Guest Post: WWE’s Competition Comes From Within

(Hey gang, J here! A good friend of mine asked if he could write something for the blog and I was thrilled to have another viewpoint to share with you all. Give Dan’s thoughts on NXT a read – it’s very good stuff. Leave him your thoughts in the comments and look for my next post on the Creative/Wrestler/Audience dynamic tomorrow!)

So first off, hi everyone. I’m Dan, and Lady J very graciously has allowed me to contribute to her blog. I really appreciate the opportunity, and hopefully I’ll show up here from time to time.

With introductions out of the way, I want to talk about one of the biggest things I’ve focused on as a wrestling fan for years: The lack of competition for WWE. I’m a lifelong wrestling fan – my Dad got me into watching Macho Man and Ultimate Warrior when I was a kid. I stuck with it into the “Ruthless Aggression” era after which I petered out for a bit. I came back in college when my housemate watched Raw every week and have been watching steadily pretty much since. And through that time you can see a pretty even split when it comes to the WWE – the pre WCW purchase, and the post. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that one side of that split was good and the other was bad. WWE has had its ups and downs throughout its existence, but I think you can see, much like any other large company out there, it reacted more quickly to its failures when it had competition. And while today’s WWE can still be painfully slow to shift from failing storylines, often dropping them unceremoniously when they finally decide to do so, I believe we’re about to turn a corner.

For the first time since 2000, it finally feels like the WWE has competition, and what’s interesting is that it seems to be coming from within. Interesting because we’re sort of going through a wrestling renaissance, and yet other companies don’t really threaten WWE’s market hold, and in reality aren’t even trying. Various independent companies are bringing back the feel of wrestling territories: New Japan Pro Wrestling now has a recap show in the U.S., Lucha Underground has confirmed a second season on the El Rey Network, and whatever is going on with TNA and GFW is still happening on Destination America. DA even has a Ring of Honor show. There are more options than ever for a fan to watch, and yet, like I said, these options aren’t threatening WWE. NXT on the other hand, is a completely different story.

With their weekly show from Full Sail, the live event preceding Summer Slam from Brooklyn, and their tour of the UK, NXT is becoming much more than a developmental program. WWE doesn’t release viewership numbers for NXT, but I imagine it has some of the largest numbers on the Network. Combine it with each month’s main WWE PPV (or special event) and you’ve got the primary selling point for ponying up $9.99 each month. The reason, I believe, is because they offer a product that is distinctly WWE, but somehow still different than RAW or Smackdown. NXT, in a way, is the WWE vision and style, but distilled into a more focused product. It is well served by its one hour run time. Storylines are allowed to breathe and run their course, and very regularly have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Superstars are allowed to have exaggerated gimmicks and are still taken seriously. Tyler Breeze is basically Zoolander, and yet he was a consistent contender for the NXT championship; a silly character who can (and was allowed to) dazzle in the ring. Let’s hope that continues on the main roster.

Yet NXT isn’t an R-rated show, like the Attitude Era. It’s not billed as a throwback show that relives the “glory days”, and it’s not marketed exclusively to my generation of wrestling fan. Whereas RAW tries to reach a diverse audience by focusing specific wrestlers on specific demographics, the NXT roster is accessible to the entire NXT audience. I love Bayley, with all her headbands and wacky inflatable arm flailing tube men, just as much as I love Finn Balor, because they’re each 3 dimensional characters that have hopes, desires, and flaws and kick ass in the ring. They also a do a better job of pacing characters and embracing their depth. I’m sorry, but I don’t need to see Randy Orton RKO people every week. I don’t need to see The Wyatts cut another cryptic promo every time I tune in. I don’t need to see the Authority screw over the babyface at 10:45 pm every Monday. And I like all of these characters (to varying degrees!), but there are other superstars I like too and would love to see them get some time. And maybe I’d care more about Sheamus vs. Randy Orton if I didn’t see it every week for three months and three pay per views.

