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So what's the problem? WWE have quite a fragmented audience. The kind of people that will pay big money to see their big events – e.g. Wrestlemania or the Royal Rumble, are much more "hardcore" than the more family based demographic that attend house shows. Equally, when you consider the average age of a Raw viewer is something like 40-odd years old, it becomes clearer that the kind of audience that NXT is aimed at isn't the whole that WWE is aimed at.
So when the WWE rock up in Texas next year for Wrestlemania, they'll be attracting a very loyal segment of their overall audience base. One that will have a higher than average concentration of people who are clued up on NXT, one that (seemingly) has an idea of the prototype for who “they want” pushed. A high emphasis on wrestling ability, bonus points if they used to wrestle on the indies and a multiplier if there is at least two cross referenced reports that “backstage doesn’t like them”.
It puts the company in quite the quandary. Take Roman Reigns earlier this year – booed out of the building at the Royal Rumble, yet one of their more popular baby faces at live events and one of the bigger merchandise sellers. Compare his night in January with that of Dolph Ziggler (a fading force on wrestling message boards) and Dean Ambrose – unceremoniously dumped out of the Rumble by Big Show and Kane – both celebrating two decades on nationwide television this year, both deemed over the hill.
The sense of entitlement is nothing new. Back in 1995 ECW was beginning to make waves out of a small bingo hall in Philadelphia. In Eddie Guerrero vs Dean Malenko, they too had wrestling deemed to be far superior to anything on national TV (in fairness, it was), they had local heroes in the likes of Tommy Dreamer, The Public Enemy, The Sandman. Even Shane Douglas before leaving to join the WWF was seen as a big name, and often the vocal face of the ECW backlash against “the big two”.
The violence may have diminished, the production values may have increased and the challenge may now come from within (although WWF did fund ECW at times) – but NXT offers a very similar perspective in 2015 as ECW did twenty years previously. The same small but incredibly loud fan base – dedicated almost to a fault. Being an NXT fan required a subscription, being an ECW fan required a tape trader – the media may have changed but the dedication is very much the same.
ECW was a great niche, it served a disgruntled portion of the wrestling fan base well with a style of wrestling that in 1995 was disappearing from cable television. But that was where it ended, ECW was too violent, too controversial for the wider audience. When stars of ECW went to the big leagues it just didn’t happen. Shane Douglas failed in the WWF – he failed in WCW, The Public Enemy went nowhere in WCW. In 1994 you’d have been hard strapped to find a better talker in the world than Douglas, or a better tag team than the Enemy – but when it came to the promotion, it just didn’t happen.
Could a similar thing be happening with the “stars” of NXT? The same levels of investment, the same perception of talent – yet the big names of NXT go the main roster and become Superstars. That is to say, they become talent – just like everyone else. Adrian Neville, Kevin Owens, Cesaro, Big E, The Lucha Dragons… the names keep coming, they left NXT as guys who would go on to become major names in the WWE… then they didn’t.
Then the Divas… sorry, women, of NXT get promoted. Having been able to heavily practice and rehearse matches down in Florida they were able to put on a series of matches that followers of NXT lauded. That is to say, good matches that crapped all over the WWE’s recent history of women’s matches. In Charlotte, Becky Lynch and “The Boss” Sasha Banks WWE had a group of women who were going to revolutionise female wrestling in North America... then they didn’t.
The question always comes back to “why can’t WWE be like NXT?” Well, NXT is wrestling in a sandbox, the entity is a money loser for WWE, not reliant on selling tickets or satisfying advertisers to make ends meet. Instead the freedom and lack of stakeholders means they can present a product how they want it to be presented. A one hour weekly format, it’s perfect.
Raw on the other hand is WWE’s flagship program, a massive money maker with a three hour time slot. Some people ask how NXT and WWE can come out of the same company. But can you imagine how stretched NXT would be as a three hour weekly program? Or, on the other hand how ballistically good Raw would be if it was one hour – with talent not run into the ground working on the road every weekend, with matches that could be not just laid out in advance but practiced?
The WWE signed their own death warrant when they agreed to make Raw three hours. The product is bad right now, no question, but nobody is really sure how to make a three hour weekly television program actually watchable. The answer is you can’t. But because NXT – in its easily digestible three-hour format, without the external pressures of Raw, can put on an entertaining product it exacerbates the misconception.
This isn’t a hit piece on NXT, it’s clearly a very popular niche brand. But NXT is giving fans fuel to fire the idea that the WWE product blows. What many fail to understand is that a good version of WWE doesn’t look like NXT, however much you like it.