WHAT IS BEST FOR THE FUTURE OF WWE'S NXT?
NXT is loosely defined as the WWE’s farm-league, a home-grown developmental territory of sorts broadcasting out of Full Sail University in Florida. Every Wednesday at 8pm, pre-taped, one-hour episodes play on the WWE Network, and every two months the promotion has a live, two-hour special.
It is, without question, the best product the WWE currently creates.
It is, without question, one of the primary reasons to become a subscriber.
NXT represents the purely positive, entertaining, hopeful pro-wrestling future that WWE fans have desperately craved since the expiration of The Attitude Era.
Aimlessness has defined a generation of WWE fans and a generation of the WWE product. WWE fans have had to watch despite a wide assortment of glaring issues that have plagued RAW and SmackDown for the better part of fourteen years, and the company has struggled to create an assortment of top stars and transcendent performers since the days of The Rock and Steve Austin. Viewership has plummeted, in part due to the changing landscape of entertainment consumption, and in part due to the company’s inability to embrace modern times. The company has struggled and continues to struggle to redefine itself and create a consistently captivating flagship program.
But, in NXT, where the fiction is grounded in traditional professional wrestling stories, where the focus is on creating the illusion of a legitimate sports competition, the company finds the exact direction it naturally wants to take. The fans who have been desperate for consistency and quality find their pro-wrestling respite. NXT is intimate, honest pro-wrestling theater every week. The sincerity and the heart on display is palpable. Many of these performers are already seasoned, indy-wrestling veterans, but their youthful enthusiasm overrides all cynicism. They perform with unparalleled passion and the narratives surrounding their various gimmicks protects them, anchoring them to a blend of fantasy and reality that engenders each character with a sense of meaning, purpose, and power.
This is all designed for the more "hardcore" audience, the idea being that traditional pro-wrestling fans want to watch NXT while the supposed casual majority wants to watch RAW. This is a fallacy resultant from corporate rationalizations.
Fans who don’t see NXT aren't actively not watching NXT because they like the nonsense on RAW. Fans who don't watch NXT aren't alienated by good storytelling that makes sense and well-booked, protected talent. This supposed casual majority watches RAW because they don’t want to pay for the Network. That's all. The idea that people who watch NXT are a different audience, a more hardcore fan is misguided and born out of our culture's need to segregate fandoms and make excuses for bad ratings. The only thing that separates a fan who watches NXT from a fan who watches RAW is a disposable income and a willingness to subscribe. There is nothing to suggest that RAW fans wouldn’t love exactly what NXT has to offer. People who watch RAW and don’t watch NXT simply don’t know about NXT, because the WWE doesn't promote NXT, or RAW viewers have been misinformed or RAW viewers haven’t been adequately convinced to buy in or RAW viewers are convinced NXT produces bad gimmicks.
Where RAW seems to actively dismantle talent, defaulting any and all save one or two “sports entertainers” to an unenviable position in mid-card limbo, NXT treats everyone as a potential draw. NXT plays to each talent’s strength and places performers on the card appropriately. Not everyone is a main-event player, but almost everyone, at the very least, gets some time to shine. The result is an hour’s broadcast that takes you through an array of emotional highs and lows, ranging from the outlandishly comedic to the hyper realistic.
Even though all is well in NXT, all is not well for NXT pro-wrestlers who graduate to the “main stage”. While some pro-wrestlers have found success making the transition from NXT to RAW (and several who came out of NXT’s precursor FCW), others like Bo Dallas, Adam Rose, Big E, Xavier Woods, The Ascension, Emma, and even Paige have been mismanaged since their debuts or completely taken off television.
An atmosphere of toxicity surrounds RAW, a sense that the roster has been beaten into submission by an irrational overlord who regards almost every talent save a chosen few (John Cena, Roman Reigns, Randy Orton etc) as expendable, odd, and unworthy of any respectable representation. There seems to be a stigma against NXT stars in particular, a different kind of uphill battle for them that other members of the roster don’t necessarily face.
This creates an unavoidable Catch-22 for up and coming talent.
Pro-wrestlers want to graduate from NXT to RAW. That move inevitably represents a promotion. But it’s the most tentative, unreliable, potentially disastrous promotion in the world - not unlike being moved from a cubicle job where you make $30,000/year to job where you make $50,000/year but your office is nothing but a computer without internet access on a steel beam floating in space outside the building. And your boss is an eagle gunning for your eyeballs, constantly screaming at you, “Get over! Why aren't you getting over?!”
Contributing to the lack of direction and the uncertainty that surrounds NXT stars on RAW is the fact that there’s a lack of clarity and communication between the NXT brand and the RAW brand.
