In 2002, Vince McMahon put in motion a change as revolutionary as the WWE Network is today, the brand split.
With the launch of Raw and Smackdown as independent brands with their own champions and rosters, the brand split was a genius move at a time when the roster had never been deeper.
The move was bolstered by having Paul Heyman at the helm of the blue-brand, giving it a completely different feel to what we were seeing on Monday nights.
The brand split did a number of things that helped keep the WWE strong throughout the 2000’s.
Firstly, it created main event calibre superstars, superstars that may not have reached the top level without the brand split. The likes of Edge, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, John Cena, Batista, CM Punk, Jeff Hardy, Rey Mysterio, Dolph Ziggler and Rob Van Dam all became world champions initially because of the brand split. Today, we are less likely to see mid-card stars get elevated to world championships, because there’s only one heavyweight title.
Secondly, it created competition. As a child of the Ruthless Aggression Era, I can’t tell you how many arguments I would have with friends over which brand was better and whenever the brands collided, like Survivor Series 2005, the excitement for that was unmatched. Of course, everyone knows SmackDown was better back then, right, right? It also gave you two shows of roughly equal quality to watch each week, rather than what we have now which is new content on Raw and rehashes and B grade matches on Smackdown. This made each show feel fresher as we weren’t seeing the same stars twice a week.
Finally, it made every pay-per-view feel important because you had Raw and Smackdown exclusive pay-per-views. There were no small or irrelevant ones because each had been building up for five or six weeks. On top of that, it made pay-per-views with both rosters, like SummerSlam and the Royal Rumble, feel that much more special and gave them something real to elevate them, rather than us just being told that they’re important. It was always a special occasion when both rosters were together for an event.
Having two independent brands was a genius move that made the WWE as good as it possibly could have been throughout the 2000’s.
Eventually that deep roster dissipated due to aging superstars and a lack of A-grade talent being developed. Raw then went to three hours and over 2010 and 2011, the brand split died a slow death.
Now, Smackdown is also suffering that same fate, serving as nothing more than a place to have Raw replays and second tier matches that don’t progress storylines.
In short, Smackdown currently exists for the sheer sake of having more WWE content every week.
It’s a slow, sad end for what was arguably the premiere brand of the WWE for most of the Ruthless Aggression Era.
This brings us to the point of this piece, should the WWE bring back the brand split now?
In the immortal words of Daniel Bryan, yes, they should.
It would undoubtedly be a risky endeavour and the company would have to roll the dice on a number of people and facets, but the payoff would be enormous.
From here I will go through the ‘who, what, when, how and why’, breaking down everything that needs to be done for this brand split to succeed.
Getting into it, let’s start with the when.
If the aim is to do this as soon as possible, then the best time would be 2016, in the lead up to SummerSlam.
Any earlier would feel rushed and something as monumental as this will obviously need to be meticulously planned.
SummerSlam gives you enough time to get WrestleMania well and truly out of the way and it also removes having to throw together a Money in the Bank winner for Smackdown in its first few months, something that isn’t necessary.
It also allows you to use the Battleground pay-per-view to host the initial draft, which is something that they must make a big deal about, in order for the brand split to work.
The draft must be exactly how it was originally, with Raw and Smackdown trading picks evenly.
Then you give the new Smackdown brand some breathing space in order to rebuild itself as an independent brand.
That can be done over the back end of 2016, before returning to exclusive pay-per-views in 2017 or 2018 – More on that later.
The next thing is the how. How do you make this work?
This is all about the feel of the brands. They can’t just have different superstars, they have to feel different and that means different writing teams as much as anything.
What separated Smackdown from Raw between 2002 and 2009 was the fact that it felt edgier, it had a heavier wrestling focus and it wasn’t afraid to give young stars a chance.
For those that never experienced it, consider NXT today. The difference between how NXT and Raw feel is what needs to be achieved between Smackdown and Raw in this brand split. This isn’t to say Raw’s way of doing things is bad, it can be the show with bigger names, guest stars and a heavier entertainment focus, but let Smackdown satiate a different audience like it used to.
Then the brands need different faces. You can keep The Authority as exclusive Raw general managers, but separate Smackdown and give it its own General Manager like the days of Paul Heyman or Theodore Long.
Funnily enough, the perfect person to do this might actually be someone like Damien Sandow, whose talents are currently being completely squandered.
