Once again, WWE is using the “RAW vs. SmackDown” theme for Survivor Series, but a few alterations to the format could help it stand out as a must-see show.
Of WWE’s “Big Four” pay-per-views (PPV), Survivor Series often comes across as the least important, which is ironic since it is the second-oldest supercard in the company’s history. Then again, Vince McMahon only created the show 31 years ago because he wanted to prevent Jim Crockett Promotions from airing Starrcade, so maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising to see Survivor Series get the short end of the promotional stick as much as it does. That would also explain why McMahon thought about scrapping the show altogether in 2010.
More often than not, the annual November PPV feels more like a throwaway show that doesn’t receive the glitzy treatment that SummerSlam, Royal Rumble, and WrestleMania do.
Since the second brand split in 2016, WWE has used the “RAW vs. SmackDown” theme to try and make Survivor Series feel special. For the past three years, they have used that ridiculous “it’s the one night a year where RAW and SmackDown Live go head-to-head” tagline, which is true if you exclude the Royal Rumble, Money in the Bank, WrestleMania (for both the men’s and women’s battle royal), Evolution (which held an inter-promotional battle royal), and the Mixed Match Challenge.
It’s fitting in a way, as the slogan for the show is just as preposterous and logic-bending as the very concept it supposedly promotes.
The Inter-Brand Animosity Just Doesn’t Exist
First of all, nobody over the age of, uh, let’s say 10, buys into the notion that the RAW and SmackDown talent hate each other, especially since WWE elected to make all the PPV’s co-branded going forward. It’s hard to get people to believe that the respective rosters don’t like one another when book them to be in the same place at the same time with no confrontations.
It gets even harder when you book them to clown around with each other, as they did at Backlash 2018. If the RAW and SmackDown rosters truly harbored that much contempt for the opposite brand, why hasn’t a RAW wrestler attacked a SmackDown wrestler during one of these PPVs or vice versa?
The creative team could easily explain that one away by saying that the respective general managers and/or commissioners agreed to some sort of truce that forbids the wrestlers from doing that, but it’s troubling that they won’t put forth the modicum of effort to brush away that plothole.
What Incentive Do The Wrestlers Have To Fight?
McMahon and company also seem disinterested in rationalizing why the wrestlers themselves buy into this idea of “brand loyalty”, especially when there is no tangible reward for winning.
Take this year’s show for example. Aside from a theoretical bump in pay for wrestling on the PPV, why would any RAW babyface risk their health to fight at the behest of heel acting-GM Baron Corbin and heel(?) commissioner Stephanie McMahon? Why would Braun Strowman want to team with Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre, the two men that turned on him less than a month ago? Why would he want to help out Corbin, a man that cost him the Universal Championship at Crown Jewel? Why would Corbin choose to team Strowman, considering “The Monster Among Men” spent most of the Nov. 5 episode of RAW looking for Corbin so he could beat the GM up? Why is Ziggler, who was on the SmackDown roster this time last year, all of a sudden so gung-ho about representing RAW?
The SmackDown side of things isn’t as bad since it seems like the animus between the Survivor Series teammates appears to be part of the storyline on their end; why else would The Miz and Daniel Bryan be named co-captains on a team that also features Shane McMahon and Samoa Joe?
But the same issues remain. For instance, why is Joe, who was on the RAW Survivor Series team last year, eager to fight for a spot on the SmackDown team this year? And why did general manager Paige decide to simply name members of the women’s team while the men had to compete in de-facto qualifying matches? It’s mind-boggling, to say the least.
The Champion vs. Champion Matches Are A Strong Point
This isn’t to say that the entire concept is a completely faulty premise. The champion vs. champion matches, especially the ones featuring the two world champions and the two women’s champions, feel like legitimately big matches now that WWE doesn’t book them on the weekly shows nearly as frequently as they have in past years.
If they have the titles on the right talent (which was an issue early in last year’s Survivor Series build), these bouts can provide fans with fresh matchups between two wrestlers — or two teams — that the audience perceives as the best (which, again, works well when you don’t have, say, Jinder Mahal or Alexa Bliss as champion).
The early build for some of those matches has also given fans some compelling promos, namely Becky Lynch’s weekly etherings of Ronda Rousey and a very good underdog babyface promo courtesy of WWE Champion A.J.Styles ahead of his rematch with Brock Lesnar.
However, the idea of RAW and SmackDown’s respective title holders fighting for the honor of whichever show they represent is without question the least interesting aspect of those bouts. It’s pretty telling that Lynch, Styles, Rousey, and Shinsuke Nakamura all avoided mentioning the shows that they compete for in their promos.