NXT is only occasionally mentioned on RAW and rarely promoted anywhere other than social media and the WWE Network itself. Why The Network continues to advertise itself to itself is difficult to comprehend.
If you watched RAW and only RAW as most WWE fans do, you wouldn’t have any idea that NXT existed or, if you did catch Michael Cole’s fleeting mentions you wouldn’t be provided any incentive to figure out exactly what NXT has to offer.
If you only watch the main roster then you will actually learn to disregard NXT as bottom-barrel gimmickry. The way NXT performers are booked and promoted on the main roster convinces you to think very little of them, to believe they’re green jobbers who have no chance of ever succeeding. Or if you do start to get behind someone like Bo Dallas, you cheer with a sense of uneasiness because you recognize he’s not the kind of performer or gimmick Vince McMahon is going to understand, appreciate, and push. So, as an audience member hungry for good talent and fun performers, you’re instantly defeated, feeling as though your cheers are ultimately meaningless because your chosen favorite (like Cesaro) is perpetually doomed in part seemingly because you like him.
There are no explicit guidelines, reality-rules, or any semblance of narrative continuity between NXT and RAW despite the fact that NXT is referred to as the WWE’s "developmental system". We hear, over and over again, that NXT is WWE’s developmental system and yet the narratives & characters that NXT fans get invested in almost never inform the way those characters are depicted on RAW. There’s no cross-over in the way a Minor League Baseball player remains the same Minor League Baseball player when he makes it to the majors. The gimmicks don't radically change, but the NXT history of the performers is completely forgotten or ignored. This is obviously because the RAW writers either don't watch NXT or aren't encouraged to incorporate elements of NXT's narratives into the flagship show.
What makes this all even stranger is the fact that it's not entirely clear whether or not RAW and NXT occupy the same narrative universe. At times, it seems like the two shows inhabit completely unrelated worlds, and at other times it's all taking place in the same world.
For example, Triple H is a heel on RAW. Straight, vindictive, evil bastard.
On NXT, he's a benevolent, beloved booking god.
The two versions don't seem to occupy the same realm. Authority Triple H doesn't even seem to know NXT exists unless he's finally asked about it by Michael Cole in a WWE.com sit-down interview.
Conversely, there was nearly a month's-worth of programming between Adrian Neville, Sami Zayn, and Titus O'Neil informed by the fact that both brands were in competition. So, for a few weeks, there was a direct line of communication between the two shows. That ended almost as soon as it began.
This lack of clarity defeats the purpose of NXT being a developmental territory, and this lack of a consistent continuity also means the WWE completely negates whatever good work they are doing for these talents in Florida.
One would think that the WWE movers and shakers would have already established a narrative framework and decided exactly how NXT relates to RAW, how to logically bring a talent up from the farm-league, what their plans are for that talent when they decide to bring them up, and that the company would use the library of NXT film they have to construct video packages informing non-Network subscribers on exactly who this new pro-wrestler is. One would think the WWE would want to preserve the mystique of their performers. One would think the WWE would want to create money-making stars, and that they'd go to great lengths to create those stars in the hearts and minds of the their fans.
Such vignettes would not only get these new performers over in the minds of the uninitiated, these videos would be an opportunity to show non-subscribers what they’re missing out on.
Bringing an NXT Superstar up to RAW could become one of the most significant moments of the year, a kind of family birth where NXT fans who are already familiar with the performer are inspired to tune in to RAW (and they feel a need to keep watching because their investment in that character’s history is respected, not negated), and RAW-viewers unfamiliar with the new performer would be encouraged to get excited for this debut, and they’d be encouraged to buy the Network so as to prepare for future promotions.
If the WWE wanted to fully embrace the Reality Era, there could even be drafts or tournaments once a year, where NXT superstars competed for the right to graduate to Monday Night Raw. Every year there could be two or three open slots. This could be a cross-promotional event that got everyone (hardcore NXT fan and casual RAW viewer alike) deeply invested in the WWE product at all levels. A need is created, an incentive to participate and stick with a favorite as they ascend the ranks in the same way sports fans commit to the careers of their favorite athletes.
As is, there’s no consistency, no apparent rhyme, reason, or structure. The existence of NXT and its relationship to RAW is addressed randomly when it suits a momentary purpose.
And so the future of the brand becomes incredibly important and uncertain.
What’s going to happen with NXT? How will the goodness of NXT and its various potential generation-defining superstars not be spoiled by RAW and a vindictive Vince McMahon-beast?
The fact that this is even a problem reveals how toxic the WWE environment, and the relationship between the company and the fans really is. The fact that NXT is so obviously perfect should not inspire uneasiness or fear or make fans wonder how RAW can capitalize on that goodness. The fact that NXT is perfect should only be a sign of positivity and hope for the future. But, given what RAW is and who Vince McMahon seems to be, hope in the WWE is a double-edged sword.
