Breaking down WWE’s NXT play, opportunity for AEW

WWE is apparently on the verge of announcing a splash move for its NXT brand that would take it head-to-head with AEW on Wednesday nights in the fall.

Several reports have NXT airing on USA opposite AEW, which is making its debut on TNT on Wednesday, Oct. 2.

There had been speculation all summer that WWE would want to use NXT as a hammer in the brewing war with AEW, but the thinking had centered on NXT going to FS1, the sports network of new broadcast partner Fox, which will be the home of the “Smackdown” brand on Friday nights beginning Oct. 4.

USA is clearly a step up from FS1 in terms of visibility, but there is risk for WWE in going the higher-profile route.

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Photo Credit: Destina

NXT is the outgrowth of WWE’s effort to develop an in-house developmental system, and it has worked well to that end, producing top-tier homegrown stars like Roman Reigns and Charlotte Flair, and serving as the first point of entry into the WWE Universe for established talents including Kevin Owens, Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura.

Important question here: can the current working NXT model – mixing the developmental wrestlers with indy and foreign stars – endure the move from streaming on WWE Network to the bright lights of USA?

It seems more likely that what will end up happening will be the NXT brand basically being a beard for what will become the third weekly main-roster WWE TV show.

It’s hard to imagine WWE not using main-roster talents on an NXT show that is being positioned to go head-to-head with AEW.

Think back to the 2006 rollout of a WWE version of ECW.

That one didn’t go over well with fans who had been excited about the return of ECW, which had a distinct style and core of available talents, because WWE largely ignored what ECW had been, and mainly used the brand to get over its own talents.

NXT has a similar committed fanbase that prefers the very different approach that the brand has taken to presenting its talents, in relation to main-roster WWE, and might be inclined to jump ship if NXT is repurposed into being a third main-roster show.

The NXT fanbase, actually, is very much the segment of pro-wrestling fans that would be inclined to tune in AEW, as WWE is well-aware, and that’s why WWE is pushing the head-to-head competition, to try to deflate AEW as it comes out of the gate.

That’s a solid idea on paper, but what happens if (and when) those fans tune in to see NXT and get Main-Roster WWE Show #3 instead?

That the alternative that WWE is trying to kneecap happens to be on at the same time just a couple of channels over is an opportunity in the making for AEW.

WWE fans know to watch wrestling on Mondays and Tuesdays, and WWE has been conditioning them to think Fridays beginning this fall. Now they’re going to also tell their fans to watch on Wednesdays, and it’s human nature that some of them are going to be intrigued during commercial breaks or when they get bored with what they’re seeing on NXT.

Head-to-head AEW vs. WWE on TNT and USA is also an opportunity in the making for AEW, in that it gives AEW a chance to work toward a victory over the industry giant that it wouldn’t have had otherwise, if WWE had left well enough alone, and ceded Wednesdays to TNT.

For wrestling fans, of course, this is what they’ve been praying for since the demise of WCW in 2001, ending the Monday Night Wars that had driven monster ratings for a lengthy stretch in the late 1990s.

Competition makes everybody better, and with WWE and AEW going head-to-head on two major cable broadcast networks, you can expect that each will pull out all the stops.

It’s not likely that WWE sees things this way, of course, but, yes, they are unleashing market forces that they’ll probably wish in hindsight that they hadn’t.

Column by Chris Graham

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