In an effort to get eyes on both of their biggest shows, WWE shook up their programming block this summer. The biggest shift was a familiar one—they rebooted the “brand extension.” Between 2002 and 2011, Raw and SmackDown’s respective authority figures (initially, Vince McMahon and Ric Flair) would draft superstars to either show. That split ended in the summer of 2011, making it so both shows have featured the entire roster. Now, they’re divided up again. Each brand has a unique ecosystem with unique rosters, feuds, and belts. If you want to see Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, and Sasha Banks, you’re tuning into Raw. SmackDown is where you get Dean Ambrose, A.J. Styles, and Bray Wyatt.
The other big move: The previously pretaped SmackDown is live now, and it’s moved from Thursdays to Tuesdays. Scheduling-wise, it’s a lot to ask of even the most faithful wrestling viewer. After three hours for Raw on Mondays, they’ve got another two for SmackDown on Tuesdays, and then on Wednesdays, there’s a two-hour, back-to-back block of NXT and Cruiserweight Classic. (This, of course, isn’t even factoring in the existence of rival programming like TNA Impact or Lucha Underground, which must be observed if only because of the “Final Deletion” and… because Lucha Underground is incredible television.)
But the SmackDown reboot offers plenty of incentives to block out two more hours for wrestling early in the week. Dean Ambrose is headlining SmackDown while holding the WWE World Championship. Legitimate star John Cena is an exclusive member of the blue team. Impressive new guys like American Alpha will graduate from NXT by suplexing every tag team on the main roster. Fun-to-watch veterans Rhyno and Shelton Benjamin are being promised as returning fixtures. The show’s authority figures are Shane McMahon, king of falling off impossibly tall structures, and universally beloved wrestling deity Daniel Bryan. The company is, without question, attempting to give SmackDown the same level of prestige as their flagship program.
SmackDown’s past few years haven’t been especially inspiring when viewed as a whole. The biggest stars of WWE rarely appear in the main events of SmackDown, showing up more often for promo spots (if they show up at all). Since the show was pretaped and spoilers were rampant in the age of Twitter, big surprises haven’t happened on the show all that often. Recently, for example, when they announced that Brock Lesnar’s SummerSlam opponent would be revealed on SmackDown, they cut away from the roaring arena crowd, who would have loved to hear that news, and made the announcement via a quiet, pretaped panel of experts in a studio. The announcement didn’t get spoiled, but it was pretty miserable television. It goes without saying that Lesnar himself did not appear.
In the first episodes after the draft took hold, Raw demolished SmackDown in entertainment value alone. Sasha Banks won the women’s championship from Charlotte in one of the best matches of the year. Finn Balor, fresh off an immensely entertaining match in NXT against Shinsuke Nakamura, debuted on the main roster by pinning both Rusev and Roman Reigns clean. On his first day, the former NXT champion guaranteed himself a SummerSlam championship match against Seth Rollins. These were emotional, pay-per-view–worthy moments, and if you also take into consideration the WWE debut of Nia Jax and the long-awaited return of Neville, it was a tough act to follow.
SmackDown faltered by comparison. The show’s most exciting call-ups like American Alpha got a video package promising that they would debut one week later. The rest of the NXT talent debuting on the main roster either showed up to briefly catchphrase or were unceremoniously thrown out of a battle royal. In the main event, when six guys fought for the chance to challenge Dean Ambrose for his title at SummerSlam, Dolph Ziggler emerged victorious. The outcome of that main event was less than inspiring—Ziggler and Ambrose will put on a good show, but those guys wrestled each other on TV pretty recently. Balor and Rollins is a fresh matchup and, out of the gate, a more interesting story.
But the Ziggler win highlighted a potential bright spot for the future of SmackDown and a major shift from its previous five years—it was legitimately spontaneous. The outcome of the main event came as a total surprise, as did Rhyno’s resurgence and the Shelton Benjamin return announcement. Without spoilers running around on the internet in the two days between taping and airing on TV, the new show offers the idea that maybe, just maybe, a title could change hands on SmackDown. In the pretaped era, that almost never happened. From the first episode to air in August 2011 after the brand extension ended the first time to the most recent episode, a title has changed hands exactly once in the show’s main event. (In early 2013, Alberto Del Rio defeated the Big Show in a Last Man Standing match.) Even if you widen the scope, things still look dismal. Across over 280 episodes in the past five years, only 29 main events have had any stakes behind them at all—a championship match, some sort of number-one contendership, and so on.
