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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 4.1 ~ Extending Brands, Diminishing Product
By Samuel 'Plan
Jul 4, 2017 - 9:32:43 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 4.1 ~ Extending Brands, Diminishing Product

I have long held that the first Brand Extension in WWE was, by its conclusion, a disaster. A strong opinion, to be sure, but an honest one, and one arrived at for a number of reasons.

I didn’t like the multiplicity of championships, and how it seemed to negate any competitive fire in the locker room as the roster seemingly became content to simply “wait their turn.” This resulted in a slew of failed championship experiments that now stand out as bizarre blemishes in the history of prestigious lineages, thanks to the need to push under-qualified talents into over-privileged positions.

Sterility developed at the top of the card, which didn’t help. Say what you like about John Cena, but failure to elevate opponents in defeat has dogged his career from day one and contributed largely to the static state the overall roster found itself in when CM Punk so explosively disrupted the status quo in 2011.

What’s more, as focus shifted to gravitate almost exclusively around the main event scene, WWE appeared to completely forget how to construct engaging undercard feuds and involving mid card stories. By the end of the First Brand Extension, WWE had pretty much ground to a standstill.

I write all of this because the instituting of the Second Brand Extension in the summer of 2016 has, quite obviously, been one of the more obvious themes to have dominated WWE’s product since Summerslam two and a half years ago. Alas, as I trawled through the archives of WWE since that time, the fears that plagued me upon first hearing about the return of the Extension were realised in full: the same issues have quietly presented themselves all over again in so little as the first half year. Strange use of talent; multiplicity of championships; suffocation of mid card story; even pay-per-view has suffered anew, as it did once before, and there are a plethora of bouts that represent these tightly interwoven issues.

Jinder Mahal vs. Cesaro from Fastlane 2017 is one of those. With only three exclusive pay-per-views under its belt, Monday Night Raw (MNR) was already reverting to the eye-rolling, transparent trope of “bonus matches” that so clearly betrayed the creative team’s inability to form mid card story in the latter half of the First Extension – an ability killed off by an over-abundance of championships forcing out story-driven undercard matches in a foolish tri-branded pay-per-view system. Worse still, just as in the past, in this instance, said “bonus match” was horribly overlong and possessed of an ugly oxymoron: it was somehow totally uneventful while being entirely predictable. Its lack of story was exacerbated by its equal lack of charm to create a lethargic match of less than good television quality.

That poor quality is representative of a second key issue: the match features an under-qualified talent in an over-privileged position (something of a hot topic right now). It becomes abundantly clear from the bout’s failure to excite that Jinder Mahal should have been kept in the realm of television enhancement, not featured pay-per-view. This bout’s presence on the card therefore hints at the concerning reality that one deep talent pool still only translates to two shallow ones in a split Brand system. This can result in forcing talents into spots they’re ill prepared for, negatively affecting the product as a result. When such an approach takes hold it can set a dangerous precedent, invoking a haphazard approach to talent positioning enabled by a disregard toward the meritocratic values WWE so often espouse as the core of their decision making process.

Consider Heath Slater and Rhyno vs. The Usos for the Smackdown Live (SDL) Tag Team Championships at Backlash 2016. In spite of that show’s enjoyable success, it was difficult to reconcile why Heath Slater and Rhyno received their inexplicable push to the head of the division over established, recently refreshed acts like The Usos, or hot issue draft picks American Alpha. The resultant match, unlike the Mahal / Cesaro example, wasn’t all that bad, providing a quaint and effective enough underdog victory, but its presentation stands as example of the aforementioned haphazard approach to talent positioning.

Not only is the line up of that odd tag bout indicative of some bizarre creative choices, throughout the duration of the action the announce team make an active point of Rhyno’s veteran longevity, of Heath Slater’s apparent irrelevance at having not been drafted a couple of months earlier, as well as the eventually victorious pairing’s collective inexperience as a unit. It thus becomes a composition that stinks of the worst aspects of the First Brand Extension and reveals the Second Extension, conceived as a platform to push new talent, as turning its attention instead to failed mid carders and the middling successes of yesteryear, and often in order to plug gaps that could have been comfortably predicted were it not for some gobsmacking historical ignorance.

It is in the scramble to plug those gaps that haphazard deployment of under-qualified talent becomes an established and accepted trend. It is inevitable, in a sense, and threatens to evolve into a system so taken for granted, so normalised, that viable alternatives, even when present, become neglected. It is in this sense that the use of improvised measures comes with a price, and in the instance of tag wrestling that price is, in fact, ultimately, tag wrestling itself. Indeed, we’re still paying the toll invoked by the First Extension on this front, and though strides were made in NXT during the Reality Era to revive a scene left so desolate by the failures of the First Extension, the Second Extension has quickly undone any such work thanks to the necessities invoked by the roster being over-stretched; necessities that would simply not exist in a single roster system.

Neither is SDL alone in feeling a need to suddenly push non-teams over well-established, better oiled elements of their tag division in order to generate some much needed longevity. MNR followed suit quite quickly.

Cesaro and Sheamus vs. New Day from Hell in a Cell featured a two-years old established championship tag team seeking to become statistically the most successful of all time, by breaking the championship reign longevity record, being out-wrestled in their specialist environment by a non-team who were no more than a month old and presented primarily in the context of their dissension. Regardless of motivation, it has little positive bearing on a tag team division when singles stars are bundled together and presented as superior to the best (of all time) that division has to offer; all because there is limited life in it.

This concept – of watering down your roster because of a need to stretch talent over two shows – rests at the very heart of the history of both the First and Second Extensions, and is perhaps the genesis of almost every negative issue we’re able to identify. This is why matches representative of the results of such a dilution are important to consider as must see, especially because WWE would sooner treat their history as a nostalgic fetish rather than as an important learning curve. If they won’t approach history responsibly, then we must.

It is in the interest of a responsible historical approach, then, that I must take account of the positives of the Brand Extension projects as well as the negatives.

Let’s consider the mid card feud as a case study. During the First Extension, over time, WWE’s ability to compile story-driven mid card feuds eroded. This was, in large part, because of the use of tri-branded pay-per-views. Cards were filled automatically because of the number of championships being vied for throughout the company – the majority of which, of course, featured in the mid card. Thus WWE stumbled into a presumptive, championship-driven economy of sorts, where there was no need to write mid card story because the next pay-per-view would have little room for a mid card grudge match once all the titles and main event talent had been stacked onto it. And because all those championships were on the line, it’s not like story was needed in those instances either; it was presumed fans would care because a title was up for grabs.

It created a complex mechanism that not only rapidly generated identifiable lethargy and malaise in WWE’s creative output but also further diluted the quantifiable merit of mid card championships too; or, to use a more common lexicon, “damaged their prestige.”

When it comes to the singles divisions, so far the Second Extension has largely avoided this mistake, and in no small part is that down to pursuing, wisely, the hard Extension option, featuring brand exclusive pay-per-views to provide room for mid card story to continue to redevelop. How successful either brand has been in such redevelopment is largely down to taste, but that it has been happening is beyond debate, and we can find examples in matches that have shined a spotlight on IWC favourites.

That’s what I shall be turning my attention to in the second half of this latest instalment, but until then…well, you know the drill. Thoughts, comments and feedback are all welcome in the comments below or over on social media!

This mini-series is a spin-off of my first book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, spawned from the acclaimed LOP column series of the same name. So for more of the same, click below to pick up your paperback or e-book copy today!

Click here to pick up your copy of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die from Amazon.com

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