Following the demise of WCW, and post-WWE's invasion angle, pro wrestling found itself in an unprecedented position. By 2002, the company had no direct competition, yet it had a loaded roster, boosted by former WCW and ECW standouts. So to open-up more TV time for all of its talent (and help foster competition), the company separated RAW and SMACKDOWN rosters, thus kicking off the inaugural Brand Extension.
Under the original rules, the only wrestlers who would appear on both shows would be the Undisputed Champion and the Women's Champion. The company also held a lottery where the General Managers of RAW (Ric Flair) and SmackDown (Vince McMahon) drafted unique rosters for their unique brands.
At first, the company first remained dedicated to keeping the shows separate. SmackDown, which has often held the unfortunate stigma of being WWE's "B show", was initially boosted by some of the biggest stars in the company, including The Undertaker, Kurt Angle and The Rock. It also promoted several rising stars, future main-eventers like Brock Lesnar, Rey Mysterio and John Cena.
And while WWE had initially utilized separate Pay-Per-Views for each brand (including a resurrected, zombified ECW), the company dropped those in 2007 following No Way Out - although technically, 2006's ECW-helmed December to Dismember proved to be the brand extension's low point with a miserable buyrate that stands as WWE's lowest ever (pre-WWE Network).
Eventually though, WWE needed a way to spark RAW and SmackDown ratings. At the start of the brand-extension in 2002, RAW was averaging a 4.01 in the ratings; however, by the end in 2011 RAW had dropped to a 3.21. So soon thereafter (following a weird talent-exchange to test the waters, and some cross-promotional feuds that included ECW's Bobby Lashley [yes, you read that right] representing a future president Trump in a WrestleMania 23 Hair vs Hair match), WWE quietly killed any remaining brand extension. Stephanie McMahon made it official in 2014.
"We are all telling the same stories. And digital and social offer the ability to continue storylines 24/7 so our fans can consume the content anytime, anywhere on the device they prefer," McMahon told AdAge.com at the time.
While WWE may have initially had the talent depth to split the roster, that was simply no longer the case in 2013.
But in 2016, with SmackDown moving to the USA Network and beginning to air live on Tuesday nights, WWE again needed a way to draw eyes back to its blue brand. Also, the show had been taped for many years, so going live was a big shift with some big buzz. So the company opted to give SmackDown its own unique roster, and it reinstated the draft extension.
Similar to the first time, WWE initially had brand-specific PPV's for both RAW and SmackDown before reverting back to co-branded events. Also - and again, just like before - WWE has eased into more crossover superstars and storylines. Right now, Becky Lynch and Charlotte (top stars of SmackDown's women's division) are vying for RAW's top woman prize. They'll likely headline WrestleMania 35, but they'll spend most of their time on RAW to get there.
Since then, the results have been mixed. In June 2016, SmackDown averaged a viewership 2.2 million, that was the final month before the second brand extension took effect and SmackDown was still a taped show airing on Thursday nights. So far in 2019, the company is averaging 2.1 million viewers.
So almost three years into the brand extension, SmackDown ratings have not improved despite its unique roster and live broadcast spot (it should also be noted that the 2019 average viewership takes place during WrestleMania season, WWE's highest-rated time of year). SmackDown has held up better than RAW, but despite the company's additional resources, viewership has simply not improved.
So is it possible WWE could want to end the Brand Extension once again?
If the WWE has one of its deepest rosters ever, why isn't a roster split proving successful? Why did it fail back in 2011?
On paper, a brand extension seems like a great idea: each television show can have its own cast of stars, and allow for more names to be featured on WWE programming. Shows could theoretically be booked differently, and have different feels. And in fact, that's exactly what happened during the initial brand extension - RAW kept its sports entertainment feel, while SmackDown became the workhorse show.
But it never stuck. WWE had evolved such by 2011 that ratings, general lack of star power, and creative listlessness (plus RAW's expansion to three hours) made whatever was left of the "brand extension" pointless. Plus, major talent departures - The Rock, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Hulk Hogan, Rob Van Dam, and more - left gaping holes in WWE's talent roster the company has never been able to fill.
But the same cannot be said for the recent brand extension. The first ten picks were: Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Charlotte, AJ Styles, Finn Balor, Roman Reigns, John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton and The New Day. All of those talents are still wrestling for the company in some capacity.
So perhaps the bigger reason WWE's initial brand extension proved unsustainable was WWE treating Friday Night's like RAW-lite - or, not giving fans a reason to tune in. None of its championships got the same promotion as their Monday night counterparts, none of the stars were featured as heavily in advertising, and storylines/feuds were always relegated to the lower half of the card.
And perhaps WWE's subliminal messaging from the very beginning of the 2016 Brand Extension that RAW will always be the "A" show (remember, RAW was given two picks for every ONE SmackDown received) had doomed it before it ever truly got started. Since then, SmackDown's one mega star, John Cena, turned into a free agent so he could appear on RAW. The brand lost EVERY SINGLE Survivor Series match late last year, with very little care seemingly given by its general manager or superstars. And its World Title picture still plays second-fiddle to RAW's six-man tag matches.
SmackDown Sees Green
But despite lagging interest, a key factor for the brand extension's future is SmackDown's move to FOX this fall. FOX shocked the wrestling world by offering a five-year, $1.025 billion deal for the rights to show SmackDown on the FOX network last year. At the same time, WWE also inked a billion dollar deal with USA for RAW. I imagine that both networks did not shell out a billion dollars each to get half of WWE's star power. In order to appease both networks, it seems very possible that WWE will want to maximize its star power on both brands, similar to how it felt when the original brand extension launched.
So while the first brand extension may have failed because WWE lost an unusual amount of star power at the same time WWE stopped treating SmackDown like anything special, and the second extension has flopped because WWE has never taken it seriously to begin with, the value of SmackDown dramatically increasing on FOX this Fall could be a difference maker. WWE is going to have to commit more resources to making SmackDown at least equal to RAW, if not its superior.
So yeah, that could mean the end of the second brand extensionů or it could finally mean a more balanced approach between the two brands.
Michael Wiseman contributed to this article.