In WWE's Battle Against The Indie Wrestling Boom, Vince McMahon Just Blinked

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In a rather surprising move, WWE announced this weekend that they would be flipping their NXT and Hall of Fame shows during WrestleMania weekend.

Their statement on the matter was simple:

"WWE will be going back to its previous WrestleMania Week schedule with NXT TakeOver on Friday, April 5 and the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Saturday, April 6. We believe this better serves our fans."

Which might be factually true - in 2016, the year NXT TakeOver debuted as a WrestleMania weekend show, it started as a Friday night event. (The past two years have seen NXT TakeOver run the night prior to WrestleMania, on Saturday - in exchange, the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony got bumped to Friday.)

That's not exactly the whole story, however.

You see, since 2013, Ring of Honor has aired its annual Supercard of Honor the same weekend as WrestleMania in, or near, the event's same host city. When Ring of Honor rightfully recognized that, with a hundred thousand-plus wrestling fans all together in the same city, a fraction of those fans in town for the E's product might overlap with their own fan base, and then started capitalizing on all of WWE's promotional efforts to help push their own show, they were simply filling a niche that wasn't being served: giving pro wrestling fans a different style of pro wrestling show.

But things rapidly changed. The WWE Network had launched in early 2014 and offered a much, much wider fanbase access to a main roster-alternative via its critically-acclaimed first live broadcast, NXT Arrival. At the same time, WWE started snapping up big indie names both stateside and abroad, and signing them exclusively to the upstart promotion.

NXT continued to run more supercard-style shows throughout 2014, but only from Full Sail University. The brand caught fire. Meanwhile, fans who lived thousands of miles away from Winter Park, Florida could only connect with this brand and it's hungry, scrappy, more realized stars, via its weekly show on the WWE Network.

And then, when WWE traveled to San Jose for WrestleMania 31, the company announced a live NXT show on Friday, March 27th, 2015. The same night as ROH's previously-scheduled mega show.

The 5,000-ticket WWE-lite event quickly sold out, ended up being the buzz of the weekend, and set the stage for WWE's now-typical NXT show on a supercard weekend. But Ring of Honor took notice, too. The company fought back by moving to Saturday night and, when it found success there (despite still airing against NXT), it started broadcasting SuperCard of Honor live on Pay-Per-View. It partnered heavily with New Japan Pro Wrestling to bring in even more dynamic wrestlers and matchups.

Earlier this year, Ring of Honor was creeping in on perhaps the buzziest ROH SuperCard of Honor yet - Cody Rhodes and Kenny Omega were finally set to clash after career-best years for both men, the Young Bucks were being featured in what was sure to be a instant-classic six-man ladder match, and the headline bout saw indie darlings Dalton Castle and Marty Scurll bringing their intense feud to completion with ROH's grandest prize at stake.

Fans were rightfully split. Even pro wrestling journalists were divided - at least until WWE promised major media outlets time with Triple H after the show, as a sort-of "you won't want to miss this" carrot on a stick.

Why would WWE make such an offer?

There's been an general understanding for years that WWE is too big to worry about the "small independents" (what it considers anything non-WWE). And when the company sensed that stalwart supporters might flip sides, it became terrified of losing that mainstream buzz which comes alongside outlets like Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sporting News and Fox Sports; moreover, the company feared that such a move might finally just legitimize those "small independents." So it reacted.

For 2019, things look just as uncertain. Buzz surrounding Cody and The Young Buck's new promotion is reaching a fever-pitch, independent events are breaking attendance records, and stars are showing they're more committed than ever before to keeping their creative freedom by making it work outside of WWE.

It stands to reason, then, that NXT is moving nights so WWE can avoid sharing the spotlight with those indie guys who just took over WWE's historical home turf, Madison Square Garden. (If they truly don't care, then why did the company unsuccessfully target the ROH/NJPW supershow earlier this year?)

Now, WWE gets to strike first on Friday night. Then on Saturday, when fans and media alike pile into MSG for a night of wrestling action rather than through the often-bloated and rarely newsworthy WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, they can chalk it up to attendees simply picking a different KIND of show instead of picking the COMPETITOR'S show. All the while, WWE is able to keep that false-flag "we're not trying to kill the independent scene" narrative alive.

But in the same week that WWE RAW reached its lowest TV ratings in years (a critically-derided show penned by Vince McMahon, no less), a week where fans and media alike are taking WWE to task for overreaching UK contacts that essentially lets it snuff out a burgeoning overseas wrestling scene, and a week where one of the company's top stars teased signing with one of it biggest rivals...

It sure feels like this is WWE's first blink in the ongoing David vs Goliath game of chicken.

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