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Into the Wild

Or, how WWE learned to stop worrying about making sense and forget the brand split

WWE/Ringer illustration

When one thinks of professional wrestling, the mind does not immediately go to adherence to rules. After all, the skillful breaking of rules by the heel is inherent to the art form. Rules in wrestling are malleable and subject to change at any given moment: The object isn’t to not gouge your opponent’s eyes; it’s to do it when the referee isn’t looking. So, I was naturally skeptical when Vince McMahon instituted the “wild-card rule”—a vague edict stating that three to four wrestlers are allowed to hop from Monday Night Raw to SmackDown or vice versa every week. But what separates this edict from say, no pulling of the tights, is that it’s allegedly a response to a mandate from network brass requiring WWE to improve its sagging ratings through increased star power. In other words, this rule might stick, becoming the catalyst for the death of a dream McMahon has had since 2001. When WWE signed its new lucrative television deals, it seemed like the project of carving WWE in two would finally be realized and forever etched in stone. But the unforeseen consequences of those deals have proved that there is no stone at all. At WWE, everything changes except for the man sitting on the top floor.

The episodes of Raw and SmackDown over the past couple of months did some of the worst numbers in each show’s multiple decades of history. The rate of audience attrition for WWE programming is now outpacing the rate of cable television cord-cutting. A recent investor call revealed WWE’s key metrics—live event attendance, merchandise, and the aforementioned TV ratings—are all down year-over-year. Overall revenue missed projections, despite the massive boon of the much-maligned Saudi Arabia deal, which continues next month with an as-yet-unnamed pay-per-view spectacular featuring megastars of yesteryear like Goldberg and the Undertaker. With WWE set to embark on a high-stakes, multifaceted, $1.03 billion, five-year broadcast agreement with Fox, Vince McMahon’s company will likely do all it can to correct the current public perception that trouble is afoot. That includes deploying one of its favorite storytelling tricks: the Deus Ex McMahon. With the wave of his hand, the on-screen and real-life chairman of WWE effectively blew up the brand extension project he’s seemingly lusted over for almost two decades and wiped out a storytelling mandate that’s been in effect for three years. In essence, he created a rule to break a different one.

Historically, even the corporate side of WWE has a complicated relationship with rules. On the one hand, the company has a notorious, well-known laundry list of creative do’s and don’ts. You can’t say “hospital,” “belt,” or in many cases, the word “wrestling” itself. There are unwritten rules, social protocols, and rigidly enforced codes of conduct. Then there are the rules you actually see on screen that affect story lines. The application of those laws fluctuates wildly. The story line rules are fictitious, and therefore totally arbitrary, unlike the actual rules that WWE enforces in real life. Though one might say that banning a common English word like “hospital” is the very definition of arbitrary. WWE never explained why closed-fist punches all of a sudden became acceptable or why tag teams are allowed more than one pinfall save per match. They also didn’t do much to justify WWE Champion (and SmackDown brand superstar) Kofi Kingston appearing on Raw after WrestleMania other than he wanted to challenge Raw champ Seth Rollins, even if years of corporate strategy dictated that never the twain shall meet.

Three years ago, great pains were taken to turn Raw and SmackDown into two separate, but (theoretically) equal touring brands: separate rosters, separate titles, separate live event schedules. This is the second such effort by WWE to create its own competition. It’s the third if you count the company’s bungled efforts to revive archrival WCW in 2001. That WCW experiment failed, but WWE didn’t give up trying. In 2002, Raw and SmackDown were divided for the first time. Raw would get stars like Triple H, Goldberg, and Chris Jericho. SmackDown had Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, and Eddie Guerrero. Despite initial attempts to make the two shows visually distinct and totally unique, WWE would come to use interpromotional conflict as a way to drum up excitement more and more every year. The infamous WrestleMania XX match between SmackDown’s Lesnar and Raw’s Goldberg is one of the first and one of the most notable instances of this blurring of the creative lines. The suspension of disbelief required to make fans believe in any sort of rivalry between rosters was eroding by the week. By 2011, the first brand split was effectively dead.

