WWE Draft 2019: Lessons to Learn from Past Highs and Lows of Brand Splits
The WWE draft starts this Friday in an attempt to reshape the rosters for the new seasons of Raw and SmackDown.
Dating back to the original brand split in 2002, the company should have enough experience trading between the shows to have this down to a science.
However, the Superstar Shake-up in April and its subsequent problems proved there is still much to be learned about the practice.
In order to avoid running into the same issues that have plagued the post-draft seasons before, here are six crucial lessons WWE must keep in mind when preparing to shuffle its rosters on Friday and Monday.
Equal Brands Need Equal Star Power
Raw has always been the flagship show, with SmackDown only receiving surges in attention here and there. When it moved to Tuesday in the 2016 brand split, there were a few months when the blue brand felt like it was on par with Raw, but it was soon back to playing second fiddle.
WWE has control over this, though. The writers can dictate whether one brand has all the star power by choosing which Superstars are on the two shows.
If the company wants the public perception to be that both shows are equal, the first step is for the writers to treat them that way so fans aren't told something that isn't reflected in the product.
With Fox's acquisition of SmackDown, it's clear that show is receiving more special treatment now than in years previously. But WWE must avoid falling into the trap of treating the blue brand as the new A-show and sacrificing Raw.
Putting all the eggs into the blue brand's basket isn't going to help the overall WWE product if Raw suffers. Likewise, if SmackDown doesn't have enough star power, it will appear as though nothing has changed and it will remain the second-tier show, even on Fox.
The company has to draft Superstars in such a way that it doesn't manufacture an obviously favored brand. The WWE Universe will see right through that and judge one show as less important.
Actually Plan Ahead for Multiple Future Feuds for the Roster
The most important lesson WWE must learn from previous drafts is the necessity for a game plan surrounding what stories to tell in the coming months.
WWE cannot draft Superstars on a whim without any idea of what can happen leading up to WrestleMania 36 in April 2020. Otherwise, it will be left scrambling with weak options for six months and a lackluster card for the biggest show of the year.
This year's Superstar Shake-up was terrible at future-proofing. The two-day event turned into a multi-week affair as wrestlers swapped brands to undo poorly thought-out moves, only to resort to the Wild Card Rule just to offset the damage.
So many feuds since then have been cross-branded, which brings into question why WWE didn't put those Superstars on the same brand with the Shake-up if there were intentions to have them feud.
If someone has exhausted all their potential opponents, they need to be sent to the opposite brand for more options to work with.
For instance, Seth Rollins has already had programs with King Corbin, AJ Styles, Bray Wyatt, Braun Strowman, Bobby Lashley, Drew McIntyre, Dolph Ziggler and others. There's nobody fresh to work with if they all stay on Raw.
WWE should start with the ideal WrestleMania card and work backward to plan out as much of the different feuds as possible for the next six months. The rosters should then be drafted accordingly so those storylines can happen.
Unforeseen circumstances such as injuries and unexpected angles catching on or failing will change those plans, but it's better to adapt when necessary, rather than go in blind and hope tomorrow will sort itself out.
Balance the Babyfaces and Heels
While making sure there are enough options for feuds, WWE must also think ahead about the balance of heels and babyfaces.
Neither brand should have an abundance of either or there will be Superstars sitting around with nothing to do and no opponents to work with.
This applies to all divisions, be it the main event scene, jobbers, tag teams and more.
For example, if Becky Lynch remains the top babyface for Raw's women's division, she needs heels to work with. If not, WWE will have to turn Superstars heel or face on the fly to compensate for running short, leaving the options limited.
Don't Forget to Budget Your Time
Since Raw has an extra hour's worth of time to fill each week compared to SmackDown, it's simple math that the red brand should have access to a bigger pool of talent.
When there are too many Superstars on the blue brand, its two-hour slot allows little room for everyone to be used on a consistent basis. They end up sitting on the sidelines for weeks while an extra hour of Raw is wasted using the same people multiple times in each episode.
WWE must budget this time and rosters numbers accordingly. If there are plans to have another two to four matches in that extra hour, Raw should have maybe 10 more wrestlers than SmackDown.
Not everyone will be used, but if the red brand runs into some injuries, having a thinner roster means three hours will be difficult to fill.
Play to the Strengths of Brand Themes
With Fox making SmackDown appear more sports-oriented than before, WWE should cater its roster to best suit that theme.
Brock Lesnar is the WWE champion, which is a good fit for the blue brand based on his MMA experience.
However, someone like Elias won't fit with a sports theme. His "musician" gimmick works better on Raw, which will likely be more character-based and potentially even a bit raunchier with Paul Heyman in charge.
Anyone with whom the Raw executive director has an affinity should be on his brand, too. If he has great ideas for how to use King Corbin, he should stay on the Monday night show.
Apollo Crews is muscular and athletic, so he will turn more heads on SmackDown, while The IIconics are never going to let their in-ring skills take a backseat to their characters and will likely find more success on Monday nights.
WWE must look at the strengths and weaknesses of each brand and Superstar before deciding where to place them.
Stick to the Plan and Only Make Changes If Necessary
The Wild Card Rule negated an entire month's worth of trades after the Superstar Shake-up, and WWE must avoid another bailout following the upcoming draft.
The company must take everything previously mentioned into account and commit to the decisions it makes.
The card is always subject to change, but it's not an excuse to backtrack whenever there's an issue nobody bothered to plan for.
If WWE paints itself into a corner with the draft selections and dissolves the brand split with more crossovers, fans will still see it as a failure no matter what magical excuses are offered by way of explanation.
Anthony Mango is the owner of the wrestling website Smark Out Moment and the host of the podcast show Smack Talk on YouTube, iTunes and Stitcher. You can follow him on Facebook and elsewhere for more.