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The World Wrestling Entertainment Brand Extension was a device first used in 2002 by the professional wrestling organization as a means of providing separate brands of wrestling through its two top shows, RAW and SmackDown!, and, in 2006, with the revival of Extreme Championship Wrestling. In late July 2011, COO Triple H, announced the end of the Brand extension by allowing Raw and Smackdown superstars appear on each show freely, also announcing Championships can now be defended on either show if the champ desires.
Brand extension is not a concept that began with WWE - indeed, one of the greatest successes of former WWE competitor World Championship Wrestling (WCW) was its nWo faction, which, at the height of its success, was always referred to as its own promotion - going so far as to co-brand all pay-per-view events as "WCW/nWo". Yet, the overuse of nWo led to little fan interest when a new nWo-exclusive show (which would become WCW Thunder) was proposed, and the nWo-exclusive Souled Out pay-per-view received a low buyrate.
Ever since acquiring the remains of World Championship Wrestling, its greatest competitor throughout the 1990s, in March 2001, the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) sought for a way to split itself into two separate promotions, due to the numbers of talent that it had acquired as part of its purchase. The original plan was to create a new WCW (which would be an independent entity in the storylines but would be under the WWF's auspices in reality), and for this new WCW to take over RAW and use the show to recreate its WCW counterpart, WCW Monday Nitro. This experiment was first made in June 2001, when the final few minutes of RAW was given to WCW programming, in which the RAW crew was largely replaced (with Scott Hudson and Arn Anderson doing commentary, as well as a major stage overhaul). Fans, however, did not hold the WCW segment in high regard, especially when WWF wrestlers interfered at the end of a match between Buff Bagwell and WCW World Heavyweight Champion Booker T. With WWF focused on splitting its roster, the infamous Invasion storyline was used as a second resort.
Faced with the early termination of the storyline in that year's Survivor Series, the WWF executed their alternate plan, which was to separate the two shows themselves: previously, wrestlers appeared on both RAW and SmackDown!, but with this extension, wrestlers would be exclusive to only one show. Only the WWF Undisputed Champion and the WWF Women's Champion were exempt and could appear on both shows.
This was represented in storylines as a feud between the on-screen co-owners Ric Flair and Vince McMahon, who would each take one show - Flair with RAW, McMahon with SmackDown! - and draft their initial group of superstars. Later on, when McMahon reasserted control over both shows, he appointed general managers to lead each brand. To many of the fans' surprise, Eric Bischoff, the former promoter and President of WCW who tried to run the WWF into the ground during such tenure, was placed as the general manager of RAW, while Stephanie McMahon, who had led the faction of ECW superstars in the Invasion storyline, was installed as Bischoff's counterpart on SmackDown!. Whereas Bischoff was a heel whose decisions often made things difficult for face wrestlers, Stephanie McMahon was a face who generally made fan friendly decisions.
The revival of ECW
Although in the 1990s, Extreme Championship Wrestling was another competing promotion, it was highly touted as an "up-and-coming" organization from within then-WWF itself, even going so far as to invade Monday Night RAW for one night. When ECW fell largely due to monetary problems, many of its top talent, as well as promoter Paul Heyman, found its way to WWE. Indeed, the failed Invasion storyline also featured an ECW faction, working alongside WCW (as The Alliance faction) to unseat WWF from power.
Although the storyline was a failure, the idea of reviving the former promotion under WWE auspices (or in other words, as a third brand to compliment RAW and SmackDown!) was kept on the backburner, largely due to the influence of ECW-style wrestling, the talent that had employed it, and the loyal audience that had enjoyed every moment of it. The success of The Rise and Fall of ECW allowed WWE to revive what was a failed experiment with WCW. To test the waters for this brand, a special ECW reunion show was booked, held from the Hammerstein Ballroom, one of ECW's old venues. ECW One Night Stand, as it would be called, would employ ECW alumni from both RAW and SmackDown, as well as other wrestlers not employed by WWE at the time. Despite the show originally touted as free of "WWE influence", the show did have some "WWE involvement", but in the end it was a huge success.
One year later, Rob Van Dam would win the Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania 22, signalling to many fans that WWE intended to split off an ECW brand, and would cash in his world title shot at One Night Stand later that year. The following months would indeed meet these expectations: Heyman would resurrect the ECW brand, and would raid both the RAW and SmackDown rosters for talent - notably Rob Van Dam and Kurt Angle, a man who staunchly opposed the ECW of old due to being witness to the infamous Raven crucifixion storyline.
With RVD being part of the new ECW, RVD would be free to challenge Cena for the WWE Championship at One Night Stand, with the provision that should RVD win, the ECW World Championship would replace it. Indeed, while the 2005 edition of One Night Stand was to remember the ECW of old, the 2006 edition would effectively be the celebration of ECW's new beginnings.
