No Gimmick Required

The Roster Split

It could have been great. Or at least pretty good.

by Raywat Deonandan
January 11, 2003

This column is a regular feature on It is reproduced here with the author's permission.

Over at The Torch, there's a little discussion going on about whether the Roster Split should be abandoned. I'm not going to fully weigh in on this, since I can certainly see both sides of the argument:

If We Abandon The Split

  1. Half the talent would get less air-time
  2. Triple-H would have to be the single champ
  3. Instead of one wrestling show and one sports-entertainment show, we'd get a whole week of soap opera

If We Keep The Split

  1. Ratings might stay poor

The problem with the Split isn't that it's not creative or exciting or original. It's that the execution of every single aspect of the Split, with the possible exception of the draft, has been abysmal. Let's break it down.

The Foundation

The rationale for the Split was the inability of co-owners McMahon and Flair to "co-exist." In wrestling terms, this is not a bad place to begin. This is, after all, a genre in which grown men declare wars based on nothing more than funny looks or fashion choices. But just imagine how this little conflict could have been allowed to grow. Flair and McMahon could have slowly begun to build their alliances among the wrestlers, each secretly pitting factions against each other in the ring. Eventually, there could have been an open disagreement about where each owner wanted to take the company. For instance, Flair (the face at the time) might have wanted a more wrestling-based product. The resulting backstage tensions would have then warranted the "Board of Directors" to declare a draft, since the owners' disagreements would prove irreconcilable within a single company.

Anything. Anything would have been better than dropping that boring juvenile Board scene on us out of the blue.

Of course, the fundamental flaw in the extant Roster Split concept is a lack of an assessment criterion. If each roster is supposed to be competing against the other, how is that competition effected? How is it measured? Why should the fans care? Well, here was a missed opportunity for WWE to put in place a built-in cap to the experiment. They could have announced that, after one year, the fans would decide which roster had proven most entertaining, via an on-line poll. Of course, as with all WWE endeavours, such a poll would be worked to suit whatever big post-Split storyline eventually were to evolve. But had there been any kind of initial test for superiority --anything!-- fan interest and storyline consistently would likely have been sustained.

The Evolution

It took WWE months to figure out that a split roster meant that the roster was split. Know what I'm saying? It took those barely literate writers that much time to finally implement storyline policies which kept the wrestlers apart. Trading rules should have been set down from the start. They need not have been fully thought out, just strict-sounding, to give the impression that something grand and was happening and was escalating in tension. This is wrestling, after all, where a simple script modification can provide the rationale for altering rules down the line.

Wrestling, as I've been crowing for months, is theatre. In theatre, there is an implied contract between the audience and the actors, wherein the former puts up with all kinds of fantastical actions by the latter, so long as internal consistency and a sense of impending climax are maintained. By giving us rules for the split up front --even if those rules eventually change, we can convince ourselves that there will be a big storyline pay-off months down the line. As we know, no rules were forthcoming until much, much later.

The Champions

Now, I understand the rationale behind giving each "brand" its own champion. I do have a problem with how it was done and with the titles' nomenclature. As we all remember, Brock Lesnar held the Undisputed Championship until he fled to Smackdown, whereupon his title was renamed "the WWE title." Meanwhile, over at Raw, Triple-HGH was handed the Big Gold Belt and declared "the World champion."

Obviously, HHH getting the belt in that fashion helped to underline his heelishness. But, again, the theatrical nature of wrestling demands that even its props intrinsically retain perceived importance. Lesnar's physical belt was only a few months old, but represented the title reigns of scores of great wrestlers: all the men who had held the world titles of WWE and WCW and their various incarnations. By contrast, HHH's belt is decades old and famous, but its lineage was transferred to Lesnar's newer belt the night Jericho unified the titles. We fans are unable to imbue the Big Gold Belt with the respect it deserves because it no longer has a lineage (unless you count the IC and other titles, with which it was unified). To the fans eyes, Kurt Angle is presently the one and only World Champion, since he possesses both the belt and the lineage of the Unified Championship.

How would I have done it? The Unified Title needed to be split again. Lesnar's match against the Undertaker should have resulted in a disputed outcome, perhaps with both men pinning each other simultaneously. The political repercussions would have necessitated either a rematch, a title tournament, or recognition of both men as World champions. The latter choice would have immediately created two viable, valuable and recognizable championship belts for the company. Then, since the Unified Championship belt would no longer be an honest representation of its new function, I would have resurrected the Big Gold Belt and the most recent WWF belt, the one last held by Jericho and Steve Austin. Props have power if you don't abuse them or their histories.

What Next?

From my pro/con list above, it's pretty clear that I'm in favour of prolonging the Split. There's still some storyline magic that can be syphoned from it. But it will take some creativity and ego sacrifice. Right now, WWE stories lack "bigness" and that great nail-biting quality they had not so long ago. WCW sucked at the end, but one thing about its production that always impressed me was the way WCW main events were promoted as millennial events, what with Michael Buffer announcing and the nWo getting entrances lasting 10 minutes. I'd like some of that grandeur --without the unhealthy amounts of suck-- in the WWE product.

I'm not one for fantasy booking. In fact, few things bore me faster. However, what follows below is just one idea that popped into my head minutes ago. It's not meant to be a serious suggestion, but rather a single example of how WWE storytelling can easily be transformed to appear more important and exciting.

Institute a kind of super-bout, a match to be held twice a year --at Wrestlemania and Summerslam-- and make it for something called, I dunno, the Challenge Cup or something equally gay. Allow the Raw and Smackdown brand champions (and call them such!) to compete for it, along with a third invitee: the Rock. Rock is undoubtedly the biggest star in WWE, even though he shows up three or four times a year. Make him the goal, the big rare thing. And let him win the damn thing.

The subsequent months can be spent building the respective Raw and Smackdown champions, each with the goal of facing Rock at the next event. It gives them a reason to covet their brand championship, and it gives fans a reason to once again look forward to the two big PPVs in the year. Rock can spend his three token return visits pimping his Cup and making the brand champions salivate.

And here's another idea. Instead of letting the Raw and Smackdown champions fight each other to decide who gets to face Rock at the next semi-annual event, let their respective win-loss records be the deciding factor. This makes every match they have on weekly TV mean something. It also gives meaning to each match fought by aspiring brand champions. For the first time, there will be an impetus for wrestlers to avoid getting disqualified, since such outcomes adversely affect their win-loss records. Imagine the storyline potential, even for mid-carders hoping to steal a championship! We'd have a fighting babyface brand champion who's had a few matches stolen from him, desperately trying to win more matches to improve his win-loss record. Or a dickish heel brand champion, avoiding matches to protect is inflated record. The possibilities are many.

Oh now I'm just dreaming. This is the sort of thing that requires forethought, that rarest of elements on the WWE periodic table. I'm not holding my breath.

I'm Raywat Deonandan.