with fan reaction. And by not having artificial barriers between the rosters of their four programs, AEW can make sure that their fan favorite heels and faces are appearing across multiple platforms so that their programming partners (primarily TNT, but TBS in the future) never feel like they are left out of receiving the benefit of viewers looking for certain talents. Based on internet rumors, the WWE team may have received some pushback from television partners due to the current composition of their brand rosters.
In hindsight, the brand extension was at best an unnecessary flex of dominance and at worst a silly idea from day one. Now, twenty years on, it is absolutely silly and should come to an end. There are ancillary benefits of ending the roster split, too. For example, WWE could retire some of those championship belts. As a casual fan, it would be easier for me to follow their product if there was one World Champion, one Women’s Champion, one Tag Team Champion, one secondary (let’s take the Intercontinental Championship) champion. Outside of these improvements, I would suggest that the only distinct “brand” WWE should retain is NXT, so long as it remains a show that is built for tomorrow’s superstars. As for RAW and Smackdown!, the time has come to combine everyone into a single roster again and get back to the business of being the world leader in sports entertainment. If not… well, the team at AEW is ready to pounce on any opportunity that comes their way.