RAW feels like the drunken father of a brilliant child, kicking in that child’s bedroom door and smashing that child’s chemistry set simply for the sake of being evil (self-loathing and insecurity and fear are the real reasons).
Triple H must recognize all of this. NXT is his baby, as far as we know. His passion for the brand is apparent and encouraging. His love of professional wrestling, his emphasis on strength and competition is exactly the kind of philosophy RAW needs. Everything he revealed about how he feels about RAW on Steve Austin’s podcast is indicative of the fact that he actually agrees with some of the smarks he regularly (and understandably) chastises as his Authority character.
Being that NXT is his baby, he obviously wants to protect it. He can’t come out and say, “I’m worried about what Vince is going to do to my kids on RAW”, but it’s not outside the realm of reason to imagine it’s a thought he’s had. He wants to ensure the continued success of his brand without that continued success drawing the ire of Vince McMahon or the needless squandering of his hard work.
The better NXT does, the more eyes it will have on it and the more likely it is that Vince (based on what little we know) would start to fiddle with it. And, even if Vince didn’t fiddle, it’s clear RAW has no interest in helping NXT or allowing the two promotions to inform and affect one another in any significant way.
So how does NXT continue to succeed without that success guaranteeing destruction resultant from the irrational wrath of the “Out of Touch Overlord” Vince McMahon has become in the eyes of today’s wrestling fan?
Triple H’s proposal, at the time of this writing, seems to be making NXT its own alternative brand, an entity no longer defined as a “developmental system”.
While I understand his desire to do this, while this might inevitably be the only way to have a successful NXT product with talent that isn’t wasted the moment it jumps to RAW, this is a path that permits RAW to remain an abysmal viewing experience.
NXT provides a unique opportunity for the WWE.
It is the best powerpoint presentation in the world, the greatest argument in an office meeting for exactly what the WWE’s fans want to see and how they want to see it.
If NXT and RAW are divided into separate brands then this will create an even more fractured fanbase.
People who watch RAW aren’t watching RAW because of what RAW offers them in those three hours. People tune in to RAW in the hope that they’ll see professional wrestling, and they tune in to RAW because they’ve been trained to regard RAW as “the most important” show.
If NXT becomes its own brand, after having been established as a developmental territory, existing as an alternative for the supposed “hardcore fan” then it’s unlikely it will ever have that RAW stamp of power and prestige. It could certainly “do its own thing” exceptionally well, but the talent wouldn’t be featured on the WWE’s flagship. The talent would be featured on a WWE alternative for people who actually want to watch what the WWE is supposed to be - but only the people who already know about NXT would regard this alternative as worthwhile, because the “casual fan” will always default to RAW despite their own dissatisfaction with RAW (and trust me…everyone save children is dissatisfied with RAW).
This also leads to an inevitable fight between RAW and NXT. Another invasion story. Internal competition - vain attempts to recreate the Monday Night Wars. Pay-per-views that represent brand versus brand. This is the one thing fans keep asking for and it is the one thing NXT and RAW doesn't need. We’ve done all of that already. Many times and for many years. It's over. It's time to shrug those tired angles off and move on.
The definitive nadir of the WWE over the past fourteen years was the long stretch of time where RAW and SmackDown limped their way through Ruthless Aggression. We all remember The Monday Night Wars a little too fondly. That time is so fixed in both the company's consciousness and the fan's consciousness that we've been retiscent to move on, and quick to make excuses for why today's content is less powerful. The idea that the "WWE is bad today" because they don't have any direct competition is a lazy explanation and misunderstands the root of the problem.
The WWE is less successful today because outdated ideas dictate the direction of the company.
Anything resembling brand separations and brand competition under the same umbrella company is something the WWE should desperately avoid. This should be avoided not just because it's been done before, it should be avoided because it never actually works. A company competing with itself divides its resources. A brand-separated WWE is tantamount to a human being purposefully cutting his own arms and legs off because he wants to see if his arms and legs will be able to walk and grab things on their own.
The future wants synergy.
One proud, confident, simple company.
The future wants something new.
And you know what’s new for the WWE?
Watching a WWE farm-league show on Wednesday and then watching an intimately connected major league flagship show on Monday. In fact, the more connected these two shows become (with the style of NXT becoming the style of RAW), the more essential the WWE Network becomes.
To use Microsoft's Xbox Live model as an example of how this can work; gamers can play video games on an Xbox if they don't subscribe to Xbox Live's Gold service. But if you don't subscribe to Xbox Live Gold service you can't play video games with your friends online and some games, like Destiny, can't be played at all. The yearly Gold Xbox Live subscription becomes essential to getting the most out of your Xbox and your video game experience even if you don't have anyone else to play with.
