(CBSNewYork/CBS Local) — WWE’s developmental brand can no longer be considered second-tier. On Wednesday night, wrestling’s next generation of Superstars leveled the playing field and now shares a stage as large and grand as well-established Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live.
For years, NXT has been the darling of the WWE Network, developing a loyal and rabid fan base on the streaming service with nearly 1.7 million paid subscribers, according to numbers released by WWE earlier this year. But now the audience potential is much higher, with its new broadcast home of USA Network available in at least 90 million homes.
Welcome to the big leagues.
It was only last month that WWE announced the shocking decision to move the brand to the cable giant. The shift should be the last major domino to fall in the company’s lucrative domestic television restructuring that will also see SmackDown uprooted from its current Tuesday night time slot to Friday nights on a new network next month.
Since the announcement, speculation has run rampant that the show would become a watered-down version of itself that would rely heavily on more recognizable talent from the main rosters. However, Wednesday’s premier put those concerns to rest, as NXT held true to form by delivering a show with a pay-per-view or TakeOver-esque feel to it. The talking was left to the announcers, while the ring was reserved for action.
After a brief introduction from Paul “Triple H” Levesque, who oversees the brand, the women of NXT made history by wrestling the first match on the show’s new television home. It was clear that the Superstars in the Fatal 4-Way match were determined to prove they could hold their own against the likes of main-roster talents such as Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Sasha Banks, all of whom came up through NXT.
Not only did the women on Wednesday night show that they could hold their own, they showed they could be better. The match was given time to breathe, which allowed for countless near falls, moonsaults, and flips off the top rope and crashes into competitors 10 feet below outside the ring. The reverse hurricanranas electrified fans who crammed into the live studio at Full Sail University to witness history. In the end, it was Candice LeRae who became the number-one contender for the NXT Women’s Championship. But shed no tears for Mia Yim, Io Shirai or Bianca Belair, whose performances will leave a lasting impression on the new audience.
The first hour concluded with Roderick Strong defeating Velveteen Dream to become the new NXT North American Champion, thanks to help from his cohorts in The Undisputed ERA. This too was a match that dazzled, with false finishes and high-risk maneuvers that have become trademarks over the years for NXT. It’s fitting that the win on this first show was actually the culmination of a vow the faction made nearly a year ago to have each of its members carrying a championship belt. It will be interesting to see what the power-hungry four-man stable does with Adam Cole as NXT Champion, Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly as tag team champions, and Strong as North American Champion.
The second hour, which aired on WWE Network, also featured the surprise return of Lio Rush, who has been absent from television for the better part of six months after reportedly having a falling out with management on the main roster. Rush was greeted warmly by fans who chanted “welcome back” as he prepared to face Oney Lorcan. Their match to crown the number-one contender for the Cruiserweight Championship marked the beginning of integration of the 205 Live brand into the NXT fold.
Earlier in the week, Levesque stated that the brands wouldn’t be merging, but that the cruiserweight division would fit more neatly under the NXT umbrella. Cruiserweight title matches may be better suited for Takeover events rather than the monthly main roster pay-per-views, where they are often relegated to the pre-show, according to Levesque, who wants to maximize opportunities for the talents in the overlooked division. Similar opportunities for increased exposure may also be extended to certain talents on the NXT UK roster.
As for how the show ended? It was pure chaos, with a slew of talents getting their first taste of the national television spotlight. The main event street fight between Matt Riddle and Killian Dain eroded into chaos as interference by the imposingly large WALTER and Imperium gave way to an all-out locker room-clearing brawl. The Street Profits, who pull double-duty as regulars on RAW, were among those involved. Their presence offered two familiar faces to those sampling the brand for the first time.
The shift of NXT from streaming to cable was done in part to fill the void left behind by the departure of SmackDown, but it is mostly a sharp response to the new kid on the block, All Elite Wrestling, after the promotion announced plans to begin airing live weekly shows on TNT in October. The upstart wrestling promotion, which features a number of former WWE Superstars, including Cody Rhodes and Chris Jericho, is backed financially by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan.
In two weeks, the shows will begin going head-to-head as a true wrestling war begins for the first time in nearly two decades.
Although airing unopposed, WWE would not escape the first night unscathed, as AEW ran advertisements for its October 2 television premiere. The spots were likely sold by local advertising reps or television providers instead of USA Network. It is hard to see them getting a green light to sell national airtime to a competitor, but stranger things have happened, and AEW’s money is as good as anyone’s. A similar tactic was also reported during the previous night’s episode of SmackDown.
If this is a sign of things to come, buckle up for wild Wednesday nights for the foreseeable future. History shows that blows between competing promotions can be vicious, but fans will enjoy watching the battle play out.
In the end, the winner of the war will be crowned by ratings, and the formula for victory is simple: attract the most viewers.
Nobody quite knows what to expect, since the only apples-to-apples measurement available is an NXT special that aired on a Wednesday night in 2017. That evening 841,000 viewers tuned in to see what all the buzz was about. Levesque would be thrilled if the premier matched those numbers, but isn’t divulging specific viewership goals.
“I don’t want to set expectations that are unrealistic or disappointing in that you do something that is spectacular and we should all be cutting back flips over, but it’s not the number we put out there,” Levesque said.
Whatever number shakes out of the ratings will almost certainly dwarf average viewership on WWE Network. Regardless, it only represents the first night of a long journey. In this new wrestling war, WWE is in it for the long haul and knows that right now they’re just building a foundation.
“I think fans will find [NXT] over time, become enamored with it over time, and it will continue to build just as it always has,” Levesque said.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.