SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
WWE announced today that it’s running 205 Live branded live events in January. This is ambitious, to say the least, for a WWE brand that is at best fourth-most-popular (I suspect there might be more excitement for a UK Division or Mae Young Classic Reunion tour, to be honest).
The Ryan Center in Kingston, R.I. has a seating capacity of about 7,600. The Lowell Auditorium in Lowell, Mass. holds, 2,800. The Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. holds up to 3,000. So they’re not running 18,000 seat NBA venues. But still. Is there really demand?
I asked on the PWTorch Twitter account today which of four announced matches on Raw fans were most looking forward to.
Which of these matches are you most looking forward to about WWE #Raw tonight?
— Pro Wrestling Torch (@PWTorch) December 4, 2017
With over 450 votes in, the Cruiserweight Fatal Four-way with a title shot at stake has 5 percent of the vote. The next-lowest vote getter is Roman Reigns’s U.S. Title Open Challenge against an unnamed opponent at 26 percent, with The Bar vs. The Shield (yet again) coming in at 27 percent.
In a poll at ProWrestling.net this afternoon, 76 percent said they are not interested in attending a 205 Live event! Only 23 percent said they are. Seriously. WWE’s target market for a Cruiserweight Division are the types of fans frequenting PWTorch.com and ProWrestling.net on a Monday afternoon to see what’s going on in pro wrestling and look ahead to Monday Night Raw. And those fans are by a 3-to-1 margin not excited about the prospects of a Cruiserweight-only show. This isn’t a cruiserweight style problem, this is a WWE presentation of cruiserweights problem.
There is a lot working against 205 Live reaching its potential. Taping it after Smackdown late in the evening with a crowd that came to see other stars from the main show, not the 205 Live wrestlers, kills the enthusiasm of a crowd that is a key to the brand seeming hot. Moving 205 Live tapings to dedicated shows with an audience that explicitly attended the show to see Cedric Alexander, Kalisto, Enzo Amore, Rich Swann, Drew Gulak, and Jack Gallagher would guarantee more engaged and enthusiastic crowds, which could create a perception of a hot brand.
Paul Heyman told me decades ago when ECW was starting to gain some traction at the box office that perception is vital to a brand’s growth, which is why he’d rather pack an 800 seat venue and turn 300 people away then draw 1,200 people in a 3,000 seat venue. Even in losing ticket sales revenue, the perception of a hot brand was ultimately more important in the long run (plus the rent was probably cheaper to make up for some of the lost ticket sales).
205 Live’s problems aren’t just the setting. Truth is, WWE are masters at taking a major arena and lighting it just right and using strategic camera angles to hide that the arena has emptied considerably since Smackdown ended. (Just look at unofficial non-WWE approved pictures of big empty sections at Smackdown TV events lately for evidence of how good WWE is at masking those empty and tapped off sections.) For 205 Live, the lighting is great. The crowd is well lit without big visible gaps in the seating. But enthusiasm isn’t there.
WWE should get serious about making 205 Live as good as it can be. To quote Darren Young, make the Cruiserweight Division great again! And there’s a few actions they can take that would make an immediate difference and spark ticket sales for January’s shows, spike interest in 205 Live on WWE Network, and perhaps even drive some people to sign up for WWE Network who are at this point waiting around for Royal Rumble season to consider becoming a subscriber.
Start with Finn Balor.
He is being wasted on the Raw main roster right now. He’s “out of favor” with Vince McMahon. It’s showing in how he’s being booked. Stop the damage now. Do the following:
Give Balor a significant win on Raw tonight against someone who counts, such as Bray Wyatt or Elias, just to avoid the image that he couldn’t cut it with the heavyweights so he left to work against smaller guys. Then have him tease a big announcement later in the show. (Remember, tickets for 205 Live go on sale Dec. 8, so they ought to act fast.) Then later in the show, have him announce that’s been keeping an eye on Enzo Amore and everything going on in 205 Live and he is headed to the Cruiserweight Division to become Cruiserweight Champion.
Not to get too specific with booking scenarios because the specifics don’t matter that much, but a heel turn would be worth considering just to give his character a really fresh presentation. He’s been an effective heel before. In fact, he might be a better at being a heel than a babyface, but his size among WWE’s Land of Giants largely precluded that casting. On 205 Live, that’s not an issue.
If they were to get to this right away and need to find a path to explain why Balor has moved suddenly to the Cruiserweight Division, there could be a mysterious attack backstage (I know, there’s been too much of that lately, but go with it anyway this time) that knocks Cedric Alexander out of the Fatal Four-way match tonight. No one suspects Balor, instead assuming it’s Enzo and his cohorts, Balor could then be inserted into the match – and win. Then he would go on to face Rich Swann – who has already qualified – and win, but there’d be some subtle clues that Balor was behind the Cedric attack because of some arrogance or attitude issues or more aggressive tactics he’s showing.
If you believe Enzo isn’t the answer as the no. 1 heel on 205 Live, but is more valuable in the second-from-the-top slot – as I do – then keep him heel but maneuver the belt off of him sooner than later. Get the belt on Balor, even if he’s a heel. Build the brand around him as the top star.
