The coronavirus pandemic has been an interesting experiment for professional wrestling to say the least. An industry built on live events had to learn how to function without that key business metric. Wrestlers who’s careers were built on performing in front of an audience and working a crowd found themselves playing to an empty room or to a bank of video screens.
The coronavirus pandemic has stretched all of us in our personal and professional lives, and the same holds true for the pro wrestling industry. Here are a few things we have learned about wrestling during the pandemic.
Wrestling without a crowd is bizarre
When the pandemic first hit and was thought to be a short-term problem, WWE put on its shows in the empty performance center in front of announcers only. Because the pandemic struck right around WrestleMania, wrestling’s biggest event of the year — the grandaddy of them all that sells out stadiums — was put on for a live audience of two announcers and one host. The company did the best it could to deliver the annual spectacular, but it is unlikely to make highlight reels in the future.
Wrestling needs the fans. In fact, they are just as much a part of the show as the ring itself. Without a crowd to play to, we are left with grunts, groans and what essentially feels like a parking lot brawl. Without the pops and slow crescendos of the crowd that mark most matches, what you’re left with is just an awkward street fight and it isn’t as fun to watch.
Zoom can’t replace a good crowd either
Once it became obvious that pandemic live was here to stay, WWE set up what it called the Thunderdome — an arena with multiple screens that broadcast members of the WWE universe over Zoom. It was better and it was certainly revolutionary, but after the initial “wow” moment wore off, it just missed.
Part of what makes the crowd in wrestling is that it’s a crowd. Two wrestlers in front of a sea of people. The Thunderdome isn’t that. The faces are huge and can often distract from the in-ring action. It gives the fans at home a little bit of normalcy, and made the wrestling watchable on television, but the live audience at a wrestling event simply cannot be replaced. They are as important to the final product as the referee.
The technology that brought us the Thunderdome probably has some future uses, such as a row of virtual fans at certain pay-per-views or as part of a fan panel on WrestleMania week or other occasions. You will see the technology used again once the pandemic is over, but it won’t replace the roar of a live in-person crowd.
It did bring some nostalgia
Back in the territory days, it was common for wrestling events to be held in small arenas like high school gyms, armories, and bingo halls. While wrestling in front of no crowd, a small crowd of fellow-wrestlers, or the virtual Thunderdome crowd was awkward for most wrestling fans, it did have a certain amount of nostalgia for old-school wrestling where the in-ring sounds were sometimes louder than the crowd itself.
It was a reminder of how far wrestling has come from its roots and how much bigger the production has become and is expected to be.
Nobody is better at marketing than WWE
Some of the greatest minds in business work at WWE. If you’ve watched wrestling for any amount of time, you’ll notice that the video packages are second to none, the production values are top-notch, and nobody puts on a better show than WWE, especially at WrestleMania.
In terms of marketing, it takes no time whatsoever for Austin 3:16 to go from a promo to a T-shirt.
Thinking back to that awkward Performance Center WrestleMania last year, you can see the brilliance on display. WWE was quick to market the event during the pandemic and sold T-shirts bearing the slogan “WrestleMania 36: I Wasn’t There.” Suddenly, despite the fans not being there live, they could all be united in the fact that they weren’t attending the event due to a worldwide global pandemic.
Even in what was it’s strangest, and darkest moment, WWE managed to unite fans, which it has always found a way to do throughout its history.