For Your Consideration… Why Keep SmackDown?

Welcome to week 53.

That’s right folks, I’ve been here officially for a year. They said it couldn’t be done (I’m assuming; I have no facts to back that up). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to hype this monster event due to the fact that I’ve been bogged down with more work than one person should be forced to handle, so for the past several weeks I’ve started and abandoned numerous columns that were eventually rendered moot by the time I went to finish them. Oh well, let the anniversary celebration begin…

So I finally got to see Wrestlemania live and in person. As a wrestling fan, there are probably two things you want to see in your lifetime; a show at the Garden and Wrestlemania and now I’m halfway there (which is odd since I used to live in New York). When you think of Wrestlemania, you really cannot separate the matches from the pageantry. It’s like the Super Bowl in that respect because you tend to forget the “game” when you’re watching because the event itself is the draw.

My trip to Orlando was hampered by the fact that I had just flown in from the equally safe and clean Newark, New Jersey. Thanks to our incredible legal system, I had to deliver an appellate argument up in the Garden State and wasn’t able to take part in the weekend’s festivities. The main thing I wanted to get to do over Mania Weekend was to finally go see ROH live. I’ve been accused (and rightfully so) of being overly harsh of the product, and I made a conscious decision to see it live. But I didn’t. Don’t worry, I’ll live.

I got to Orlando Sunday afternoon around noon and was pretty encouraged by the weather. Knowing that Wrestlemania was going to be outside in Florida, I expected the worst. Thankfully, all we had was unpleasant heat and crowded streets. The Citrus Bowl was a relic of a stadium that had been all-but-abandoned by the Orlando area. The University of Central Florida had opted (wisely) to relocate their team from the downtown facility, rendering the Citrus Bowl obsolete. For reasons only known to Vince, the WWE decided to hold Wrestlemania at this site. The stadium is located in the dregs of Orlando, surrounded by one of the saddest, most pathetic neighborhoods anywhere in America. Orlando has prided itself for years as being America’s Family Destination, and had wisely concealed this sect of the city. Mania, unfortunately, thrust a bright spotlight right onto this societal blight. The entire area is rundown, poor and pretty unsafe. Thanks to no parking, people were forced to leave their cars on lawns and driveways, paying upwards of $50 for the privilege of being blocked in on some yahoo’s property. I luckily found a $15 baseball diamond to park, which made for an easy escape later.

Upon getting to the stadium, you couldn’t walk more than ten feet without running into a merchandise booth. A packed merchandise booth, I might add. The WWE was hocking every shirt it had in production, and people were more than happy to snap them up regardless of the price. You would often see fans walking around with one (or more) freshly purchased replica belts, no easy feat at $350 a pop. Who knew people who looked so socially “backwoods” had that kind of cash?

WWE has Fan Axxess set up across the street, but chose not to open it until 2 pm. The line for this wrapped around the entire fenced-in structure, ironically culminating at the TNA display. Oh, quick rant about TNA and then back to the recap:

Dear TNA,

Wrestlemania was in your hometown. They were on your turf. You’ve spent the past few years turning Orlando into a hotbed for wrestling and then had to sit and watch as Vince stormed in with his better production value and bigger stars and made you about as relevant as Howard Dean. Well, being the plucky organization that you are, you decided you were going to crash Wrestlemania. Unfortunately, your idea of crashing the biggest event of the year was to throw up some old banners onto an auto parts place, renting two trucks playing entrance videos on loop and having someone stand outside with a replica of the X-Division belt. That was the big splash?

See TNA, you were positioned right across the street from Fan Axxess. Fan Axxess was a misplanned event because it was being held in a tiny gated lot and the line of fans had already looped the enclosure two-fold waiting to get in. At that point you should have sent talent with a camera crew and stirred up trouble. Hell, they all live in Orlando anyway, why not use ‘em? Instead, bored fans just sat there for hours waiting to get into the enclosure. Fans that had nothing else to do. A captive audience. You should have sent one of the clowns that works for your organization (a Shark Boy or Eric Young) or a smark favorite (like the Motor City Machine Guns) and let them rile up the crowd to start chanting for TNA. Stick it to Vince. This was your moment to show that there really is the underground swell that you were convinced existed.

