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The Split:  The First 50 Days...
and Some Other News...
May 27, 2002

by Rick Scaia
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


PART ONE:  OOpinion

Predictably, there isn't a whole lot going on this holiday weekend from a news-wise perspective.  What little there is worth talking about, I'll hit in a few bullet points at the end of this page.  Some RAW preview, a bit of info from the debut of "WWE Confidential," and that'll be about it...

But for the lion's share of today's column, I think it's worth taking a step back and looking at the first 50 days of the "Brand Extension" split of the WWE roster into two distinct halves.  Fifty days isn't a whole lot of time, but I think it's long enough to notice some trends, the kind that aren't just flukes.  The kind that will probably be sticking around for a while.

To wit:  a simple analysis of facts and figures combined with a healthy sampling of popular opinion (as based on my in-box) brings me to two inescapable conclusions...

One:  the popularity of BOTH WWE "brands" has dropped, with TV ratings and house show attendence at their lowest levels in years.

And Two:  just about everybody thinks that SmackDown! is the far superior brand right now.  Note:  there are even rumors that the WWE performers THEMSELVES feel this way, so it's not just us fans who recognize the quality differential.

What brought us to this point?  I sort of wrestled with that for a while as I sat on my ass this morning trying to figure out what I was going to write about...  I think there are two schools of thought on this.  First is that the Fed bungled this whole thing, and that it was perhaps an inadvisable move from the start.  Second is that they are victims of circumstance in all this, as injuries and missing superstars have hurt both shows.

In the end, here's what I decided:  the overall drop in popularity is probably due to an outright miscalculation by the Fed.  But the perceived chasm between the quality of the two brands right now is more a result of things beyond their control.

Let me go into some more detail...

Eighteen months ago, the idea of "brand extension" wouldn't have seemed like a good idea to anyone.  But all that changed when the WWF acquired WCW...  it became the wet dream of fans everywhere to have a sort of Federation vs. Federation feud.  And I imagine the Fed's front office types were similarly aroused at the idea of running two equally successful sets of TV and house shows, each with a roster of stars capable of selling lots of officially licensed merchandise.

Delay after delay pushed the "debut" of WCW back, but it was supposed to be all in the name of making sure it was done right when it did happen.  Which, of course, it wasn't.  A major miscalculation (in the form of a shitty Booker T vs. Buff Bagwell match) left fans reacting to WCW as if it were bush league.  So WCW was recast as a heelish insurgence within the WWF, eventually paired up with ECW cast-offs to form "the Alliance."

Plans to give the WCW brand its own TV show, PPV events, and house shows were pretty much scrapped at this point.  But the seed had been sown:  the idea that the WWF could run two distinct wrestling groups was firmly cemented.  Even after the Alliance (and the WCW and ECW names) were dead and buried last November, the rumors persisted that a roster split was imminent, and that the groundwork was finally in place to run two separate groups.

First planned for January, the split was eventually put off until after WrestleMania.  Problem was, by that time, there was absolutely no context for running two distinct groups.  A flimsy storyline between Vince McMahon and Ric Flair as warring "co-owners" was constructed, a storyline that was far from compelling and intriguing.

When the Brand Extension Draft took place, it was WAY more interesting to fans as an intellectual exercise, as a chance to be an armchair booker in charge of breaking one successful promotion up into two.  Storyline-wise, however, there was no reason to really care about the differences between the two groups.  

Now, to this day, there remains precious little reason to care about the distinctions between the two brands.  There is absolutely no perception that the two are in "competition" with each other, which would have been a huge part of the hoped-for WWF vs. WCW feud.  And it's gotten to the point where each show is showing highlights of the other show, further limiting the impact of the "completely separate rosters" philosophy.

The WWF bungled the chance to do anything substantial with WCW once they purchased it.  And from that failed attempt, we were left with nothing but the vague idea that -- somehow, for some non-specific reason -- it'd be cool to still run two distinct promotions.  Maybe from the perspective that the purchase of WCW and the subsequent brand extension has meant more TV time for a more varied roster of stars, it is an alright idea.

But from a storytelling perspective, it's been a debacle.  There's no reason for two separate groups to exist, so the entire concept comes off as contrived and forced.  The fact that the Fed remains saddled with having to do cross-over storylines/recaps leading to joint PPVs doesn't help, either.  It just adds to the idea that this is a half-assed attempt to cash in on an inter-promotional feud that was already dead in the water 8 months ago.

Bottom line: tunnel vision from the acquisition of WCW in early 2001 led to forcing this "roster split" even well after the point where all reasonable motivation for doing so was gone.

Can it be fixed, though?  I say yes, but it will take an incredibly ballsy set of moves...

