How WWE Pulled Off WrestleMania 36 Without Fans and What It Means for Its Business and Future

WrestleMania 36 - H 2020
Courtesy of WWE

Amid the coronavirus crisis, the sports entertainment firm decided to press on with its first-ever two-night, and first-ever pretaped, WrestleMania event — will it be a model for the future?

Sporting events around the world have been disappearing from schedules due to the new coronavirus. The NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments — canceled. The NBA and NHL seasons — suspended. The start of the MLB season — delayed. The Summer Olympics in Tokyo — pushed to 2021.

So how did sports entertainment powerhouse World Wrestling Entertainment manage to air WrestleMania 36 over the weekend on its WWE Network streaming service, which costs $9.99 per month in the U.S. (or is free for a monthlong trial), as well as, for $59.99, both nights via Fox Sports, Fox Now or the FITE streaming service?

The Hollywood Reporter takes you through why WWE didn't call off its biggest annual event, how it was produced without fans, the feedback from fans and reviewers to its empty-arena setting, what cinematic changes the event brought compared to past WrestleManias and its likely fallout for WWE’s business and future.

First-ever pretaped and two-night WrestleMania??

WrestleMania 36 was originally scheduled to take place at Raymond James Stadium, the home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the XFL's Tampa Bay Vipers, which seats 65,618, but with the addition of temporary seating can be expanded to accommodate 75,000 fans.

But amid the spreading coronavirus pandemic, WWE had to put on a fan-less, empty arena event for its weekly Smackdown show on Fox on March 13, set at its state-of-the-art WWE Performance Center trainings facility in Orlando. While fans and reviewers noted the lack of energy without any fans in attendance, the ratings were solid.

WWE from there continued to run its weekly shows, including USA’s Raw, in the same fashion.?? The company was also understood to be in regular touch with Tampa city officials and exploring contingency plans for WrestleMania even before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested cities cancel large-scale events and gatherings.

And March 18, it issued a press release announcing the big annual event, which has been called the WWE’s version of the Super Bowl, would go ahead without fans from the Performance Center.?? "WrestleMania, for the first time ever, will be held as a two-night event streaming on Saturday, April 4, and Sunday, April 5,” the sports entertainment giant said in unveiling three-time Super Bowl champion Rob Gronkowski as the event’s host. In what observers called a classic WWE promotional twist on the situation, the release was titled, "WrestleMania Too Big for Just One Night," a tagline that the firm also kept highlighting in the run-up to the event over the following weeks.?? It later emerged that the event would for the first time ever be pretaped — on March 25-26.??

While critics decried the decision to continue taping shows amid the virus crisis, WWE relied on planning ahead and its, and chairman-CEO Vince McMahon’s, legendary focus on ensuring that the show must go on.

"Each WrestleMania has its own personality and has been different than the rest. Tonight and tomorrow’s WrestleMania will be the most different of all," WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of Vince McMahon, told fans in a recorded message that opened night one of WrestleMania 36. "There won’t be 80,000 screaming fans in a stadium due to the current circumstances. Tonight, we emanate from a closed set — with no audience — as well as other locations. Nonetheless, it is our commitment to you to somehow, someway provide you with a diversion during these hard times, deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance and, most of all, to entertain you and your family."

Producing shows amid the coronavirus pandemic??

WWE says it has under the coronavirus restrictions been producing content, including WrestleMania 36, on a closed set with only essential personnel in attendance following federal, state and local guidelines, while taking additional precautions to ensure the health and wellness of performers and staff. Filming is, for example, understood to take place in waves to limit the amount of people in attendance.

"No one person, regardless of who they are, is allowed to enter if they have a temperature of over 100.4, or if they have been out of the country or been in touch with someone who has been out of the country," Stephanie McMahon told Sports Illustrated.

Some big-name WWE performers ended up missing from WrestleMania 36 amid the virus crisis. Superstar Roman Reigns was replaced as the challenger in one of the big title matches, with reports saying he pulled out of the event, telling management that he didn’t want to take the health risk as his battle with leukemia last year left his immune system compromised.

And The Miz, a former castmember on MTV's The Real World: Back to New York, who is known in WWE as a mouthy villain, reportedly showed up with cold symptoms, leaving a three-way tag team title match for which he was scheduled to be changed into a three-way match between his partner and one member of each of the opposing teams.

