Is Raw’s “Fresh Start” Really Anything New?

After a few weeks of near record-low ratings, this past Monday’s Raw was promoted as Vince McMahon’s return to television to “shake things up,” which will undoubtedly boost the ratings. Reportedly, the 73-year-old chairman prefers not to appear on camera too often because of his age, but make no mistake, Vince could shuffle his way down the ramp with a walker and would still get a major reaction. The fans know that McMahon has dedicated his life to building his sports entertainment empire and that he’s willing to take just as many risks as the performers of his company. Just a few years ago, the billionaire took a shoot head butt that cut him open for the Kevin Owens/Shane McMahon angle. Vince will unquestionably boost the ratings, but as mentioned, he isn’t on TV nearly as often so his involvement in the show doesn’t solve the sluggish ratings.

Despite what jaded “fans” on social media might claim, the WWE’s ratings dilemma is a complex situation.

As I wrote last week, it might be unrealistic to write a weekly three-hour show and produce a continuously solid show. I also mentioned that much criticism toward the time slot or the product is moot, as the company will start their new five-year, $2.4 billion TV contracts in 2019. Still, the optics for the promotion, and more specifically the stock price don’t look good when the organization had a steady decline in ratings toward the latter part of the year.

The WWE’s solution to the stale product was to include the McMahons as the new authority figures within the storylines, replacing Baron Corbin and Paige as general managers. While it makes sense to have some type of figure that can announce matches, there’s literally nothing new about the McMahons as the decision-makers on television. Keep in mind, Shane and Stephanie were commissioners of each brand and were regularly involved in angles prior to this. How exactly is this a “fresh start” when it’s the repeat of a narrative from the past several years? Perhaps, the redundant heel figure head will be phased out, which would be a wise decision, but again, Shane, Stephanie, and Triple H have all played a major role on screen the past several years so how does that start something new? Will there be more 20-minute promos at the start of the show? Maybe the key to a more dynamic product is some type of change to the format or presentation of the show?

That said, the lower ratings could simply be from the lack of perceived star power on the shows. Brock Lesnar is ice fishing instead of showing up on Raw, and Roman Reigns, the WWE’s top priority the past several years, is on the sidelines with illness. Braun Strowman, who was substituted for Roman after his momentum was halted, is also injured at the moment so the options for him are limited. As I mentioned in the article last week, when the rest of the roster was kept at a level below Roman so that he would be presented as the top star, it essentially halted their status at the mid-card. With Reigns out indefinitely, management has scrambled to try to sell those same contenders that were kept at the mid-card as possible main event level stars.

However, the point is that WWE brass must find a way to generate some buzz about the product until Roman returns, which will get him over for the rest of his career. Aside from the McMahons’ involvement, which isn’t new, there are a series of NXT talent that will make their debuts on the main roster. This decision seems to indicate that this “shake up” was a reaction to the low ratings and not something that was planned in advance. Too often, NXT talent are brought to the main rosters just for the “debut pop” without any direction of plan for them after that. Within a matter of weeks, most of them either get lost in the shuffle or become just another competitor on the show.

These new performers appear to be introduced to the main roster simply just for the shake of something “new” to be advertised. What happens with the novelty of a new face wears off? What substance will there be for any of the NXT athletes? Unless the writing team specifically has a meaningful angle for them, these moves to the main roster are a short-term solution that will yield a diminishing return within just a few months. For example, if EC3 makes his debut on Raw this month, what’s the plan for him at the Royal Rumble? Will there be an angle that builds to a match at Wrestlemania?

When new talents debut, you must consider the landscape of the current roster, and the argument could be made that the writing team hasn’t done enough with the roster they have now so that’s not exactly a good indication for the NXT talents that are scheduled to debut. One of the more disappointing aspects of the WWE product has been that the talent is there, but it seems that most of them are underutilized or presented in a way that minimizes the ability they bring to the table. A prime example is initially Dean Ambrose was presented as “sitcom crazy” instead of being perceived as legitimately dangerous. Even after the heel turn, Ambrose was booked for segments that didn’t give him the chance to get as much heat as possible. Plus, the entire Ambrose/Rollins angle is a retread of the feud from a few years ago when they Shield dissolved except with the roles reversed with Ambrose as the heel. The argument could be made that both Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn were underutilized before their injuries. Along with that, Finn Balor is another example of a main event level talent that doesn’t get the chance to showcase his skills.

Ironically, this “fresh start” includes Smackdown, but if anything, the blue brand is actually doing things right. Daniel Bryan is an over heel, and AJ Styles is an over baby face and they have solid main event matches so it’s a successful formula. Furthermore, last week’s Mustafa Ali/Bryan match was a way to make Ali look like a star because he was made competitive against the WWE champion. Ali has the talent and was given the platform to showcase his skills in a scenario that evaluated his status.

There’s a difference between introducing new faces and making new stars. Especially with Roman on the shelf, management should focus on the process to make new legitimate money-drawing stars. The question is simple, how many currently on the roster could be credible Wrestlemania main event stars? Would Dean Ambrose or Seth Rollins sell out a stadium in 2019? That’s not a jab at either competitor, but rather to explain that talent alone isn’t enough to sell those tickets, they must be presented in a way that’s worthy of that stage. Who would be a credible winner for the Royal Rumble? Maybe John Cena because he’s one of the few legitimate draws the company has right now. Keep in mind, the talent is there, but it’s a matter of presentation.

In fact, there’s much speculation that Ronda Rousey vs. Becky Lynch could be the main event of Wrestlemania next year, and that scenario should be a lesson to the writing team. Ronda had a name and lived up to the hype in the squared circle. Sure, sometimes her inexperience shows and her matches are rather simplistic, but it works. Becky organically and spontaneously became one of the most popular stars on Smackdown, which proves, the writing team can’t force someone to get over. It’s possible that the direction of Raw will become more organic, but as of now, there’s not much new about the fresh start for the Raw brand.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

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