Here's how I'd do it:  start by immediately building up a sense of animosity between the RAW and SD! brands.  Play up on the smark/insider idea that RAW wrestlers would rather be on SD!, and that RAW is getting blasted in the ratings.  The RAW brand starts to get upset with the lack of leadership being exhibited by Ric Flair, who now seems more focused on personal agendas than on making the RAW product the best one.  Exaggerate and play up these elements as time goes on.  

[The perception of competition between the two shows is VITAL, and should be built up even if you think the rest of my suggested plan of attack is ridiculous.  This "competition" also gives participants on each show a REASON to talk about the other show (as current cross-overs really do seem to weaken, rather than strengthen, the two-brand concept).]

Over the course of several weeks, Flair becomes increasingly frustrated that his insubordinate roster of wrestlers will not submit to his authority, while over on SD!, Vince McMahon is becoming increasingly insufferable because his brand is #1 and he thinks he can get Flair to sell back his half of the company.

Flair finally decides he can do no more good as WWE co-owner and full owner of RAW.  He announces that "next week," he'll sell his part of the company.  Everyone, including Vince, assumes it will be Vince McMahon.  So Vince shows up next week on RAW to resume control over the show... but in the main event interview, Flair and Vince go nose to nose, and Flair announces he'll never let McMahon win.  Flair announces that he's sold his half of the company to...

Eric Bischoff.

Bischoff takes over the "RAW brand," an immediately makes big changes:  he announces that Monday night's show will now be "WCW Nitro."  And Bischoff also has his old boys from the nWo on Nitro to work with.  And he's got a built-in feud with Steve Austin (whom he fired from WCW all those years ago), augmented by the fact that he makes it clear that he'll push ANYone, regardless of personal vendettas, if that superstar can help him defeat Vince McMahon.

From there, you can have a quick re-alignment of talent (as some stars, probably Jim Ross, most notably) would be out of place on a "WCW" show, so you could have a bunch of guys demand to be switched between the two shows.  [You could even use the entry of Bischoff as the excuse to introduce Scott Steiner and/or Goldberg into the mix.]  And second, you'd have to immediately have the mechanism in place to start running 6-8 WCW-only PPVs per year (to go along with 6-8 WWE-only ones, and then maybe a pair of joint efforts).

Is it a "hot shot" angle, something that might signal desperation?  Maybe...  but I wouldn't blow my entire wad really quickly:  it'd be built up over time.  It'd take months of first establishing competition, then establishing the erosion of Flair's authority, then establishing Vince's desire to resume full control over his product before you play the Bischoff card.  And even after you've played it as the climax to a well-constructed story, you don't necessarily have to keep Bischoff around.  Use him as the impetus for the change, as an on-screen character who can be relatively easily written out after a feud with Vince McMahon (but whose big changes remain to haunt Vince).  Then you could be back to the same basic roster, the same basic talents, just with an actual reason to be broken up into two promotions.  It's a "hot shot" angle in a way; but ultimately, you're not pinning the entire future success of the company on one angle or one man... you're just using that one angle and man as excuses to make more substantive changes that WILL impact future success.  Does that distinction make any sense to you?

I think this would go a long way to fixing the lack of motivation for having two distinct rosters, and would also salvage the operation of making "WCW" a viable brand under the guidance of WWE.  It may not be the only way, but it's the way that most sprang into my head today as I thought it through...  but it's also a really risky proposition, since the Fed has already lost the brand recognition of the "WWF" name.  By promoting SmackDown as a "WWE" product, Vince McMahon's "mothership" probably falls behind "WCW Nitro" in terms of name recognition with fans.  I doubt he'd go along willingly with such a scenario.

In any case, that's just half of the perceived problem right now:  making the split meaningful and interesting.  The other half of the problem is that SD! is consistently the better show at this point.

But this, I believe, is not due so much to poor planning or WWE negligence.  Or at least, not so much due to those things as due to bad luck and circumstances beyond their control.

To wit:  nobody could have foreseen injuries to top draws like Kane, Nash, or Lita.  Nash's untimely injury, combined with the unexpected departure of Scott Hall, practically crippled the nWo, which was projected to be the top heel element of the RAW brand.  The top of the RAW roster was really hurt by these things, which meant that the RAW brand's one advantage over SD, the evolution of fresh talent into the mix (Brock Lesnar and Bubba Dudley as singles stars easily trump SD's less-thrilling debuts/repackagings of Randy Orton and Mark Henry), got ignored as the main event mix got pasted by SD.

Sure, you can argue that SD! was hurt hardest of all when it was decided that The Rock would disappear to pursue his Hollywood career instead of wrestling full-time...  but Vince McMahon immediately re-solidified his product by snatching up HHH after he lost the Undisputed Title.  I don't think they lost anything there.

