Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Temporary Fix for the Women’s and Tag Divisions in the Age of the WWE Brand Split

By Jerry Chandler

So, we’ve now been in the era of the WWE’s second go at the Raw/SmackDown brand split for about three-quarters of a year. The overall effort has been at this point a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to improving the quality of the product as a whole. The two shows should have been striving for their own identities earlier and better than they did, and the sense of actual competition between “two rival shows” hasn’t always been there. But for everything that can be discussed here that the brand split has done either wrong or right, the two things that seem to be in the most need of some extra tinkering in order to prop up their divisions are the tag team division and the women’s division.
Both of these divisions have a root issue in common that predates the brand split- they were both thin divisions and treated as almost afterthoughts. Women’s wrestling in the WWE was starting to see a revival before the brand split. But even then, the revival was centered around a relative handful of performers. The tag division was likewise stocked with a shallow pool of talent to make matches with. Few tag teams seemed to have any longevity, and the goal with even some of the more popular teams seemed to be to get them to the point where they could be broken up into two viable singles stars. We were also still sometimes seeing more tag matches towards the top of the card that were singles wrestlers thrown together for one-off match to build their stories than were actual tag team matches that built up the momentum of that division.

Now. both divisions were seeing something of a rebuilding before the brand split, but both divisions were instantly thinned out by being split in half to create the individual Raw and SmackDown brand divisions. There’s an easy fix for this. The women’s division and the tag division need to- at least for a while -become brand exclusives.

They actually did this to a degree with the women’s division during the original brand split. The title belt was a Raw exclusive meant to balance SmackDown having the cruiserweight division and its belt. The problem with this when they did it was that they didn’t make the women’s roster exclusive to Raw. This resulted in a thinner women’s roster on the brand that actually had the title on it and created a women’s roster on another brand that essentially had nothing to compete for during most of that brand split’s time. SmackDown later created a title for its women’s division, but that really only resolved the lesser of the two problems. You still had thinner divisions on each brand than is needed to have a solid division.

The solution for the foreseeable future is a simple one. Raw should become the exclusive home of the women’s division.

If you put all of your female wrestlers on Raw, you give yourself a brand exclusive division that is deeper than the partial divisions we see on the two brands now. By doing this, WWE’s women’s division would immediately have the ability to have greater variety when it came to booking both feuds and the title picture. They could also create more varied title pictures by bringing the SmackDown belt over to Raw and repurposing it as the WWE Women’s Intercontinental Title. As they build up a division around those two belts, they could also use the now larger division to create feuds not centered around the belts or even peripherally related to them.

We’re going to see more women come up from NXT and word is that WWE is planning to do something akin to WWE 205 Live or tournament for the women’s division. This would involve bringing in more women’s wrestlers from both around the country and around the world. This would seem like a fix in and of itself, but the likelihood of them using all of the women they bring in for this as regular performers isn’t a guaranteed deal. If they only take the cream of that crop to flesh out the main roster, you’re still going to have thinner women’s divisions on each brand. Consolidating the division on the Raw brand means the influx will make a much fuller, much more usable talent pool. It would even give them enough performers in the division to create proper stables.  

I picked Raw as the home of the Women’s division for a reason. It wasn’t just a random flip of the coin type of thing. While Raw has smaller performers in the body of its main roster, Raw is seemingly becoming the roster with the bigger guys and in some cases the older guys. If Raw tilts more heavily in that direction, the cruiserweights and the women’s division would serve the same valuable function that the cruiserweights served in the days of WCW. They would help to give it the faster action in between the slower matches. One would just hope that WWE would play it smarter than WCW insofar as treating them like they’re worth something.

The goal with this is not to make this a permanent thing unless the WWE ends up not following through on the promise of building a better women’s division out of the recent “revolution” in their women’s wrestling. I would ideally only like to see this last two to three years. I would hope that this kind of thing would be a quick fix as they built up enough of a division through NXT and the rumored women’s wrestling project to be able to eventually give both brands a healthy women’s division.

SmackDown would become the home of the of the actual WWE tag team division. Any actual tag teams (as opposed to guys thrown together for one offs or stable mates who occasionally tag together) would be transferred to Smackdown. Any tag teams (such as the revival) leaving NXT for the main roster would therefore obviously be Smackdown bound.

One goal with creating a deeper tag division by consolidating all the teams to one brand would be, as with the women’s division, creating a more diverse title picture, a more diverse field for feuds not centered on a belt, and perhaps even a secondary set of tag titles comparable to the US belt for the tag division. Also, part of the goal her is to have teams put together with the idea of making and promoting teams. It would not be about building two guys up so you can split them up and make two singles stars out of them by year’s end.