The WWE Network & NXT can work similarly for RAW. If you don't subscribe to the Network and watch NXT, you won't get the most out of your RAW viewing experience.
It's more interesting, valuable, and beneficial to both NXT and RAW if the NXT brand remains a feeder-system where the narratives and the continuity actually carryover to the main stage and inform future rivalries and relationships.
For example, everything that is happening between Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Adrian Neville, Finn Balor, and Hideo Itami should be used for future rivalries on RAW and for future pay-per-view main events.
A harmonized, consolidated WWE product (both in terms of the stories between the leagues and the people behind the scenes who create those stories) is a more interesting, prosperous WWE that doesn’t needlessly divide itself because a few irrational power-mongers don’t know how to book a card anymore.
Also, if NXT becomes its own “alternative brand” what does that mean for the idea of a “developmental system”?
Where does that idea go? What becomes the actual "developmental system"?
How does NXT ever escape the idea that it’s a farm-league?
If NXT becomes an “alternative brand” does that virtually guarantee that Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens will never headline WrestleMania? Because a Mania Main Event between Zayn & Owens should be one of the company's longterm designs.
Right now, one of the options on the WWE’s creative table should be, “How do we get Zayn and Owens over enough to be a legitimate WrestleMania main event match, and what is our timeframe for that event?” Someone needs to be asking that question and someone else needs to be taking that question seriously.
To create an “alternative brand” negates that creativity and that potentiality. An “alternative brand” born out of the fact that RAW is simply bad permits RAW to continue being bad instead of challenging RAW to completely reinvent itself in the image of the superior, modern & timeless style of NXT while simultaneously forcing an entire generation of pro-wrestling talent and pro-wrestling fans to remain in a protected, sequestered realm that won’t receive the prestige and respect of a RAW or a WrestleMania main event match.
If anyone from the WWE happens to read this and wants a financial incentive for moving forward with the model I’m proposing, I offer you the following reality:
You’ll make more money if you do what I’m suggesting.
Completely ignoring the fact that your flagship show will become infinitely more palatable, enjoyable, and worthwhile if it adopted the aesthetic and philosophy of NXT (which in turn would mean higher ratings and more money), imagine the cross-promotional possibilities of a clearly-defined farm-league/major-league business model.
If NXT wasn’t a protected Network secret, but rather a proudly represented Network-incentive, you would get more subscribers.
If NXT was intimately connected to RAW and if the stories in NXT eventually carried-over to RAW when superstars got drafted, you would get more RAW viewers.
If you move ahead with a separate “NXT as an alternative brand” model then you will divide that audience, embolden one group of fans to regard itself as superior, and continue the tradition of strife, contempt, and stagnation that has defined the WWE for the past decade. People will keep moaning about how great NXT is and how bad RAW is, and everyone will just keep hating everything.
Let’s imagine, you and I, the WrestleMania main event for the year 2020 (should society survive long enough to see it).
Imagine that WrestleMania main event features Sami Zayn versus Kevin Owens for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Imagine that the vignettes, the promos, and the matches are all directly informed by what has happened in the past two months in NXT.
That’s five years of recorded, built-in fandom, culminating in the biggest moment possible in the WWE. That is THE NETWORK GENERATION's main event.
That’s a legacy, available on the WWE Network at the touch of a button, come to fruition thanks to the commitment and the love of the WWE Universe and the WWE’s talent. It’s a massive reward, and in that way it’s spectacular marketing.
That match, in its most basic, profitable form, is a great pitch for buying The WWE Network, no?
See how these two top guys got here, starting with NXT Take Over: R:Evolution. And make sure you subscribe and start watching NXT every Wednesday Night at 8pm, because you never know who the next WrestleMania main-eventers might be and you can see their journey from start to finish!
Embracing NXT is embracing the potential of the Network, the potential of RAW, the potential of SmackDown, the potential of the entire WWE company, and the potential of professional wrestling itself.
The company needs to succumb to the changing tides if it wishes to truly prosper in the modern age. All anyone who criticizes the WWE wants is for the show to be more enjoyable, logical, fun, and dare I say kinder to itself and the fans. People are asking to be respected every Monday. That is all. If they feel more respected, more comfortable, they're more likely to loosen their purse-strings and, more importantly, they're more likely to believe. People are only requesting good and positive things from the WWE, and NXT consistently offers those good and positive things.
That sense of positivity and emotional power should make RAW better. It shouldn’t have to run and hide in order to survive.
NXT is a child that needs to be embraced fully by its parent so that both can forge a righteous path and thrive.
Share this on all the social media gimmicks so that the WWE, Vince McMahon, and Triple H might actually get their eyes on it.
What do you think? Would you like NXT to remain a farm-league or should it become its own brand? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.
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