By Chuck Carroll
This is a massive weekend for WWE. No, it’s not WrestleMania or SummerSlam. But Sunday marks the first pay-per-view event since the RAW and SmackDown rosters were divided. Each now has their own group of exclusive talents.
WWE will broadcast Backlash live from Richmond, Virginia. The card for this historic first for the “blue team” is stacked top to bottom and headlined by a dream match between AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose for the WWE Championship. The undercard doesn’t even reek of the typical creative abyss that is so often prevalent between now and the Royal Rumble in January.
WWE has done a masterful job putting this one together. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself: When was the last time Heath Slater was over? They should be commended and applauded for their efforts.
No matter what WWE does or how well the show is booked, every wrestler will be cloaked by two gigantic shadows this weekend.
Sorry, Vince McMahon, but you’re about to be upstaged by CM Punk and the NFL.
Punk, who infamously walked out on the company in 2014, will make his UFC debut Saturday night. All eyes in the WWE Universe will be focused squarely on the octagon in Cleveland. Worse yet, the bulk of mainstream media coverage so coveted by WWE will go to a former wrestler rather than those still performing inside the ring.
Curious Punk fans will be spending at least $60 to watch him battle Mickey Gall at UFC 203. Will they then turnaround and spend more money to watch Backlash? That’s unlikely.
Yes, the argument can be made that the majority of wrestling fans subscribe to the WWE Network. But that’s not exactly accurate.
Monday Night RAW averages roughly 3.5 million viewers each week. However, according to the latest figures released by WWE, only about one-third of the audience are paying network subscribers. That means two out of every three viewers will be left in the dark.
But still, you’re talking about a Saturday night event competing with a show on Sunday. Okay. I’ll give you that.
Here’s the other problem facing WWE. It’s a little thing called the NFL.
The most popular sport in America — by a wide margin — kicks off its season this week. And that’s horrible news for the wrestling giant.
The NFL’s Sunday night package averaged an astronomical 22.5 million viewers last season. That’s more than six times the audience WWE attracted for its flagship show. And you better believe that a game between the New England Patriots (even without Tom Brady) and Arizona Cardinals will gain the attention of tens of thousands of fans who otherwise would tune in to Backlash.
For WWE, it’s kind of a double kick in the gut with Monday Night Football also starting to chip away at their audience as of next week. Even with a soft docket of games last season, the broadcasts still managed to attract more than 12 million viewers.
Who knows though? The beauty of the WWE Network is that fans can watch shows on-demand. Maybe… just maybe… the match between Styles and Ambrose will generate enough buzz to get people to tune in on Monday. Of course, that’s before football double-header.
WWE Backlash Picks
WWE Championship Match
Dean Ambrose (c) vs. AJ Styles
My money is on Ambrose to retain here. With John Cena out, Ambrose is being branded as the face that runs the place. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
WWE Intercontinental Championship Match
The Miz (c) vs. Dolph Ziggler
After missing out on the WWE Championship, Dolph Ziggler will get a consolation prize. He’s another guy with a ton of popularity who has been booked into oblivion. But this appears to be a new era in WWE where “the powers that be” are listening to fans. So, I’m going with Ziggler.
SmackDown Women’s Championship Six-Pack Challenge
Nikki Bella vs. Becky Lynch vs. Carmella vs. Natalya vs. Alexa Bliss vs. Naomi
This one could go any number of ways. If WWE really wanted to go for the “oh wow” factor, they should put the belt on Natalya. She’s kind of in the same boat as Dolph Ziggler as an ever-loyal but rarely pushed wrestler with phenomenal talent. However, I just don’t see Sunday being her night. Nikki Bella and Becky Lynch seem to be the best bets, but I’m giving the edge to Becky here.
SmackDown Tag Team Tournament Second Chance Match
The Usos vs. The Hype Bros.
The Usos were once the darlings of the tag team division. Unfortunately, they’re now fighting to stay relevant. They’re trapped somewhere between The Ascension and Breezango. That’s unlikely to change here. Hype Bros. move on to the finals.
SmackDown Tag Team Tournament Finals
Heath Slater and Rhyno vs. Hype Bros.
Zack Ryder had a shocking WrestleMania moment by capturing the Intercontinental Championship. Could there be another shock here? Possibly. And it’d be a wise decision on WWE’s part. Heath Slater’s free agency is one of the greatest gimmicks going. It’d be a nice payoff for Slater to finally capture some gold, but let’s save that for another time. Hype Bros. get the titles.
Randy Orton vs. Bray Wyatt
This one seems pretty straightforward to me. I can’t see Randy Orton, who is arguably the biggest name on SmackDown’s roster (save the absent John Cena), losing back-to-back pay-per-view matches. It’s time to start building up the Apex Predator once again. Randy Orton wins this one.
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.