Instead of doing something bold, you did something so lackluster it could only be called “pulling a TNA.”

Sincerely,
Every fan at Wrestlemania who realized how bush league your organization is

The line to get into Wrestlemania was a sight to behold. You’ve got 75,000 people standing to get into essentially three gates. These three gates are being manned by people with such small intellects that you’d swear they should have been a part of the crowd in the first place. As seems to be my luck, I was surrounded by the most obnoxious marks on the planet. There were two guys in their late teens who seemed to sum up why normal people are embarrassed to admit that they’re wrestling fans. One guy was a tall, gawky, pimply-faced goon and the other guy was a short, fat, fake head shaved shmuck. The two idiots proceeded to engage in the following conversation the entire TWO HOURS we had to wait online:

Guy 1: You’re an idiot.
Guy 2: What?
Guy 1: Who do you think you are, Stone Cold?
Guy 2: What?
Guy 1: Shut up!
Guy 2: What?

For TWO HOURS. There is no jury in the world that would have convicted me. While standing in that line listening to the Abbott and Costello of the crowd go back and forth in addition to the intelligible conversations being carried on by the other idiots it dawned on me, the day of the smart wrestling fan might very well be dead. This is why people flock to ROH because they think that ROH is the last saving grace of wrestling. Whenever a show has come to South Florida, there’s been the fairly normal flow of people and I took for granted that this was the audience. However after sitting in the hot sun listening conversations so inherently stupid that I swore I was in the special needs section, I finally understand why the WWE product has to be so dumbed down.

When the gates opened, the flood of people into the building was about as chaotic as one would expect. Everyone was pushing and shoving in an effort to get to their backless chairs in sweltering heat because apparently the only thing worse than standing in line was sitting in the seats. My section was in the 200s on the “on camera” side, but thankfully I had a clear line-of-sight to the ring and the tron and wasn’t in the firework striking distance. The set itself looked okay in the daylight but downright impressive at night. As we sat down, the rain started to drizzle, a factor that would happen the entire night but never the downpour we feared it would be.

The show itself was good but nowhere near the caliber of the “major” Manias. The ECW battle royal was fun to watch live because you can really appreciate the mass chaos better in person. Kane’s win was all but certain but the fans seemed to really be behind Kofi Kingston and Festus (probably because he reminded them of some of their brighter relatives). The opening pyro and whatnot was pretty cool, but the overcast weather obstructed part of the airplane flyover.

Opening the show with JBL and Finlay kind of killed the crowd’s momentum (something JBL’s music always tended to do), but the match was short and violent and had that insane dive by Finlay. JBL’s win didn’t make sense at the time, but like I said in my Roundtable prediction, JBL didn’t come back to the ring to job in the curtain jerker. His “ascension” to the main event for Backlash is more an ego stroke for him than a legit push, so I won’t get worked up.

The Money in the Bank match was flat out amazing live. I was with my friend Dan who had never been to a live wrestling match and he was immediately sucked into the contest. The big spots looked big and the near finishes got the generally quiet crowd popping. Matt Hardy’s run-in shocked a hell of a lot of people, but not as much as the CM Punk win shocked me. I can’t believe they didn’t pull the trigger on Kennedy, but I forgot that he’s got that movie to film so instead we get the lame duck winner. Either the WWE is going to push Punk to the moon or they’re going to let him warm the briefcase and then have him drop it somehow to Jeff Hardy or Kennedy.

The only other match worth giving a real comment on was the Flair/HBK match. Enough has been written about in terms of the match and the moment, so all I will say is bravo. That was a match and a story that only they could have told. You had so many hope spots that even I was almost convinced that they weren’t going to go through with the retirement. Ric Flair worked his last great match and a big part of me hopes he worked his last match ever.

The top half of the card was lackluster and forgettable. Batista/Umaga was dull and painful, the women’s match was only memorable for the lights going out and Kane/Chavo was no Diesel/Backlund. The triple main event was as disappointing as I said it would be. Big Show versus Mayweather was cute for what it was and Floyd should be commended for doing all the spots he did (though for the money he damn well better have delivered), but in the end it wasn’t anything I’ll remember in six months. The triple threat match was too short to be anything, though the Orton win (something I said would be big if it happened) came off as weak and a “surprise for the sake of a surprise”. Oh, and the main event. Look, I appreciate that Edge and Taker worked their asses off, but I didn’t care, and after a four hour show in the heat and the rain, neither did the majority of the crowd.

