NXT and WWE Part 2: You Made the Big Time, Now What?

Part 1 is here in case you missed it

All of this leads to the question: Why doesn’t stardom in NXT directly translate to success on the main roster? Why is there a disconnect between the WWE and NXT products?

It’s easy to assume that since the outcomes are pre-determined (sorry, it’s NOT been real to me dammit since I was 5 and my grandfather smartened me up), that even if a talent had trouble getting over on the main roster after a call-up, creative could just “reboot” whatever storyline got them over in the first place in NXT. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy, as there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration.

The first problem with this assumption is that we would be ignoring how insulated the product NXT is, for better or worse. Not only is NXT a one hour program that airs one day per week, in fact NXT optimizes their shooting schedule by taping multiple episodes on the same day. This allows talent that is already matched up by creative to work their matches through end to end before the tapings and for storylines that seemingly play out over weeks to actually play out over the course of a few hours building momentum in front of the same already-riled-up crowd. Also, because the programs are pre-taped, any gaffes or missed spots can be re-taped immediately, allowing the best version of the product to be available come showtime. This is something that the WWE has done in the past when Smackdown was taped on Tuesdays and aired later in the week.

Once promoted to WWE, talent have to be spot-perfect when live, as the safety net is gone. Programs must be worked with the utmost care. Promos must be delivered with expertise and on par with the opponent, otherwise fans will quickly check out of the program before the blowoff can happen since a majority of the build will come via mic work rather than physicality. Further complicating things is the post-brand split world, whatever time is afforded to this story by creative has to be maximized because it will not be addressed again on TV until the next week’s Raw/Smackdown. Heat has to be stoked perfectly or else the next crowd might sleep on what’s been built and kill any momentum. This is particularly dangerous for newly promoted superstars or mid-card talent. Until talent is “made” and the crowd pops solely based on hearing entrance music, they walk the tightrope between love and indifference and the latter is the poison pill for any superstar’s career.

Another insulator to NXT is that there is very little external pressure put on the product. As NXT is only available on the WWE Network, it is not subject to the same success criteria as Raw and Smackdown. WWE doesn’t have to worry about NXT’s ability to achieve ratings for a cable network like it does with Raw and Smackdown. In order for the WWE to be able to bargain their contracts and drive their profitability, they need to draw eyes to the TV product week in and week out, particularly in the most desirable rating demographics, so that the network can in-turn sell advertising that airs during their programming. NXT can be an anchor for the network, but there is little evidence that network subscriptions are hinged on NXT’s program quality and this affords the product quite a bit more freedom to find itself if it loses its way.

Perhaps the biggest hinderance to NXT talent on the main roster might be NXT’s greatest champion: Triple H. HHH puts so much of his time and effort into the Performance Center and NXT, that it is truly his tended flock. He has spoken time and time again about how happy NXT’s success makes him and how proud he is of the Performance Center and the work done
there, that it is very clear that NXT is the Cerebral Assassin’s magnum opus. He and the trainers do so much to help develop and refine these athletes that they can’t help but take pride in their successes. Again and again we witness success stories like the evolution of the generic Mike Dalton into the magical Tyler Breeze and Johnny Curtis into the jelly-hipped Fandango, only to watch them hit the main roster with a resounding thud.

Unfortunately, due to the need to feed the ratings beast and keep ad revenue at a level expected by the network and advertisers, if a character lands flat, even HHH can’t buy them time to get it right. At best, they will find themselves in matches on one of the peripheral main roster shows Main Event and at worst, they will go work things out in house shows and they will be repackaged and reintroduced. Regardless, since the Raw and Smackdown showrunner isn’t HHH himself, it’s not his call to make and any time someone is called up from NXT only to have trouble getting traction with the fans, it lessens HHH’s endorsement of the talent coming from NXT in the eyes of those running Raw/Smackdown. Plus, there is the added benefit to the main roster of when those talent fail, proven older talent gets pushed back to the forefront because they are a known commodity (see: The Big Show and Kane).

All of this causes the disconnect between WWE and NXT to grow and for NXT to feel less like a developmental system and more like a separate external brand in direct competition to WWE.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Competition has always inspired the WWE to be the very best. Back when WCW was beating the WWE week in and week out during the height of the Monday Night Wars, the WWE was in a serious talent deficit. The bench was short because of the talent exodus to WCW which was offering greener pastures (read: guaranteed contracts) and reduced work schedules. This forced the WWE to be more open to creative ideas and push the envelope of innovation and really let the young talent prove themselves and shine.

Take Stone Cold Steve Austin for example. He came to the WWE after being fired by WCW (and after a short stop-over in ECW) and was dubbed “The Ringmaster”. His gimmick? The character was sold to Austin as “the master of the ring” and he was given a manager, The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase. Austin was known by hardcore wrestling fans to be a master mechanic in the ring with loads of potential, but something was missing despite the push upon his arrival. Instead of sticking with the gimmick, Austin evolved the character into the Stone Cold character that became one of the top draws in the history of sports entertainment.

As has been mentioned, this same “work to find your character” mindset drives NXT and as more and more former members of the NXT system make it to the main roster, it will become the standard for the locker room and creative teams to follow.

Competition from WCW also pushed the WWE to invest in longer term storylines. Instead of a 3 month program with a big blowoff after 50/50 booking to keep everyone looking strong, WWE allowed stories like Austin/McMahon and Bret/Shawn the time to mature and gather serious heat before transitioning to a different storyline. In the absence of WCW, storyline ADD has affected WWE booking. Programs have been built and then dropped with little resolution beyond one match. Once NXT took off and they began building stars via 6 month-plus long programs, WWE began booking longer programs for their stars as they had in the past. If WWE would adopt this same idea for these newly promoted talents, there would be a greater opportunity for the new talent to establish themselves and to take the established talent to a new level.

Coming Soon: Part 3: How must the WWE/NXT relationship evolve and how does the future unfold?

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