“If I go there will be trouble… If I stay it will be double… So you gotta let me know… Should I stay or should I go?” -The Clash
Hi folks! Jumping right in to this subject. WWE introduced the brand extension to alleviate an overcrowded roster and to create a sense of competition after WCW & ECW closed its doors. 20 years on, we look at the positives and negatives of the brand split to see if it is worth continuing the concept. Of course, it’s up to WWE management, but it doesn’t hurt us to have our own opinions. Or does it?! Moving on, let’s start with a brief history lesson:
SmackDown vs. Thunder
We always talk about Raw vs. Nitro in the Monday Night Wars, but something WWE easily had over WCW was the popular SmackDown show on Thursday nights. WCW had encouraging ratings for Thunder in 1998, but it declined in 1999, and even more so when SmackDown arrived. Some of WCW’s biggest stars did not help Thunder’s dwindling ratings by refusing to work on it, but it was also partly because management booked it as a throwaway show. Most fans could skip Thunder and not feel like they were missing out, unlike with SmackDown, who continued feuds and storylines we saw on Raw.
WWE was so successful with the booking of SmackDown that it almost became as popular as Raw, and having another two hours on Thursday meant it could do more to keep viewers’ interest. In 2000, WCW gave Thunder much more spotlight, not only because Bret Hart was exclusive to the show, but because it had big moments like David Arquette winning the WCW Championship. Despite Vince Russo, Eric Bischoff, and others doing what they could to get eyes on Thunder, SmackDown had already destroyed it so hard it forced them to move it to Wednesday nights.
What does this have to do with the brand split? Well, it’s a positive example of two shows working in tandem, and also a negative example of how it can fail spectacularly when they aren’t. WCW put what it could in to Nitro and even Eric Bischoff said they never really wanted Thunder. He felt a second show would overexpose the talent, and it’s much easier to write one show a week than two. WWF’s ratings soared as WCW’s declined, because it made both Raw & SmackDown must-see. It didn’t give you a choice but to see them both, otherwise you could get behind with the storylines, and it’s not like they played a million recaps back then.
Not everyone had the internet, so you couldn’t just bring up a website for the results. Most people in their twenty something’s or younger won’t remember this, and grew up with the internet and the brand extension. These fans knew no different, so it’s understandable they would want to stick with what they know. From experience, I can see the positives and negatives in both, which is what this detailed piece will dive in to today. Get ready, there’s a lot to go through.
As you may quickly tell, I’m not a fan of the brand extension, but I can understand the positives. Let’s see the common statements fans make while defending the concept:
– It gives more opportunities. By splitting up the roster, there are more championships, and therefore more chances to get someone over. Mid-carders get more exposure, while we only see top talents once a week. It makes sense to have, for example, Brock Lesnar on Raw, and Roman Reigns on SmackDown, because you’d have to tune in to one of those shows if you are a fan. It gives each brand the unique selling point of “you can only see these superstars here!” and discourages overexposure.
– WWE can set up a rivalry between Raw & SmackDown to create competition between brands. The company flourished while under pressure from WCW, so it makes sense to create something similar.
– When done right, brand draft shows can make talent seem important. General managers fight over who they want on their roster, and it creates anticipation for the viewer. What will Raw look like? Can SmackDown compete with its roster? And then you have the splitting up of teams, or champions switching brand. A lot can happen, so it gives a gimmick to management when it feels like the brands need to be freshened up.
– There’s less urgency for the talent, because there is more chance of getting regular airtime. Without a brand split, a mid-carder might be lucky to get 5 minutes a week, while being exclusive to a brand means they could get double or more. It’s less of a “sink or swim” mentality, which means they are happier in their job, and more likely to sign a new contract. Top talent may be relieved to know they don’t need to be present at every show, which would have meant more travel, and therefore lower morale.
– The company needs more superstars for a brand split, which not only creates more jobs, but makes a talent’s time in NXT more valuable. They are more likely to get called up with a brand split than without. Also, they would be less likely to get lost in the shuffle, because as stated above, there is more opportunities for regular airtime. This means WWE can have more talent for NXT, which makes more jobs there too.
– Secondary singles titles like the Intercontinental and United States Championships won’t cross over. If they were on the same brand, it’s likely to have an effect similar to when the WWF had the IC and European titles. One may end up tertiary, so not much higher than the 24/7 Championship. Having a brand split ensures these titles remain equal, with the goal of elevating mid-carders to the next level, or by keeping a top tier talent relevant.
