FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons WWE Can Learn From The Roster Split So Far – What’s worked and what definitely hasn’t?

By Matt Seabridge, PWTorch Specialist

Dean Ambrose (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)


Hello, me again. I’ve had this topic on the thoughts bench for a while now so when Vince McMahon announced the SUPERSTAR SHAKE-UP that we’ve seen this week, it was the ideal time to finally write this article. I should note that I’m writing this after the Raw half of the trades, so whoever Smackdown gets will be decided after I’ve finished this.

Season 1 of the rebooted roster split has now had its finale and, truth be told, I’m not really to sure if I’d class it as a success or a failure. In terms of making Smackdown a show that you need to see again, it’s been a success. Acts such as A.J. Styles have been able to carry a show without having to play second fiddle to a Roman Reigns. Less competition for spots has allowed The Miz to shine and for more of the women to be featured over the courses of two shows. They’re all good things. Yet it doesn’t really feel like the split has been a great success.

A large part of that is likely due to the overarching problems in WWE as a promotion that can make their shows frustrating viewing despite the vast amount of wrestling ability on display. That, and my frustrating ability to turn positives into issues. More of the women getting showcased is indeed a positive, but the reality is that it causes a lot of problems as a result of it.

Someone like The Miz benefiting from the split and moving up the card in a way that feels organic and earned is great, but then why hasn’t that happened more? So with all that said, let’s look at five lessons that WWE can learn from the first incarnation of the revived brand split that they will hopefully but likely not learn from as we move onto the much anticipated second season of “Smackdown vs Raw.”

(1) Smackdown Needs More Quality

I’m not on board with the idea that Smackdown is a really good wrestling show since the brand split with really good booking. I’m not really sure that I’m on board with the notion that it’s a good wrestling show. In a context relative to how Raw is booked and how WWE has been booked for as long as we can remember, I can see where that level of support comes from. It is, generally speaking, booked better than Raw. They do make more of the hand they were dealt and they have a done good job featuring the women on the show by making everyone in the division feel important and have a role on the show. They have done things well. But let’s not also act like the same people didn’t book the Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton program or Dolph Ziggler’s heel turn. The biggest turn off with Smackdown for me, however, is the fact that there are so few real quality acts on Smackdown that I really want to see both building to a match every Tuesday night and in the wrestling match itself.

Yes, A.J. Styles, John Cena, Randy Orton, Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt, and The Miz are a good six-person hand to head up the show. Compared to Raw’s main hand with Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Brock Lesnar, Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, and Finn Balor, it stacks up fairly nicely. But when you look at the rest of the roster on the Smackdown side, the issue becomes apparent – not so much in the appeal of the Smackdown show itself, but in the appeal of the Smackdown exclusive PPVs. Their PPVs outside of a great A.J. Styles match and The Miz quietly delivering time and time again have generally been flat. Which is basically a considerate way of saying that they’ve sucked.

The Tag Team Division outside of American Alpha and The Usos are a bunch of geeks and, because of that lack of quality, the writers were backed up against a wall into how they book that division. Sure, they could go straight to the only program of any interest they had, but that would only have so many legs before it became OBSOLETE. So they came up with the solution of putting Heath Slater & Rhyno together as a tag team so that they could hold off on the American Alpha vs. The Usos program until later on. And Slater & Rhyno were an entertaining combination on Smackdown… until they had to wrestle and carry a key part of a PPV show. And in trying to get over a short run between a comedy pairing to bide time before they went to the two featured teams in the division, they ended up burying the two leads. American Alpha weren’t appropriately showcased, The Usos fresh off a long awaited heel turn were losing to a comedy duo, and Slater & Rhyno were failing miserably at setting a statement for what the new Smackdown Tag Team Division was going to be.

