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It's Time For NXT To Say Goodbye To Full Sail University

KUSHIDA and WALTER
Photo: WWE

Let’s not overreact. After two weeks of the new Wednesday Night Wars, nothing about the future of the industry is really much clearer than it was before, and lord knows none of it is set in stone. All Elite Wrestling followed up its good debut showing on TNT with an even better episode on Wednesday, culminating in the skateboard ride heard around the wrestling world. Over on USA Network, NXT had another good-if-typical episode, with Lio Rush winning the Cruiserweight Championship and a wonderful main event between WALTER and KUSHIDA. (I am sorry to yell, but the promotion loves those capital letters.)

It’s both impossible and unwise to pick a winner after a total of eight hours of programming, but there is one area in which AEW is far out in front of its direct competitor. The nascent company is running its shows out of full arenas, which both looks and feels like a big deal, while NXT is stuck with a handicap of its design: Full Sail University. The 400-person venue on the Orlando university’s campus has served NXT well for years, allowing it to build up a consistent and passionate local fanbase through its early years, when the promotion was transitioning from a purely developmental arm to a full-blown third brand for WWE. In those early days—say, from 2013 through the end of 2015—Full Sail was something like NXT’s best asset: the crowds were always lively, the chants were often clever, and the engagement was through the roof. I can’t imagine Sami Zayn’s long-awaited coronation without the crowd losing its shit:

But since NXT took its TakeOver shows to the big stage, starting with 2015's TakeOver Brooklyn, that shine has started to wear off. There are rabid NXT fans everywhere, now, and they’re proven themselves more than willing to fill arenas once every few months; they’ve done so in Dallas, Chicago, Brooklyn a few more times, London, Philly, New Orleans, and other places. These events were big and important not just because they were the brand’s “pay-per-views” but because they looked bigger and more important by dint of their larger, louder locations.

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All this time, NXT kept on plugging away at Full Sail for its weekly tapings, recording four hours of programming at a time every two months or so. That still worked, although the crowds got a bit more toxic and the energy levels a bit more wan. Over time, though, the general vibe of the place came to feel dark and insufficient, and not up to the show it was hosting. NXT started recording episodes elsewhere; never really in full arenas, but in mid-size venues on college campuses and the like. Unsurprisingly, those shows felt livelier, likely because the crowds weren’t jaded and there were simply more audience members to make noise and react.

As of right now, two weeks into a promotional war that WWE is loath to lose, it is already brutally obvious that AEW is the more appealing program to watch. It’s bright and big, happening in front of hot crowds at venues packed to the gills; it’s basically 2014 NXT, with multiple times more scale. There are other things that can make a wrestling program worth your valuable time, of course, but simply by looking better, AEW has a massive leg up on NXT’s Full Sail experience.

There are still advantages to having shows in Orlando, and reasons why staying at Full Sail might be worth it despite its obvious deficiencies. The WWE Performance Center—for my money, the best thing the promotion has invested in this decade, give or take a WWE Network—is right there in Orlando, allowing young trainees a chance to get better and maybe sneak onto a show here or there without much in the way of travel costs. But NXT is no longer a developmental brand, and WWE implied as much when they pitted it against its shiny new rival in a two-hour, live free-for-all. The time for using the Performance Center as a reason or excuse for the Full Sail location has passed.

A move to arenas full-time would likely be premature, because AEW has a lot more star power than NXT does at the moment, but WWE could still develop their young talent in different ways, and ones that would allow NXT to unshackle itself from Orlando and tour the country in mid-size venues. Making that work would likely involve WWE sending down some high-profile talent to NXT on a regular basis to help fill arenas, which is not a bad idea but is also a commitment the promotion has been reluctant to make. The company could keep its working relationship going with EVOLVE Wrestling, which is now a sort of pre-NXT finishing school. It could also take a cue from New Japan Pro Wrestling by engaging in talent exchanges with a brand in a different country. That might be a harder sell, as WWE fashions itself a global company, but they’re not going to be usurped by virtue of sending their young, unpolished talent to, say, Mexico.

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In the meantime, running NXT in bigger venues around the country would allow WWE to accomplish two things. First, it would solve the current presentation problem, which is the more urgent of the issues facing NXT as it tries to compete with AEW. Second, and perhaps more importantly for the overall health of the brand long-term, it would allow new people to experience NXT shows at a reasonable cost. TakeOver shows have ticket prices commensurate with their importance, which is to say that they’re expensive as hell. I got into this year’s TakeOver: New York for $100, but given the location of the seats I feel like I should add a “technically” to that statement.

Photo: Luis Paez-Pumar
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By increasing the supply while also priming the demand in new markets, NXT can broaden its appeal, which is something it needs now that it’s on USA and which it needs especially given that it has already gotten trounced in the ratings. While hardcore wrestling fans will likely search out both shows every Wednesday, there’s also work to be done in growing this brand. The live experience that AEW has provided so far has been both vastly superior and much more accessible, while NXT is simply good.

“Good” may have worked when NXT was the only game in town, but like the Full Sail arena it inhabits, this promotion has outgrown the need to be “good.” There’s a new challenger and a new challenge, and NXT will have to be great to compete. The main portion of that will always be the product in the ring, but there’s no point in hamstringing the show by putting it in a tiny, dark room filled with the same people every week. This change could have, and maybe should have, happened years ago, but AEW has forced the issue. It’s time for NXT to ditch Orlando and truly compete on a national level. Otherwise, NXT will be fighting the Wednesday Night Wars on turf that favors the hot new upstart that’s currently blowing the roof off bigger venues.

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