With all of that said, I look back at Wrestlemania as nothing but a positive. It was without a doubt the single coolest event a wrestling fan can attend, because whether it’s the greatest or worst Mania ever, it was still Wrestlemania. For the next fifty years, whenever they roll out the clichéd history packages, there will be shots from this show. People will always remember the Flair match and the Mayweather match and will hopefully forget the Batista/Umaga snorefest or the predictable main events.

Now, moving on from that, I’ve decided to rework some of the aborted mini-columns into this jam-packed edition, because…well, I can.

One of the other stories to develop over the past few weeks is the continued evolution of WWE.com. Now, the site that once existed as a portal on Prodigy to promote upcoming events and support one crazy chat room is changing into THE premiere destination for marks and smarts alike by creating a section on their page called Industry News. For those of you who haven’t checked it out yet (though now, weeks later, I’m assuming you all have), WWE.com is now running stories seen only on dirt sheets and is promoting upcoming events being held by TNA and ROH. This is indeed one of those potential hell freezing over moments and upon first glance one has to wonder why they would do that, but after further analysis the answer becomes clear. WWE has become obsessed with making their website a viable place for people to go. They want to drive anyone interested in wrestling to their page first. Why? Because WWE.com is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and they alone control the message. They can continue storylines, promote superstars and hock merchandise. The problem that arises from this is clear though because real fans don’t want to be forcefed kayfabe news and puff pieces, so WWE.com was only catering to the hardcore marks.

Things all changed with the company came back to USA. Once they were on USA, the WWE needed a home for Sunday Night Heat and decided to try airing the show online. If they could condition fans to go to the website to watch original content now, why not eventually use the page to broadcast RAW and Smackdown without network interference? Now, two and a half years later, WWE has realized that through creative maneuvers they can draw in the smart crowd that always shunned their site. First, since they control most of the news, they can release it on their page first. Releases, injuries and returns were normally broken by the dirt sheets but are now being “broken” by WWE.com. Second, by including industry news, the WWE is trying to shift their site again to more of an ESPN for wrestling, ultimately eliminating the need for people to pay subscription fees to a lot of the bigger dirt sheet sites.

Thankfully, we at InsidePulse don’t have anything to worry about by this move. Yes, we are a “dirt sheet” in the conventional sense; we are now first and foremost a site dedicated to columns about wrestling. No matter how insider WWE.com gets, they are never going to allow columns that are critical of their creative direction or honest analysis of their in-ring product. So welcome to the dirt sheet game, WWE, just stay out of our way.

In addition to entering the world of dirt sheets, WWE has (begrudgingly) entered the world of MyNetwork. This deal has seen the WWE leave the CW Network and will now bring Smackdown to it’s (technically) third network since it’s premiere roughly 8 years ago. I for one have to question the logic on all sides. WWE’s debut on Smackdown saw unprecedented synergy between the WWE and Viacom; UPN was given its highest rated program ever, MTV got a realty show and Heat and the WWE got the fringe benefits of working with an unstoppable juggernaut of a conglomerate. Fast forward to 2006 where UPN is no more, WWE presence on MTV is gone and the CW is treating Smackdown like the bastard stepchild of the network. It’s funny that the CW would do such a thing considering Smackdown is not only the highest rated show on their network but consistently the highest rated show on a usually fickle Friday night. Smackdown brings in the desirable youth audience, not to mention a large Hispanic viewership. Smackdown’s toned down violence and sex means that the network doesn’t have to worry about the Parent Television Council attacks that plagued Smackdown on UPN, and having a franchise show did nothing but legitimize what was a fledgling 5th place network. Now? CW has nothing to fill Smackdown’s gap and MyNetwork has nowhere near the name recognition even UPN had when it started. This seems like such a bad decision on all ends that it begs the question:

For Your Consideration…Why Keep SmackDown?