Again, this would hopefully not be a permanent situation.  The hope would be that the WWE could once again figure out how to make and use a tag division in a meaningful way again and then start building a tag division on both brands.

Now, in order to really make this work there would have to be a few changes both onscreen and behind the scenes. One of the changes deals with the WWE Draft or any concept close to that. Obviously, you’re not drafting women to SmackDown since there is no women’s division there, but you have to exempt tag teams from a draft as well. Any wrestler that’s part of an existing, active tag team is not open to be drafted to Raw. Again, one of the central ideas to doing something like this is to build a tag team division and not to build two guys up just to spin them off as singles wrestlers. That will happen from time to time just because it’s the nature of the business, but the goal here should be building the teams up as teams and running them on the popularity of being a team.

A women’s division and the tag team division should never be allowed to fall into the territory of being an afterthought by WWE creative. Both have the ability to be hugely popular parts of any promotion, and both have certainly proven that they can be on any number of occasions in the past. In order to avoid that in the initial year to two years of a concept like this, they would need something from the company that guaranteed both creative focus and exposure.

Find members of the creative team who are advocates for the women’s division or for tag team wrestling and make their primary creative focus that division on the show. The odds are that someone who wants to see it excel will work harder on it and it would also give the wrestlers specific people to go to when they have ideas or need to talk about tweaking or changing something. These people still have to answer to the head of creative and to work their ideas into the overall whole of the show they’re on, but these divisions might see some improvement if they have writers dedicated first and foremost to these divisions.

They also have to be given a platform to showcase the divisions. For the first year, they should be guaranteed ¼ of every hour of TV time. This might be seen as an excuse by some in creative to just do the minimum they have to do in order to get by. To avoid that, they just have to institute a simple rule starting at the beginning of the third month. If those are the lowest rated segments on the show for three weeks running, you get replaced on creative.

There are some drawbacks to this idea. One of the big drawbacks is how something like this would impact factions. I’m a big fan of factions, and it’s hard to have a faction set up to include a singles wrestler and a tag team when you’re basically running your tag team division only on one brand and creating a partially separate creative unit to cover that tag team division. This same thing can be said about the women’s division and including a women’s champion in a faction. You do tend to want to have the storylines for various members and title holders in a faction to work with the other members. Of course, the problem is largely theoretical since the WWE barely has any factions worth mentioning these days and seems to break them up to use as singles fodder as soon as they’re really getting over.

Just as I said about this idea when discussing the building phase, the goal here is, again, a short-term thing. Build the divisions, give them focus and care, make them what they can be (and have been in the past) or better again, and make them really matter again. As The Pro Wrestling Roundtable Podcast’s John Morgan Neal has pointed out in the past on a number of episodes that you should all be listening to, there were territories back in the day that were basically just tag team territories. Tag Teams can and have been as big of a draw and a merchandise mover as some of the biggest singles stars. When booked and promoted properly, women can be as popular as their male counterparts. There is no reason that either of these divisions should be less than they can be at best or an afterthought in the WWE at worst, but they often feel like they are. Build them up and you have stars that stand out on their own right as well as stars that can eventually be major draws as a part of a high-power faction on either brand.

Another bonus- although more of one for SmackDown here -is the ability to make brand PPV exclusive matches to continue to give the brands another way to feel like individual brands rather than just parts of the same company. Certainly with tag teams, you can create PPV matches that are twists on old concepts. How about a three team Elimination Chamber match? What about a four or five team tornado version of the old War Games matches?

I’m a wrestling fan. I’m a huge fan of the tag teams. Some of my favorite wrestling moments and memories from growing up as a teen in the 1980’s involved tag teams and tag matches. They can be and should be just as big a part of the modern wrestling scene as the singles wrestlers. Women have often been pushed to the side in wrestling, but when given the chance to shine in the past they certainly have done so. One of the biggest faces in the 1980s WWF was for a time the women’s champion. During a period when TNA was product that was wildly hit and miss, the Knockouts were making fans tune in and take notice as well as wonder why the WWE wasn’t getting women who could wrestle like the Knockouts could. The women of NXT were making people notice them above and beyond the average level to the point that they had a title match main event their version of an NXT PPV on the WWE Network.

There’s no reason for either division to not be getting its due now. They have amazing wrestlers with personality and talent to spare in both divisions right now. They deserve to be used properly and showcased to their fullest right now.

Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.

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