The reason that you hear the dueling chants of “Let’s Go Cena!” and “Cena Sucks!” at almost every World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event is not because John Cena is the most divisive superstar in company history, it is because the crowd is more divided than it has ever been.
Fans of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in the 1980s wanted to see really colorful outfits and really strong dudes showing off their strength. Fans of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in the 1980s wanted to see more realistic fights, more technically proficient grappling, bloodier brawls, and more realistic characters.
During the wrestling boom of the late 90s, there were three major flavors to choose from: WWF, World Championship Wrestling (WCW, which was born out of the NWA), and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). The WWF had younger, fresher main event talents than WCW with racier storylines.
WCW had the big names from the 1980s to early 90s in the main events and faster-paced, more athletically impressive mid-card performers than the WWF. ECW was more of the “indie” flavor and had the most hardcore action and storylines. WWF was MTV, WCW was AMC, and ECW was FX.
Nowadays, there’s only one major, easily accessible choice in the USA and that’s the WWE (which was the WWF until 2002). So one choice, but there are still varied fanbases. They can most easily be divided into the camps of families and adults. The families care less about the technical and athletic prowess of wrestlers.
They care more about their characters, costumes, physiques, and larger than life presentations. The adults care about the athleticism — don’t care as much about their physiques and gravitate towards more realistic and authentic stars they can relate to. The families love Cena & Roman Reigns. The adults love AJ Styles and Sami Zayn.
That’s why WWE has an incredible opportunity with this upcoming brand split and draft. Currently, they can only please one half of their fanbase with most of their match results and storylines, but if they split the brands into two distinct flavors that service their two different demographics, they can create unique shows that will independently satisfy almost everyone.
At the moment,the WWE creative team is slightly handcuffed by their PG rating that allows them to appeal to family friendly sponsors. With this brand split, they could allow SmackDown to be the TV-14 branch of their company that could have slightly more adult-friendly storylines and dialogue that is less insulting to the intelligence of their older viewers.
Former World Champion, Daniel Bryan, is a major proponent of having two separate brands, saying on the Sam Roberts wrestling podcast “I would never have gotten this opportunity if there wasn’t split brands, if there wasn’t two [world] titles. If there was just the one main title, [WWE] would never, ever given me the opportunity.”
WWE could keep John Cena and Roman Reigns as the top dogs on RAW on Mondays, and SmackDown could have AJ Styles and Sami Zayn. The rosters would combine at Pay-Per-Views or Network Specials. The rosters would never have inter-promotional matches on TV, only at the special events & maybe the Slammy’s, WWE’s yearly awards show.
RAW would maintain WWE’s “sports entertainment” flavor, and SmackDown would maintain its “pro wrestling” vibe. WWE would stay PG, SmackDown would be TV-14. RAW can still be a family-friendly brand, whereas SmackDown can have more freedom. Stars like Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose, and Bray Wyatt that feel a little restrained and boxed in by kid-friendly TV requirements could find new life in a TV-14 world.
If I were a WWE producer I would have SmackDown keep running a different style of venue from RAW on occasion. It’s important for the different brands to have a different feel to them, so that for the first time since WCW went out of business, fans feel like they have some choice when it comes to their wrestling taste.