So there are functional differences between RAW and NXT. But it’s still the WWE style, one that has been honed over the course of 30 years. These characters are still larger than life and cartoony. There are heroes and villains. People fight for both petty and honorable reasons. Baron Corbin is a heel essentially because he is a self acknowledged asshole and doesn’t give a shit. Bull Dempsey became a face because he was out of shape and nearly lost his job, but the experience humbled him and he stopped being angry. The Bull Fit angle is pretty much the Dusty Rhodes Blow Away Diet. It’s silly and unbelievable. We’ve seen these kinds of characters before. So what’s the real difference and how is it impacting RAW?

I believe it comes down to one word, and one that NXT even used for it’s last special event. Respect. Respect for its roster and respect for its audience. Respect is a word that gets thrown around a lot at WWE. It’s a primary motivation for many of its characters and storylines. And yet we see time and time again WWE has disrespected both its employees and its audience. But the future is much brighter for the main roster, and it’s because of NXT.

NXT has delivered a product that features what the main roster shows are missing. First, it features diversity. Every night you will see at least one singles match, tag team match, and women’s match. In each of these matches, the commentary makes you aware of what the stakes are. These competitors are always working towards something and we are reminded of it. “A win in this match is one step closer to the championship.” This is a common statement by commentary. Rich Brennan, Byron Saxton, and Corey Graves are focused on the match in front of them 90% of the time. They’re talking about the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor, their style, their recent successes, and most importantly, what’s at stake: Pride, Respect, Gold.

But that’s just one form of diversity. NXT has been receiving a lot of attention because of its female wrestlers, and rightfully so. NXT treats it’s women with respect, which is a big deal for WWE. For the first time ever, two women headlined a special event. All of the women put in insane amounts of work and the WWE acknowledges it. The stories aren’t about some love interest. They’re about how Sasha Banks wanted to prove she was the best, or how Emma wanted back in the spotlight of the revolution she created. They’re about how Dana Brooke wants the endorsements and fame that she felt were handed to Charlotte or  Bayley achieving her dream (THE GIRLHOOD DREAM HAS COME TRUE!) There are no Bra and Panties matches. There are Ironman matches. There is functionally very little difference between the men’s and women’s divisions in NXT. And the “Diva’s Revolution” on RAW is the proof that WWE is feeling the pressure. It’s not as good as NXT, but the focus on changing the Diva’s division are steps in the right direction. And once creative makes it past Kevin Dunn, we should start to see real change on the USA Network.

But gender diversity isn’t the only thing we’re seeing. We’re seeing racial diversity in a way WWE has lacked in recent years too. I don’t think enough has been made of the fact that Sasha Banks was an African American Champion. Apollo Crews is the number one contender for the NXT Championship. WWE has never had a Black man hold the top belt. I don’t mean to diminish Mark Henry and all of his accomplishments, but during the Brand split, WWE always treated the World Heavyweight Championship as lesser to the WWE Championship. And though Rock is half Black, half Samoan, there’s never been a champion who self identified as exclusively Black. And those aren’t the only racial issues that WWE have had through the years. Look at RAW and there is exactly one mixed race tag team, and the Dudley’s came as a packaged deal from ECW. NXT has both the teams of Jason Jordan and Chad Gable (Tye Dillinger before him), and Angelo Dawkins and Sawyer Fulton. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s literally twice as good as the main roster! And the main roster has made some strides. In the thick of the 4-way tag matches on PPVs, the only white guy in the ring was the referee. Alberto Del Rio returned to the WWE last week, with much fanfare, and won the US Championship. Whether intentional or not, there is symbolism in a Latino being your US Champion.

I’ve gone on a long time here, so I’m going to wrap this up – WWE is not perfect. But the biggest impact that NXT has made is that fans love it and wrestlers like being there. In fact, the main roster readily gets frustrated when there’s an NXT Takeover event, because whoever is making decisions down there is letting them tear the house down. Superstars like Sin Cara and Zack Ryder and Eva Marie have found some resurgence in NXT. And with the stars of NXT moving up to the main roster, they’re going to push for the same treatment and respect that they received at NXT. And that is going to continue to have a transformative effect on WWE as a whole.

Dan Spitaliere