When WWE decided to host its annual 'WrestleMania' spectacular show without an audience this April, the company probably thought the move was a one-off. They didn't like the fact that the abandonment of stadiums and live crowds has been pushed upon them, but they decided to go ahead with the show anyway and then deal with whatever came after. Like the rest of the world at the time, they probably didn't imagine a future where a further six months would pass, and it would still be impossible to allow large crowds into arenas.
When WWE decided to host its annual 'WrestleMania' spectacular show without an audience this April, the company probably thought the move was a one-off. They didn't like the fact that the abandonment of stadiums and live crowds has been pushed upon them, but they decided to go ahead with the show anyway and then deal with whatever came after. Like the rest of the world at the time, they probably didn't imagine a future where a further six months would pass, and it would still be impossible to allow large crowds into arenas. We've arrived at that point in the future nevertheless, and wrestling, like every other sport in the world, is pushing on without anyone there in person to support the performers.
During this difficult period, WWE has come up against a myriad of difficulties. Many of them were outside of the company’s control. Becky Lynch, arguably the company’s most ‘over’ and recognizable star, became pregnant with her first child and went on immediate maternity leave. Roman Reigns, the company's biggest male star, had himself recently become the father of twins. He's also a cancer survivor and a person with a compromised immune system. Due to a combination of those reasons, Reigns felt like it was no longer possible to come to work until the situation had improved. WWE hadn't just lost its audience and the revenue from ticket sales; it had lost the biggest names in both it's male and female divisions.
The impact of losing Lynch and Reigns at the same time shouldn’t be underestimated. As a sign of how highly the company rates them, there’s a range of WWE themed online slots coming out later this year. Only eight WWE stars have been confirmed as having their very own feature coming to online slots. The other six are Ronda Rousey, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, and John Cena. All six of them are either partially or entirely retired, and don’t appear regularly on WWE programming. Reigns and Lynch are the only two ‘current’ WWE stars to be used as the faces of the online slots, and both of them disappeared at once. WWE suddenly found itself needing to create new stars without an audience there to react to them, and it struggled. Ratings went into freefall, and alarm bells started to ring
Among the many things that have been blamed for the downward trend in viewers (a list that’s included Paul Heyman’s booking, the pandemic itself, AEW, young performers not getting over, and Vince McMahon ripping shows up hours before they’re due to air) was the arena in which the shows happened. For four months, WWE exclusively filmed and aired shows from its own Performance Center in Florida - a small and sterile environment with visible ceiling fans and no atmosphere. Initially, the shows didn’t have any crowds at all. When AEW started allowing wrestlers to stand around ringside and generate noise, WWE eventually followed suit and did the same thing. That made the broadcasts sound less empty, but the visuals still weren’t great. Everything looked and felt ‘small time,’ and months of broadcasting from the same venue began to look stale. Just as all seemed to be lost, someone - and we have no idea who - had what may or may not have been a great idea.
Starting with the week leading up to SummerSlam, WWE has moved into the Amway Center in Orlando and started to broadcast its shows from a purpose-built video-screen arena known as ‘the WWE ThunderDome.’ Aside from shamelessly stealing its name from "Max Max," this is a revolutionary method of including fans in the broadcast without inviting them into the arena. Wall upon wall and row upon row of screens surround the ring, upon which the faces of fans viewing at home are shown. Anyone can dial in. In theory, all you need is WWE on the television and a webcam tracking your reaction, and you could see your face on FOX or the USA Network every week. The fans aren't just shown, but heard. Shout something, and there's a chance that the cameras will hear you. This means that genuine fans are now providing genuine reactions to what happens in the ring. As you might already have worked out while reading this description, though, the format is wide open to abuse - and abuse has already started to happen.
Thus far, WWE has had to issue permanent bans to several 'fans' who've got themselves on television and then displayed inappropriate content on their screens. There have been multiple counts of nudity. There have been horrific 'gore' videos displayed on the screen. On one occasion, a viewer appeared to be wearing a Klu Klux Klan hood was visible for several seconds. Someone else, also wearing a hood, performed a Nazi salute. Images of deceased and disgraced former WWE wrestler Chris Benoit were beamed into the arena and then picked up by the cameras. One the one hand, this serves as a reminder that people can be awful and should never be allowed on television uncensored and unchecked. On the other hand, it underlines the point that WWE may not have thought this through. It can police some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.
Since the 'difficulties' with the new format first manifested themselves, WWE has kept a tighter rein on who appears on the ThunderDome screens and how long they stay there. Tighter vetting is now carried out, and the faces are said to appear on a delay. Someone tells them when to cheer and when to boo, and when to react. This might well eliminate the spontaneous bouts of bad behavior, but it also eliminates the natural reactions to the action happening in the ring - the very thing that the screens were introduced to generate. The reception to the 'sanitized' version of ThunderDome has been less positive, with viewing figures again dipping below the two million mark. We don't know how much it cost WWE to put the ThunderDome together, nor how much it cost them to block-book the Amway Center for several months. We imagine that it wasn't cheap, though, and if the trend with the viewing figures doesn't change, it won't be classed as money well spent.