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  Friday, March 22, 2002

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Special to SLAM! Sports

A weekly
SLAM! Wrestling
Editorial Column
WWF split finally here

Down the Ramp

By NICK TYLWALK -- For SLAM! Wrestling

The split, or brand extension as the WWF prefers to call it, is finally here. Rumored for months, the separation of the roster into Raw and Smackdown units had the distinct feel of something that had to be seen to be believed. I was at Penn State on Monday night to watch the draft unfold before my eyes, so you can call me a believer now.

Inevitably, the question shifts from "Will it actually happen?" to "What now?" The concept seems pretty simple: both shows will have their own talent, with the exception of the WWF Champion and Women's Champion who will be able to float back and forth between shows. Each show will have its own storylines and subplots, though the same writing team will be handling both programs. We already know house shows featuring the other show's workers will take place on the same night as Raw or Smackdown.

There's also plenty we don't know. As of Thursday night's Smackdown, the announcing situation hadn't been resolved, or at least not articulated to the fans. The pay-per-view picture is also cloudy. A recent press release suggests more pay-per-views will be added, though it's not known when or how many. In the meantime, the promotional material for Backlash (which may or may not mean something) makes it sound like the two rosters will mix at the event. And let's not forget that high profile "free agent" Steve Austin is still out there waiting to be added to the mix when his issues with the WWF are resolved.

All of these factors combine to give the appearance that the WWF is making this up as it goes. To a certain extent, that's to be expected. There's no precedent for this, no blueprint to follow for creating your own internal competition when you've destroyed or absorbed the rest of your industry. Winging it seems to be the order of the day. If nothing else, the split ... sorry, extension ... shakes up the status quo, and that's almost always a good thing.

Put more properly, it's a good thing if the status quo actually changes. The WWF has gone all out to plant the seed that this is the case. The Rock and Hulk Hogan wanted to put on a show this past Monday to celebrate their last appearance on Raw. The writers and announcers gave a lot of play to the end of the APA and the break-up of the Dudley Boyz, making it look like it actually was the end of an era. So far, so good.

But you'll have to excuse me if I don't completely buy into it just yet. As a big comic book fan, I've seen plenty of cases where writers promised events that would change everything forever only to have things revert pretty much to normal a few months later. Superman's new costume and Jean-Paul Valley replacing Bruce Wayne as Batman come to mind as two high profile examples. Dramatic changes often turn out in hindsight to be gimmicks to stimulate sales.

The obstacles to enacting lasting change in comics and in wrestling are pretty much the same. Unlike most stories that have a beginning, middle and end, the storylines in comics and wrestling are served up in regular perpetual doses - hopefully forever, or at least for a long time. When you have fans comfortable tuning in every week or picking up a book every month, it's difficult to permanently depart from what works. Just as Bruce Wayne's return to the mantle of the bat was inevitable, so too was Austin's relapse to his beer-swilling anti-hero role following his heel turn last year.

By now you should be able to see where I'm going with this. The extension gives the WWF a real chance to shake things up, to give the fans match-ups and plots that they haven't already seen. Since the creative team isn't likely to spontaneously start cranking out amazing new storylines and the federation has pretty much emptied the clip in terms of adding more recognizable names to its roster, this almost had to happen.

Still, we all know that the ratings mean everything in sports entertainment today and success or failure is determined on a weekly basis. The WWF can definitely make the split work, but it's also shown that nothing is a guaranteed slam dunk (see Invasion). Rest assured that if even one show starts to see a dip in ratings a few months down the road, the urge to merge the rosters will be powerful indeed.

I have to hand it to the WWF for trying something new and doing something I never thought they would actually do. If they stay the course and we're not talking about the brand extension in the past tense by WrestleMania 19, I'll really be impressed.

Previous Columns

March 22 ... WWF should just relax
March 15 ... WrestleMania, slamdunk or air ball?
March 1 ... WWF return a test for Hall
Feb. 22 ... WWF return a test for Hall
Feb. 15 ... Nick who?

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