The Smackdown Women’s Division has been a bigger success, but they still suffer from the fact that, when it comes to the end product, there’s just not enough quality there to have standout matches. And that issue becomes even worse when you have Raw’s Womens Division stacked up with Charlotte, Sasha, and Bayley constantly delivering where Smackdown just doesn’t have the quality to match. While the build to matches like Nikki Bella vs. Carmella and Becky Lynch vs. Alexa Bliss is a positive, the reality is that the end product usually isn’t good. And when the end product is so constantly underwhelming, the impact and the appeal that the build can have becomes very limited.

And as for their mid-card, I’m sorry but Dolph Ziggler and the geek squad just aren’t cutting it. And no, mid-carders aren’t likely to gain Smackdown any extra viewers or sell any extra Network subscriptions, but when it comes to these Smackdown PPVs, they become a featured part of the show.

Whether it be through NXT callups, sending some stars over from Raw to make up the deficit, or just making more out of an act like Kalisto or Apollo Crews, Smackdown really needs more quality on its roster that allows them to put together their own PPV shows that can deliver a full card of good wrestling and not be as reliant on the top handful of stars delivering two or three need-to-see matches.

(2) Separate Womens Divisions Does Not Work

Who knew, right?

The reality is that Raw has been operating with a Women’s Division of Charlotte, Sasha, Bayley, and Nia Jax for the past six months now. A four person division doesn’t offer a lot of possible pairings, especially when you eliminate any possible heel vs. heel pairings. Keeping such a small division like that fresh is very difficult and, while the writers for Raw haven’t done a good job of it, I do sympathise with them for the hand that they’ve been dealt.

We rag on them for all of the title changes, but the reality is that they were somewhat necessary to prolong a program that needed to be milked for everything they could get from it because they simply couldn’t afford to go to Charlotte’s only other possible opponent in Bayley before they did; otherwise they’d face the same problem with having to stretch that program out past its use by date in order to get to WrestleMania. And that’s a significant issue that is being caused by this need to separate an already-limited division in half. Yes, it’s useful to have a platform that allows you to get more of the women over at once, but it’s not a worthwile trade off when it hampers the booking as much as it has on the Raw side.

Meanwhile on Smackdown, you see the other side of the issue. Despite this being “The Women’s Revolution Era,” the reality is that the number of female wrestlers good enough to truly deserve showcase segments ahead of talented male wrestlers are few and far between. Raw has Charlotte, Sasha, and Bayley that have been key in putting women’s wrestling on the map as a featured part of WWE shows, but Smackdown really doesn’t have anyone on their level. Obviously Becky Lynch proved to be on their level in NXT, but she isn’t a strong enough wrestler to be elevating the likes of Alexa Bliss and Carmella to the level that they’re at least on par with the mid-card male wrestlers on the same show.

The women on Smackdown are doing okay, but they quite clearly can’t deliver on par with the men like the women on Raw are able to do and have done. And that’s troublesome for WWE when they’re trying to push the women to unseen heights and then on Smackdown you see them as really not much different to the level of in-ring action from previous years. By splitting the women into two rosters they’ve ended up pushing the women on Smackdown to a place on the card with expectations above their ability. Charlotte and Sasha Banks are able to match the expectations, but Alexa Bliss just isn’t there yet.

Rejoining the two divisions would help solve all of these issues. Bayley, Charlotte, and Sasha would get some much-needed fresh opponents in the likes of Becky Lynch, Natalya, and Mickie James and acts such as Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax would have a larger plate of more experienced workers like Sasha Banks and Mickie James to work with to help advance their in-ring work. The less polished ring workers would also benefit from not having to carry the weight of being the most featured part of a division and having expectations to deliver matches on par with the standard set by Charlotte and Sasha.

(3) Make Tag Teams From Unused Singles Wrestlers

Where having all the women on one roster is an obvious move, I’m more open to the possibility of success of Raw and Smackdown each having their own Tag Team Divisions. With the women, it’s more logical because if you’re a woman then you’re in the division and you’re staying in the division for as long as you stay. That’s not the case with tag teams.

