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Brand Aids: A look back on the mixed-bag of WWE’s various brand splits

Back in 2002, WWE was coming off a massively successful InVasion angle which saw WCW’s biggest and best superstars wage war with the iconic figures of Monday Night Raw. The nearly-year long storyline captivate—I can’t do it. I tried, but I’m laughing too hard.can’t do it. I tried, but I’m laughing too hard.can’t do it. I tried, but I’m laughing too hard.can’t do it. I tried, but I’m laughing too hard.

So the InVasion angle sucked, we know this.

But at the end of the day WWE picked up a lot of talent. Was it a who’s-who list of superstars that defined WCW in its peak years? No, there was no Kevin Nash, or Hollywood Hogan (yet) or Randy Savage (ever), but there was Booker T., the closest thing the company had to a breakout main-event star in its final days, and Ric Flair and DDP were in the house. And of course there was a truckload of talent from ECW that was scooped up around the same time. It came with far less fanfare but with arguably as much value: RVD, Rhyno, Tommy Dreamer, little Spike Dudley and others found prolonged success in Vince’s circus.

The InVasion sucked, being misguided in its conception and mismanaged in its execution, but when the dust settled the pieces were in place for a loaded roster with far too many names to make work as-is.

Thus, a “brand-split” was introduced, where Raw and SmackDown would split the roster in twain and each would run their own storylines independent from the other. It was a way to foster the same kind of competition and uniqueness that the Monday Night Wars had, without head-to-head competition cannibalizing the ratings. Since the WWE already had two major shows each week and a roster now big enough to split, it was a rare case where the most logical course of action was taken with little to nitpick.

Other than the fact that they should have split the brands in the first place and never done the silly “WECW against the WWF” story at all.

Fast forward a year and by the summer of 2003 both brands had firmly established their identities. SmackDown was the show that emphasized exciting in-ring action, with a few big names surrounded by hot young talent and midcarders who might have been lost in the shuffle earlier their careers now getting a chance to shine. Raw on the other hand was a much slower-paced, more “McMahon-style sports entertainment” variety show; Raw was the place to have the occasional celebrity guest star or promotional tie-in segment that embarrasses both talent and audience with its cheesiness.

On SmackDown they just wrestled.

Had SmackDown and Raw actually gone head-to-head, there’s no doubt which show would have won. Despite Raw having the bigger roster with bigger names, SmackDown was simply a better-run show, with more of an emphasis on what pro wrestling fans wanted to watch. Considering this was the beginning of the post-Attitude Era, where casual fans were moving on from the bubble of the late-90’s, a show that appealed to “the base” would have had more success in a head-to-head competition than a desperate show that ignored the hardcore fans in order to chase after the slipping-away casuals.

But they didn’t go head to head; SmackDown was on Thursdays, on UPN (which had a much smaller share of the network market compared to the big four broadcasters) and it seemed like the more it outclassed the Monday night show, the more its talent was poached to be band-aids on the open wounds happening on Raw.

For a decade the brand split was in effect; it lasted for so long, a whole generation of fans grew up with the product never knowing anything else. And during that time the surplus of talent that sparked the need for the draft in the first place eventually fizzled. Instead of one roster big enough for two shows, the WWE in the early 2010’s had roughly one-and-a-half rosters spread across two shows. SmackDown suffered the most, however, as it was always the “B” show. Raw always had a well-stocked roster while SmackDown was forced to make do with the leftovers anchored by one or two established draws.

In 2011 the decision was made for a soft-ending of the brand-split, as SmackDown superstars began appearing on Raw (though Raw talent never played ball on Tuesday/Friday nights). The writing was on the wall at that point and eventually the brand-split was ended entirely.

The endeavor can’t be called a failure since neither Raw nor SmackDown was particularly hurt by the split, and any venture that lasts for a decade is doing something right, but there was always the grumbling among fans that the brand-split could have been handled better, particularly with regards to the division of the rosters. In particular, the tag team scene was basically ruined as attrition (retirement and firings both) dwindled the massive 2002 roster into a more normal sized one by 2011. There simply wasn’t enough talent to go around to have functional tag divisions on both shows. Too often there would only be one or two teams featured and usually in conjunction with the main-event storyline at the time, as there weren’t enough needle-moving teams to keep fan interest in the tag scene afloat. Stop me if that sounds familiar.

I would also mention how the women suffered in this era, but that goes without saying.

