As this is my debut article for PSE, a hearty welcome and thank you for taking the time to read my work. In preparation for this gig to write about the WWE I have become a consumer of the NXT brand. Admittedly, this wasn’t a voluntary choice as WWE hit every viewer of both Raw and SmackDown over the head with a barrage of NXT appearances during the run-up to Survivor Series. My sense at the time was that WWE was doing damage to the talent on their main roster by trying to promote NXT performers. This was especially true in the Women’s Division where Rhea Ripley and Shana Baszler stood tall against the top women in WWE. So here we are 3 months later and its worth looking back at how this branding strategy worked. And let’s be clear, this was a branding strategy that attempted to elevate NXT to something equivalent to Raw and SmackDown.
Did the Strategy Work?
That depends on how one defines success. Personally, I became a fan of Keith Lee. He has the look, ring presence and backstory that should make him a huge star in the not too distant future. I found Adam Cole to be someone who had incredible ring talent that should transcend his lack of size. He reminded me of AJ Styles in the ring. Further, in the run-up to Survivor Series Ripley and Baszler were impressive during their appearances on all WWE branded programing. Other than that, I can’t say that I am invested in the NXT product or any of the NXT personalities who are featured weekly on USA Network.
Other than a ratings pop during the Survivor Series build up, total viewership on NXT is approximately 750K per new weekly episode. For comparison sake, AEW Dynamite averages in excess of 900K viewers per weekly episode. To be fair, the AEW production shouldn’t be compared to WWE’s third brand. When compared to Raw or SmackDown, AEW loses by an average that exceeds 1.5 million viewers per episode. But to my earlier point, ratings for NXT are roughly the same as they were prior to the Raw/Smackdown invasion angle. If the Survivor Series angle is strictly measured based on TV ratings the best thing that could be said is WWE succeeded in introducing some new personalities to the Raw & SmackDown universe. Ratings for Raw & SmackDown are mostly flat when viewed pre and post Survivor Series.
Where the Strategy Failed:
If the NXT invasion angle for Survivor Series was supposed to get Baszler and Ripley over with the fans, then it worked. But the unintended consequences are still being felt in the Women’s Division on both SmackDown and Raw. Bayley ate the pin at Survivor Series from Baszler which protected Becky Lynch. But the real fall-out from the match is that Bayley and the entire Women’s Division of SmackDown has been diminished in the eyes of the WWE Universe. The final indignity for Raw and SmackDown brand was delivered when the NXT Women’s team decisively won the three-way Survivor Series match. At the time, I didn’t see these developments as a positive for Fox, which is paying $200mm per year for the rights to broadcast SmackDown. Additionally, the SmackDown Women’s Division was essentially defeated by a Triple A roster of wrestlers from NXT. And now, 3 months later, I feel even stronger in this belief.
Regarding the Men’s Division from both Raw and SmackDown, the three-way match was populated by a few big names such as Strowman, Orton, McIntyre, Owens, etc. The final 3 names when looking at the combined rosters from Raw and SmackDown were Shorty G, Ali and Ricochet. Despite Ricochet’s upcoming title shot in Saudi Arabia against Lesnar, it was quite clear when the Survivor Series card was announced that WWE’s strategy was to enhance the NXT brand at the expense of Raw and SmackDown. In my estimation this approach clearly failed. Even worse, WWE treated some of their top performers as enhancement talent for the NXT talent they sought to get over. I can think of no other major corporate brand that would willingly sacrifice one product line to help a lesser brand they also happen to own. This is not only bad for business (hope you get the joke) but moves like this call into question whether WWE Corporate was on board with those who book and produce PPV matches. The recent firings of WWE co-presidents, George Barrios and Michelle Wilson leave many of us who cover WWE a reason to wonder where their disconnect with Vince McMahon lies.
Paul Levesque (Triple H) spoke about NXT on a media conference call to promote NXT Takeover on February 11, 2020. “It’s about the long game, and what we have to do is get to the people in the younger demos. When you’re promoted in younger demos and you are viewed in those younger demos promotionally, then those are the people that you attract when you’re promoted in different demos. When you look at NXT on USA and you break down the numbers, it’s very similar to a Raw number, it’s very similar to a USA number, because that’s where we’re promoted and that’s where we’re seen and that’s where everything else goes. But the long game is building up the brand that you’ve built…” (H/T to @cagesideseats at @SBNation for the quote and transcription)
What can we infer from Triple H’s remarks? My takeaway is that WWE understood that the NXT Invasion angle was a business risk that could devalue other WWE brands in the hopes of elevating NXT. This was a risk that failed on several levels. The endgame for WWE was to build more value in the NXT brand while hoping that this strategy wouldn’t simultaneously jeopardize Raw and Smackdown. If we assess this approach by comparing weekly viewership pre and post Survivor Series the strategy failed. Even worse in my estimation was the lack of respect for the audience, network partnerships and WWE Superstars who took one for the team. As a writer, I represent the fans. In this regard I’m left to wonder why I devote 5 hours per week to Raw and SmackDown while WWE is promoting NXT as the superior brand?
On a different level, how can WWE promote NXT as an equivalent brand to SmackDown and Raw when their weekly show is produced in a third-rate facility? Raw and SmackDown have been built upon a live audience in major arenas across the US and international venues. NXT is produced at Full Sail Arena which holds 400 people. WWE would like us to think the setting is intimate. As a consumer of professional wrestling for over 40 years, my perspective is that NXT at Full Sail is no different than when TBS televised WCW on Saturday nights with a small audience that was produced in a TV studio. There is no atmosphere to speak of, and this harms the presentation of the NXT product. If WWE wants the fans to think of NXT as equivalent to Raw and SmackDown they should start by respecting the fans who consume their product.
On final thought, I was under the impression that NXT was promoting the next generation of talent under the WWE brand. Somewhere along the line this approach evolved to a promoting a 3rd brand with equal status to Raw and SmackDown. The problem here is that many of the NXT Superstars represent the same generation as those performing on Raw & SmackDown. Shayna Baszler will turn 40 in 2020. Thomas Ciampa will be 35 in May. Bobby Fish is 43 and his tag team partner Kyle O’Reilly will be 33 in March. The final member of the Undisputed Era, Roderick Strong turns 37 in July. Lastly, Keith Lee turns 36 this year. This is hardly the next generation of talent. Rather these performers, who headline NXT are closer to the end of their prime years than they are to the start of their careers.
When WWE introduced the NXT brand a few years back their interest was in promoting the next generation of WWE superstars. Today the vision for NXT is all about the current generation of WWE talent along with a sprinkling of performers just starting out in their respective careers’. Why are established performers like Finn Balor and Charlotte Flair involved in programs at NXT? The answer for WWE has everything to do with money. It’s good business for WWE if they can get NXT talent like Rhea Ripley, Johnny Gargano, etc. over with the Raw and SmackDown audience. This is especially true given the competition for ratings on Wednesday nights between NXT and AEW. As for the talent, I can’t imagine any established WWE superstars looking forward to spending their Wednesday evenings performing in front of 400 people on a weekly basis. But that’s just my opinion.
Thank you for reading. Please let me know your thoughts on this article or anything else you deem worthy of discussion. If you like, hit me up on twitter at @sethsimonpse.
Tags: #WWE, #NXT, #SmackDown, #RAW