Cautious Optimism for WWE’s New Era (And the Brand Split)

Up until this morning, I was going to title this column, “The Hypocrisy of WWE’s New Era.” What followed was going to be a lengthy tirade about how the “New Era” was nothing more than a shiny paint job covering the same product that WWE has been cranking out for most of the decade: an authority figure running Raw (usually a McMahon),  cliche storylines being favored over quality wrestling matches with stakes and the wrestlers that the smarks preferred constantly being cast aside and buried in favor of the “face” of the company. I had intended on being wonderfully cynical and brutally sardonic.

But then I woke up the other day and heard about the upcoming brand split. Heard how Smackdown is going to be a live show now and will feature its very own roster of superstars. Supposedly, this will help make Smackdown relevant for the first time in years, a move that many fans have clamored for since… well, for a pretty damn long time. It also suggests that maybe WWE isn’t just spewing out empty promises when it refers to the New Era and that it actually plans on capitalizing on its talented and promising roster.

Of course, there’s always the chance that WWE could blow this. They have an uncanny knack for doing just that.

Ironically enough, the brand split is hardly a fresh idea even though it is being utilized to fully launch the New Era (I’m already tired of saying that, much less hearing it). Introduced back in 2002, the separation of the roster provided multiple wrestlers with an opportunity to make a name for themselves and created a distinction between Monday and Thursday nights. While Raw showcased bigger stars and more dramatic rivalries, Smackdown was the home of great wrestling, revolving around the emergence of several new and unproven talents.

My guess is that WWE will seek to replicate that formula because it worked before, and this company never hesitates to revisit past success in order to bolster its future. What else can we expect from this summer’s brand split?

First of all, there will still be a McMahon running both Raw and Smackdown. That much you can count on. Roman Reigns’ status as “The Guy” is also not going to change. He will be holding the company’s top prize for the foreseeable future, kicking out of unlimited finishers and delivering spears and Superman Punches along the way. It was also rumored that all of WWE’s pay-per-views will feature Raw and Smackdown matches, which is different from the original brand split when certain events only had wrestlers from one show or the other. So what is actually going to change?

Perhaps the two most significant differences are that Smackdown will be live (it has been a taped show for as long as I can remember) and it is going to have its own heavyweight title. The show being live is a refreshing change, if only because WWE will no longer be able to use canned reactions and crowd noise to try and control how people respond to certain superstars (I’m looking at you Roman). While unifying the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships seemed like a good idea at the time, it actually hurt the business a tad because it was one less title for guys to compete for. More importantly, wrestlers who would never, ever be considered worthy of competing for WWE’s top prize now had virtually no chance of being a world champion, and that’s a pretty big deal. With Smackdown bringing a second heavyweight championship back into the fold, there’s now a chance that a perennial underdog like Dean Ambrose could finally have a chance to be a world champion, and other fan favorites like A.J. Styles, Kevin Owens, Cesaro and Sami Zayn have an avenue to being top dog without having to topple the Roman Empire.

This is great for WWE’s business as a whole and will hopefully go a long way toward assuaging the frustration that many wrestling fans, myself included, have been dealing with. Frustrated superstars should be jumping for joy too, because this improves their chances of actually being on TV every week. With one of the biggest rosters in the history of the company, it’s inevitable that some wrestlers are left off of Raw and Smackdown. With the brand split, it guarantees that certain guys will only appear on one show, which should open up an avenue for other superstars who aren’t used very much.

The downside is that Raw is a three-hour show. NXT airs every Wednesday for an hour on the WWE Network. Throw in Smackdown and the occasional pay-per-view and that means there could be up to nine hours of WWE programming every week. At the moment, Smackdown more or less is a continuation of the feuds and confrontations that took place on Raw, but nothing that relevant ever happens. It’s not required viewing and as a fan, you don’t miss that much if you choose to just watch the highlights or read the results. With the brand split, that’s no longer going to be the case and at some point I’m afraid that wrestling fatigue may start to set in. This may be a minor gripe that not everyone is worried about, but life is busy and I just hope that WWE isn’t overloading itself.

Like I said, WWE could easily mess this whole thing up. If the rosters aren’t stacked evenly or if Raw is clearly favored over Smackdown (as has been the case in the past), then there won’t be much of a reason to care about the split at all. I don’t think that will happen but there are bound to be hiccups along the way. Smackdown will have to build up an audience and convince people why its worth devoting another two hours each week to wrestling, and that may be hard to do if it follows the same beats as Raw. However, if new opportunities are granted to wrestlers that the fans have been begging to see more of or see get over, then that will be as strong a selling point as any for tuning in on Tuesday nights.

I was certain that WWE’s New Era was nothing more than cheap talk. The challenge for the brand split is to prove that I’m wrong.

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