-- WWE announced a major shakeup to its lineup and presentation Wednesday morning, with SmackDown going live every week and moving from Thursday nights to Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on the USA Network.
The bigger news surrounds the impact that the move will have on the roster, as both Monday Night Raw and Smackdown will each feature unique rosters and rivalries that will be determined via an "imminent" superstar draft, which was also announced.
The "New Era" that WWE continues to promote will kick off in a fashion that hearkens back to the brand split days of the previous decade, with the WWE having used a draft to initially split the brands in 2002 and subsequent yearly talent swaps via draft every year from 2004-2011.
With this massive shakeup that goes to the very core of the WWE product, Brian Campbell and Tim Fiorvanti set out to answer five of the biggest questions this announcement has raised.
1. Is this a good decision? How do you feel about a brand split?
Fiorvanti: Yes! Yes! Yes! Going live is a huge step in making SmackDown fully relevant and un-spoilable for the insatiable WWE fans. In reality, the quality of the SmackDown product has already improved since it moved over to USA, and even with it being on a two-day tape delay the ratings for that show have been creeping ever-closer to RAW's. Making it live and giving the show its own unique roster should also provide ample opportunity for WWE to do one of the things it's struggled with the most in the last decade -- build the new stars that it needs to carry the company into the future.
As far as the brand split, it all depends on the execution. If it's well-done, like the Paul Heyman-led "SmackDown six" era that helped launch the careers of guys like Edge, Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero into the stratosphere, great. If it leads to a couple of bland, watered-down shows, you have a real problem on your hands.
Campbell: You nailed the most important element of this announcement: a spoiler-free Smackdown. Airing important matches (like the vacant heavyweight title tournament in November or Alberto Del Rio winning the United States title in January) while forcing fans to avoid results or find out in advance has been troublesome, but Smackdown's move to Tuesday isn't perfect either, as it challenges both the endurance and attention span of viewers (with five hours of live content each week over a two-night span). Adding a live pay-per-view on Sunday night only increases the commitment level. Then, factor in the NXT faithful. We'll really see if the audience is indeed insatiable.
While the WWE's navigation of a Shane and Stephanie McMahon sibling rivalry has been clunky at best post-WrestleMania, the foundation is there for a brand split to work. Shane is incredibly over and Stephanie remains the company's best heel on the microphone. Presenting both shows as rival leagues, with each McMahon sibling representing a dueling ideal of booking styles, could satisfy fans of all backgrounds (while building toward a Shane vs. Triple H match for company control at WrestleMania 33). But the biggest benefactors will be the wrestlers on the mid-card, who look to gain more opportunities, while placing more pressure on the WWE's creative team to tell better stories.
2. Who should be the No. 1 pick in the draft?
Campbell: There isn't another superstar who so perfectly combines the aspects of in-ring work, microphone skills, "it factor" and untapped potential like Seth Rollins, making him the clear clubhouse leader. Rollins, 29, made an emphatic return at Sunday's "Extreme Rules" after a seven-month layoff following knee surgery. Let's not forget, he carried the promotion for most of 2015 as a proven workhorse who can elevate everyone he shares the ring with. Rollins proved on Monday night, by leaving no doubt about his heel persona, just how much he can control the emotions of a crowd. With Brock Lesnar working a part-time schedule, the only other superstar in this conversation right now is current WWE world heavyweight champion Roman Reigns, although a hipster argument could certainly be made for NXT sensation Finn Balor.
Fiorvanti: Rollins is the obvious choice for sure, unless it becomes another storyline device to put Reigns over as "the" guy. I'm going to go in another direction, and pick the guy who has the power to completely change the game -- Kevin Owens. His approach, in-ring style and charisma have established him as something completely different from anybody else in the company -- and it's something the fans are eating up. I think he can absolutely anchor one of the two shows and continue to build upon his incredible first year on the main roster. I feel like Rollins and Owens will be two of the pillars upon which this "new era" will absolutely thrive, if it succeeds.
