WWE's Bizarrely Bland Brand Split Needs Some Hype
WWE's rivalry between Raw and Smackdown had promise, but it's been undone by a sleepy boardroom feud between Shane and Stephanie McMahon. Where's the heat?
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It wasn't supposed to be this way. Not after the pop Shane McMahon received when he finally returned before WrestleMania. Not when he was in the running to split time with his omnipresent sister, Stephanie, even after Shane-O-Mac lost to the Undertaker. But there they are: a McMahon-scented miasma of mediocrity, draped over the thrill and hope of WWE's New Era.
WWE is on the eve of one of its biggest creative-directed moments of the past decade, and a sizable percentage of wrestling fans are eager to watch. And yet, so far it's been a massive dud, largely due to the herculean efforts of the McMahon siblings to couch the impending brand split in terms that would make the most buttoned-up HR manager yawn. The initial forbidden thrill of seeing Shane McMahon tell his family that Raw was objectively in the toilet—he actually referenced ratings—has given way to a power struggle that would be better charted by Excel spreadsheet than by dueling promos. Mercifully, it's not every single week that these two butt heads, but the corporate-board-speak promos have been frequent enough, and grating enough, to make an impression.
For the uninitiated, WWE concocted its initial brand split in the early 2000s when, swelled by the ranks of vanquished and signed WCW and ECW wrestlers, the company made its Raw and Smackdown events distinct entities. Each show had its own champion, Raw with the more prestigious WWE heavyweight championship and Smackdown with the world heavyweight champion. Much drama, in the years after, was milked from dueling talent swaps, always orchestrated by one of the shows' general managers—an onscreen authority figure, almost always corporate and a heel, for the top babyfaces to rebel against.
Regardless of whether it worked in the past, WWE is banking on it working in the present. On July 19th, Smackdown moves to Tuesday nights and goes live, with the brand split coming back in the form of a draft to be broadcast on that first episode. It should be a brave new world, but doesn't feel like anything of the sort.
The blame for this shouldn't fall on the wrestlers. If anything, WWE's current roster, once NXT is considered, may be even more talented than it was during the first crack at the brand split, albeit without the raw star power of a decade and a half ago. The brand split ideally offers men and women who might otherwise not get much screen time a chance to develop storylines. And, since each show will presumably have its own title, crowds may be able to latch on to a title push that would not exist if Smackdown were still relegated to B-show status.
No, the problem is, as always, in the writing room and in the way the McMahons have failed to emphasize the event. When it's spoken about, it's that same Stephanie vs. Shane promo, and the same snoozy, neutered business jargon: core competencies, brand management, and audience numbers. Just last night, Stephanie brought up that revenues were up quarter to quarter. There's no real mention of wrestling, just a tedious Forbes article acted out in real time. It's as if the entire WWE apparatus has forgotten that wrestling works best when it works as America's id, and opted instead to lean on boardroom intrigue—which is exactly the thing most Americans find least interesting. In its clotted corporate flubbiness, WWE's mishandling of the brand split tells a different, more familiar story than the one it set out to sell: the real American success story of a family that works hard and taps into a mass market, only to become so successful and rich that they lose the human touch that made them successful in the first place. It's all a little too Chekhov.
There's been no real mention of what titles are going to which brand, no mention of whether the WWE world heavyweight title will be split into two once more, though the upcoming triple-threat match between Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and current champion Dean Ambrose offers the chance for a disputed win and subsequent bifurcation of the title lineage. There have been no machinations over who gets drafted where, outside the acknowledgment that Roman Reigns' suspension throws a spanner into the works. At the risk of belaboring the point, the brand split is a huge deal, something that will define WWE for years to come, and there's been a startling lack of hype around it.
The savior in this strange silence hanging over WWE may once again be Brock Lesnar. The buzz going into UFC 200 was that Lesnar was very likely to lose to Mark Hunt, because he was 38 years old and Hunt, as a devastating striker, was custom built to counter Lesnar's takedown style. There was probably a whiff of condescension involved, too, given that Lesnar returned to pro wrestling. Whatever the case, Lesnar's decision victory in UFC suddenly has him back in top-dog status in WWE, at least by reputation.
Lesnar is due to face a returning Randy Orton at SummerSlam, but that's nearly two months away. Presumably Lesnar's draft status in the wake of his UFC 200 victory will feature heavily in the weeks to come. His character has grown stale over the past eight months—there's just not a lot of narrative juice in total, immutable invincibility—but he's still probably the biggest personality WWE has on tap right now.
But for how long? Lesnar has a refreshing mercenary's honesty: he's in all of this for the money and the chance to beat someone up every now and again, and will tell you as much. With a reported personal purse of $2.5 million from his UFC 200 win, it's worth wondering how long he'll put up with even a limited version of WWE's grueling road schedule. He is, in short, not to be relied upon, a fact which is both galling given his day-to-day influence and elating given how much shiftiness is part and parcel to being a high-profile pro wrestler. WWE has to get what they can out of Lesnar now, because after SummerSlam he may well be gone.
Anything to put some electricity in this brand split, though. Trot out Lesnar, exhume Undertaker, call up Balor or Nakamura or Samoa Joe, steal Jeff Hardy from TNA. Something, anything, to make the draft and the years to come feel like something other than what it has so far: just another day at the office.
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