By Mike Mooneyham
June 6, 2004
With World Wrestling Entertainment rolling into town in just a couple of weeks, now’s a good time to look at the company’s two divisions and how the brand extension is working.
First off, I haven’t talked to one fan locally who’s sorry that the June 19 show at the North Charleston Coliseum isn’t a Smackdown brand event. But that’s pretty much the consensus of the WWE audience nationwide. Raw is clearly the preferred brand, and will be for the foreseeable future.
While the non-televised event isn’t expected to approach sellout status, Coliseum marketing director Alan Coker expects a healthy turnout on June 19.
“There are still tickets available, but we’re happy with sales so far,” Coker said Thursday. “There are a number of shows on our list that would be very happy to be selling the number of tickets Raw is.”
Most of the top stars on the Raw roster, with the exception of Triple H and Shawn Michaels, are scheduled to appear at the Coliseum.Raw traditionally has been perceived as the brand with the greater star power, although at one time Smackdown boasted the superior in-ring product. That division, though, has taken major hits over the past few months with injuries to top-tier talent such as Kurt Angle and Big Show, along with the sudden departure of ex-champion Brock Lesnar following Wrestlemania XX. The lottery draft also didn’t help matters. While Smackdown gained the likes of Booker T, Rob Van Dam, Rene Dupree and The Dudleys, it lost blue-chipper Shelton Benjamin, whose career has skyrocketed since making the switch to Raw.
WWE faces a critical period over the next six weeks as it offers an unprecedented string of three pay-per-views, beginning with Raw’s Bad Blood show June 13, followed by Smackdown’s Great American Bash on June 27 and Raw’s Vengeance on July 11. Of the three, the Smackdown offering looks to be the weakest.
The tentative lineup for that show isn’t exactly earth-shattering. A rematch between Eddie Guerrero and John Bradshaw Layfield – with a bull-rope stipulation added – headlines the event. The supporting cast isn’t much more appealing. The aging but resilient Undertaker meets The Dudleys in a handicap match. Booker T, whose persistent back problems increasingly point to his retirement sooner rather than later, challenges U.S. champion John Cena, a one-time can’t-miss prospect whose passé gimmick has lost much of its zing. Add to that your usual Smackdown assortment of divas, a style clash with Rey Mysterio against Mark Jindrak, a flag match pitting Rob Van Dam against Rene Dupree, and a tag-team bout with The Guerreros (Chavo Jr. and Chavo Classic) vs. Rico and Charlie Haas.
Judgment Day, the last Smackdown pay-per-view, delivered the lowest buyrate of a WWE PPV event in three years. The Great American Bash, whose title is taken from a once grand NWA/WCW tradition, should give it a run for the money.
Even the Raw brand, whose Monday night rating dropped to 3.2 last week, appears to be headed for a cooling-off period. Chances are that neither Triple H, with movie commitments, nor Shawn Michaels, with family commitments, will make the Raw pay-per-view in July. That could mean that Edge’s heel turn, which subtly began last Monday night on Raw, will be put on a fast track, along with the continued mega-push of Orangeburg native Benjamin.
Raw still leads the way in ratings, house show attendance and overall fan interest. Although the lack of star power on the Smackdown roster has created opportunities for a mid-carders to “take the ball and run with it,” as WWE brass is wont to say, it also has created a sense that the brand is inferior to its counterpart. Smaller houses and lower ratings and pay-per-view buyrates mean smaller payoffs to the talent, and that doesn’t translate to healthy locker-room morale.
Vince McMahon, of course, remains the staunchest advocate of the two-roster set-up. The WWE impresario points to more polished production for the Smackdown show on UPN (it’s taped and edited) and more divergent styles of wrestling on that show, noting Rey Mysterio and Kurt Angle, whose exposure on Smackdown has been relegated to a non-wrestling figurehead general manager.
A number of the top stars in WWE have been wary of the brand extension. Steve Austin, prior to leaving the company, remarked in an interview earlier this year that he wished the brands were still together, “but Vince is a different man.”