While these and other late changes to the match card were confusing for fans in the run-up to WrestleMania 36, some wrestling industry watchers and commentators highlighted them in their criticism of WWE's decision to push ahead.

"Nothing makes sense in our world right now, but few things make less sense than WrestleMania 36 happening this weekend," Rich Kraetsch, one of the founders of the Voices of Wrestling website, wrote in his show preview. "WrestleMania is happening because of pure determination, guile and brash overconfidence. Yes, the show must go on but at what cost?"

WWE, however, argues that with precautions, the show can go on.

"We are taking as many precautions as possible to mitigate risk and protect the health and safety of our performers and staff," a WWE representative said. "In consultation with our doctors, as a best practice, all WWE performers and staff are required to participate in medical screenings prior to entering any closed set. Only essential personnel are on-site, and social distancing is practiced outside of in-ring performances. After each performance, the set goes through 'pandemic-level cleaning.' When widespread testing becomes available, all talent will be tested before performing."

Added the rep: "We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times. As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its superstars bring families together and delivers a sense of hope, determination and perseverance."

WrestleMania: No fans, "cinematic experiences" and reactions 

"WrestleMania will not be the same spectacle it typically is out of the Orlando Performance Center as opposed to Tampa Stadium in front of 70,000-plus live fans," Loop Capital analyst Alan Gould predicted in a March 25 report. After all, wrestling without fans' cheers for their heroes, boos for the villains and chants in reaction to spectacular moves, or failures, is like a concert without the audience's cheers, claps and singing along.

The two nights of WrestleMania 36 still ran three hours or more each, with eight matches per night following hourlong preshows with previews of the fights and one additional match. Many observers came out of the weekend wondering if the two-night WrestleMania schedule could finally become WWE's new normal after shows have in recent years gotten longer and harder for audiences to sit through without losing energy. ??Night one's main show kicked off with a montage of big-name music talent — from Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Ray Charles to Nicole Scherzinger, Willie Nelson and John Legend — opening past WrestleManias by singing "America the Beautiful" as WWE reminded fans of the star power and fan energy that WWE live events can bring out.

Gronkowski then touted the start of WrestleMania weekend, trying to amp up fans at home.

The rest of the show featured wrestlers getting more stripped-down entrances than WrestleMania is known for (think extra-big pyro, guest musicians, special ring gear and other once-a-year bells and whistles) and wrestling with only a referee, a ring announcer, two changing commentators at a ringside desk, and every now and then Gronkowski watching and cheering from a viewing platform.

WrestleMania 36 overall drew mixed reviews from fans and commentators, although many hailed WWE for providing a good amount of joyful moments and wins by fan favorites.

Loyal fans celebrated the chance to see their favorite performers while locked up at home without live sports and lauded some well worked matches, while critics lamented that some edits in matches were too apparent, wrestlers at times tried to play to a non-existent audience and some matches ran longer than was sustainable without a roaring crowd despite edits.

"WrestleMania felt disjointed and hollow at times without an audience, but there were still standout moments and matches for fans to enjoy from home," Sports Illustrated wrote in a review.

"WrestleMania 36 Part I was a good an enjoyable night that was smartly laid out and executed," wrote 411Mania reviewer Larry Csonka. "Unfortunately for me, WrestleMania 36 Part II didn’t live up to night one, with some matches that went too long and the overall quality not matching up."

Wrestler and wrestling commentator Simon Miller tells THR: "Expectations were understandably low going into it as fans are integral to wrestling, but I'm not sure WWE could have handled it any better than they did. They took risks ... and there was still plenty of great bouts throughout."

He concluded: "The whole thing would of course have been better with an audience, but that's been taken away from us at the moment, so as a distraction and piece of entertainment for a weekend, I couldn't sing its praises any more. I had fun!"

One potential fallout from this year's WrestleMania could well be that WWE decides to do more filmed content, instead of traditional matches, for special performers or circumstances. After all, to mix things up amid a lack of fans in attendance, WWE offered two showdowns this weekend that didn’t take place in the ring, but were presented as short films, or "cinematic experiences."

Bray Wyatt and John Cena had a "Firefly Fun House" showdown on Sunday, which caused much debate among fans, because it featured a lot of nostalgia and mind games, but little in terms of actual fighting. And The Undertaker and A.J. Styles had a Boneyard Match on Saturday that drew comparisons to grindhouse films and earned mostly strong reviews.