Teams break up and the parts either go on to form new teams with new partners or go in their own direction as singles wrestlers. Say you assign the tag division to one roster; what the hell does that even mean? What happens if you have two singles wrestlers on Raw and you want them to be a team? Until they get traded to the other show they can’t be a team? Or say that you move every wrestler part of a tag team to one show; that’s going to cause a massive imbalance with the size of the two rosters. I personally like testing the idea of having floating champions that can be challenged by a team from either show, but only the champions can appear on either show. That gives you more creativity in terms of opponents for the teams on each division without something as silly as “assigning tag team wrestling to one brand.”

The issue of depth will always be there with two separate divisions. Even with the floating champions concept, it will still be there. So instead of having wrestlers aimlessly floating around the undercard like Kalisto and Apollo Crews, pair them together as a team, even if it’s just for the short term to mask the lack of teams for American Alpha and The Usos to work with. If you don’t see much use for them as featured singles wrestlers on the show, then fine, but it’s not hard to heat up two singles guys forming a new team and facing one of the staples of your tag division.

Kalisto & Crews decide they want to form a team, you put them over the jobber teams for a few weeks, and then they face the protected team that they’re working with to put over. Then they either go back to beating the lower ranked teams or they go back to being singles wrestlers after putting over a more important act on the show and buying time so you don’t run through your short number of possible pairings before the next roster shakeup. Even if it flops, it’s better than having two talented but directionless wrestlers doing nothing and teams that you want to push only having comedy teams to go over. Failing with something new is better than failing with what’s currently failing anyway.

Or heaven forbid you allow the cruiserweights to compete outside of their purple ropes and use the vast and impressive talent in that division to help bolster the two flailing tag divisions. Me and my wacky ideas, hey.

WWE already did this with Sheamus & Cesaro and look at how well it worked. It’s probably not the push that most Cesaro fans really wanted, but he’s now a far more featured part of Raw than he was as a singles wrestler and it also helped to breathe new air into Raw’s Tag Team Division, along with giving The New Day fresh opponents to work with when had gone through every other team left on Raw after the roster split.

(4) Make More Of What You’ve Got

It hasn’t even been a year yet and look at how many acts have already worked their way through all of their possible opponents. A.J. Styles has played out programs with John Cena and Dean Ambrose to their absolute end. Now the only opponent he has left to face who’s a babyface on Smackdown with anywhere near enough credibility to face him is Randy Orton. That makes a whopping grand total of three programs A.J. had to work with on the entire roster.

Dean Ambrose is in a similar situation. Once the Baron Corbin program is done, he would have had to move on to either The Miz or Bray Wyatt, neither of which are really fresh programs. Over on Raw The New Day haven’t even had a program since they lost the titles because there’s literally nobody fresh for them to face so they’ve just been biding time until some new blood came in after WrestleMania. Gallows & Anderson going into WrestleMania were in that same boat. Charlotte is likely about to move to Smackdown because she’s faced literally the only two opponents on Raw that she can work with.

The landscape of Raw and Smackdown simply can’t afford to remain a constant for any lengthy period of time. That can bring positives such as a more frequent influx of talent from NXT and thus hot acts spending less time in NXT and more new acts debuting in NXT, but it can also bring negatives such as overly frequent face and heel turns. What it should in theory also prompt is more talent on each roster being rotated in and out of meaningful spots on the card. When the pairings at the top of the card start to get stale, then it should force WWE’s hand into pushing someone else into the mix, even if just as a short-term fix. But that hasn’t really happened.

On Smackdown, The Miz has definitely benefited from less competition for spots to become a more effective act higher up the card. The Miz feels more like the exception rather than the rule, though. Despite WWE’s need for more credible acts on each show, along with more segments with which to improve the standing of wrestlers who were either lost in the shuffle before the split or weren’t being pushed effectively due to the high levels of competition for fewer spots on the show, we really haven’t seen enough acts that weren’t players before the split transition into acts that provide any more equity to their respective show.

