Why Separating WWE Brands will Never Work (and Probably Never Will)

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Reports say that WWE is going to end the current separation of the Raw and SmackDown brands, and at the moment it is unlikely that such a setup will ever work. When WWE first tried to “expand the brand,” as they usually call it, the timing seemed right. WWE acquired the assets of its former main competitions, WCW and ECW, and absorbed most of the talent list of these promotions. Since WWE was about to change its name from WWF due to a lawsuit, WCW and ECW left, and the era of the relationship seemed to have come to an end, the separation of the brand did not seem too far-fetched.

After all, it makes perfect sense that WWE wanted to bring back the magic of its wars with WCW, the most personified battle between Raw and Nitro. If Raw and SmackDown could really be turned into separate facilities under the corporate umbrella of WWE, broadcast on different TV channels and with a different cast of wrestlers, there is no real reason why this attempt to create a sense of competition could not work. However, she certainly did not work, at least not to the full extent.

Related: Why Cody Rhodes’ Creativity Stands Out Among the Soft WWE Storylines

WWE boss Vince McMahon stubbornly stuck to the brand separation experiment until early 2011, but by then the audience had long been tired of his failures. As WWE’s second “brand expansion” is reportedly coming to an end— after it began in the fall of 2016 —it looks like the WWE brand split will end in a whimper again. For various reasons, WWE simply cannot make this idea work very well, and these problems are unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future, at least as long as Vince McMahon remains in power.

WWE has proven its inability to treat both brands equally

While WWE sometimes has brief periods where it tries to act as if Raw and SmackDown are on a level playing field, most of the time there is clearly one brand that is Show A and the other is Show B. The role of show A is usually assigned to Raw, since it has existed for much longer and is the flagship program of the company, but SmackDown sometimes still finds itself in the spotlight. The problem is that no matter which brand is considered more important, there is never a feeling that they are equal. In fact, it doesn’t seem logical, since both, of course, are managed by the same people and are often written by the same team.

Either Raw or SmackDown almost always have better, more exciting storylines and a more complete list of wrestlers compared to the others, leading to the perception that one brand is more important. If that’s the case, then why would any performer like Roman Raines from WWE want to work for a lower brand? More importantly, what are the incentives for viewers to watch both weekly products? These are questions that WWE has never answered. Even going back to the first draft of the WWE brand in 2002, SmackDown, which was hosted on screen by Vince McMahon, and Ric Flair was an authoritative figure on the Raw screen, came out with such a better line-up that it was almost comical. For some reason, WWE simply cannot find a balance that allows equal treatment of the two brands.

WWE Undermines Brand Separation by Constantly Breaking Its Own Rules

Even if WWE somehow managed to create a separation of the Raw and SmackDown brands at the Austin and Hogan level, in which both sides would be considered equally important, this balance would be undermined by an annoying thing that WWE simply cannot resist. Although the separation was pretty strictly enforced for the first year or so after the separation of both brands, it’s never too long before the boundaries between Raw and SmackDown start to blur. Wrestlers from one show suddenly appear in another without a logical explanation, sometimes with the help of ridiculous “exchanges” behind the scenes to get rid of the problem. Many of these so-called transactions never even reveal what the other brand got in return, probably because the authors themselves aren’t even sure.

Related: Why Cody Rhodes Left AEW and Returned to WWE

Over the years, WWE has come up with so many contrived excuses to justify the appearance of Raw wrestlers like Cody Rhodes on SmackDown or vice versa, whether it’s a “wild card” rule allowing one transition per week, a wrestler “buying a ticket” to attend another show that somehow entitles them step into the ring, or someone who has a freakishly specific contract clause that makes them free agents. In fact, this poorly reasoned narrative is clearly related to the fact that WWE has decided that it wants to order a program with the participation of certain wrestlers, regardless of what their respective brand status may be, and is doing everything possible to achieve the desired result. Wrestling has always been a pretty outlandish form of entertainment, and fans mostly don’t mind how silly things can be, even after Kayfabe’s death in WWE. The problem is that WWE struggles to set the rules for themselves on screen one week before deciding they don’t care about them anymore the next week.