As a result of the WCW acquisition, the WWF had acquired many lower-card WCW talents (higher-card talents were typically contracted to Time Warner itself and were usually too expensive for WWF to buy out - and thus absent from the Invasion storyline), all of which worked both RAW and SmackDown. However, because of the limited time given to each show, many wrestlers (especially former WCW talents) would not appear for weeks on end. The brand extension served to split up the roster so that more of these wrestlers would have screen time, but at the expense of mainstays who regularly appeared on both shows.
Wrestler movement between the two shows were mainly through trades set up by agreement between Flair and McMahon, and later between McMahon's appointed general managers. Other wrestler movements were largely done through brand-versus-brand storylines in which the two shows would compete for talent in bidding wars. Journeymen wrestlers could also quietly change shows by means of a character retool through the developmental territories. In 2004, shortly after WrestleMania XX the annual WWE Draft also served as a means of wrestler movement.
The brand extension originally tried to minimize interbrand relationships, so as to maintain the fact that the two brands had little relation to each other. Among WWE's annual shows, it was envisioned that the "big four" (for a short time five due to the King of the Ring) pay-per-view shows (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam, and Survivor Series) were the only ones to feature both brands, and among those five only WrestleMania, the Royal Rumble match, and (when it was around) the King of the Ring tournament itself would feature interbrand competition. Indeed, for a while matchups between RAW and SmackDown! talent were regarded as "interpromotional". The introduction of ECW in 2006 introduced further confusion, as ECW was touted as a separate promotion from the two "WWE brands", and as such only interbrand matches involving ECW were deemed to be "interpromotional". The reintroduction of Saturday Night's Main Event have also led to interbrand supercards.
The tradition in giving the Royal Rumble winner a shot at the heavyweight championship at WrestleMania was also altered as a result of the brand extension and the separation of the men's titles in 2002 - initially (for 2003), the Rumble winner was slated to face their brand's champion (which led to the match between Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle), while in 2004, a supposed "loophole" in tradition allowed SmackDown! talent Chris Benoit to face RAW's Triple H, much to the disappointment of RAW's top Rumble finisher that year, Chris Jericho. Since then, the Rumble winner has the choice of which champion to face at WrestleMania, allowing the winner a chance to change shows. Because of this arrangement, there is no special accolade given to the highest-finishing wrestler of the losing brand at the Rumble. However, the losing brand (i.e. the brand whose top championship wasn't being challenged by the Rumble winner) has always held an event shortly following the Rumble (being a tournament or a battle royal) to determine its top condender for their own top championship.
In 2005, WWE introduced the Money in the Bank ladder match to the WrestleMania card. It is a ladder match where six men square off to retrieve a briefcase containing a contract. The contract guarantees the winner a world title shot anytime in the following year good up until the subsequent WrestleMania. The match was a RAW brand exclusive match-up in 2005, but in 2006, the match became inter-promotional, and SmackDown superstars were added to the mix. 3 superstars from RAW and 3 from SmackDown fought for a title shot from the brand of their choosing.
The introduction of ECW in 2006 entailed that the "big four" pay-per-views would also involve ECW. The 2007 Royal Rumble match featured ECW wrestlers, the ECW Championship will be on of the title choices that the winner of the Rumble can challenge for. It is also unknown whether ECW members will compete in the Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania. An early part of the WWE's version of ECW was to feature interbrand matches between RAW and Smackdown wrestlers against the ECW Champion as a way to establish the brand.
Wrestlers could appear on two (or conceivably all three) shows temporarily as part of an ongoing storyline. Examples of such instances include the aforementioned Rumble winner attempting to see which champion he will choose to face, the brand-versus-brand storyline in which wrestlers from the one brand performing run-ins in the other brands' shows, or one-time reunions that see two wrestlers from separate brands teaming up together.
Some have criticized the theoretical separation of talent, as interbrand competition was originally intended to be a novelty for the major shows but has occurred in increasing frequency in the first few years of the extension: in 2005, RAW's World Tag Team Champions were put on Armageddon, a SmackDown event, while in 2006, Cyber Sunday, a RAW event, saw the champions of each brand facing off against each other. In an interesting case, the reunion of the Hardy Boyz saw a SmackDown wrestler (Matt Hardy) and a RAW wrestler (Jeff Hardy) teaming up on an ECW event (December to Dismember).
In mid 2011, Triple H(COO of WWE at the time) announced the end of the extension and allowed wrestlers to compete on any show whenever they desire.
Although wrestlers were on separate brands, with each brand getting one show, the pay-per-view events were at the start shared between the two shows - this changed in June 2003, when WWE Bad Blood became the first RAW-exclusive pay-per-view event worldwide (the RAW-exclusive WWE Insurrextion pay-per-view was held before this in May 2002 but was only shown however in the United Kingdom). From then on, each pay-per-view event, with the exception of the major pay-per-views, would be show-exclusive. Even in the joint pay-per-views, inter-brand matches would be limited to the Royal Rumble main event, King of the Ring (before it became defunct), SummerSlam, Survivor Series and WrestleMania, and the intermittent brand versus brand storyline. Former ECW superstars Rob Van Dam, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio, Tajiri, Tazz, Steven Richards, Simon Dean, Nunzio, Chris Jericho, Lance Storm, Dawn Marie, Steve Austin, Mick Foley and The Dudley Boyz, who were all separate by the WWE draft, reunited on June 12, 2005 for One Night Stand 2005.