Smackdown coming out of the initial roster split had an obvious issue, not with a lack of quantity in their Tag Team Division, but in a lack of legit players in that division. And, nearly a year later, they still had the same issue. Granted, The Ascension and The Vaudevillians aren’t good examples to use here, but couldn’t they have at least tried to rebuild Tyler Breeze and Fandango as somewhat credible acts that can at least be put into a program with American Alpha and not hurt their opponents if they last more than a couple of minutes with them. Could they not have at least tried to put some momentum behind Kallisto & Apollo Crews so that acts like The Miz and Baron Corbin have some credible opponents rather than it feeling like they’re just running through geeks when they face them?

Add some more layers to their characters and give them some more mic time in front of the crowd. God forbid you let someone you’re not giving a monster push to just run through their moveset and straight up beat someone. Raw, despite having the extra hour, has been an even worse offender. Somehow on a three hour show, the Cruiserweight and Tag Team divisions still don’t get showcased enough to feel like a significant part of the show, and acts like Sami Zayn and Rusev still feel as though they’re just floating on the show aimlessly with no direction.

The roster split provided WWE with a great platform to make more wrestlers mean more, but the platform is irrelevant without WWE putting in the effort to try to make more of the talent that they have available to them. Sure, not every rehab project will be successful, but not showing willingness to even really try to see what sticks is just poor management. Is Tyler Breeze likely to become a big star if you give him a bit of momentum? Unlikely, but he can be more than he is currently, which is nothing, less than nothing in fact.

(5) Nobody Cares About Smackdown vs Raw

In theory, the idea of there being two separate rosters that have a rivalry with one another is nice, but the reality is that it just doesn’t work. The only time it ever really worked was in 2002 and that was because the rivalry between Eric Bischoff and Stephanie McMahon was entertaining, not because we as viewers were rooting for one show over the other. The only way that a rivalry between two shows works is if they’re both under different ownership.

Raw and Smackdown are as close to being identical wrestling shows as you can get. With the frequency at which these “superstar shake-ups” will have to occur, I’d say it’s unlikely that more than a handful of wrestlers don’t switch brands over the course of a three year period, so the two shows won’t even have differentiated rosters for any significant period of time.

Despite the attempts to somewhat differentiate between the two shows by using the odd different camera angle and placing the commentators in different positions, Raw and Smackdown are the same show just with different faces. Different writing teams put a slightly different slant on things, but the top down direction is the same. The structuring of the show is the same, the promos are the same, the in-ring style is always the same. It’s like if the Accounts department have a series of races against the Purchasing department. The people in those two departments really care about the races but outside of watching the people they like, nobody in the other departments cares one bit about the outcome of the races.

And that’s been the case since the roster split was reintroduced. Nobody was invested in who won the Smackdown vs. Raw matches at Survivor Series. And while you could argue that it never did any damage, you have to consider the opportunity cost of attributing time and resources to spending weeks building up to matches that nobody cared about. That was TV time and writing time that could have been spent building to a match based on one wrestler besting the other rather than one wrestler trying to beat another, not because of any personal rivalry between them, but because they want to secure a win for a show. That was weeks of TV that disrupted the organic progression of storylines between wrestlers on the same show that would have to continue after Survivor Series and it was weeks of really bad TV for us to have to watch. Weeks of every single team not getting along and us wondering why are they all putting on these branded shirts and fighting for no personal gains.

You tried to do Smackdown vs. Raw and it flopped. Fair enough, you tried. Don’t try again this go round.

NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons WWE Can Learn from WrestleMania 33 – Too Long, Steph’s Bump, Element of Surprise, Bray’s character is awful

(“Five Count” is a Specialist column by PWTorch Specialist Matt Seabridge who presents a list of five lessons to be learned from various categories, theme, shows, eras, or events in pro wrestling.)

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