Without a brand split, realistically, one of them would need to be deactivated, or booked well enough to be considered equals. Fans may question why WWE keeps two secondary titles for male superstars, but won’t introduce one for women. By keeping it as is, these questions needn’t be put forward. Both titles have a long lineage, so losing either of them wouldn’t be ideal.
Ok, I have long opposed the brand extension for many reasons. There was a time when it made sense, and I’ll tell you when that was, and why it is no longer the case.
– Star power! Think about the Attitude Era. What would have happened if The Rock was on SmackDown, and Stone Cold Steve Austin was on Raw? Can you imagine the WWF with two rosters? It would have been a massive fail. Even with a crazy amount of star power, Vince McMahon didn’t want to split that up. Why would you? The option to have any of your top tier guys working Raw or SmackDown is invaluable.
You don’t need to have an Austin, or a Rock, or an Undertaker on every show, even without a brand split. Book whoever makes sense and don’t worry about the mid-card. It will be fine if you give them something to do. You can always make up a storyline injury if you don’t want to use a top superstar for a few weeks. There are ways around the overexposure. Speaking of which…
– WWE is not overcrowded! Look at the 2002 roster. There was a definite need to split up the brands. Look at these names from March 2002 (one month before the split): Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Rob Van Dam, Kane, The Hardys, The Dudleys, Edge & Christian, Lita, Trish Stratus, Booker T, DDP, APA, Chris Benoit, Mr. Perfect, the McMahon family, and so many more!
Oh! And Shawn Michaels returned a few months later. Imagine trying to stick all those names on the same brand? How do you book that? You can’t, it’s damn(!) near impossible. WWE had just taken in all the WCW/ECW refugees, so its roster was so huge, you could say it was the most stacked roster in the history of wrestling. If there was ever a time to have a third ECW brand, this was the time to do it. Sadly, WWE waited four years to do it, and we all know how that went.
With the current roster, who would you put up there with Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Hogan and Flair? Perhaps Roman Reigns, at a push (just by how WWE books him)? Anyone else? Hell no, unless part-timers get involved. Not only that, but WWE released so many talents in the past two years, they only really have enough for one roster. The void of star power is so clear you could name a sun after it. If there was ever a time to bring everyone together, it’s now. WWE has 5 hours of programming between Raw & SmackDown, so if they can’t find 5 minutes for a Xia Li or T-BAR, that’s on them. They could always go back to NXT to put over some of the fresh blood if there isn’t.
– The divisions suck. Sorry to be that blunt about it, but when you think of the Raw or SmackDown’s women’s divisions, aren’t they both unreasonably small? I’d like to focus on the women for clarity. You could do the same with any other title (especially the tag teams) and get a similar result.
The first thing I’d like to point out is, if you have 25 women (that is the actual number as of May 2022) on the main roster, that means you have 12-13 per brand. After a few months of pitting the same dozen women against each other, you soon run out of original match ups. The divisions become stale because they have to rely on the same 2, maybe 3 top names, while the rest are just there to make up the numbers.
What happens if the brand split ends? You get a division with Ronda Rousey, Bianca Belair, Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Bayley (when she returns), Asuka, and the rest who would love to be in the top tier. This creates serious competition, because you then have to prove you are better than all these names, and not just a few of them, which makes it a way bigger deal.
Fresh matchups will always be there, because it’s harder to stagnate a division this large. It sounds like a lot, but with 5 hours of TV per week, not including premium live events, it’s manageable. And you don’t need to overexpose any of the big names, you don’t need to have Rousey, Flair or Lynch on every Raw & SmackDown. As for the lesser names, as Randy Savage used to say, the cream rises to the top. Do you think we cared if Viscera (RIP) or Mideon got on the show in the 90s? If they aren’t destined to become a Hall of Famer, why waste airtime on them? Another thing we don’t need to waste time on is brand exclusive championships.
Do you think the average fan finds it impressive if someone is a tag team champion of SmackDown?! I know I don’t. It disappointed me when WWE pulled the plug on unifying the tag titles, because I wanted to know who was better between The Usos or RKBro. It would have been massive to see the winner of that, but instead, we got a six-man tag to plug Roman Reigns in something not involving his undisputed championship.
[Digressing] WAIT A SECOND! Was it not Roman Reigns who told The Usos to claim the Raw titles? So why did he suddenly decide… Nah, scrap that! I want to be in a pointless six-man tag instead. Apologies for the tangent, but the hole in this story is hitting me like a Superman Punch. It makes absolutely no sense to plug a unification match which WWE apparently had no intention of going through with. That’s false advertising and illogical storytelling!
