NXT has it right, but it’s not an original idea. You could argue the first promotion to embrace fans in this way was ECW. Paul Heyman and talent did everything they could to be different to the WWF and WCW, and by doing so they created an aggressive cult following chanting “EC-DUB!” at the top of their lungs. It was cool to be an EC f’n W fan because it wasn’t childish, and it didn’t pander to every demographic. It told us that you can either jump on board, or go back to watching other shows who could only dream of being this cool.
There was a sense of responsibility from fans to give the best reactions, so those watching at home could feel the passion through their television. It created a divide between fans who tuned in to shows trying too hard to be edgy, and those who could only laugh as ECW showed everyone the true meaning of controversial. ECW fans were more likely to band together, while WWF/WCW fans fought among themselves.
Despite ECW closing in 2001, the mentality remained in the minds of its fans, and other fans who later discovered the land of extreme through the internet. There’s no better example than (my favourite PPV of all time) the ECW One Night Stand 2005 event, which was like a love letter to the die-hard, loyal fanbase. Heyman literally cried as he got on his knees and praised everyone watching. And one year later at One Night Stand 2006, the fans aggressively told John Cena to get out of the building while cheering on their man RVD to take the WWE & ECW Championships. The mentality remained strong after all those years, which shows how well ECW treated its fans.
But it wasn’t the only promotion to benefit from this. TNA Wrestling produced shows with a similar mentality, which inevitably drew in ex-ECW, WWE, and WCW fans. As the edgier alternative, it wasn’t difficult to create and maintain its own cult following. It was good to be a TNA fan, just for the X-Division, tag team division, and the Knockouts. It reminded people of the late 90’s, while WWE had slowly become a watered down PG product. Fans were happy to have a mature alternative which didn’t cater to kids all the time. They appreciated the intense competition, and amazing matches that became common practice in those divisions.
While TNA did not close its doors (much to the delight of some haters) like ECW, the loyal mentality died shortly after Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff appeared live in January 2010. The company did not appreciate fans hijacking shows in protest of the six-sided ring being changed to a four-sided (as well as many other controversial decisions), so before a set of tapings they had producers approach the audience and tell them they must “sell the story by reacting accordingly ” for the TV audiences benefit.
TNA was no longer going to tolerate rowdy ECW-like fans who spoke up when their product sucked. They lost their cult following shortly after, and the reactions in the Impact Zone died. And even to this day, the Impact Zone gets nowhere near what it received on a regular basis last decade. With the company being renamed GFW (and possibly again to Impact Wrestling) we’ll no longer hear every person in the Impact zone passionately chanting “TNA! TNA! TNA!” in the heat of a sick match.
And with no other roster offering (or being able to) this mentality, Triple H stood up and said “We Are …. N .. X .. T!” Triple H promised the fans they were NXT. They were appreciated, they wouldn’t be told to stop chanting, and they would always be the soul. With added emphasis on in-ring action and scaled back production (to be different to the super polished main roster brands), it quickly became cool to enjoy the alternative filled with young talent. Almost overnight it became its own brand, with its own set of fans who’d gladly stick up for NXT.
I remember back in the early 2000s just after the brand extension; when WWE tried to create competition between Raw & Smackdown. The idea was to create a sense of The Attitude Era, where fans would side for either Raw or Smackdown in a ratings war. Sadly they forgot (or didn’t know how) to put enough emphasis on this, so Raw & Smackdown became the same show, with the only differences being the rosters and the colour scheme.
There was little to distinguish between ’em (like the giant fist on Smackdown’s titantron helped somewhat), and to this day not much has changed. While NXT proudly celebrates its rapidly growing fanbase, Raw & Smackdown slowly trundle along .. never daring to be different. Never trying to compete with each other outside special PPV. Never being serious enough to create a divide among fans to the point they feel the need to say things like “Raw is the best!”, and “Hell no! Smackdown Live is way better you stupid idiot!”.