"Hopefully, we'll open up this WrestleMania in ways that people have never seen before and give them an opportunity to be entertained in ways they never have before," Paul "Triple H" Levesque, executive vp, talent, live events & creative, told TV Guide.

Business impact??

With reviews of WWE's decision to forge ahead with WrestleMania and the two nights of wrestling shows mixed, what is the business impact on WWE?

Loop Capital's Gould in his March 25 report predicted WrestleMania "will generate less revenue and likely less ongoing WWE Network subscribers" than in previous years. "The event will lose its ticket and most of its merchandise and sponsorship revenue," he explained.

Analysts have estimated that WWE's lost revenue from WrestleMania 36 weekend, including other events it puts on, would amount to $15 million to $20 million-plus, with Guggenheim Securities' Curry Baker seeing a $15 million to $20 million hit from lost ticket sales and merchandise, while Wrestlenomics analyst Brandon Thurston has suggested a roughly $22 million revenue hit. The company was expected, however, to save on production costs, which peak for its WrestleMania stadium events.

With WWE, like many other media and entertainment firms, on March 12 pulling its 2020 financial guidance due to the coronavirus pandemic, saying its impact could be "material," Gould has also reduced his operating income before depreciation and amortization estimate for the company for the whole year from $274 million to $194 million.

WWE isn't expected to provide any color on how many WWE Network subscribers it signed up thanks to WrestleMania until its next earnings report, and it is not clear if any WrestleMania 36 pay-per-view sales figures will be disclosed.

What’s next for WWE's weekly TV and pay-per-view events?

The company has continued to air Raw, SmackDown and NXT, "because if they don’t deliver the content, they don’t get paid for it," explains Guggenheim's Baker. "We believe WWE will receive $456 million this year in U.S. TV rights alone for Raw, SmackDown and NXT — each week works out to about $9 million."

The TV deals have been a key focus for management given rate increases for recent rights agreements, while WWE's live events business has faced challenges.

However, question marks hang over the near-term TV future amid the coronavirus pandemic. Orange County, where Orlando is located, issued a stay-at-home order effective as of March 26, just in time for WWE to finish WrestleMania 36.

WWE says it plans to move forward producing content on a closed set, with no fans, and only essential personnel in attendance following a break of at least two weeks after wrapping WrestleMania 36. The company recommended its performers self-isolate during the break.

WWE is understood to have at least taped USA's Raw for Monday evening, and also NXT for USA for Wednesday, but what content would air in those slots from next week and in Fox's SmackDown slot on Fridays if WWE can not return to production remains unclear. "If they take a break and provide old content, then it’s a negotiation with USA and Fox," Curry explains the potential fallout of not being able to produce fresh content.

Signs of a declining appeal of fan-less shows is another concern. "Ratings have been slipping on Raw and NXT," Gould told investors in his recent report.

Curry has estimated that hosting events without fans will cost WWE around $29 million of revenue and operating income before interest, depreciation and amortization, assuming a mid-March through end of May time period without events in front of fans. "If it drags longer, there will be more of an impact," he tells THR.

Both nights of WrestleMania 36 promoted WWE's next monthly pay-view, Money in the Bank, as taking place on May 10. Originally set for Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, it is now expected to be filmed without fans at the WWE Performance Center if Florida's coronavirus restrictions then allow it or possibly in Connecticut, where WWE is headquartered and where one analyst said there was talk of the company getting a waiver for future production.

With rival wrestling promotion AEW, which airs weekly Wednesday shows on TNT that have consistently beaten NXT in the ratings as of late, reportedly having preproduced more shows, WWE as the bigger player may want to continue to feed its fans' appetite for wrestling, even though Baker sees no major hit among core WWE fans if the firm doesn't air fresh content for a bit. "I’m not sure AEW still airing will make a huge difference," he says.

Miller says the challenge for WWE and the broader wrestling industry is making shows without the roar and cheers of the fans as compelling as possible. "The novelty has already worn off, so now it's just about trying to balance it all as much as you can, be that compelling storylines or letting the wrestlers continue to get better at empty arena matches," he says. "You can't keep relying on keeping them short and focusing on other areas. You just have to figure out how to present your product with the obstacles now in front of you. Certainly not easy at all, but so far I think everyone has done okay, and if they are able to continue, hopefully we'll find some momentum with it."