Back on topic, it sounds way better if you can say you are the undisputed tag team champions of WWE. No one can claim to be your equal, so the title actually matters. Since 2002, when WWE introduced the World Championship, I couldn’t stand it because it lessened the importance of the WWE Championship. When you have two titles of equal footing, it cuts the feeling of prestige in half. Therefore, we care at least half as much as we normally would.
Remember when the brand split ended in 2016, and CM Punk was WWE Champion for over a year? That was a big deal. Sure, WWE screwed him over by not putting him in PPV main events, but at least people cared enough to be pissed about that. Had there been another equal champion on the other show, do you think fans would have cared as much for Punk’s reign? I doubt it. They would have cared somewhat, even more so if the other guy got the main events, but they wouldn’t have come to his defense as much.
The WWE Champion, with no brand split, should be the undisputed top guy in the company. There is no argument for it, but WWE has typically proved that even with a brand split, they don’t have to care enough to put the supposed #1 guy in their main events. A title holder is only as important as WWE wants you to perceive them. Roman Reigns is the undisputed champion right now, and I would laugh so hard if anyone suggested he would not be in the main event of the next premium live event, because that’s how WWE has booked him.
Nobody is his equal, and that’s how championships should be. With fewer titles in WWE, it opens up opportunities for other talent to have storylines where they feud over personal matters. Not only that, but with fewer titles, it makes a championship victory all the sweeter. Imagine if Drew McIntyre or Cody Rhodes actually defeated Reigns to become the undisputed champion? It would be history making, and even more so because no other champion could claim to be Reigns’ equal.
– Brand draft shows used to be fun because GMs like Eric Bischoff and Stephanie McMahon would sell them as a big deal. These days, you have Adam Pearce read out some lists, and it’s just tiresome. No one really cares for this, even more so when half the names you draft get released from contract a month later.
Then there’s the terrible nature of switching a Raw champion on to SmackDown, and vice versa. It results in a frustrated Charlotte Flair taking the piss out of a segment where they “exchange the belts”, like it’s nothing. You could tell how much she hated it, and I can’t blame her. There are much better ways of sorting out that mess than to have two champions who are clearly connected to their titles, having to exchange it through no fault of their own. It’s some of the laziest booking I have seen in over two decades.
– Another thing WWE wouldn’t have to worry about is catering to their networks, because both USA and FOX get the best of both worlds. As fans, we don’t really care if the USA or FOX networks are upset because they didn’t get Roman Reigns, for example. Without a brand split, they both get Roman Reigns, and whoever they want, because there is nothing restricting WWE from booking someone. If the networks want to be catered to specifically, WWE can do so with much more freedom.
– What is the point of having a brand split when Vince McMahon decides… yeah, I want Bobby Lashley on SmackDown tonight! Oh, I think I’ll bring Drew McIntyre to Raw for a night. If you want to make the brand split work, keep to the rules, otherwise what is the point of doing it? Again, the hypocrisy is such that WWE plugged “Super Shows”. Remember those episodes of Raw & SmackDown where WWE flat out ignored the brand split and titled them super shows? Yeah, so if WWE can’t respect its own brand extension, why should we?
– What about Survivor Series? We get brand vs. brand, champion vs. champion, but does anything come of that? Nope. Instead, you have WWE Champions like Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles, Drew McIntyre and Big E losing to Brock Lesnar & Roman Reigns to define them as the clear #2, when they are supposed to be equals. If Raw or SmackDown wins Survivor Series by getting more victories over the other, they get nothing for it. What is the point of creating competition through a brand extension when there are no rewards or repercussions? None of it matters, so why should the fans care about either brand? There’s nothing to distinguish them aside from their color and rosters.
What Do Others Think?
Then there’s the underlying tone of WWE plugging the brand extension as a good thing. Let’s take Ryan Satin, for example. Now, I have the utmost respect for him. The guy was so successful as a wrestling journalist he landed a dream job with WWE. He currently works for Fox Sports, making editorials like this:
After looking at the reasons for and against keeping the brand split, Satin’s final verdict is:
“The best compromise would be to keep the brand split yet continue to unify all the titles and let champions travel between shows — which might be a bit of a cop-out on my part (apologies). But I think this would be the best of both worlds.”