In 2016, WWE’s roster had grown so large, thanks to an influx of talent from its NXT developmental territory, that a second attempt at a brand split made sense. All indicators pointed to WWE taking it a bit more seriously this time. Like the first brand split, each show would have its own special pay-per-view events. SmackDown, long the tape-delayed second fiddle to the more prestigious Raw, became a live broadcast on the USA Network. Color-coded, brand-specific championship belts were created to make each show stand out from the other. The two rosters would meet only once a year, at the Survivor Series event, where the champions of each show would battle for a vague notion of supremacy. The past few years, Survivor Series has been more like an Elseworlds comic book stunt rather than the culmination of any story line, but that certainly has its charm. If WrestleMania is the Super Bowl of WWE, then Survivor Series would be akin to the Pro Bowl: ultimately meaningless, yet still a pleasant novelty act.

But Survivor Series does show why the concept of two distinct television properties continues to entice WWE’s corporate overlords. The separation of rosters means matchups between talent can remain fresh longer. Thanks to AJ Styles spending most of his WWE tenure on SmackDown, he’s never faced Seth Rollins in a one-on-one match prior to their upcoming Universal Championship match at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view event. But from a more tangible financial perspective, a brand split means WWE can sell the broadcast rights for two discrete, bespoke live TV shows.

The apotheosis of the 18-year dream that started the day WWE purchased WCW is the Fox deal. Before Fox came into the picture, NBC Universal was paying $130 million a year for both Raw and SmackDown. Now, NBCU is paying $265 million a year just for Raw. In total, WWE stands to make $2.35 billion from television rights in the next half-decade. When each show has its own characters, stories, and identity, they both can be marketed as special little jewels worth coveting. In the years between the end of the first brand split and the start of the current one, SmackDown devolved into not much more than B-grade shoulder content featuring highlight packages, tag team matches with no stakes, and conspicuously canned applause. Now, it’s a driver of significant revenue, but the virtues that made it so attractive as a live sports rights play for Fox are now liabilities when it comes time to actually deliver ratings.

The yearly Superstar Shake-up—the equivalent of a sports draft where there are only two teams and the rationale for player movement is never explained—is a minefield for WWE creative. Switching one wrestler from Raw to SmackDown could totally shift the balance of star power for both shows. This year’s Shake-up was especially fraught due to the Fox deal. Neither USA nor Fox could think that its show was getting less than. Roman Reigns went to SmackDown, but then AJ Styles had to go to Raw to make up for it. Who would get Brock Lesnar? What about Becky Lynch? Those sorts of things don’t matter that much with one broadcast partner who gets to market and advertise against the whole package. With two networks boasting equally significant financial investments in the mix, the horse trading becomes far more complicated. Can Raw exist without Roman Reigns?

The answer is yes, probably. The minor ratings improvement caused by the wild-card gimmick would lead one to believe there’s not much difference between Reigns, Kingston, Daniel Bryan, or anyone else showing up on Raw or not. Similarly, it doesn’t seem as though Reigns’s Shake-up move to SmackDown did much for that show’s ratings either. Still, the notion of surprise remains one of the most popular means of spiking pro wrestling ratings, or any scripted show’s ratings for that matter. WWE can’t kill off characters or blow up buildings, like other shows. It’s also more judicious about old-school, Attitude Era techniques like title changes on free TV or random heel turns. The WWE also can’t promise female nudity or a live crucifiction anymore either. Such are the times we live in, I guess.

The wild-card rule bakes surprise into the format each week, which can be great for short-term ratings improvement and also makes it much easier to write a television program with a wider variety of talent to play with. Long-term, this doesn’t solve much. Everyone of consequence will have been on the other show at least once. Matchups will get stale faster without the necessity of keeping characters apart. If the ratings don’t improve quickly and stay that way, the networks will get even more impatient, demanding more star power on a consistent basis. None of this addresses what might happen if Fox does what’s been rumored and expands SmackDown to three hours, which means a need for more wrestlers, more fresh matchups, and more creative. The pressure will continue to mount on WWE to perform at a high level to justify $2 billion worth of faith.

Dueling wrestling brands under the WWE pirate flag at Titan Towers was Vince McMahon’s wild dream, and it could yet collapse under the weight of its own gargantuan success.