Smackdown is such an anomaly of a show. It was started during the heyday of the WWE Attitude Era as a way to compete with WCW Thunder and take advantage of the monster ratings the WWE was pulling on Monday nights. By airing Smackdown on Thursdays, UPN was almost competitive on the most prized night on television. Thursday night viewership is crucial to networks because Thursday ads are the highest paying and most coveted, thanks in large part to the movie studios who want to ensure their next big hit opening the following day will explode onto the screen so they are willing to pony up the cash to promote the hell out of it the night before. Smackdown’s youth audience was a rock solid guarantee that studios could get their product before a hard-to-reach audience.

Smackdown was a ratings hit from day one, and despite going up against Survivor and Friends it drew in an impressive amount of viewers, easily becoming the top UPN show. The WWE used Smackdown as RAW part 2, continuing storylines from earlier in the week and bringing all of the same stars we were used to seeing on Monday nights. There was no difference between RAW and Smackdown. Same creative staff, same wrestlers, same storylines, same champion. It was streamlined synergy and a chance for the WWE to really build up stories for their upcoming PPV. Eric Bischoff explained the PPV build perfectly by saying that weekly TV was like chapters in a novel and that Pay Per Views were the conclusion. When the WWE had RAW, they only had 4 chapters before the finale. With Smackdown, they suddenly had 8.

This initially seemed like a fantastic idea, but the loss of the creative duo behind the majority of the storylines combined with overall waning popularity of wrestling led Vince and Co. to make a bold move and split the brands. Hell, if they couldn’t find competition from other companies, they’ll do it themselves, damn it! The brand split was meant to divide the roster so that the WWE could have two different hierarchies with two different main eventers (but still one champion). Smackdown hit a major roadblock with this because it was supposed to be The Rock’s show but Dwayne decided to get out while the getting was good. Had the WWE been able to keep RAW as Austin’s show and Smackdown as Rocky’s show, who knows what would have happened to wrestling?

So, flashing forward a few years to the present and look at the state of the WWE. The roster split has its positives and negatives but it hardly achieved the goals that it was meant to do. First off, it never gave any real sense of competition. The WWE always wanted RAW to be the flagship program of the company and has done nothing but undercut its Friday night program. Smackdown turned into a national OVW (or FCW now) with young guys developing characters and old clunkers floating around at the top. Then, once a guy caught on, they were deported to RAW. Kennedy was the hottest star in wrestling on Smackdown and then got shipped to RAW and is now just sort of there. Orton was dominant on Smackdown and until his title current (and really underwhelming) reign was nowhere near top heel. The reverse is true, also. When Batista was on RAW, he was on par with John Cena, and now, after being banished to the wasteland of Smackdown, he’s being used as a stepping stone for Umaga. It’s taking a feud with RAW superstar Shawn Michaels to remind people that Dave is still a part of the company. Lastly, Edge was the World Heavyweight Champion on Smackdown yet wasn’t the number one (or even two) biggest heel in the company.

Smackdown’s top superstars just don’t seem to match the excitement of the RAW superstars. Maybe it’s the grainer quality of the footage or the fact that it’s taped or the fact that it’s on Friday nights when no one is really home watching TV. All I know is that this past week I watched the RAW 3 hour edition and realized that this is what wrestling was missing. One program a week that was appointment television. One show stacked with superstars that made every segment pop. Such a show hasn’t been around since the glory days of the Monday Night War.

First, if the WWE combined its roster into one flagship program, there would be no shortage of star power. Triple H, Randy Orton, Edge, Undertaker, John Cena, Batista, Rey Mysterio, CM Punk, Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels all on one program is the strongest upper card possibly ever. Not even Nitro could boast that many superstars on one broadcast. By having a cavalcade of main eventers, RAW has the ability to make every segment of the show mandatory viewing. Plus, so much star power means that there is little chance of overexposure. Notice how Michaels and Flair were doing their thing away from the main event picture and it was making otherwise bland segments (let’s just call them Bob Holly segments) very compelling.

Second, this would allow the WWE to have one unified champion. By having 2 and a half world champs, it’s hard for anyone to know who the top dog is. Wait, no it isn’t. Top dog is the RAW champ. Right now there are way too many belts being spread around to way too many people so to the casual fan it is almost impossible to remember who holds what. By telling the world that “so-and-so” is the champion, you now know who the top dog is. Hell, Chavo Guerrero was a world champion and his only television representation had been competing in an 8-man tag. How does that help his title’s credibility?