3. How would you make the brand split better this time around?
Campbell: In order to create buzz for each show without watering down the overall product, WWE needs to tread carefully and avoid the sins of the past. Keeping the WWE world heavyweight title intact will be paramount, allowing the champion to float across the entire promotion (creating a nostalgic nod to the old territory days of the NWA). So will avoiding brand-specific pay-per-views. Ideally, the brand split would elevate the Intercontinental and United States titles to higher prominence, which each belt being "assigned" to a specific show. Wrestling fans are most satisfied when the structure of what's presented to them feels comparable to "real sports." Holding a draft certainly adds to that, but so would allowing trades between shows and refocusing efforts to making wins and losses feel like they matter.
Fiorvanti: I agree with one main title (and a similar concept for the Women's championship), and the U.S. and Intercontinental being split up, though in my dreams the Cruiserweight title would come back on one of the shows and help spotlight the incredible wrestling talent the company has accrued over the last few years (hey, a boy can dream). There's inevitably going to be brand versus brand conflict, and that will fuel a lot of the stories early on, but it's important to lay down the framework to allow both shows to function on their own as individual products while still being a well-oiled part of the WWE machine as a whole. All I ask is that there are no brand-specific pay per views -- those were usually pretty disastrous.
4. What's next for NXT?
Fiorvanti: The developmental program has grown by leaps and bounds since its move to Full Sail in Orlando, Florida, and reached another level entirely with TakeOver Brooklyn (and subsequent shows on the road in London and Dallas). There's already been a huge influx of NXT talent in the last couple of months, with Sami Zayn joining the main roster full-time and call-ups for Enzo and Big Cass, Apollo Crews, Baron Corbin, the Vaudevillains and Dana Brooke. Fans have been champing at the bit to have Finn Balor and Bayley on the main roster for some time, and while the brand split will open up more spots, their time was coming shortly anyways.
The real question mark comes when discussing the fates of the recent wave of "independent" talent that's been brought in. While Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka and Samoa Joe feel like locks to reach the main roster at some point, Austin Aries, Bobby Roode and Eric Young are all big question marks -- and the somewhat nebulous state of their contracts only serves to further complicate things. Somebody has to stick around to help the up-and-coming talent continue to grow.
Campbell: WWE's problem here (although it's a good one) is that NXT has become too good of a product to simply be considered its Triple-A affiliate. There's an organic rush from the crowd that permeates through your TV set and an old-school quality to the booking and presentation. It's a different feel than WWE proper, and that's on purpose. The question becomes: Is NXT merely an island, where new talent can be pruned and veterans from rival promotions can be seasoned under the curtain of the WWE Network? Or will synergy between brands become more of a thing, with the WWE publicly presenting NXT as a rival and alternative brand to its cable TV mainstays? News of a brand shift suggests the former, but it's hard not to watch an NXT TakeOver show and question whether the NXT model would work better as the secondary brand.
5. What does this all mean for SummerSlam?
Campbell: SummerSlam will likely see heightened interest thanks to the buzz that will come from a draft, along with the escalation of a Shane versus Stephanie corporate feud, but the money rivalry that should carry the company for the rest of 2016 has already been set in place this week with Reigns and Rollins (who will headline "Money In The Bank" on June 19). A feud between the two superstars, entering the peak of their respective primes, should be red-hot by August and plenty worthy of the main event. As long as SummerSlam is void of pointless 8-man "brand versus brand" tag team matches, I think we all will be happy.
Fiorvanti: The launch date for live SmackDown is set for July 19, just five days before the aptly named "Battleground" pay-per-view. With the draft set to happen before the live show launches, I think the situation will become crystal clear in the nine days of programming from the July 18 RAW to the July 26 SmackDown. The AJ Styles/Club conflict could peak with Balor's (expected) debut in that timeframe -- either via debut or as a draft pick.
The time could also be ripe for a Shield reunion in the main event, potentially in a triple-threat for the title (which may involve a Dean Ambrose Money-in-the-Bank cash in) that would absolutely tear down the Barclays Center, as the three could otherwise be separated in some way via the draft.