WWE’s WrestleMania 36 hasn’t even happened yet and yet its already secured itself a place in the history books. This will be the first time in WWE history that not only will WrestleMania be a two-night event, but also the first time WrestleMania will be performed in front of no fans.
As reports of more and more high profile events being canceled started piling up I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people expected WWE to either cancel WrestleMania or postpone it to a later date. I don’t think almost anyone expected the company to do what they ended up doing: holding the show without any fans at the WWE Performance Center. But hey! Rob Gronkowski, former New England Patriots tight end and reportedly the newest high profile athlete signed to WWE, will be there to host the event, for some reason. So I guess that’s exciting?
It’s a well known fact that Vince McMahon is obsessed with presenting his product as sports entertainment. Yet unlike his colleagues in the NBA, NHL, MLS, MLB, and every other major sports organization around the world who have canceled their seasons/events due to coronavirus concerns, the show must always go on in Mr. McMahon’s world, even in the case of global pandemic. To a point, I admire the fact that no matter what’s going on in the world, Vince ensures that every single week Raw and SmackDown are still on TV. When bad things are happening in the world, many people are happy to have distractions and entertainment to help them escape for a little while and smile. But this isn’t one of those moments where I admire Vince’s obsession with never missing a live episode of his weekly TV series or regularly scheduled WrestleMania. Why? He’s putting people in danger.
The show should most definitely not go on. First and most importantly, by doing this, WWE is putting people at risk and it simply isn’t worth it just to put a show on. The CDC and the US government are recommending that people stay inside, practice social distancing, and if you absolutely have to go out, avoid any gathering that has 10 or more people. And yes, WWE is following these guidelines by holding WrestleMania at the WWE Performance Center with no fans and essential personnel only. But here’s the problem: just counting the performing Superstars alone gives you more than 10 people. Then there’s the production crew, announce team, medical staff, and the folks running the show, i.e. Mr. McMahon himself, who is 74 years-old, thus putting him in the age bracket that’s at the highest risk for infection, severe illness, and possibly death when it comes to COVID-19.
Professional sports rely on an audience to function. It’s not just monetary, either — a live audience at a sporting event is a vital component that when removed, completely changes the dynamic almost always for the worse. This goes double for professional wrestling, which perhaps more than any other sport, lives and dies by their audience. No other form of sports entertainment out there is as intrinsically tied to their audience as pro wrestling. A pro wrestling crowd can make a star out of a complete nobody and by the same breath take a once-valued commodity and make them irrelevant by booing them or worse, ignoring them. There’s nothing quite like it. Which, health concerns aside, is why WWE is crazy to deny themselves the gift that is a live crowd at WrestleMania.
For instance, WWE Hall of Famer Edge announced an unexpected forced retirement from pro wrestling in 2011 due to cervical spinal stenosis. Nine years later, after several neck surgeries and getting into the best shape of his life at 46 years-old, Edge made a surprise return to WWE in the 2020 men’s Royal Rumble match. Watch the clip of his return below.
As you can see, when Edge returned people lost their collective f*cking minds (so did my friends and I in my living room), and for good reason — not only is Edge an all-time great and one of the forefathers of modern day tag team wrestling, but fans love him. And when wrestling fans love someone, they really love them. Wrestling fans are some of the most passionate and loyal people in all of fandom. Sure, a lot of them are complete weirdos, but there’s a strange brotherhood that exists within the ranks of people who love something so passionately even though the rest of society mocks them for it (“You guys know it’s fake, right?”)
Now imagine Edge’s return without those fans in the crowd. Not nearly as cool, right? Especially if you’re not a wrestling fan and have no idea who the guy is. Part of what draws people to wrestling is that so many people watching it appear to be having the time of their lives. It’s fun! People want to get in on the fun. The live crowd for WrestleMania and the events that take course over WrestleMania weekend are the most passionate fans WWE has. There’s a special atmosphere during WrestleMania and a big component of that is the fans.
So what’s it going to look and sound like when Drew McIntyre defeats Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship and hoists it above his head to the sound of complete and utter silence? Would you rather watch that on the date it was originally scheduled to happen, or would you rather wait a few months to see it happen while 65,000+fans scream and cheer like complete maniacs? It’s not even a choice, right? So then why is it for WWE? Why won’t Vince McMahon do the right thing and postpone WrestleMania? If not for the fans, you’d think he’d want to do it for the money.
Each year WrestleMania brings in nearly 100,000 crazy passionate fans from around the globe to some lucky city that WWE has decided to host the event in, and those fans love to spend money. Last year’s event injected something to the tune of $165.4 million into the economy for the New York/New Jersey region. So not only does WWE bring an economic boon to their host city, but they themselves make money hand-over-first on ticket sales and merchandise for WrestleMania, Axxess, NXT: TakeOver, and the SmackDown and Raw that bookend the event. That’s a lot of money that Vince is leaving on the table and for what? To say that in his time as WWE Chairman he never had to cancel or postpone a WrestleMania? What’s the old adage? Pride comes before the fall?
Look, I get it, this is a serious challenge for WWE to pull the plug on its most important event of the year, especially with so many high profile storylines and part-time wrestlers involved. But it’s not like they don’t have options. If they postpone WrestleMania, they could do something that talent and fans alike have been pushing them to do for years: create an offseason. Pro wrestling, and WWE in particular, is the only form of sports entertainment that doesn’t have an offseason. Vince would sooner die than delay weekly TV and pay-per-view events, but that’s actually on the table here if he doesn’t change his attitude.
Create a mandatory offseason and give talent two months off to rest and recuperate. We hear time and time again about wrestlers working hurt and getting injured because they never have the opportunity to take time off and when they do, it’s seen as a special exception and looked down upon. That’s no way to treat your employees and it’s awful that these people can never look forward to at least one period during the year where they can get a month or two to relax, recuperate, and spend time with their friends and family.
The Superstars and production crew deserve a hell of a lot better from WWE, and it wouldn’t just benefit them, either. There’s also the writing team to consider. Those poor people have to live under the constant pressure of being able to create new ideas for two television live shows that go on every single week out of the year. It would probably benefit them quite a bit to have some consistent time off to recharge the creative juices and have time to think up new ideas without the looming pressure of two weekly shows.
So let’s say WWE postpones WrestleMania for a few months. What about Raw and SmackDown, then? Do they cancel both shows until large social gatherings are okay to do again? They don’t have to, because the answer couldn’t be simpler: the WWE Network. For over 25 years WWE has been putting on weekly live television and monthly pay-per-view events. There are countless legendary matches, characters, and storylines from over the years that they could easily air during Raw and SmackDown for the next few months. Not only that, but the WWE Network hosts some seriously incredible original content, including interviews and documentaries that look at some of the most exciting and interesting periods from the company’s history. Some of my favorites: Breaking Ground, 24, 365, and Chronicle, The Monday Night War: WWE vs WCW, Table for 3, Ruthless Aggression, and A Future WWE: The FCW Story.
That’s easily six months of original content from the WWE Network that the company could air on Raw and SmackDown each week during their offseason, and it’s a hell of a lot better than people wrestling in front of an empty arena and putting themselves at a serious health risk while doing so. Plus, the WWE Network original content is so good that it could easily be a boon for the company by bringing in new subscribers that wouldn’t have otherwise seen the content.
At the end of the day, this is a really difficult situation for WWE and the choices they have to confront moving forward aren’t going to be easy to tackle. But when it comes to protecting the health and safety of the people who work there, it should really be a no brainer. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way Vince McMahon appears to be wired.
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