The next thing that needs to happen is Smackdown MUST be live. In today’s day and age, Smackdown spoilers are all over social media as soon as they happen and if a new brand split is to survive, Smackdown’s results can’t be available before the home-viewing audience has even seen them. It has to be even with Raw and that means it needs to be live. If that means moving it from Thursday nights to earlier in the week, so be it but this is non-negotiable.
WWE is reportedly considering making Smackdown live once the brand is transitioned to the USA Network in early 2016, which is a good start.
Next, Raw and Smackdown need to be equal length or thereabouts. Raw struggles to fill three hours with a full roster, so for this to work, the WWE is going to need to make the massive decision of cutting Raw down to either 120 or 150 minutes. Whichever one they go with, Smackdown can remain as a two hour show, there’s no need to go through all the work of changing both and two hours is plenty of time, but Raw must lose at least half an hour in order for it to be sustainable.
Smaller shows in Superstars and Main Event can continue to be used in the exact same way. Have Superstars exclusive to Raw and Main Event exclusive to Smackdown. The flow on effect of shorter shows means the quality of Main Event and Superstars will increase, which is a nice bonus. With two hour shows, you’re not going to get all the talent in on one show so you can place the occasional mid-card feud on Superstars. It would at least boost the ratings of the lesser shows.
The next step is the heavyweight championships of the brands. Raw can keep its current belt, but it obviously goes back to just being the WWE Championship. Smackdown should bring back the big gold belt as its World Heavyweight Championship, paying homage to the heritage of the belt, something the more intelligent wrestling fans, will appreciate. On top of that, the big gold belt was a staple of the blue brand for much of the brand split, making it the perfect choice.
The final step is putting superstars who we haven’t seen in the world title frame straight into that frame in order to make the brand feel different and help create new main-event talent for Smackdown immediately. Which brings us to the next component of this and that’s the who.
The roster will need to be divided more or less in half, with Raw retaining slightly more of the male talent than Smackdown. For example, of the long-time established stars, John Cena, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, Sheamus, Daniel Bryan, The Miz, Triple H, Kane, Big Show, Chris Jericho and Mark Henry, Raw should keep all of them bar two or three. Part timers like Jericho, Triple H and Lesnar can alternate between the brands, but keep them on Raw for starters. This doesn’t just give Smackdown the chance to build a new group of main eventers, but it also allows Raw to keep its ratings as high as possible.
The secondary championships are also going to play a massive part in the success of the brands.
Firstly, keeping it simple, the Intercontinental Championship comes to Smackdown and the United States Championship goes to Raw, or vice versa, it’s not overly important as they’ll both serve equal roles no matter what the brands are.
Obviously, with both the U.S and Intercontinental titles on the same brand, they’re fighting for air-time and superiority. Once they’re separated again, they’ll both get elevated slightly.
Secondly, and this is where the new split gets really interesting, the ENTIRE Tag Team division should stay on Raw while the ENTIRE Divas division should be exclusive to Smackdown.
Right there is your point of difference and it’s how you make this brand split different.
The Tag Team division is better than it has been in a very long time and it will go to a whole new level having to carry a lot more of the load.
Add in a few tag teams from NXT and they should have no issue with this. It’ll mean more tag team feuds outside of the title hunt and more focus on tag team wrestling which is something a lot of ex-WWE wrestlers like Edge, Steve Austin and Chris Jericho have endorsed.
This is the same for the Divas. Women’s wrestling is undisputedly better than it ever has been in the WWE, thanks to NXT. Smackdown is the perfect place to not just have the women exclusively, but have them on par with the men.
In a similar vein to NXT, the Divas, soon to be renamed Women’s, division should main event Smackdown regularly and it should be built up as the equal biggest title of the roster, as we see it done so on NXT.
There is more than enough talent for this to work. The likes of Paige, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Natalya, Nikki Bella, Naomi, Alexa Bliss, Asuka and Emma are more than capable of putting on quality matches and there are another five to ten women that can be better utilized. There is more than enough talent here to carry 45 minutes of a weekly show. Not to mention, the Divas being in this exclusive spotlight will bring more quality female wrestlers from around the world to the brand, knowing that they’ll finally get treated like genuine competitors.
For this to work, the women will need to be given the spotlight on Smackdown immediately. This means they should main-event the first show with a title match to set the standard for what Smackdown will be all about.
If set up correctly, within a few months, the women being in the main-event or kicking off the show will just be a regular thing, part of making each show feel fresh, meaning you don’t have the same people in the same slots each week.