As for challengers, Cedric would be my pick to be the top babyface challenger initially as I think he’s underutilized and has good size and athleticism to work a cruiserweight style that’s not just flashy, but hard-hitting, and hold his own with Balor with some real buzz-generating matches. He’s got indy cred and carries himself as a star. And he can talk.
Next step: Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish.
They are in NXT, but there’s no reason with the NXT schedule that they can’t also be in 205 Live. It’s breaks a bit of a precedent in terms of how call-ups work, but who cares? This is about igniting a brand that WWE could get so much more out of.
Perhaps have Undisputed Era declare they’re going to take over not just NXT, but also 205 Live. Cole, I believe, is an incredible talent who can draw money for WWE and is a difference-maker. But he’s flat out too small – just under the minimal threshold – to be a credible heel on WWE’s main roster. So I’d advocate for having Undisputed Era be babyfaces and build up Cole to challenge a heel Balor.
By the way, this all works perfectly fine if Balor enters 205 Live as a babyface and Cole as a heel, too. The specific heel/face designations aren’t the vital aspect of these moves, and this isn’t meant to be an exercise in fantasy booking a specific sequence of events. Any specifics are illustrative of one of many potentially effective paths to accomplish what matters. What matters is sending a clear unmistakable message to the fans – current main roster fans who really like Balor and the hard-to-win-over ardent fans wearing Bullet Club t-shirts who attend indy shows and watch ROH every week – that 205 Live is being taken seriously and is a brand that doesn’t just feature “bland” small guys working B-level cruiserweight style matches that are decent-to-good, but not must-see.
Adding Cole, O’Reilly, Fish, and Balor to the Cruiserweight Division is just a start. Next, add one or two UK wrestlers who are Cruiserweight Division size. Also, over the course of the next four months, make a point to sign one or two other well-known cruiserweight wrestlers form the indy scene whom fans would recognize as worth paying to see in person and on the WWE Network on a weekly basis. Austin Aries is probably not a candidate, but getting Neville back on the show to play out his feud with Enzo right under the Cruiserweight Title matches featuring Balor would add some credible depth to the division. (He’s currently listed as a roster member at WWE.com.)
Also, I think it’s imperative to move the 205 Live tapings out of Smackdown and to a smaller venue where fans attending paid specifically to see the 205 Live stars so they get star reactions. The reactions to them as big stars by bellwether fans will influence other fans that they’re seeing a major league product, not a minor league side project. If Balor, Undisputed Era, a couple UK talents, Neville, and one or two free agents are added to the roster, they can draw some good crowds in January and those should be TV tapings covering a couple months of TV. If the Singh Brothers are done with Jinder Mahal, move them to 205 Live’s tag team division.
Finally, rebrand the whole damn thing. 205 Live has a stigma, and if it’s not live anymore, it’s a good excuse to change the name without “admitting defeat” about the name itself. How about… WWE 205 Superstars, WWE 205 Collision, WWE Cruiserweight Clash, or whatever. The name ultimately matters a little, but not a lot. However, changing the logo, the name, the music, and dropping the purple scheme will help establish optically that this is a fresh start and worth a fresh look.
Now, the usual pushback here is that it’s “wasting” Balor and Cole and Neville, etc. to have them in WWE purgatory known as 205 Live. That’s like the NBA not allowing the L.A. Clippers to draft Blake Griffin years ago because the Clippers were synonymous with losing and Blake had big star potential. Or not letting Chris Paul go there because the Clippers were seen as a bad franchise.
At some point, if you want to be a winning brand, you need to bring in stars and be committed to winning. If you aren’t going to let the brand become something special, drop it entirely. There’s no good reason a weekly WWE Network Cruiserweight TV series can’t have as much or more buzz than NXT ever had. It can feature established, polished great workers and great talkers battling among wrestlers their own size, rather than being shown up as undersized and ultimately doing jobs to bigger wrestlers who are much less talented.
205 Live, in this first year, has seemed like a neglected, low-budget side project of Vince McMahon with a good, hard working crew putting on underrated matches with underrated booking (at times, at least) that was off most people’s radar because it didn’t feel major league. The roster paled in comparison to the Crusierweight Classic. Change that perception with an influx of big stars and new branding.
Another good part of all this – Balor isn’t lost from Raw, either. The Cruiserweights compete on Raw, so Balor can still be on Raw several times a month (I’d advocate against it being every week for any of the Cruiserweights, though, to avoid burnout or being on the show just for the sake of being on the show) in situations where he is an alpha wrestler shining against wrestlers who can keep up with him and can bring out the best in him, but don’t make him look “too small to be a big star.” It also puts Cole in a position initially to get exposure on Raw without his diminutive size being as obvious or even an issue considering he’ll be sharing space with others slightly taller or shorter than him.
So rather than hurting Balor and Cole, as long as WWE is clearly committed to a rebrand and major upgrade in talent and star power and optics, this could work. Let Balor and Cole and the rest define the Cruiserweight Division up, rather than have 205 Live define them down. It could lead to January’s three 205 Live dates becoming hot tickets and the newly branded cruiserweight segments on Raw and weekly show on WWE Network being a ratings and subscriber draw.
If WWE thinks 205 Live isn’t worth this level of commitment, then it’s probably not worth keeping around at all, much less running dedicated live events. It’d be a shame, because it’s within their grasp to immediately make the show currently known as 205 Live the hottest new thing in pro wrestling.