The brand extension (also referred to as the brand split) is the separation of WWE's talent roster (and, at various times, creative staff) into distinct divisions, or "brands". The strict adherence to the on-screen integrity of the brand split has varied over time.
In March 2002, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) began promoting its core business of professional wrestling through two distinct brands, named after their two major television shows Raw and SmackDown!. From 2006 to 2010, a third brand existed for their television show ECW, which was a revived version of the former promotion. The first brand extension ended on August 29, 2011, after which the Raw and SmackDown brands were dissolved.
On May 25, 2016, WWE announced a relaunch of the brand extension, billed as the "New Era". The second brand extension went into effect on July 19, 2016, when SmackDown began broadcasting live on Tuesdays. In addition to Raw and SmackDown, during the second split WWE has operated three other brands: NXT (formerly a developmental territory, but now promoted as WWE's third global brand); NXT UK, a United Kingdom-based brand; and 205 Live, a cruiserweight-exclusive brand--the latter two are promoted under the NXT banner.
Wrestlers are allocated to a brand via the annual draft. From 2017 to 2019, the draft was replaced with the "Superstar Shake-up", where WWE talent were drafted behind the scenes. Following SmackDowns move to FOX and return to Friday Nights in October 2019, a traditional draft was held during the October 11, 2019, episode of SmackDown and the October 14, 2019 episode of Raw.
In 2001, the Monday Night Wars, the rivalry between the then-WWF and its arch-rival promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW), ended with the WWF emerging victorious. The WWF would acquire all assets of WCW, and later Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW); the third largest promotion in the United States at this point in time), through separate buyouts that included the employees (on and off-air talent) from both companies. The sales had left WWF as the sole wrestling promotion in the world with international TV distribution (until the national expansion of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling in 2002).
With the acquisition of new talent, the WWF's already large roster was doubled in size. In order to allow equal opportunity to all roster members, the company endorsed a brand extension to have the WWF represented and promoted with two brands, Raw and SmackDown!, named after the promotion's two primary television programs, Raw and SmackDown!, respectively.
In early 2002, the idea was put in motion to separate the WWF's two shows into distinct brands while both being under the WWF banner. Previously, wrestlers appeared on both Raw and SmackDown, but with this extension, wrestlers would be exclusive to only one show. Only the Undisputed WWF Champion and the WWF Women's Champion were exempt and could appear on both shows. This would change as both championships were later assigned to a brand.
The extension started on March 25, 2002, with a draft on Raw and went into effect one week later on April 1. The following month, the WWF was renamed to WWE. On June 13, 2006, after a reunion PPV and video releases, WWE announced an addition to its prime time programming with ECW on Sci-Fi. The new ECW served as a third brand, and a revival of the original ECW promotion. Both instances of the brand extensions required that representatives of each brand draft "superstars" (terminology used by the company to refer to its contracted personnel) onto each brand in a draft lottery.
After WWE bought all the assets of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) in 2003, the company began releasing DVDs promoting the original ECW. Soon afterwards, the company promoted two ECW reunion shows for ECW alumni entitled, ECW One Night Stand in 2005 and in 2006.
On May 25, 2006, WWE announced a launch of a new brand, ECW, a revival of the 1990s promotion. The new brand debuted on Sci Fi Channel on June 13, 2006, with its final episode on February 16, 2010, on the rebranded Syfy. It was replaced the following week with WWE NXT.
On May 25, 2016, it was announced that beginning July 19, SmackDown would broadcast live on Tuesday nights, as opposed to being taped on Tuesdays and airing on Thursdays as it was previously, receiving a unique roster and set of writers compared to Raw, thus restoring the brand extension. The draft took place on the live premiere episode of SmackDown to determine the rosters between both brands. On the July 11 episode of Raw, Vince McMahon named Shane McMahon the (on-screen) commissioner for SmackDown and Stephanie McMahon the commissioner for Raw; both chose a General Manager for their respective shows. On the July 18 episode of Raw, Stephanie McMahon chose Mick Foley as the Raw General Manager, and Shane McMahon chose Daniel Bryan as the SmackDown General Manager. Due to Raw being a three-hour show and SmackDown being a two-hour show, Raw received three picks each round and SmackDown received two. Six draft picks had to be made amongst the non-title holders from WWE's developmental brand NXT.Seth Rollins was picked first by Raw, with WWE Champion Dean Ambrose being SmackDown's first pick.
Interbrand competition was initially kept to a minimum, with wrestlers from all brands competing together only at pay-per-view events. However, from 2003 to 2007, all pay-per-view events became brand exclusive, leaving the "big four" pay-per-views (WrestleMania, SummerSlam, Survivor Series, and Royal Rumble) as the only interbrand shows.
