Last night’s episode of Monday Night Raw was an important one. Sure, it was the red brand’s go-home show for Money in the Bank, but far more importantly, it was the final broadcast from the WWE ThunderDome, a bio-secure bubble created out of necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ThunderDome, which had fans dial into Raw and SmackDown in some kind of ultraviolent Zoom call in lieu of being able to attend in person, doesn’t come anywhere near the excitement of a real crowd of 10,000+ wrestling fans encircling the ring, but it was an innovative concept that only WWE could have pulled off.
Professional wrestling has been difficult to watch in the past 16 months. More so than any other sport(s entertainment), pro wrestling needs an audience. While other sports are enhanced by a live crowd, and can even help influence the outcome of games through home field/court advantage, the ultimate goal of legitimate sporting contests is to determine a winner. Entertaining an audience, in contrast, is the entire point of wrestling. There are no legitimate contests to be decided; no actual wins or losses. Instead, a talented pro wrestler is one who can elicit a large reaction from the crowd. A real “win” in wrestling is getting the biggest pop of the night.
Matches can be made or broken by a crowd reaction, and in some cases, crowd reaction can even dictate how a storyline unfolds. WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon often boasts that WWE has a weekly focus group of over 10,000 people helping to shape their product (whether or not they actually listen to this focus group is the subject of a whole other article). This is all totally lost in a simulated fan experience, or worse, a totally empty, silent arena.
And at the beginning of the pandemic, WWE shows were just that: totally silent. Even WrestleMania 36 took place in deafening silence, in a makeshift ringside area carved out of the WWE Performance Center. These early Pandemic Era shows were heavy on promo work and replays of older matches, reruns from halcyon days where fans could attend shows without risking the catch and spread of a new, poorly understood, deadly, communicable disease.
Eventually, WWE took a cue from rival promotion All Elite Wrestling and populated the ringside area with NXT Superstars and Performance Center trainees. This was a small step up from dead silence, and a welcome stop-gap, but it still missed the mark. Raw and SmackDown emanating from tiny sound stages that made WCW Saturday Night look big-time just didn’t feel right.
Enter: ThunderDome. On August 21, 2020, two days before SummerSlam, WWE unveiled the ThunderDome, an honestly pretty innovative concept that if nothing else, recaptured a bit of WWE’s sense of scale. With piped in crowd noise and chants, and row after row of dozens of webcam feeds of authentic members of the WWE Universe reacting to the show in real(ish) time, if you blurred your eyes a little bit, it almost felt like you were watching a normal show. This sense of scale and ambiance, combined with WWE’s newfound obsession with augmented reality-style graphics and a lot of pyro, helped make the shows feel far more major league than they did in the Performance Center, even if no one was physically watching them at all.
Of course, as time went on, the odd dystopian feel of the ThunderDome and its canned responses began to wear on viewers. While it was a reasonable facsimile of a wrestling event, the most volatile and important ingredient was still missing: the loud, real-time, unadulterated opinions of the WWE Universe. Without actual feedback, how is it possible to tell which angles or characters are getting over? Sure, a dude in the production truck pressed the “boo” or “cheer” or even “you suck chant” buttons at the right times, but it all felt so insular and manufactured.
Which may have ended up being to WWE’s benefit. For all the talk about loving the brash transparency of their fans and their opinions, it goes without saying that WWE would sometimes prefer if the audience would just shut up and let something unfold before deciding to intentionally derail it with “boring” or “CM Punk” chants. One of the low-key best parts of the Pandemic Era is that I don’t even remember what a “What?!” chant sounds like.
But more than just a cynical protection from the feedback of their audience, the controlled environment of the ThunderDome did help enhance some stories. For one, I don’t think Roman Reigns’s brilliant heel character could have been fostered in any environment but the ThunderDome. Fans have never been shy about telling the Big Dog what they think of him, and while many have been begging for this heel turn for years, the inevitable cheers and ironic adulation could have taken this Head of the Table character in a far different direction. This angle requires slow builds, promos that have time to breathe, and an empty canvas on which to paint. Last October’s Hell in a Cell match between Reigns and his cousin Jey Uso was a damn work of art, a play in three parts that unfolded in front of our eyes. It’s hard to imagine that match working as well as it did in front of a crowd of antsy fans chomping at the bit to derail WWE’s plans.
Yes, there were certainly advantages to the ThunderDome, and it will forever be a moment in time that we will look back on for the rest of our lives, one of the strangest periods in wrestling history and a stark reminder that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be forever etched in our collective memory, even when we’re trying to kick back and watch some old rasslin’ matches on Peacock. I applaud WWE for thinking outside the box and coming up with a solution that only they would be able to pull off. Storylines aside, it made WWE programming far more palatable in an unprecedented time.
That said, I am beyond excited that I will (hopefully) never have to watch another show take place inside the ThunderDome ever again. Live crowds return to WWE with this week’s SmackDown, and it feels like a fresh start for both the wrestling business and the country at large (of course, while life is back to normal for many in the United States, the pandemic is far from over as the effort to vaccinate the entire population has crawled to a near total stop, but let’s stay focused on wrestling here, and get vaccinated if you haven’t already).
We got a taste of normalcy at this year’s WrestleMania, which saw some 25,000 fans attend both nights in Raymond James Stadium with social distancing and masking measures in place. It felt like a taste of what once was, and what could be in the future. That future is now. Thanks for the memories, ThunderDome. You exceeded expectations, but you won’t be missed.
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