Last Tuesday’s inaugural edition of SmackDown Live featured the second WWE brand extension draft. Unlike 2002, which had the WWF stars and writers that carried it through the Attitude Era and a multitude of WCW and ECW alumni, the current incarnation of WWE is headed up by a select few wrestlers who are allowed to be stars and writers that have led WWE to viewership declining to record lows.
As part of the TV deal that WWE has with the USA Network / NBC Universal, the USA Network requested that changes be made to SmackDown to shore up its ratings. The call was made to go live on Tuesday nights (when WWE tapes the show) and break up the WWE roster into two separate crews in order to give people a reason to watch SmackDown in addition to Raw.
The problem is that the draft didn’t really do anything to make SmackDown important and worthy of appointment viewing.
The most glaring issue that most are jumping to in concluding that SmackDown is still the B/#2 show is the depth of the roster. While I would make the argument that SmackDown actually has the stronger top of the card (with top caliber stars like Ambrose, Styles, Cena, Orton and Wyatt outnumbering Raw’s main event players of Rollins and Reigns), it all falls apart in the midcard.
Raw got the likes of Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, Cesaro, Rusev and Chris Jericho to form the upper midcard. That calls back to the SmackDown Six days of the brand extension when the blue show was anchored by the likes Eddie and Chavo Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Edge, Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit who would feud in various combinations and elevate the in-ring product along with the cruiserweight division. Those six can be mixed in various combinations have have great results every time.
SmackDown, on the other hand, doesn’t have a midcard of that caliber. Top caliber wrestlers below the main event are limited to Dolph Ziggler and Alberto del Rio. Apollo Crews and The Miz hold down a level slightly below that but there isn’t as much to be excited about in SmackDown’s midcard once you exhaust American Alpha matches.
The important thing to note about the roster is that this can be dealt with. While it’s unlikely that SmackDown will get priority selection of top NXT stars that are being called up (and Dave Meltzer reports that the next round of NXT call-ups is expected in the fall), the talent gap in the midcard allows the opportunity for new stars to be created. Someone like a Tyler Breeze held down the upper midcard of NXT against indie darlings like Neville, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor and Hideo Itami and can do so again for SmackDown.
This will require a complete change in typical WWE storytelling and booking. There is a long-running complaint that WWE will book everyone 50/50 with each other and the result is that no one gets over except for the very top guys who don’t lose as much as they win. The fact that some guys manage to stay somewhat over despite their booking, like a Seth Rollins who only ever won on pay-per-view as champion and seldom cleanly.
NXT uses enhancement talent to make the top and midcard guys look strong without constantly bouncing the same guys off of each other through tag matches, non-title matches or standard 50/50 booking. Raw has a jobber pool to draw from but SmackDown really doesn’t unless they grab some local indie talent. That can help build new guys like Apollo Crews move up from their low card funk and be an important part of the blue brand going forward.
Perhaps an even bigger issue going forward for SmackDown is the lack of championships on the show. Before Battleground, they had the WWE Championship and the Intercontinental Championship. Raw has the US Championship, the Women’s Title, the Tag Team Titles and will also add the Cruiserweight division and championship. As I’m writing before the pay-per-view, I would suggest that it’s a legitimate possibility that SmackDown is left with the IC title after Battleground.
It has long been reported that the WWE show without the main WWE Title would launch its own World Heavyweight Championship as that show’s top prize. That leaves writers with the task to make a hastily created belt matter in story. And that doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with the small tag and women’s divisions on SmackDown who don’t have a title to fight for. Too many titles dilutes their meaning but not having a title means that writers will really have to work to craft issues to build stories around when there is a small pool of characters to put in conflict.
Ideally, they would have thought this through ahead of time and not split the women’s and tag divisions haphazardly. The WWE could have very well had Raw draft Charlotte and have Stephanie say “we have the women’s title so there’s no sense for you to draft any more women” and have Shane retaliate with The New Day and laugh in her face with similar logic. Instead, the women’s division, which is healthy when combined, looks laughably thin on both with only three contenders at the moment on either show. There are three A-Level teams on Raw (New Day, Club, Enzo & Cass) and two on SmackDown (Usos, American Alpha). There’s just next to no depth or believable stars in the mid/undercard divisions on either show.
The draft also shows the sad state of the WWE’s creative team and direction. The draft just reinforced any beliefs that one might have that the WWE don’t have any long-term planning or understanding of their characters.
Since taking charge of Raw post-WrestleMania, Shane McMahon has been championing a “new era” and creating opportunities for new talent. This resulted in the likes of Baron Corbin, Apollo Crews, the Club and Enzo and Cass all debuting on Raw shortly after WrestleMania. Daniel Bryan is one of WWE’s greatest underdog success stories whose fan support propelled him to a massive WrestleMania moment in the main event of WM30.
Little of that was reflected in their draft choices. The Cruiserweight division is going to Raw when it would make perfect sense on SmackDown (if the roster was divided into WWE Title, IC Title and CW Title divisions, for example) because it would mean that new wrestlers would have to be added to create the division meaning opportunities for new stars.
Similarly, very few new talents or talents needing an opportunity were drafted to SmackDown. Yes, SmackDown drafted Crews, Corbin and American Alpha but Kalisto was given an opportunity with the US Championship which didn’t really go anywhere so is he really someone who needs another opportunity? The likes of Sami Zayn, Neville and Cesaro would have been perfect on SmackDown with the ideas of opportunity and an emphasis on in-ring product in mind.
At least Raw’s draft saw some consistency with characters. Given Stephanie’s part in the “Diva’s Revolution” and Mick’s fondness for women’s wrestling, Raw picking up most of the established and top women’s wrestlers made sense. Retention of Authority affiliated acts such as Rollins, Sheamus, Big Show, Rusev and The New Day (who were Rollins allies before his injury) also makes sense.
The other creative issue that could harm both shows is a complete lack of identity. Neither has a particular identity apart from Raw has the titles and the internet favourites and therefore is still the flagship show rather than being equal with SmackDown.
The rosters seem as though Vince and co. divided the roster into group and split them evenly-ish between the two shows. As mentioned earlier, there was an opportunity to keep divisions strong by locking them to a show like the Women’s Championship division to one show and the Tag Team division to the other. SmackDown’s roster could have established it as the wrestling show if most of the workhorses who aren’t under immediate consideration for a world title landed there. Instead, the two rosters feel like WWE-light.
One telling moment about the creative direction and focus in WWE came in the WWE Draft post-show in which Cesaro gave a shoot response to a worked interview question about being drafted to Raw. He said he didn’t care about the heel / face dynamic between Raw commissioner Stephanie McMahon and GM Mick Foley. The fact that an upper-midcard wrestler isn’t being asked about feuds and titles but rather the authority figures shows why WWE might struggle with both brands and not just SmackDown.
Over the last several months, if not years, the focus has been getting the authority figures, especially Stephanie, at the expense of the wrestlers. At least when Triple H was an on-screen character, the likes of Reigns and Ambrose could get some measure of revenge against The Authority. The only way that Stephanie can get any comeuppance now is if the wrestler she directly endorses, protects and acts as her proxy is beaten by someone she is feuding with. Even then, it’s not as satisfying a result as it would be with Triple H.
The WWE had an opportunity to make the draft and the brand extension worthwhile. The results of the draft could have made the work of making the shows feel important and worthwhile a lot easier. Instead, the writers will have to work double-time to make each show feel worth watching rather than just a stretched-out episode of Raw.