So, I read this as him actually wanting the brand split to end, but because WWE loves to have different rosters, we should accept a compromise of unifying titles. The fact he apologizes for the cop-out means he knows most fans want the brand split to end, but WWE and Fox Sports are probably happy with the current arrangement. Drew McIntyre shared another side of this with recent comments:
On WWE having a unified WWE Universal champion: “If we’ve got separate rosters, I kind of prefer the idea of a champion for each show. At the same time, we just had WrestleMania, and we needed a huge match. Brock had one title, Roman had the other title. It made for a very interesting… I don’t want to use the word stupendous, but it made for a very, very big match and now we are kind of with in the fallout of that huge match, that huge WrestleMania and we’ll see what happens. I kind of like the idea of a champion representing each brand. We have those separate brands, so somebody has to take down Roman at least for one of those titles.”
In another interview, he makes a comment about bringing back the European title, where he admits WWE has too many championships.
On the European title: “Yes! I just want it. Because when I was a kid and I saw it I was like ‘ah man, I want to be European champion’ and now I can’t because it doesn’t exist right now. I don’t like too many titles and there are a lot right now, but I just wanted it when I was a kid. So just bring it back, let me win it and then I’ll retire it. You never want too many titles in the company because then it’s not as special. I think where we’re at right now is good, but give ol’ Drew the European title for young Drew.”
Notice how Ryan Satin wants to unify all the titles, but McIntyre thinks each brand should have its own champion, on top of having three secondary titles (IC/US/European)? Yes, I know Drew just wants the European title for nostalgia’s sake, but it also shows the double standard. Ryan Satin wants all unified titles with a brand split, while McIntyre wants fewer titles and a champion representing each brand.
Also, there are reports floating around that WWE wants to un-unify Roman Reigns’ titles. This would make the biggest match in WrestleMania history less significant, because the aftermath of that should be Reigns being a dominant champion, before putting someone over in the grandest way imaginable. If you just separate the titles again, the rosters get no benefit from that. WWE needs to make new stars, and you do that by profiting off what you built. If they can’t be bold enough to trust that Reigns won’t suffer if he were to lose the undisputed title, then they shouldn’t have done it to begin with.
If we were back in 2019, when WWE had a comprehensive list of superstars, I would agree that the brand split still had positives. However, since it has scaled back, I think it should scale back even more so, because WWE is lacking star power. It can no longer rely on The Rock, Triple H, Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, John Cena, or The Undertaker to bail them out when they need to sell a marquee show.
Back in the Attitude Era, WWE creative proved it could make new stars through detailed storylines and intense feuds which carried over from Raw to SmackDown, and back to Raw. It needs to find this again, because everything needs to be emphasized. Championships. Victories. Main events. Airtime. Stories. Feuds. Talent. Everything needs to be important, because that’s how you make stars. Much like with anything, if you put in the effort and treat it with care, people pick up on that and appreciate it more.
WWE failed so heavily with many of its NXT call ups, it needs to remember that you can’t stop developing talent. If you stand still, you get left behind, so superstars should always grow and find ways to be better. You know what I’m a big advocate for? The latest thing WWE is doing by showing us the life story of its talent. Bobby Lashley and Bianca Belair’s stories help us connect with them on a personal level. As for Lacey Evans, I can see how it is overbearing for some, but that’s only because WWE has slightly overcooked it.
It’s harder than ever to connect fans to cartoony, larger-than-life characters. You can’t have an Undertaker or Hulk Hogan these days, because people won’t buy it. WWE has finally realized that fans want to connect to the talent on a personal level. You can still give them a bit of a gimmick, but we all know there is a real person behind that. When something is real, or at least seems real, history tells us that fans appreciate and remember it more. Why do you think The Montreal Screwjob is remembered so well? Because it was a real incident which got out of hand.
A brand extension has served WWE well for so many years, but I can’t agree with the murky lines anymore. Either go full brand split, or don’t do it at all. WWE has had it sitting in the middle because it doesn’t quite know what it wants, because it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. If you’re unsure what that means, it’s like saying you’re trying to have the best of both worlds. One way does not complement the other, so I’d like WWE to gain focus and pick a direction. Not that they will, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.
After all that has been said, I’m expecting a mixed reaction. Some will come to the aid of the brand split because of the positives, while others will feel like I do. I think if WWE put the brand extension out of its misery, it would flourish, but it’s not like I have the numbers. I’m not saying I know the future, or that us discussing it here will change anything. Yet, if this piece opens your eyes to how it could go one way or the other, then I have attained my goal. I ask that you try to see it from both sides of the coin, and to understand why each way is beneficial if done properly.
I am hoping this has been an enjoyable read, because I had to re-write it in its entirety after my first draft caused me a lot of grief. Please let me know what you liked, and what you think about the brand extension. Should it end? Would you go Ryan Satin’s way? Is there still a case to enforce the split in the strictest way possible? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below. Cheers for taking the time, and thank you for reading!