McMahon, however, is committed to stay the course. He is confident that over time, new superstars will emerge on the Smackdown side and new gimmicks and new characters will take hold. With the company overall in good financial shape, he feels there’s plenty of time to strengthen the weaknesses.
There’s too much at stake and not enough evidence to ditch the brand extension now. McMahon has enough aces in the hole to shore up Smackdown if things continue to go south.
– Last week’s edition of Smackdown posted a 3.3 rating, up from the previous week’s 2.9, and better than the 2.5 the Stanley Cup finals did Thursday night on ABC.
– NWA-TNA took a major step with its national cable debut Friday on Fox Sports Net. The group will tape its weekly hour-long Impact shows at Universal Studios in Orlando in addition to airing its weekly Wednesday night pay-per-views from Nashville.
The two-year-old company has strived in recent months to produce a family-friendly product without the risqué elements of WWE programming. NWA-TNA banned swearing and heavy sexual content on its pay-per-view telecasts late last year. – NWA-TNA founder and longtime wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett, father of Jeff Jarrett, recently underwent triple bypass heart surgery in Nashville.
– Kenzo Suzuki is scheduled to make his WWE debut at the Great American Bash pay-per-view. Company officials scrapped plans to bring Suzuki in as a descendant of the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito, fearing that their planned portrayal of Suzuki might jeopardize their ties to Japanese wrestling promotions.
The initial plan was to have Suzuki challenge Chris Benoit in the main event of a Raw pay-per-view, but due to controversy over his Hirohito gimmick, the Japanese grappler was moved to Smackdown.
– California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently selected Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as his choice to serve as national spokesperson for After-School All-Stars, a national provider of after-school programs for children.
“Everyone admires him. All the kids admire him. It really works when the children look up and say, ‘I want to be like him,'” Schwarzenegger said. As national spokesperson, The Rock will replace Schwarzenegger as the face of the After-School All-Stars. His role will include acting as the organization’s ambassador and visiting After-School All-Stars programs across the nation to encourage and inspire children to strive for the best.
w Vince McMahon recently deflected rumors that Sting may be headed in to WWE. At last week’s Summer Slam press conference in Toronto, Triple H intercepted a query about the grappler and said that Sting was “a lot letter with The Police,” alluding to the rock star by the same name.
– A Legends Fanfest will be held Aug. 14-15 at the Clarion Hotel in Fayetteville, N.C. More than two dozen former NWA stars will get together for two days to meet and greet fans. Former Four Horseman Tully Blanchard will be featured in one of two Saturday night VIP question-and-answer sessions. Among the stars already signed include Sting, Cactus Jack (Mick Foley), Ricky Steamboat, Magnum T.A., Ole Anderson, J.J. Dillon, Baby Doll, Dory Funk Jr., Ivan and Nikita Koloff, Tommy Rich, Jimmy Garvin and Precious, Dustin Rhodes (Runnels), The Rock ‘N Roll Express, George South, Bill White and David Isley. Bob Caudle, the voice of Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, will emcee the weekend’s festivities. Tickets are on sale at http://www.NWALegends.com.
Charlotte will host the returning Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest Nov. 26-28 at the University Place Hilton with a special tribute to the early Starrcades. Among those confirmed for the three-day event include Harley Race, Jack and Jerry Brisco, Dory Funk Jr., Paul Jones, Ricky Steamboat, Ivan and Nikita Koloff, Magnum T.A., Ole Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Baby Doll, Jimmy Garvin, The Rock ‘N Roll Express, Greg Valentine, Jimmy Valiant, Sir Oliver Humperdink, George South, Italian Stallion, Don and Rocky Kernodle, Tony Romano and Bill White. Two evenings of VIP question-and-answer sessions will feature Race, The Briscos, Jones and Caudle. Tickets are on sale at http://www.MidAtlanticLegends.com.
– James Dudley, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1994, recently passed away at the age of 93.
Dudley was a longtime McMahon family employee whose service dated back to the ’50s when he worked for Vince McMahon Sr. in Washington, D.C.