This week we will enter a new era in wrestling with Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff debuting the season premieres of WWE RAW on USA Network and WWE SmackDown on FOX. Past RAW & SmackDown season premieres can provide a guide for us to know what to expect, but what does WWE need to do to make these episodes pop? SmackDown in particular has a tremendous opportunity with the move to broadcast TV on FOX. FOX has been promoting WWE on its FOX Sports programming and other FOX shows. Millions of people who haven't watched wrestling in years will have an opportunity to return to the product and millions of people who have never seen WWE will be able to experience it for the first time. Here are five ways WWE can make a big impression on RAW and SmackDown's season premieres.
1. Start with a bang
Starting the season premieres of RAW & SmackDown with a bang works both literally and figuratively. Rumors of pyro returning to WWE programming have been running rampant since @wrestlevotes Tweeted about the likelihood of its return. From the mid 90s until being phased out in 2017, pyro added to a performer's character and helped visually distinguish a performer from the rest of the roster. Who could forget Batista's machine gun entrance? Or Edge's over-the-top pyro for his entrance? The sound of the Kane's pyro blasting as he enters? As the NFL considers phasing out pyrotechnics, the WWE can really separate itself by bringing pyrotechnics back to its productions.
Aside from literally using the bang of pyrotechnics to energize the shows, the season premiere of both RAW & SmackDown should start hot. Looking back to when RAW moved to TNN in 2000, the show started with Stone Cold Steve Austin announcing he wanted to find out who mysteriously hit him with a car almost a year prior. This story carried through multiple segments on the show while intertwining with multiple characters keeping the viewers wondering who The Rattlesnake would strike. When RAW moved back to USA in 2005, the show started with a five minute retrospective on RAW's history in New York and on USA Network before opening with a Piper's Pit segment. The first match on the 2005 RAW season premiere was a 30-minute Iron Man Match between Kurt Angle & Shawn Michaels to carry the rest of the first hour.
RAW & SmackDown should start with some eye-popping action that involves the most athletic Superstars on the roster that are able to tell an engaging story beyond executing acrobatic wrestling moves. Stephanie McMahon recently stated at an advertisers meeting that WWE can script moments that other sports have to hope naturally occur, allowing WWE to control how exciting its product can be. With SmackDown becoming the 'A' show for WWE, both SmackDown & RAW need to announce what type of show they're going to be in the first 10 minutes of their programs.
They must avoid a McMahon monologue at all costs or risk losing longtime fans and confusing new ones. RAW already has announced that Cedric Alexander will face AJ Styles for the United States Championship - a match that could definitely energize the first hour of RAW's premiere. SmackDown has four matches announced, outside of the WWE Championship match (which will likely be the finish to the show) the Four Horsewomen tag match seems the most likely to carry the first segment of SmackDown, they could also lead with Roman Reigns vs Erick Rowan but the ladder match between Kevin Owens and Shane McMahon has potential for some intense physicality and big falls to energize the crowd.
2. Make the stars feel like stars
This especially applies to SmackDown's premiere on FOX. Just last week on the broadcast for the Minnesota Vikings game, Rey Mysterio was shown in the crowd wearing his mask while taking in the game. Mark Schlerth (former football player & current commentator for FOX Sports) quipped at the shot of Mysterio "He's here! Look at him! He's in his mask. He's like a Luchador. He's like Nacho Libre." Wrestling Twitter erupted at the disrespect from an ignorant Schlerth. The reality is that there are a lot of people who will be seeing WWE for the first time in years on FOX or for the first time ever. WWE must make sure to showcase its stars and avoid some of its recent cringeworthy storylines. WWE should do all it can to focus on Superstars' strengths while hiding their weaknesses.
Celebrating 20 years of SmackDown will help elevate the feeling of importance throughout the night and add some gravity to the show. The use of the legends should be sparing and help pass the torch to the new generation of WWE Superstars. The WWE Chronicle series on the WWE Network is comparable or better than profiles done on players by FOX Sports or ESPN. Tapping into the reality behind some of the Superstars while using it to highlight what makes them special can help to build them as stars in the eyes of new viewers.
3. Controversy creates cash
This was the title of Eric Bischoff's book in 2006 and its safe to expect Bischoff and Paul Heyman to employ that philosophy in the season premieres of RAW & SmackDown. A great season premiere needs to remind us that we're watching live television and anything can happen. We need to feel the danger and excitement that makes their program DVR proof because we must watch it in real time.
The season premiere of RAW in 1997 is burned in our minds forever because of when Stone Cold Steve Austin stunned Vince McMahon. The same episode had the debut of Cactus Jack in a Falls Count Anywhere Match against Triple H while Shawn Michaels and Undertaker had mic time to promote their Hell In A Cell Match. The tentpole of that show happened right in the middle of the program and there should be something in the middle of both RAW and SmackDown to surprise us and carry the show.
Bray Wyatt's Fiend character has tremendous potential for surprise and although he's currently exclusive to RAW, rumors are floating that FOX executives would love to have The Fiend come to SmackDown. The biggest potential surprise on SmackDown will likely be in the main event: Kofi Kingston (c) vs. Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship. Lesnar hasn't wrestled on SmackDown in fifteen years, so Lesnar is an attraction all on his own. Kofi Kingston's current reign is now longer than any single reign by Stone Cold Steve Austin, Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Daniel Bryan, and The Rock. Although Brock winning the title on the first episode would be an amazing attraction, the shock of Kofi stealing a win from Brock would shake the wrestling world. Lesnar has been a dominant monster for the past 5 years in WWE, an upset of Lesnar at SmackDown would certainly be controversial.
4. Give the audience something to feel good about
The WWE always sends fans home happy at the end of a house show, but on TV things don't really end that way. With so much political turmoil happening throughout the world, WWE can be a fantastic escape for people. Sometimes wrestling is a medium for holding a funhouse mirror up to reality but there is definitely a deep need for escapism in the world right now and SmackDown has a tremendous opportunity to do that for more people than WWE has been able to reach in over a decade.
WWE has a unique opportunity to provide hope for people that are in difficult situations, inspiring them to reach their goals while giving them a break from reality for a few hours a week. This doesn't necessarily mean giving people a happy ending for both shows, but it does mean taking out the terrible taste in everyone's mouths after they watch a Shane McMahon/Kevin Owens segment. SmackDown on FOX has had a commercial saying "We're all Superstars" but so often WWE insults its own fans and their intelligence with cringeworthy segments. If WWE wants to step up and be a major player on network television, it's going to have to raise its standards and have a classiness that WWE hasn't always been known for.
5. Leave them wanting more
RAW's 2005 season premiere (the return to USA Network) is the best guidepost for the structure of the premieres that we'll likely see. It brought back legends, it introduced the hook for the main event in segment 3 while foreshadowing an overarching storyline, it had the two best wrestlers have a match (Michaels & Angle), it had the return of Stone Cold Steve Austin, and concluded with John Cena winning his match before the overarching storyline of SmackDown vs. RAW interrupted Cena's celebration with an all-out brawl to close the show. SmackDown and RAW must make the fans want to see more of the world they spent two and three hours, respectively, creating. RAW almost has to close with The Fiend and SmackDown pretty much has to close with Lesnar. How we get there and the feeling those two give us at the end of the show will be crucial to the successful premiere of each program.
It's not just on WWE creative to leave the audience wanting more, it's on every single performer to make the most of their time on live television. Becky Lynch has the unique opportunity to make moments for herself on both RAW and SmackDown this week as does Brock Lesnar. Every Superstar that gets TV time on these premieres should be chomping at the bit for the opportunity they have to make an impression on all of the new eyes watching these premieres.