In the last 20 years, WWE has had a fascination with evolving from the RAW and Smackdown model, to include an alternative option for other fans. These have included original plans to have WCW be its own brand upon its acquisition, and a rebooted ECW throughout the mid-2000s to 2010. After a few failed attempts, it seems WWE has finally accomplished its goal with the retooling of former game show NXT. With Survivor Series featuring a three-way battle for brand supremacy, it seems appropriate to take a greater look into WWE’s model desire and the strength of NXT today.
As mentioned earlier, WWE has long attempted to create a true alternative to stand alongside either RAW or Smackdown, to varying degrees of success. This dates all the way back to the Attitude Era when WWF was flying with star power to the absolute max. One of the angles with the most potential that failed, The Invasion, originally had shockingly different plans for the newly purchased WCW in 2001. According to an old Wrestling Observer news article, WWE originally planned to separate WCW and WWF, with the WWF brand being used on Thursday Nights with Smackdown as its main show on UPN. WCW would take the Monday night timeslot on the USA Network as its own separate entity. With the WWF brand viewed as being at an “all-time peak”, it seemed to Vince that this would benefit WWE as a whole.
There have been various different reasons given by WWE fans for why the decision was made to drop these plans. The infamous main event between Booker T and Buff Bagwell on RAW played a part in Vince’s decision, but various other factors played on his mind. Kevin Dunn had regularly been trashing the idea backstage to McMahon, the failure of the XFL not too long ago and Vince’s fears at the time that “oversaturation” of having WWE stars on both Monday and Thursday nights would be bad for business. Imagine that huh?
A more modern and better example of WWE’s desire for a model of a third brand would be ECW. Originally brought back for one night only as ECW One Night Stand in 2005, the success of this pay-per view would lead to a sequel in 2006 which would serve as the premiere of a third brand, WWE ECW. Interestingly, Shane McMahon wanted to revive ECW as a web-online show, which is actually similar to what was done with NXT. Shane was clearly ahead of the curve here, as the show would’ve featured young and developing wrestlers. However, when Vince saw there was money to be made in ECW, he decided to seek a TV deal, rather than be satisfied with the online show.
Despite starting well in terms of ratings, fans were put off by creative decisions made in regards to how the brand was run. Despite being promised as an alternative that was different from RAW and Smackdown, eventually, any differences between the brands quickly disappeared. From the start, the matches themselves had regular rules with DQ’s and countouts, which angered original ECW fans. There were many problems with the rebooted ECW that could be covered in another article. But in short, ECW was the wrong third brand WWE was looking to start up, as it was too similar to RAW/Smackdown and was using a name that had previous connotations to something better than what WWE was doing with it’s third brand. Had ECW been given a different name, it may have worked out, which brings us to NXT.
As many people know, NXT started out as a gameshow upon its inception in 2010, right up until 2012 when WWE ended the competition format. WWE had planned a new season featuring wrestlers like Seth Rollins, Big E and Damien Sandow, but instead choose to go in this new direction. WWE decided to create a third, development brand, run by Triple H, which would involve shows being taped and put online or Hulu. Florida Championship Wrestling, WWE’s original developmental brand, was folded into NXT, and WWE now had a third alternative brand, with its own style and presentation. Featuring more of an “indy” vibe, it allowed WWE to sign hot independent wrestlers and breed them in NXT before calling them up to the main roster.
However, whilst breeding wrestlers from NXT had always been the plan, the strategy has changed. Starting in February 2014, NXT been a feature and major selling point of the WWE Network, forcing WWE to be a bit more conservative in regards to call ups, and more proactive in signing new talent. Many viewed stars like Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, The Revival and Sami Zayn leaving NXT as “detrimental” to the brand’s success. But their roles have been filled by stars like Johnny Gargano, Velveteen Dream, Tommaso Ciampa, The Undisputed Era and more, as WWE continues to sign talented wrestlers to join the brand. The difference is, many of these wrestlers stay in NXT and plan to for the foreseeable future, with many speaking to creating the idea of a “third brand” in NXT. Now, with the new deal of the USA Network that puts them head to head with AEW Dynamite on Wednesday nights, NXT has finally become WWE’s true alternative.
Whether WWE planned for NXT to become the success it is today with all the Takeovers, the potential expansion brands that follow in the footsteps of NXT UK like a potential NXT Japan and 2 hour live show, NXT has become the third brand and alternative WWE has craved. With Survivor Series coming up, it’s a chance to witness many of these stars face off with those on RAW and Smackdown. Now, with NXT as built up as it is, it means so much more seeing NXT on pay-per view as one of three distinguished brands, rather than RAW/Smackdown and a development brand. Hopefully NXT is able to continue to thrive alongside RAW and Smackdown, creating more quality pro wrestling for all of us to be able to enjoy.