Starting in late 2006, in an attempt to add more star power to the shows, interbrand matches became more common. Most notably, MNM and The Hardy Boyz reformed, despite the teammates being on separate brands.Bobby Lashley was also notable for his interbrand action, as he was involved in a storyline with Donald Trump, against WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, which carried over from Raw through WrestleMania 23 to ECW. The brief return of Saturday Night's Main Event to NBC also led to more interaction between the brands.
Interbrand competition returned with the reestablishment of the brand extension in 2016; the first interbrand match that occurred after the brand extension went into full effect was at SummerSlam on August 21, 2016 where Raw's Brock Lesnar defeated SmackDown's Randy Orton. The next large interbrand matches occurred at Survivor Series on November 20, 2016, featuring traditional Survivor Series elimination tag team matches between Raw and SmackDown, and beginning the following year, the event became about brand supremacy; in addition to the traditional Survivor Series matches, each champion of the Raw brand faces their counterpart of the SmackDown brand in non-title matches (e.g., the Universal Champion against the WWE Champion). Following the 2019 WWE Superstar Shake-up, a Wild Card Rule was introduced. Interbrand competition became much more frequent, with interbrand matches occurring weekly on Raw and SmackDown Live, as well as at pay-per-views. With a second draft of 2019 occurring in October, the Wild Card Rule was abolished.
In May 2020, limited interbrand matches returned with the introduction of the Brand to Brand Invitational, though under stricter guidelines than the previous Wild Card Rule. This happened largely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which several wrestlers have opted to not perform during the outbreak, thus resulting in fewer available talent on each show.
The separation of the WWE roster between two brands also intended to split the pay-per-view offerings, which began with Bad Blood in June 2003. The original idea had the "major" pay-per-view events at the time (Royal Rumble, SummerSlam, Survivor Series, and WrestleMania) would contain the only instances where wrestlers from different brands would interact with each other, and even among the four shows only the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania would have wrestlers from different brands competing against each other. Wrestlers, as a result, appeared only in two-thirds of the shows in a given year, and thus appeared in fewer shows compared to before the brand extension. With single-brand PPVs in place, WWE was able to add more pay-per-view events to their offerings, such as Taboo Tuesday/Cyber Sunday, New Year's Revolution, December to Dismember, and The Great American Bash. Eventually, WWE abandoned the practice of single-brand pay-per-view events following WrestleMania 23. December to Dismember and New Year's Revolution were cancelled following the announcement.
With the reintroduction of the brand extension in 2016, single-branded pay-per-view events returned, and seven more pay-per-view events were added in 2017 so that each brand could have their own pay-per-view each month, in addition to the four major pay-per-views, in which both brands were involved. The only exception to this were the two months leading up to WrestleMania 33 in order to build the feuds for that event, and the two months (including the month of WrestleMania) following WrestleMania to begin new feuds for each brand. For example, February 2017 only had a SmackDown pay-per-view while March only had one for Raw. WrestleMania 33 was on April 2 and Raw had its first post-WrestleMania pay-per-view on April 30, while only SmackDown had a pay-per-view in May. This also happened in 2018, however, for 2018, WWE announced that all pay-per-views following WrestleMania 34 would be dual-branded, abandoning the single-brand practice for a second time. The 2018 Elimination Chamber and Fastlane events were the last two brand-exclusive pay-per-views for Raw and SmackDown, respectively.
Initially, the Undisputed WWE Championship and the original WWE Women's Championship were available to both brands. The other championships were exclusive to the brand the champion was a part of. When the brand extension began, Raw received the Intercontinental Championship and European Championship when their respective holders were drafted, while SmackDown became the exclusive home for the World Tag Team Championship and the original Cruiserweight Championship. With several specialty championships being exclusive to one brand, numerous wrestlers were left with no title to fight for except for the Hardcore Championship, which although a property of SmackDown after the draft, it was contested under different rules than the other championships--the European and Hardcore championships were later unified with the Intercontinental Championship in July and August 2002, respectively, deactivating both championships.