This also takes a lot of pressure off of Raw as 60% of the male talent can remain on Raw with the Divas picking up so much of the slack on Smackdown.
This entire brand split is dependent on the success of the Tag Team and Women’s divisions as exclusives. Obviously that’s putting a lot faith in those wrestlers which is one of the biggest risks the company will need to take, but both divisions are capable.
NXT will also play a massive part in both brands’ success, with plenty of talent needing to be called up to fill the ranks. Here is a rough initial roster for both brands. This roster is based on if the brand split were to be done right now, obviously, as of mid-2016, the situation will be a little different.
|John Cena||Daniel Bryan|
|Roman Reigns||Randy Orton|
|Seth Rollins||Dean Ambrose|
|Alberto Del Rio||Kevin Owens|
|Mark Henry||Big Show|
|Erick Rowan||Becky Lynch|
|The Usos||Sasha Banks|
|The New Day||Charlotte|
|The Dudley Boyz||The Bella Twins|
|The Prime Time Players||Naomi|
|Zack Ryder||Summer Rae***|
|Jack Swagger||Damien Sandow|
|Heath Slater||Bo Dallas|
|Sami Zayn||Adam Rose|
|Samoa Joe||Tyler Breeze|
|Hideo Itami*||Finn Balor|
|Jason Jordan and Chad Gable*||Bull Dempsey|
|The Vaudevillains||Tye Dillinger*|
|Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady||Solomon Crowe*|
|Blake and Murphy||Bayley*|
|Scott Dash and Dash Wilder*||Alexa Bliss|
*These wrestlers shouldn’t be called up to the main roster immediately. They should be staggered over time to make their debuts feel more important. There’s more than enough talent to suffice for the initial launch.
** NXT stars not mentioned aren’t to be called up before the end of 2016, eg: Apollo Crews, Asuka and Dana Brooke.
***Rest of Divas roster not included for the sake of an even table.
So here is where the issues start to arise. A lot of faith will need to be put in someone like Daniel Bryan who has missed most of the last two years with injury. This whole thing relies on a balanced roster and without guys like Bryan, there might not be enough talent to get this thing off the ground. You’ll also be relying on the likes of Chris Jericho, Christian, Brock Lesnar, Triple H and other part-timers to carry some of the load in the first few months to deal with the roster splitting in half and they might not necessarily be up to doing that.
If the initial teething problems can be sorted out, then those rosters should be more than good enough to keep the shows alive, but you can see how vital the tag and women’s divisions are to the depth of the rosters.
WWE may need to go hunting and try and lure guys like the Hardy Boyz, Carlito, Austin Aries or other guys with big names in order to add some extra depth to these rosters.
They will also need to do a lot of work in order to replenish NXT’s ranks as this will unequivocally sap a lot of talent out of NXT.
This also means a lot of faith will need to be placed in the likes of Cesaro, Cody Rhodes and Dolph Ziggler to carry the main-event scene of SmackDown along with Orton, Bryan, Owens and Ambrose. However, this isn’t really an issue with the aforementioned three guys being more than capable of being world champions, let alone main-eventers.
Adding guys like Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, Tyler Breeze and Samoa Joe will immediately add a lot of depth to any roster they’re placed on and guys like Breeze, who has already debuted, will a fill a vital role in getting the shows off the ground.
Once the rosters settle down and get their feuds under way, the rosters should be deep enough to be self-sufficient and successful.
The next category to look at is the what.
You may be wondering what this entails, but this should be the basis for how Smackdown is booked in its first few months as an independent brand.
Firstly, the title needs to be placed on somebody who either hasn’t held it before, or someone who was not considered a main-event wrestler before the split. To accomplish this, Smackdown needs to set up a number one contender’s tournament concluding in a match at Night of Champions 2016 to determine the first World Heavyweight Champion of the new blue-brand.
This should be a twelve man tournament culminating in two triple threat matches at SummerSlam. The winners of the triple threat matches then have the entire gap between SummerSlam and Night of Champions in order to build up the importance of the belt. This gives you a platform to carry Smackdown for its first few months.
The guys who should be considered for the inaugural championship are Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose, Cody Rhodes, Cesaro and Kevin Owens. Guys like Randy Orton and Daniel Bryan can be the other finalist, but Smackdown needs something fresh and new immediately and that means an unexpected champion.