Third, the overexposure factor is huge. By having such thin rosters spread over three nights, we see the same damn people in the same damn spots all the same damn time. Smackdown’s main event revolves around Batista, Undertaker and Edge. RAW is Triple H, John Cena and Randy Orton. ECW is CM Punk, Kane and (insert random heel here). By putting everyone on one program again, the main event can always be fresh. Imagine a Batista/Orton world title picture to dominate the scene while John Cena and Edge refeud and Triple H moves on to Kennedy. You could then throw in Punk/MVP and maybe Jericho/Undertaker and suddenly your summer feuds are all main event quality. Plus, this would allow superstars to take some much needed time off. As has been painfully clear, the WWE schedule takes a heavy toll. Drug abuse, mental fatigue and physical injury all stem from such an arduous schedule and by being able to spread the main event load, more guys can take time off. Suddenly, the loss of Rey Mysterio or John Cena isn’t crippling to the company.

Fourth, this will finally help establish some new superstars. The big rally cry for the brand split was that more new superstars would be born. This would be a chance for the disenfranchised to become main eventers. Really? The superstars that came from the split were Orton, Cena, Batista and arguably Edge. That’s really it. Kennedy was given time to shine for a bit before being squashed out. MVP has been making the best with what he’s been given, but he just shows that diamonds in the rough can’t help but shine through. Other then those two, who else has really broken out? The WWE has been getting burned left and right with guys getting aborted pushes. Bobby Lashley screwed the company six ways from Sunday by walking out despite the fact that he’d be brought back in on top. RVD’s gone. Matt Hardy’s been injured. Jeff Hardy’s the dumbest man in wrestling history (more so then RVD) by blowing it BEFORE he gets his world title. Cryme Time was a bust. The Highlanders were a bust. Vladamir Kosloff was a bust and is looking to be one again.

The WWE doesn’t need Smackdown or ECW as much as the networks need Smackdown or ECW. By Vince pulling Joey Styles, he essentially told the world that he was washing his hands of the last remaining element of the old Philly company and instead inserting a one-time novelty show host who will do nothing but louse up the show. On top of that, Smackdown lost the last major entertainment factor when JBL was replaced by the always underwhelming Jonathan Coachman. The Coach is serviceable, but nowhere near as good as JBL or Tazz were, and his lackluster announcing just drags down an already slow show.

On the other hand, there are obviously some major reasons why the WWE keeps Smackdown. First off is the obvious loss of advertising revenue, but even that isn’t a strong compelling factor since CW (and one would assume MyNetwork) keep a large chunk of that money. The WWE-in a three-hour program on USA (where they have a more generous ad deal)-can easily supplant the lost wages from Smackdown. The money brought in from that third hour would be on par with what CW pulls in for them with two hours of programming, not to mention all the cash being generated from sponsorships (like the Castrol Slam of the Week or the JVC Kaboom-box RAW Rebound).

The second factor is the roster itself. Without a second major show, would the WWE need such a massive roster? Here, folks, is where being a longtime wrestling fan pays off. If the WWE keeps is massive roster, it allows them to run more matches at more house shows. While we don’t need to see Val Venis every week on TV, he can deliver a hell of a live match. Guys like Iron Mike Sharpe and Barry Horowitz were the perfect fodder for the stars of the 80’s, so why not let the lesser guys take those slots now? They’re always there if needed to be put on TV, but veteran hands working with young guys in non-televised matches can only improve in-ring quality. Plus, with the focus back on WWE.com, there can be more exclusive streamed matches. In fact, why not use this as a chance to bring back shows like Superstars or Challenge, programs designed to hype the main stories and main superstars while being filled with “lesser” bouts. Sure, Shelton Benjamin versus Shannon Moore isn’t a big draw on the flagship show, but pepper that match with highlights from RAW and you’ve got a decent little program. Lastly, this would force guys to elevate their game, because the fewer spots in existence means more competition and less attitude problems. No one wants to rock the boat when they could get the old shove-off at any minute.

Lastly, the problem with cutting Smackdown would mean that we wouldn’t get to see the awful silver and blue color scheme or the incomprehensible lyrics of the Smackdown theme. Man, that would suck.

This has been for your consideration.

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