As the wrestlers and staff of NXT prepare to put on their first show outside the state of Florida, it’s time to look at an aspect of the brand that’s almost become a character unto itself: the crowd.
When people praise NXT, the fans at Full Sail University are inevitably mentioned, as well they should be. They have the feel of a major indie crowd, while also being more TV friendly and forgiving. They support the wrestlers almost unconditionally (though there are some exceptions). They tend to make a good match great, and a bad match watchable. And while sometimes they toe the line, they aren’t usually too snarky.
The crowd’s ability to make a show better was on full display Wednesday night. The card itself was rather nondescript outside of the main event: three matches were underwhelming, and one was a squash. However, at no point did the crowd allow the matches to feel like they were meaningless. They reacted throughout the show and kept the viewer engaged. And they did it, for the most part this week, without doing chants that put the focus on them and take away from the match.
Which brings us to the question that many fans asked when NXT first announced they’d be hitting the road: With the growing popularity of the brand, is a move from Full Sail inevitable? If NXT really is a developmental league, then the wrestlers should learn how to react to (and interact with) different fans. As it stands, NXT wrestles in front of roughly the same crowd each week. It’s easy to figure out what that crowd will pop for, and do it. It makes the transition to a crowd of thousands in a different city every night that much harder.
The move also would prevent the crowd at Full Sail from getting stale. When the crowd is the same for every show, there can’t help but be a gradual loss of enthusiasm and energy. Wrestling fans saw this happen very recently – in Florida, to boot – as the crowd loaded into TNA’s Impact Zone studio got extremely stale and the promotion abandoned the tapings in favor of a tour; they were back at Universal Studios within a year.
And that brings up the obvious downside to brand expansion: What if NXT can’t get over on the road? How much would the product be hurt if a month’s worth of tapings are in front of more passive crowds? There are ways to try to keep a similar atmosphere while still exposing the wrestlers to different crowds. They could try to target the big cities with the hardcore fanbases, like New York, Chicago or Philadelphia. Unlike the WWE, NXT doesn’t have any obligation to take risks with the cities they decide to tape in – at least not yet. Even the hardcore towns might not react the same way Full Sail does, as Full Sail certainly has more of a connection to every match than other fans would. So that risk is there. But as NXT proved on Wednesday night, they’re not opposed to taking risks.
- Case in point: Forget all the hashtag foolishness, NXT doesn’t need any prodding to place the focus on their red-hot women’s division. The main event between champion Sasha Banks and challenger Charlotte was a well-executed, psychological battle – even if it couldn’t quite match up to their previous encounters. It was a little surprising to see Sasha cheat to win, as many expected this to be the blowoff to their feud. However, it looks like these two will be at it for a little longer. In addition to that match, Alexa Bliss made her return to television in a backstage segment, where she vowed to go after Sasha for injuring her. Also, Emma and Bayley had a solid back and forth, where Emma (who seemed to trend heel) told Bayley that perhaps an attitude adjustment was in order…after all, she had tried to be bubbly on Raw, and it got her a ticket back to NXT. Really great character development here for both women.
- Solomon Crowe made his official in-ring debut, beating Bull Dempsey, and it was, again, somewhat underwhelming. I know that Sami Callihan was great on the indie scene, but in his two televised segments so far, he hasn’t done much to show what he’s capable of. It’s far too early to write him off, but it hasn’t been a good first impression.
- Alex Riley will officially be getting back in the ring for NXT. The storyline presented was near perfect, with William Regal forcing Riley to choose between being a commentator or a competitor if he wanted to get his hands on Kevin Owens. While it seemed like Riley would stay behind the desk, Owens goaded him enough to snap. If this truly is his second chance, Riley is still young enough to make the most of it. Hopefully he doesn’t go right back to the booth after his feud with Owens.
- Sami Zayn made his first comments since his loss to Owens in a video. This was an interesting way to explain his absence from television (which was done since he was in Abu Dhabi during tapings). Instead of simply saying that he was injured, which would have been perfectly understandable, given the brutality of his Rival match with K.O., they had him say that he was just not mentally ready to return yet. It could be setting up a very different Sami Zayn when he returns to confront Owens.
- Say what you will about tag champs Blake and Murphy, but the distance Blake got on his Frog Splash to win on Wednesday was seriously impressive. I’m also looking forward to their upcoming feud with the Realest Guys in the Room. There might still be life in NXT’s tag division.
- It really feels like Tyler Breeze is at a tipping point right now. His win over Adam Rose was good to see on Wednesday, but right now he seems to be in a holding pattern, and they’re not quite sure what to do with him with the influx of talent. What happens in the next few weeks for him could determine his future in NXT.