Personally, I think Cody Rhodes as a heel is the man to carry the blue brand for the first few months as champion. Give him Rhyno as an enforcer and you have the ability to book all-new championship feuds and at the same time you make a new main eventer or two along the way.
The fact that Smackdown won’t have a world champion for its first two months is not an issue, because it means that the Divas Championship will be the number one title on the brand and it needs to be booked accordingly.
The person to take the Divas Championship into Smackdown should be either Paige or Charlotte as babyfaces. From there, you build up the title with the best women’s matches possible and you build the division into a juggernaut. From there, you build to a Sasha Banks versus Bayley match at WrestleMania to crown the inaugural Smackdown Women’s Champion, new belt and all, and from there you build Becky Lynch into a top underdog babyface and eventually put the title on her. The division will take care of itself from there.
Because of this, I would not call Bayley to the main roster immediately. I would hold her back until at least Survivor Series. With extra emphasis on the likes of Becky Lynch, Emma, Naomi, Nikki Bella and Alexa Bliss, who will be called up straight away. With this much talent, you can hold Bayley back for a while.
From a mid-card point of view, this is where the new NXT talent comes into play. I would have The Miz take the United States Championship into Smackdown, but have him lose it on the very first show to a debuting Finn Balor. That means you can book Finn against a number of top quality opponents and make the United States Championship valuable. Finn will obviously become a World Champion sooner or later, but this is the best way to utilize him initially.
As briefly mentioned earlier, Damien Sandow is the perfect choice to be the on screen general manager of the new Smackdown. He can eventually return to being a performer, but there is no better choice due to his proficiency on the microphone, natural humour and charisma and of course his qualifications as former intellectual saviour of the masses. Someone like Brad Maddox or Summer Rae can also be utilized here as Sandow’s assistant.
From a Raw point of view, Seth Rollins should be returning from injury around the time of the brand split. He should obviously return as a babyface and the show should be centred on his hunt to get his title back. Roman Reigns should take the WWE Championship into the brand split and take it right through to WrestleMania, where, with Dean Ambrose winning the Royal Rumble, we finally get our Shield triple threat main event. Yes, Ambrose is exclusive to Smackdown, but the winner of the Rumble gets their choice of opponent and this is the way to set up the match we all want to see.
This means that 2018 is the right time to return to brand exclusive pay-per-views and this is when the brand split will be brought into the modern era.
Think of it this way, the WWE Network gives the company the ability to do what they what, when they want without having to worry as much about pay-per-view providers. Once the brands split, you can have about seven exclusive pay-per-views for each brand on top of WrestleMania, SummerSlam, Money in the Bank, Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble. Spread them evenly throughout the year and you have yourself a system. For example, the Royal Rumble is the first pay-per-view of the year in January, followed by a SmackDown exclusive one in February and a Raw exclusive event in March before WrestleMania in April. This also means the end of gimmick pay-per-views like Hell in a Cell, Extreme Rules and TLC with matches like that returning to being only used when a storyline demands it, rather than it being shoe-horned in every year. You can’t have a pay-per-view like Hell in a Cell exclusive to Raw or Smackdown, because then the other brand misses out. So they are thrown out altogether.
This brand split also opens the door to bring back or introduce third tier titles. Over time, the likes of the Cruiserweight Championship and a version of the Hardcore Championship, probably to be renamed something like the 24/7 championship, utilizing the WWE Network, can be brought back in order to give the brands something else to fight over. Another thing that is essential is the introduction of a secondary women’s title to Smackdown. This can either be a single’s title on par with the United States Championship or a tag team title.
This finally brings us to the why.
Because WWE ratings are lower than they have ever been and that is because people are tired of seeing the same style of booking over and over again. A brand split injects new life into the product, creates new main-event talent and gives people a reason to tune in every week.
With new superstars in top positions on the card, it gives us something fresh and sets WWE up for years to come, utilizing what is the roster’s strength right now is which is youth and wrestling ability.
All it takes is a mindset change within the WWE and the casual fans’ mindset will change along with them.
If you treat the women as equals and as main-event talent, over time and with the quality performances they will no doubt provide, people will just accept it. If you put the world titles on guys like Cody Rhodes, Dolph Ziggler and Sami Zayn and book them right, people will just grow to accept them in the main-event scene. It is as simple as that.
Can the brand split work? Yes it can.
Does the WWE have the guts to try something like this? Of course they do, this is the WWE we are talking about.
Will they pull the trigger on it? Let’s wait and find out.