I don't necessarily think that the split was a good or necessary idea... but taking it as a given, the fact that there is such disparity between the two rosters isn't something that can be pinning on poor planning.  Give it some time...  right now, RAW top level stuff is pretty boring, but it'll start to look up if Austin/Eddie and Taker/RVD feuds heat up in a meaningful way.  Maybe it'll even get to the same level that the top-line SD! feuds involving HHH/Jericho/Angle/Edge are enjoying.  If that happens, popular opinion could very easily shift, because RAW's underneath material (with Brock, Bubba, Regal and others) is usually as strong (or stronger) than SD's (which has the Cruiserweights, and then a bunch of forgettable filler like Henry, Orton, D-Von, Bob Holly, and Test).

Maybe in another 50 days, enough will have changed to make this OOpinion obsolete... but for now, my official stance is that going full speed ahead with the Split was probably not a good idea.  But that the superiority of SD! over RAW is NOT something you can blame 100% on the same ilk of short-sightedness.

PART TWO:  Newsbites

  • RAW tonight has three basic stories to address...  first is what is next between Rob Van Dam and the Undertaker after last week.  Is this the start of a main event push for RVD?  Or was it a one week flirtation with the championship status?  I hope for the latter, since it'd really spice up a stale Undisputed Title scene.
    The second is how Steve Austin and Eddie Guerrero will be continue their freshly-started feud, given that Ric Flair has promised to "bench" Austin whenever possible.  Will Austin and Eddie be relegated to another (hopefully not as torturously long) outside-the-arena confrontation?  Or will Austin and Flair come to some sort of agreement that allows Austin to compete in the ring?
    And third is the newly reborn nWo, with Kevin Nash back in charge of steering the ship.  I'd suggest that Booker T's status as a member of the group is not yet completely solid, as his babyface pops in recent weeks have been noticeable.  He's got that simmering side-issue with Goldust, too, which could prove to be a distraction to getting his nWo business taken care of.
    The most intriguing of the undercard issues is what looks to be Brock Lesnar's first major opposition:  Bubba Dudley.  I'm almost 100% sure that I see no value-add in keeping Trish Stratus involved in this particular feud, where she'd be nothing but an object of Paul Heyman's disturbingly creepy affections (instead of doing something constructive like wrestling or being in bikini contests)... but otherwise, I'm pretty high on the idea of these two pairing up for a PPV feud.
    Check out RAW tonight, and then come on back to OO for full coverage, in the form of CRZ's detailed recap and Lee Filas' more opinion-oriented Squared Circle Jerk.
  • I plum forgot to set a tape on Saturday night, and so I missed out on the debut of "WWE Confidential."  Turns out, I apparently missed a lot.
    The main drawing card on the show was a sit down interview with Shawn Michaels in which he admitted -- for the first time anywhere -- to having been in on the whole Montreal Screwjob.  All previous interviews -- even those clearly done in a "shoot" setting -- had Michaels denying all involvement.  They even used footage from "Wrestling with Shadows" in support of constructing the timeline of events that fateful night.
    The sudden reversal of Michaels on the issue (combined with the usage of "WwS" footage) left many scratching their heads.  The Fed has gone to great lengths to put forth one scenario (and to make life difficult for the makers of "WwS" after having originally granted them full access to WWF events) for the past 4 years...  and now this.
    Needless to say, the conclusion most people reached was that we are somehow being primed for the sooner-than-we-think return of Shawn Michaels to WWE.
    Other segments included a visit to Trish Stratus' palatial estate... a recap on Lita's status after her surgery...  a piece talking with RVD about his Japan experience and the guy who airbrushes his tights...  and Ivory taking a pro-boob-job stance, while simultaneously mocking former divas like Sable and BB for taking things way too far.
    Host Gene Okerlund basically just served the purpose of tying the disparate segments together and also promised more with Shawn Michaels (this time focusing more on his potential future in WWF) next week.
    Maybe OO will have to get itself a recapper for this show...
  • Last week's SmackDown! finished with a final rating of 3.6, which is identical to the week before.  RAW's ratings woes continue to not effect SD as dramatically....

  • The Undertaker's injured hip/lower back (sustained last week on RAW) will not keep him from working as scheduled, according to an item in the WWE.com Ross Report over the weekend.  
    Other than that, JR mostly had no major changes to the injury list...  and then followed up with a quick rundown of the developmental scene (which JR saw first hand last week), that handed out props to the usual suspects.  Still, JR offered no timetable on when any of those new talents might make it to the big time.
  • That'll be about enough for today...  folks attending SD! tapings in Calgary on Tuesday are heartily encouraged to send along reports.  Not just the stuff we'll see on TV, but any kind of special tributes that take place in the memory of Davey Boy Smith, too.  Drop me a line, so I can take care of Spoilers in a timely fashion on Wednesday!
    See y'all then... 


Rick Scaia is a wrestling fan from Dayton, OH.  He's been doing this since 1995, but enjoyed it best when the suckers from SportsLine were actually PAYING him to be a fan.

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