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The post-WrestleMania episodes of WWE Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live were fantastic shows that set the table for a number of developments over the coming months. The audience tuned in, with both shows drawing a significant boost in viewership. On Monday the WWE announced that Network subscriptions are creeping towards two million, an increase of about half a million from one year ago. A lot of those were free trial subscribers, so now it’s up to Vince and the creative team to capitalize on the excitement by creating compelling stories and building new stars that push WWE forward, retain the current fanbase, and gain new or lapsed eyeballs.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll take a look at members of the roster that stand to benefit from the part timers making an exit or the built up WrestleMania storylines wrapping up. Looking up and down both sides of the roster, one can make the argument that the WWE has their most talented crop of performers in over two decades. With two legendary performers riding off into the sunset, three returning to the fold, a wave of well-deserved and anticipated call ups from NXT, the return of wrestlers shelved by injury and the promise of a shake up, the WWE has generated the kind of buzz that seemed missing during the build up to the Mains.
Next week’s “roster shakeup” first announced by Vince on Raw offers both brands a chance to reinvigorate themselves and freshen up each show. Smackdown in particular could use a boost. Despite putting on a superior wrestling show each week (as opposed to the more “sports entertainment” focus of Raw) and the benefit of having one less hour of television time to fill, Smackdown seems to have run the course of match ups they can present.
Right now Raw has two top of the card babyfaces on shaking footing that could benefit from a change of scenery. Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins have not connected with the audiences in the way Vince has hoped. Coming off a WrestleMania match with a depleted Undertaker that resembled the final moments of Old Yeller stretched out over twenty minutes, Reigns has nuclear heat with the fans. Coming off a solid three years of the live television audience rejecting him, both a change of venue and a shifting of his character could help salvage Roman in the near term while rebuilding him as the face of the company McMahon believes he can be.
Raw’s opening scene was a sight to behold. As Reigns lets the crowd’s boos wash over him, for the first time he appeared comfortable in the role as the object of audience scorn. Too often with Reigns, when the boos begins he gets a deer in the headlights look. Unlike John Cena, who embraces his divisive role with the crowd, Reigns appears to want to be anywhere else in the world besides the ring at times.
If Reigns can continue get past that, and if creative steers into the crowd response rather than act oblivious, then the next stretch of Roman’s career could be interesting. The public relations spin WWE mouthpieces arguing against a traditional heel turn state that since three quarters of the crowd boos him anyway, Reigns is already a heel. It’s a mealy-mouthed position, but if executed correctly, it could prove to have its benefits.
Moving Reigns to Smackdown and setting him up against the babyface roster allows the WWE to transition Roman into a heel for now while taking some pressure off him to do this on what Vince considers the “A” show. It would offer compelling match ups in the form of A.J. Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, and a returning John Cena. Let Reigns tap into that disingenuous side of his personality that screams “boo me or cheer me I’m still getting paid.” Allow Reigns to drop the kid-friendly, comic book gestures that telegraph the Superman punch and spear and turn him into an efficient machine that disposes of babyface foes with a snarling ease. Moving Reigns to Smackdown would also give the powers that be backstage a chance to see if Roman moves the needle at all in terms of ratings.
Seth Rollins is in dire need of new scenery. His career may be the largest casualty of the “Make Roman Look Strong” campaign. When he returned from his first knee injury at Extreme Rules, the crowd exploded. We were begging for a reason to cheer a babyface Crossfit Jesus and hand Vince our money, but the WWE refused to do so at the expense of making Reigns the lesser babyface. The result was an ill-fated heel turn the following night on Raw that left fans disgusted and worn out.
Rollins’s eventual face turn after Finn Balor’s injury made no sense from a storyline perspective. Creative asked fans to cheer a guy who threw tantrums over being abandoned by The Authority. Fans never got a sense that Rollins regretted his villainous past and he was left with little steam behind him.
He seemed to get on track when he moved away from talking about needing revenge and instead focused on needing redemption for his past actions. Unfortunately, a flat match with Triple H has left audiences indifferent to Seth at the moment. That match needed to be a Freebirds-Von Erichs style grudge match that tore the house down while allowing a brawling style to mask any lingering etbacks from his knee injury. Instead, we got the longest match on a too long card, worked at Triple H’s standard 50/50 “main event style” that drained the crowd and failed to give Rollins any rub from being in the ring with the veteran.
A move to Smackdown would give Rollins distance from the Triple H storyline that has stalled out. It would allow him focus on that redemption angle he has brought up in recent weeks. A fiery Seth Rollins should cut a promo stating his need to be on Smackdown because it is “the land of opportunity” and he wants to earn his chances and earn the crowd’s respect because he is done having things handed to him could go a long way to redeeming Seth. With Smackdown being the more wrestling oriented show, it would allow Rollins to showcase his freakish athletic skills to an even greater degree. This would remind fans why we were so desperate to cheer for him to begin with. The move would also give a fresh set of writers a chance to tinker with Seth, emphasize his strengths, and hide some flaws in his character. Rollins the look, the in ring skill and the charisma to be a top level draw for the WWE. To date, the lack of a defining babyface characteristic has hurt Rollins in his rise to the top. A new team could bring new perspective.
Next time out, we’ll take a look at the latest spate of NXT call ups. Nakamura is the obvious highlight, with the chance to become a transcendent star for the WWE. However, both the Revival and Tye Dillinger bring their own set of intangibles to the table as well. The next article will examine why this could be the most well rounded batch of call ups to date.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S ARTICLE: THE CREATIVE CORNER: Why Stephanie McMahon is not what’s best for business