The Stories Are Great, But What’s The Best Format For Presenting Them?
Without question, there are interesting storyline threads leading into Survivor Series. Strowman’s pursuit of Corbin, Bryan and Miz as reluctant partners, Shane McMahon’s possible heel turn, the Seth Rollins/Dean Ambrose blood feud, and Charlotte Flair’s Lynch-induced mid-life crisis are all truly fascinating narratives to follow heading into this show and beyond. But is shoehorning all of these feuds and stories into a bunch of RAW vs. SmackDown matches really the best way to progress them?
Historically, the brand warfare trope has always done more harm than good. In a genre of entertainment that demands that fans suspend their disbelief on a weekly basis, having a roster full of wrestlers flip a switch and forget who they are and who their feuding with to attack coworkers that they all of a sudden despise simply because they happen to work on a different show is only slightly more ridiculous than having “brothers” that can summon lightning and fire by lifting their hands. It runs counter to one of the principal goals a wrestling promoter has, which is getting fans to pay to see babyfaces win and heels get their comeuppance.
Additionally, the RAW vs. SmackDown matches, particularly the Survivor Series tag matches, have exposed a longstanding problem with the elimination tag bouts; they seldom have any stakes. Even back in the 80’s, the Survivor Series tags seemed to serve little purpose other than getting as many wrestlers on the card as possible while saving the big matches for SummerSlam and WrestleMania.
In an attempt to beef up the prestige of Survivor Series and the tag matches the show is famous for, WWE decided to virtually resurrect the Bragging Rights format to give the wrestlers something to fight over. But again, the majority of fans don’t view “brand supremacy” as a compelling prize. Why do you think Bragging Rights only lasted two years?
On Twitter, Dave Schilling proposed an interesting solution to this problem:
A Simple Solution To The Survivor Series Problem
Schilling has the right idea here, but WWE could go a little further with it since his plan still doesn’t give the champions nor the other participants an extra incentive to help their brand win in-storyline.
For instance, why would Styles or Lesnar want to make getting a title shot easier for someone from their respective shows? And why would a wrestler in one of the three Survivor Series tag matches blindly compete for a spot that isn’t guaranteed to them?
My fix is a little easier, and it adds importance to EACH Survivor Series match. Instead of arbitrarily giving the 30 spot to one show, why not give the respective positions to the sole survivors of the men’s and women’s team. If there are more than one sole survivors in each match, they can have a match on the following RAW and/or SmackDown, or they could have a tiebreaker with the number of pinfalls/submissions collected and give the other survivors title shots based on their performance in the match.
With that simple fix, it all but erases most of the logic gap that comes with heated rivals teaming up out of the blue for an otherwise flimsy reason. This gives every member of the roster a reason to want to participate in the matches outside of “wanting to show which brand is better”. It would also keep the fans engaged, allowing them to track the number of pins that a wrestler picks up in the match while also keeping them invested in who gets eliminated from the matches. Furthermore, WWE would accomplish something it is often loath to do: make wins and losses matter.
They could use a similar formula with the tag team elimination match, with the sole survivors of the winning side all getting title shots and either booking a top contender’s match or using a tiebreaker system to determine who gets the first crack at the champs. This would place a greater importance on performance within the match and a value on surviving, which is kinda the entire point of the show.
Stakes For The Champion vs. Champion Matches
The champion vs. champion matches could use a bit of tweaking, too. Since the champions are basically fighting to see who’s the best of the best, these matches don’t suffer from the same pitfalls that the Survivor Series matches do, but even adding something like giving the winners the next pay-per-view off (which could serve as a nice cover for Lesnar missing TLC…if WWE hadn’t used his part-time status to turn him heel) would give those matches an interesting wrinkle.
If WWE really wants to make a big deal about the overall match scores for the two shows, they can add an interesting stipulation to that, too, while bringing some prestige to the main event slot of future shows. They could give the overall winner of the brand battle the main event slots of every PPV other than WrestleMania for the calendar year. That would give fans an actual reason to care about the overall result – and, no, Shane or Stephanie gloating about besting the other isn’t a good reason to care.
So instead of using their Monday night program to devalue a show that FOX is set to pay over $1 billion for or having a wrestler like Bayley go against the basic tenets of her character – just because the calendar flipped to November, they could integrate some of the ideas mentioned in this piece to help breathe some life into a concept that Vince and company were ready to pull the plug on.
And they won’t have to insult anyone’s intelligence in the process.