The world shut down. The coronavirus pandemic closed schools, restaurants, sports, Hollywood. Everything went dark. And yet wrestling continued.
As of Monday, WWE has returned to live shows, with "Raw" on Monday, "NXT" on Wednesday and "SmackDown" set for Friday, after experimenting with taped matches at the Performance Center in Orlando, Fla. But despite plans to film a batch of segments to air through early May, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon announced last week that live production would return.
Wrestling is the first sport and the first entertainment product in the country to attempt a comeback; the MLB season has been delayed and the NBA and NHL seasons postponed, while TV and movie sets have all shut down. But not WWE.
"We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times," a spokesperson for WWE said in a statement to the Daily News.
"We are producing content on a closed set with only essential personnel in attendance following appropriate guidelines while taking additional precautions to ensure the health and wellness of our performers and staff. As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance."
Asked for details on the "additional precautions," the spokesperson did not respond.
One WWE employee, described as an "on-air talent" but not a wrestler, tested positive for coronavirus last week, the company previously confirmed to The News. And wrestler Roman Reigns, who has battled leukemia that left him immunocompromised, pulled himself out of WrestleMania, reportedly over health concerns.
Until two days before the first night of the annual event, which was split in half for the first time in history, WWE Network was still advertising its marquee match-up of Reigns vs. Bill Goldberg. Goldberg ended up fighting Braun Strowman instead, which was announced on Friday night during "SmackDown" with no explanation of the card change.
A spokesperson for Reigns did not return a request for comment.
But questions have arisen as to the necessity of live shows, which put the wrestlers, announcers, TV production crews and countless others at risk and flout coronavirus guidelines that encourage people to stay home except in extreme circumstances.
All Elite Wrestling, the company founded by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and son Tony that has emerged as a strong competitor to WWE, followed a similar path to McMahon's original plan and taped a string of matches that will last through the middle of May. AEW's contract with TNT for a weekly two-hour show on Wednesday nights, called "Dynamite," was renewed through 2023 in January.
In Florida, where WWE has been taping, Gov. Ron DeSantis has faced criticism for his lax reaction to the pandemic, waiting until April 1 to issue a "stay at home" order. But even closed sets for the shows include wrestlers, announcers, managers, likely exceeding the 10-person guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A spokesperson for the governor's office directed The News to a memo, signed by DeSantis on April 9, that declared WWE and other "professional sports and media production" essential services because "they are critical to Florida's economy." The same memo also classified counselors who work with mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence as essential personnel.
"It is important to note that professional sports activities may only be considered essential if the event location is closed to the general public," the spokesperson told The News.
The governor's office did not respond to follow-up questions, including whether DeSantis has spoken to McMahon or how WWE is "critical" to the state's economy.
The mayor of Orange County, which includes Orlando and the Performance Center, said he had "some conversation" with the governor before DeSantis issued his memo declaring WWE essential.
"That's like a little family," Jerry Demings said at a press conference Monday. "If one of my family members tested positive in my house, that would be concerning to me. We would have to make some provisions in my house to make sure the rest of us not get infected. I would assume from a business perspective WWE is doing that type of analysis of its own family."
In a follow-up email to The News Tuesday, Demings' office insisted that the decision to deem WWE essential came directly from the governor.
McMahon was one of a dozen commissioners of sports, including MLB's Rob Manfred, the NBA's Adam Silver, the NFL's Roger Goodell and the NHL's Gary Bettman, on a call with President Trump earlier this month when he urged them to resume play as soon as possible.
"They want to get back," Trump told reporters after the call. "They've got to get back. They can't do this. Their sports weren't designed for it. The whole concept of our nation wasn't designed for it. We have to get back. We want to get back soon."
McMahon's wife, Linda, served as the administrator of the Small Business Administration under Trump from February 2017 to April 2019. She resigned to serve as chairwoman of his Super PAC, America First Action.
Multiple sources also pointed The News to WWE's TV contracts with NBC Universal, for "Raw" and "NXT," and Fox, for "Smackdown," and agreements that likely included a required number of live shows per year.
Spokespeople for neither NBC Universal nor Fox returned multiple requests for comment.
Brandon Thurston, a wrestling industry analyst, told The News that an estimated 35% to 40% of WWE's revenue annually comes from TV deals.
"So much money from fans, like tickets sales and merchandise and subscriptions, has been in decline over the last few years," Thurston said.
According to SEC filings made public by WWE, $561 million of the company's 2019 revenue came from business-to-business, including core content rights fees, advertising and sponsorships; that's up from $486 million in 2018 and $347 million in 2017. About $400 million came from direct-to-consumer, like ticket sales, merchandise pay-per-view and WWE Network subscriptions, down from $444 million in 2018 and $454 million in 2017.
Thurston also said WWE's semi-annual event in Saudi Arabia could be at risk due to the shutdown if travel is still limited. The 10-year deal, inked in 2018, brings in about $50 million each time, Thurston estimated. But it's also been the cause of much criticism, especially in light of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder.
"Vince (McMahon) has a mentality of the show must go on," Thurston told The News. "I would speculate that he's just being overprotective of his TV deals."
After 9/11, wrestling was back just two days later for "SmackDown" in Houston. Shows went ahead the day the news came out that Chris Benoit had murdered his wife and son, then hanged himself in June 2007. The "Over the Edge" pay-per-view event continued in May 1999 after Owen Hart died from a 78-foot fall in the ring.
Wrestling and McMahon stop for no one.
"The whole art of wrestling is using moves and histrionics and all these things to get a reaction and garner interest from fans," Dave Meltzer, founder of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, told The News. "It's all about the fans."
Meltzer, one of the leading voices in wrestling commentary for decades, said the taped shows without audiences, including WrestleMania 36, are "not the same," but cautioned against conflating a lack of an audience with non-live productions.
"The idea that it has to be live has been disproven so many times," Meltzer told The News. "It's not like ratings will collapse. Ratings are down because it's empty sets, not because it's taped."
Meltzer compared McMahon and WWE's full-speed-ahead attitude to that of UFC President Dana White, who was also on the call with Trump. White had planned to move his UFC 249 match, originally scheduled to air on ESPN on April 18 from Barclays Center, to an Indian casino in California. But after California Gov. Gavin Newsom reportedly called Bob Iger, the chairman of ESPN parent company Disney, to stop the fight, White pulled the plug.
"Dana listened because that's where all the money is coming from," Meltzer told The News. "If NBC said, 'no, Vince, shut down,' they're shut down."
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