With some much time to fill on a weekly basis, “giving things away for free” on WWE television is inevitable. It’s a must, quite frankly, when you’re booking six hours of original programming on a weekly basis (included 205 Live) and then you throw in a four-hour WWE Network special every few weeks.
Last night on SmackDown Live, WWE promoted three first-time matches, pitting Daniel Bryan vs. Shelton Benjamin, Samoa Joe vs. Rusev and Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Jeff Hardy, the latter of which could have been a pay-per-view main event and not felt out of place.
To WWE’s credit, they hyped all of these matches well and promoted them before the show went on the air. That’s big, and also an outlier as it’s not something WWE typically does very well.
First-time matches should be a big promotional tool for WWE. Now that Daniel Bryan is back from injury after missing the last several years, there are a lot of “first time” Bryan matches to promote. A few weeks ago, they gave away the Samoa Joe vs. Daniel Bryan “first time” match, to a certain extent, adding Big Cass to the match before it actually made it to the ring.
Bryan vs. Benjamin followed a pretty strict formula, which Benjamin “injuring” Bryan’s leg and the announcers speculating as to whether or not Bryan would be strong enough to face Cass on Sunday at Money in the Bank. It’s an effective way of hyping that match, and gives Bryan an excuse if Cass goes over. If Bryan gets the win on Sunday, it makes him look really strong, overcoming the odds, but also weakens Cass, who would be beaten by someone with a leg injury.
Joe vs. Rusev was unique in that in matched up two big men, but viewers could have been taken out of the match entirely thanks to the dumbed-down layout. During this match, when SmackDown went to commercial, WWE did the split screen it does once an hour on the show, with the commercials airing on one side and Joe vs. Rusev on the other. During the entire commercial, Joe held Rusev in a headlock and it felt like they just sat and waited for the commercial to be over. And what do you know? As soon as the break ended, Rusev powered out and made a comeback. That structure doesn’t depict the match as a fight, and instead lets everyone in on the secret that it’s a performance. We all know it is, but viewers would like to suspend disbelief.
Hardy vs. Nakamura is the big one and WWE got out of it with a DQ finish after Nakamura gave Hardy a low blow. That’s a match that could headline a pay-per-view, especially in the summer months, and it would be accepted by much of the fan base. Hardy is older, but he’s still viewed as a legitimate star in WWE and that’s a big reason why they broke up the Hardy tag team after their return two years ago at WrestleMania.
Sure, they wanted to do the “Woken Matt” stuff, but I think the team reason was to elevate Jeff away from his brother, similar to what the company did in 2009 (and it worked then, too).
One of the best promotional tools WWE has left in its arsenal is the tease of a “first time” match taking place.