Pro wrestling during a pandemic: Adapting to a crowd-less environment

Posted on 25 August 2020
By Khyle Medany
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When it comes to pro wrestling, the live crowd plays a monumental role in making the product exhilarating and thrilling to experience, whether you’re a part of the crowd itself in an arena, or watching in the comfort of your own home.

Back in March 2020 however, the landscape of wrestling changed, when due to the Covid-19 pandemic, crowds were unable to fill up arenas, in fact, there were no arenas, WWE had to cancel live events, TV tapings and many live media opportunities, downsizing everything to their own training facility based in Florida, the WWE Performance Center.

The place in which new wrestler recruits trained and were shaped for the future, became the home of Monday Night Raw, Friday Night SmackDown and for the first time in history, WWE’s biggest PPV of the year, WrestleMania.

For the first several months from late March to May, WWE events and matches were performed in front of no crowd, empty seats all the way around the venue, late May saw a small number of developmental wrestlers begin to appear in the “crowd” but it was obviously nothing like the thousands upon thousands that packed the arenas on a weekly basis.

Many people declared WWE unwatchable, and ratings did seem to reflect this opinion, with them dipping significantly, reaching as low as 700,000 in the US, they’ve appeared to tick gradually back up bit by bit though.

It became interesting to watch, both the product and the polarising effect it had on the viewing public and those on social media.

As jarring as it may have seemed, those that switched off altogether, probably didn’t get to open their eyes that bit wider, and realise some of the positives that came with the removal of the crowd, which despite their physical and electric presence, could have been seen as a distraction.

Without the crowd filling up the seats in the venues, it became a little bit easier to notice little nuances of a superstar’s in-ring work like the selling of moves and the ring psychology displayed by the athletes.

Promo work could shine through that little bit more, vocal inflections, a deeper sense of passion and storytelling through mic work could be felt by certain WWE superstars such as Seth Rollins, a newly returned and rejuvenated Edge, and Randy Orton to name a few that took advantage of this change of pace and presentation.

A good number of wrestlers have stepped up and had more of a chance to shine in a crowd-less era, with no distractions of a live crowd, allowing them to work on their craft in the moment and right there in the midst of the action, especially as a lot of them were used to crowds, this scenery change was likely something they wouldn’t have been too used to, but they could work on their characters and other aspects of their work, and while they haven’t been able to feed off the energy and atmosphere that a live crowd can bring, it is a fresh perspective. It is a testament to the excellence of these athletes and the pro wrestling/sports entertainment industry as a whole, for which they all deserve a bit more credit than they may usually receive.

Earlier this month, the WWE decided to switch things up just a little bit, working out a residency deal with the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, initially set for around 2 months, this deal transforms the Amway Center into the “WWE ThunderDome”, with TV tapings and PPVs being held there live, with state of the art tech upgrades including lasers, pyro, drones and virtual fans via LED boards filling up the “seating” area around the ring,

WWE have held a few shows inside the WWE ThunderDome now, with fans virtually inside the arena via screens, and while it’s an experiment, and a strong, visually interesting attempt to bring some sense of normality back to WWE events, there is still nothing that compares to the energy and electric atmosphere of a live crowd, as many (including wrestlers themselves) have said, they’re the real superstars, and a huge part of the pro wrestling machine.