The formats of the Rumble and King of the Ring were altered as a result of the brand extension - although many early reports assumed that there would be separate RAW and SmackDown! Rumble events, in the end, the single 30-man event would involve 15 wrestlers from each brand. For King of the Ring, the format varied from year to year, mainly in experimenting with whether the quarterfinal round would appear on the King of the Ring card itself, as well as determining the point in which wrestlers from opposite brands facing each other - the final King of the Ring card in 2002 only included the semifinal and final rounds, with inter-brand matches beginning in the semifinal round.
As a result of wrestlers effectively working a reduced schedule, due to the fact that wrestlers would (barring trades or other character retooling) work at most half of the televised shows and eight of the twelve pay-per-view events each year, WWE added several new pay-per-view events to their calendar, such as New Year's Revolution, Taboo Tuesday and The Great American Bash.
Much of the redundant Invasion-era championships (that is, the WWF championship titles and their WCW counterparts) were unified in the fallout of the Invasion at the 2001 Survivor Series, with the WCW and WWF tag team and second-tier titles being merged. Not long later, with the unification of the WWE Championship and the WCW World Championship, the absorption of the Intercontinental, European, and Hardcore belts into the new World Heavyweight Championship, combined with X-Pac appearing without the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship, despite him being the current title holder, there were effectively only four championships: the brand-neutral men's and women's champions, and the tag and cruiserweight belts, both of which were exclusive to SmackDown! (as both sets of champions, Tajiri and the team of Billy and Chuck, were drafted into it).
After Vince McMahon named Eric Bischoff and Stephanie McMahon as general managers of RAW and SmackDown!, respectively, in July 2002, there was an open period in which wrestlers were free to change shows for the supposed lure of bigger contracts on the other show, with some wrestlers regularly appearing on both shows due to an ongoing "bidding war". During this time, the tag champions (Lance Storm and Christian) moved to RAW. Then Intercontinental Championship holder Chris Benoit moved to SmackDown!. He would lose the title shortly after that to RAW's Rob Van Dam at SummerSlam 2002. The title was then moved back to RAW. It was also during this period when then Undisputed Champion Brock Lesnar refused a challenge from RAW's top-contender, Triple H, by agreeing to only wrestle on SmackDown!, and as a result, the World Heavyweight Championship would be created for the champion of RAW (The Title was Awarded to Triple H by Bischoff without a tournament being held). With the "bidding war" at an end by an edict of Vince McMahon, a new set of tag team titles were created for SmackDown!, and both tag belts were renamed so as to be consistent with their heavyweight counterparts: thus the older title was renamed to the World Tag Team Championship while the newer belt became the WWE Tag Team Championship.
The Intercontinental and WCW United States Championship titles were also reintroduced (and for the latter, as a WWE belt), giving RAW three belts and SmackDown! four. To even out the number of belts on both brands, the women's championship was made de facto RAW-exclusive, although the title remained open to challenge to both brands.
The revival of ECW in 2006 revived the ECW World Heavyweight Championship, and in doing so, allowed Rob Van Dam to become the first wrestler to concurrently hold championships from two different brands, having held both the WWE Championship and the newly reintroduced ECW World Heavyweight Championship. This has also led to the WWE Championship being defended on two different brands while Van Dam was champion (the ECW Championship having never been defended on RAW during this time).
It remains possible that any of WWE's nine belts (if the Women's championship is to be considered a RAW-brand title) can change shows. The most notable example of titles changing shows was in 2005, when, as part of the annual draft, the two heavyweight belts switched shows over a four-week period, with WWE Champion John Cena being drafted to RAW as the first pick. As a response, SmackDown! general manager Theodore Long attempted to create a third heavyweight belt that would represent SmackDown!, but found it unnecessary when World Heavyweight Champion Batista was drafted as the last pick in the draft.
When the Extension ended, Championships were allowed to be defended on either show, this is apparent with Cody Rhodes as Intercontinental Champion defending the tile on Raw SuperShow.
The Brand Extension today
Today, all three brands enjoy a top championship. RAW enjoy a second-tier championship, a tag-team championship, and a Women's Championship. Smackdown enjoys a tag team championship and soon a Diva's title. ECW has the United States Championship. The ECW World Heavyweight Championship returned on June 13, 2006, on the premiere of "ECW on Sci-Fi," when former ECW Representative Paul Heyman crowned Rob Van Dam the ECW Champion, it is currently the only championship in ECW.
The Extension was anounced to be ended in July 2011, and was "suspended until further notice" by October 2011, with superstars and Championships competing and being defended on either show.
On May 25, 2016 it was confirmed that on July 19 that SmackDown would go live and move to Tuesdays and the rosters would be split again.