The issue of specialty championships being exclusive to one brand was partially corrected in September 2002. When SmackDown general manager Stephanie McMahon announced that Undisputed Champion Brock Lesnar signed a deal to exclusively appear on SmackDown, Raw general manager Eric Bischoff introduced the World Heavyweight Championship for Raw. Shortly thereafter, Raw became the exclusive brand for the World Tag Team Championship, the Intercontinental Championship, and the Women's Championship. Meanwhile, SmackDown created the WWE Tag Team Championship and revived the United States Championship. The end result was each brand having four championships: World Heavyweight, Intercontinental, World Tag Team, and Women's titles for Raw; WWE, United States, Tag Team, and Cruiserweight titles for SmackDown. When ECW was revived in 2006 as a third brand, the ECW World Heavyweight Championship was reactivated as the brand's only championship. Over the course of the first brand extension, these championships switched between brands, usually due to the result of the annual draft. The Cruiserweight title, however, was the only championship to never switch brands, staying on SmackDown from 2002 until the championship's retirement on September 28, 2007.
In October 2007, SmackDown and ECW began a talent exchange agreement, which meant that SmackDown wrestlers could appear on ECW and vice versa. This allowed the United States Championship and WWE Tag Team Championship to be shared between the two brands. In July 2008, the WWE Divas Championship was created for SmackDown, allowing SmackDown's women wrestlers to compete for a title. A talent exchange between ECW and Raw then began in September 2008. After John Morrison and The Miz of ECW became World Tag Team Champions, they appeared more frequently on the Raw brand, moving to a feud with reigning WWE Tag Team Champions of SmackDown, brothers Carlito and Primo Colon. The teams fought several non-title and title bouts for their respective brands' tag team championships before the two fought in a winner-take-all title unification lumberjack match at WrestleMania XXV. Carlito and Primo would go on to win the contest, forming the Unified WWE Tag Team Championship. The tag team championships remained separate titles, but were defended collectively as the Unified WWE Tag Team Championship until the then-anonymous general manager of Raw announced that the World Tag Team Championship would be retired in favor of continuing the WWE Tag Team Championship, which received a new, single set of belts. On February 16, 2010, the ECW Championship was deactivated along with the ECW brand. On September 19, 2010, at Night of Champions, the Women's Championship was unified with the Divas Championship, retiring the Women's Championship in the process; the Divas Championship was briefly referred to as the Unified WWE Divas Championship. The first brand extension would then end a year later and all champions could appear on both shows.
In 2012, NXT became a developmental brand for WWE and they introduced the NXT Championship that year, followed by the NXT Women's Championship and NXT Tag Team Championship in 2013. On December 15, 2013, at TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs, the World Heavyweight Championship was unified with the WWE Championship to become the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The title retained the lineage of the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship was retired. The name was reverted to WWE Championship on June 27, 2016. At WrestleMania 32 on April 3, 2016, the Divas Championship was retired and then replaced with a brand-new WWE Women's Championship.
After five years, a new brand extension was introduced on July 19, 2016. Raw drafted the WWE Women's Champion, the United States Champion, and the WWE Tag Team Champions, while SmackDown drafted the WWE Champion and the Intercontinental Champion; NXT champions were ineligible to be drafted. This distribution of championships remained unchanged at the Battleground pay-per-view, which took place the Sunday immediately following the draft. With the WWE Championship being defended exclusively on SmackDown, Raw commissioner Stephanie McMahon and general manager Mick Foley introduced the WWE Universal Championship to be Raw's world title. As SmackDown was lacking a tag team championship and a women's championship, Smackdown commissioner Shane McMahon and general manager Daniel Bryan introduced the SmackDown Tag Team Championship and SmackDown Women's Championship. Subsequently, the WWE Women's Championship and the WWE Tag Team Championship were renamed as the Raw Women's Championship and the Raw Tag Team Championship, respectively. With this, each brand had a world championship, a secondary championship, a tag team championship, and a women's championship.
Since Raw became the exclusive home of WWE's revived cruiserweight division, they also created a new WWE Cruiserweight Championship. Beginning November 29, 2016, in addition to Raw, the Cruiserweight Championship was defended on the cruiserweight-exclusive show, 205 Live. 205 Live would become its own brand in 2018, making the title exclusive to the brand. The WWE United Kingdom Championship was unveiled in December 2016 with its inaugural holder determined in January 2017. The title later became the top championship for the United Kingdom-based NXT spinoff, NXT UK, which debuted in mid-2018 and also introduced the NXT UK Women's Championship and NXT UK Tag Team Championship. A secondary title of the NXT brand was also introduced in mid-2018, the NXT North American Championship.
In early 2019, the WWE Women's Tag Team Championship was established to be shared between Raw, SmackDown, and NXT. In May 2019, the WWE 24/7 Championship was established. Defended across all five of WWE's brands, it is open to anyone, regardless of gender or WWE employment status. In October 2019, after NXT's creative team took over 205 Live, the WWE Cruiserweight Championship was renamed to NXT Cruiserweight Championship, with the title now shared between 205 Live and NXT, and was later extended to NXT UK in January 2020.