SmackDown is rarely a show that moves the needle, and that’s largely because the company’s overall main-event picture lived on Raw. Again, it’s in the numbers of the past five years of SmackDown programming. On 161 out of 257 episodes—about 63 percent of the programs—the main event of SmackDown didn’t feature any of the players from the pay-per-view main-event scene. John Cena, CM Punk, The Rock, Brock Lesnar—the big-money names rarely figured into SmackDown’s closing segment. It wasn’t until guys like Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins started holding the title in the past couple years that overall main-event talent would also headline the secondary show.
The reasoning: Even after the brand extension ended, SmackDown still had its own headliners and title. Guys like Randy Orton, Christian, Sheamus, and Mark Henry fought for the World Heavyweight Championship—the alternate title to the WWE Championship that was sought by guys like John Cena and CM Punk. At the company’s biggest events, the SmackDown main event scene was never the main event. At Over The Limit in 2012, for example, the Fatal 4-Way match for the World Heavyweight Championship happened in the show’s first hour. The title would be unified with the WWE Championship in 2013—it’s now the WWE World Championship. This history is repeating itself, too—Raw and SmackDown will have their own championships, and it remains unclear which belt will get top billing on pay-per-view cards.
That’s the problem with SmackDown—previous attempts to give the show equal footing with Raw and its own main-event belt didn’t exactly work. It was always clear that it had the lesser of the two big championships, especially when wrestlers were fighting for it at cool-down spots early in pay-per-views. Wrestling has a history of shows like this—WCW had Thunder, WWE had another show called Heat, and currently WWE has some additional shows, Main Event and Superstars. While big stories happened on Monday nights, the rest of the schedule was pretty much “just wrestling” shows—no big story advancements because it’s time set aside for mid-card wrestlers who are finally getting some much-deserved TV time.
But there’s a reason why, in the kayfabe war of red versus blue, people are invested in the blue team. SmackDown is where Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle, The Rock, Booker T, Edge, and Triple H fought classic matches. It’s where John Cena made his debut, where Rey Mysterio launched through a trapdoor into the WWE, and where Brock Lesnar destroyed a ring because he suplexed the Big Show from the top rope. Even in the recent past, there have been some stellar moments on SmackDown. The Undertaker made a rare SmackDown appearance in 2013 to fight Dean Ambrose. In 2013, Cesaro pulled an upset, winning over sitting champion Randy Orton. It was a non-title match, but it felt like a star-making moment for an otherwise mid-card guy.
After the most recent draft, Cesaro gave a surprisingly frank backstage interview airing his frustration about being drafted to Raw:
“Looking at the rosters and what the GMs talked about yesterday—about how SmackDown is going to be ‘the wrestling show’ and all about in-ring product and all about the superstars and not necessarily about the GMs and that whole drama—I feel like I would probably be a better fit for SmackDown. But just like my whole career here so far, there’s a little stumbling block that I have to overcome.”
Cesaro, one of the most gifted performers on the roster, wanted to be drafted to SmackDown because it was “the wrestling show”—a place where people could show off their talent without having the show throw its entire emphasis behind tired authority-figure plotlines.
Sasha Banks, who was also drafted to Raw, previously gave an interview saying she would prefer being drafted to SmackDown. “I loved watching Smackdown because all my favorites were there—Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle, Rey Mysterio.”
Before he retired from wrestling last year, Daniel Bryan had been actively campaigning for a new brand extension and for him to be the face of the blue show. He recognized that his time holding the world heavyweight championship—SmackDown’s belt—was what gave him the opportunity to become a legitimate wrestling star.
And that’s true today. By introducing a second major belt, SmackDown is creating more opportunities for younger guys to grab some of the spotlight. The first week in its new format was rocky, but the pieces are in place for SmackDown’s potentially bright future. Maybe the SmackDown roster will still play second fiddle to Raw’s team when it comes to placement on a pay-per-view card, but with the new opportunity for legitimate spontaneity and some of the best wrestlers in the world getting an exclusive spotlight on the show (A.J. Styles! Chad Gable!), SmackDown might just break its status as WWE’s lesser-loved second show.