WWE NXT wants to go mainstream under Vince McMahon’s direction, but they must proceed with caution.
Before WWE NXT hit the USA Network in the Fall of 2019, it was the darling show for a lot of pro wrestling fans. Whereas Raw and SmackDown felt bloated at times and the Pay Per View matches never felt built up well enough, NXT benefited from being an in-and-out one-hour show, with most fans tuning in to their TakeOver specials every few months.
NXT felt cool. It had bad-ass theme songs at TakeOvers, you never felt like watching it was a chore, and you knew you were going to leave satisfied after TakeOver specials. There were – and still are – issues, of course. Some episodes felt useless and stuffed with filler squashes, and there weren’t enough women’s matches on weekly television or TakeOver specials either. We can’t gloss over those problems, but they are problems that were not unique to WWE as a whole.
So what made NXT special, in comparison to Raw and SmackDown, still exists today, but it is at risk of being wiped away. NXT’s roster is talented, far more diverse than several other brands or shows (hello, AEW), and still gets to deliver classics at TakeOvers.
But the product now feels like a watered-down version of the Black and Gold brand. We can talk about Vince McMahon taking control and the “ratings war” (ugh) and all that, but the reality is that NXT had to change in some fundamental way. You don’t go from being a one-hour Network special to a two-hour show on cable without losing something.
WWE NXT will need to find the right balance
There has to be a balance, though. And WWE is taking a major risk in upsetting that balance by having their most-acclaimed men’s champion of all-time, Adam Cole, feud with a former NFL punter in Pat McAfee.
I’ll tell you the point-blank truth. This isn’t going to be a good TakeOver match, and if you are a hardcore wrestling fan, you probably won’t like it. But McAfee vs. Cole isn’t about you, and it isn’t about me. Maybe it’s a little bit about getting Cole to be a big babyface before he heads to the main roster after SummerSlam, but that’s speculative.
However, I do know it’s about crossover appeal. McAfee is a former Pro Bowl NFL player with a wider reach on social media than Cole. More people know who he is. The attempt is to get some eyes on ESPN and to siphon off fans into the NXT product to give it a mainstream credibility boost.
Have you seen this somewhere else? Remember when SmackDown launched on FOX and they brought in Tyson Fury and Cain Velasquez? Obviously it wasn’t successful, because, well, where are they now?
McAfee is a different case. He’s not a combat sports star or wrestler, in Velasquez’s case, so maybe he finds a new audience. He’s also been with WWE, so he’s a “safer” choice than Velasquez and Fury.
Either way, the impact this is going to have on NXT is likely to be minimal. They will pull out the stops and will fail, because there’s only one thing that will work. When it comes to expanding to a new audience, you have to try something you’ve never tried before. You have to invest in people and focus on quality over short-term fixes or “splashy” moves that mean little in the end. There’s nothing wrong with branching out; you just have to remember it’s not really a solution.
And most importantly, you have to remember what grew your brand in the first place and what made it special. At the heart of it, that was the wrestling and the ability to give storylines room to breathe before the final payoff.