And the same goes for 205 Live, it’s basically a 1-hour Raw with cruiserweights under a purple colour scheme. It never tries to reach out and say “You are the 205 Live fans .. and without you we wouldn’t be here!”. From the start (the day after the cruiserweight tournament) it’s felt like WWE wanted to casually palm the smaller guys off on to an easily produced 1-hour show, with no signs of making it its own brand with its own loyal fanbase to rival NXT. And it’s never going to happen as long as 205 Live has no identity, and as long as there’s no motivation to be more than it is.
For years it’s been difficult for some to admit that we enjoy watching wrestling to those who don’t. I’ve talked about this at length with fans, and it’s a common trend for some adults to occasionally struggle to admit they like watching as it can come across as childish. It’s kinda like .. watching kids cartoons and movies everyday, some people are going to think you never grew up. You could argue your case, but they’ll never truly understand why you’re still watching. “You still watching that crap huh?” is a typical response.
And this is why I feel WWE’s main roster shows needs to .. not go full ECW mode, but at least make an effort to assure its fans that Raw & Smackdown want to be their own brands with their own followings. By doing so, it will create a divide between those who love Raw and want it to have the best talent, and those who love Smackdown because they are sick of the other show getting all the benefits. Having a true battle for brand supremacy would be healthy for WWE and its talent as it will create a buzz the likes we haven’t seen in ages. It will put emphasis on the locker room leaders, as they band together to show the world they make their brand superior with a rosters full support.
Just imagine it .. Strowman, Lesnar, Joe, Reigns, all fighting against guys like AJ Styles, Nakamura, Owens, and Randy Orton to claim they are the better show. And they shouldn’t completely manufacture it .. they should give added paid incentive to the talent whose brand comes out on top each year. For example .. if Smackdown does better ratings for its timeslot (than its average) compared to Raw, all the talent on Smackdown would get an added bonus. Give the talent a valid reason to put in the extra work to make their brand superior, and don’t just tell them to do it .. give them something for being part of the best show.
I say all this, but it probably wouldn’t make sense to Vince McMahon. Why should he create a divide? Why should he give anyone a bonus? Why can’t he produce shows the way they are? The answer is there’s no stopping him doing that .. it’s his choice, but Triple H’s NXT shows that you can have a proud fanbase. It’s safe to embrace them and tell them they are important. He knows this already, but likely isn’t willing to take a risk of alienating his overall audience by forcing them to pick.
The talents wouldn’t lose out by having added emphasis to their brand. In fact, the brand becomes synonymous with them, much like in her farewell speech Asuka said “Wherever I go, NXT will come with me!” You never hear that on Raw & Smackdown .. you never hear anyone say “I don’t want to leave Raw, it’s my home”, or “I really wish I could go to Smackdown, Raw isn’t right for me” .. and not just because Smackdown is the land of opportunity, but because Smackdown is presented in a way which would benefit their character and ring work.
We Are NXT! We Are EWN! We are certainly not Raw .. Smackdown .. GFW .. Impact .. 205 Live .. we are none of that because they don’t want us to be. They’d rather we focused on the talent .. but it’s quite difficult to do that when we struggle to care for the brand they work for. Why should we care if Shinsuke Nakamura is on Smackdown? Why should we care if Asuka goes to Raw instead of challenging the likes of Charlotte Flair on Smackdown? The answer is we shouldn’t, because WWE doesn’t give us a reason. The negotiations to sign Asuka to Raw/Smackdown should have been a massive deal (aired live on PPV), with Daniel Bryan & Shane McMahon showing disbelief as Asuka signed Kurt Angle’s contract.
Make the brands important, and WWE will find their rosters growing more valuable. Til then, if it ever happens, NXT will continue to be the shining example of how you use your fanbase to compliment your brand. And wrestlers trying to make it in WWE will keep signing with NXT first, because they know the fans appreciate it and everyone behind it. Way easier to get over when the fans are encouraged to bring a mentality which compliments loyalty and admiration. Thanks for reading! #WeAreEWN! You can find the love and respect I’m talking about in the following TV intros.