When the rosters reunited in 2011 there was suddenly a surplus again, although that came with the consequence of SmackDown no longer being worth watching anymore. Raw moved to three hours shortly thereafter and eventually morphed into a slog of a show, whose fans grew increasingly frustrated with the creative direction, and which was propped up by old main-event talent that clogged up the title picture and kept the hot young talent from totally breaking through. Basically Nitro won the Monday Night Wars and you didn’t even realize it.

When the brand split was reintroduced in 2016 it felt like a breath of fresh air. With SmackDown now on USA and now switching to a live format and having its own roster to play with, the blue show was finally put on an equal pedestal to its Monday night counterpart. And initially, SmackDown thrived. This is where we would make a joke that Vince doesn’t pay attention to SmackDown which is why it is usually better-liked, but in truth nothing is done on the main shows with Vince’s stamp of approval. If anything, it’s that Vince sees Raw as his flagship “sports entertainment variety show” and SmackDown is fine being an action-packed wrestling show for the hardcore audience. It’s not that he’s ignorant; it’s that he doesn’t care.

The brand-split started out beautifully with storylines for every division being given proper attention and the rosters on both shows being more or less equal to one another. But here we are a year or so later and the picture is less rosy. Just as it was in the first brand-split, the tag division is seriously hampered. For the most part there’s only one or two teams being featured at any given time and they dance an endless circle around the drain of 50/50 booking and constant rematches. Team AB wrestles Team XY in week one. Then they rematch in week two. Then A wrestles X and B wrestles Y in week three. Then on the go-home show A wrestles Y and B wrestles X. Then, after you’ve seen every possible combination of those four men for four weeks straight, you get to pay $9.99 to watch them wrestle the first match all over again!

That’s the tag division.

The women have it even worse. At least this time—as opposed to the first brand-split era—the women are given legitimate stories that aren’t about “being jealous” or “fighting over a boyfriend” or other moronic, insulting concepts. And yet, the same problems as with the tag teams persist here: There are too few superstar women spread across both shows, and the same handful are present week-in and week-out.

It’s different with the men’s divisions; you can slide them around from the world title to the midcard picture or pair a top guy up with another for a tag title storyline, or just have a separate non-title feud happening off in the corner. With the women, the WWE only has room for one women’s storyline per show. You may have six women being showcased on a show, but only one storyline will be happening. That means either all six women will be in the storyline, or maybe only two of them will be and other four will just twiddle their thumbs, occasionally having a nothingburger match of no consequence just to fill airtime, but only one storyline at a time. Part of that is WWE’s carny, presumptuously-chauvinistic and outdated belief that their viewers don’t care about women wrestlers (when really we don’t care what gender you are as long as you tell a good story), and part of that is the fact that the handful of needle-moving superstar-women WWE has are split across both shows, without enough around them to buoy either.

What should have happened, and what still should happen but probably never will, is a unification of the two tag and women’s divisions. Raw has three hours, so it’s understandable why they’d want to hold on to their bathroom break Cruiserweight matches, but maybe move the entire tag division over to Raw, and move the entire women’s division over to SmackDown.

Now if you do that look what happens: You have two shows that are able to boast uniqueness between them. If you want to see Cruiserweight and Tag Team wrestling, you need to tune in on Mondays. If you want to see the ongoing women’s revolution in wrestling, watch SmackDown on Tuesdays. Both shows retain a world and midcard title, but they’re able to market a specialty division or two in addition. Doing that means more talent to play with in storyline development, which means more opportunities for storylines beyond what’s happening around the title. That gives the creative direction of the show more to…be creative about, so you don’t have to settle for the same endless rematches; more talent to feature means less dead space each week that you have to fill up with Yet Another Cesaro/Sheamus vs Hardy Boys Match™. And the beauty is, it’s all possible without having to hire a single additional person. Just a simple reshuffling of the chairs could significantly improve the creative direction—and thus, the viewership enjoyment—of both shows.

I love the brand split, and I love a lot about how it’s being implemented, but with a few tweaks and a little want-to, WWE could exploit their roster—which is arguably the most talented they’ve had in fifteen years—to greater heights than they’ve seen in ages.

Or they can keep running Sasha vs Nia Jax for no reason whatsoever over and over world without end amen. Either way, I’m Matthew Martin. I love WWE but everything sucks and I’m never watching it again.

See you next Monday.

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