On a recent episode of his podcast, former WWE producer and current AEW talent Arn Anderson shared his thoughts on WWE’s third brand. Anderson thinks NXT has lost its edge due to its use of “main roster” talent, like current NXT Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair. Anderson thinks a desire to put more star power on Wednesday nights is diluting the product, by pushing workers fans could already see on Raw and SmackDown.
There’s certainly a debate to be had about what becoming a true third brand has done to NXT’s identity. As Anderson’s co-host Conrad Thompson acknowledged, a lot of NXT’s thunder with die hard fans has been stolen by its Wednesday night rival, AEW Dynamite — but that’s not the only thing ailing NXT these days.
The COVID-19 shaped elephant in the room has effected every wrestling promotion in the world. While WWE and AEW are at least able to put on televised shows, the importance of the crowd to a wrestling show has never been clearer. While AEW has been able to gain an advantage by having a handful of wrestlers act as a substitute for fans, WWE has continued to have its Superstars play to no one in an empty Performance Center.
While it’s painful enough to watch on Raw and SmackDown, it really diminishes NXT. Along with the talent and booking, passionate crowds have helped to set NXT apart from its WWE counterparts. One of the advantages of running the shows at Full Sail University instead of taking NXT on the road used to be the hot crowds who were guaranteed to show up. While Raw and SmackDown draw larger crowds, there’s a definite enthusiasm gap between the brands.
It’s hard to watch any empty arena matches and not miss the crowds, but it’s been especially brutal in the matches previously scheduled for the cancelled TakeOver: Tampa Bay show. TakeOvers are NXT’s pay-per-views, and they showcase the brand at its best.
Dream’s act, more than anyone else’s in NXT, lives and dies by crowd reaction. Of all of the top acts on the brand, his is the one that most fits the definition of “sports entertainment.” His offense isn’t as flashy as someone like Cole or Johhny Gargano. His influences lean more toward WWE Legends like Randy Savage than his peers, who take more from Japanese wrestling and developed their style in the indies.
Dream’s character and ability to feed off of a crowd would have likely helped him hang with a work rate machine like Cole in front of a TakeOver crowd. A match between the two in an empty arena couldn’t help but fall flat. The ending, with the Undisputed Era and Dexter Lumis getting involved, didn’t help. It was fine for a one-off match it was fine, but it had the build to be something better than that.
It’s very possible that the empty arena effected the finish, since it’s hard to imagine WWE ending a WrestleMania weekend show without a babyface going over. The complexion of the match changed without a crowd to give Dream his big moment. It’s also worth noting that allegations against Dream might have something to do with how the match played out.
Of course, fans returning to NXT won’t be a panacea for everything that’s ailing the black and gold brand. It’s still dealing with strong competition in its niche for the first time. Going from a cult favorite on the WWE Network to a nationally televised two hour show was always going to have its growing pains. That said, moving out of the silent gym that is the Performance Center and getting back to the fans at Full Sail will go a long way to making NXT feel like itself again.
Arn Anderson says NXT has lost its edge. He's right, in more ways than one.