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A year into the pandemic, WWE, AEW and pro wrestling on the whole seems to have fared fairly well

Image courtesy WWE
Image courtesy WWE
Andrea Hangst
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Modified 29 Mar 2021
Feature

We are now well over a year into the global COVID-19 pandemic and somehow, professional wrestling has thrived. WWE, NXT, AEW, IMPACT and even after a time, New Japan Pro-Wrestling — the biggest companies in the business in the world — have been, for the most part, fine. Independent wrestling promotions have taken a hit, to be sure, but not even to the degree that us, myself included, have spent the last 12-plus months worried about.

It's by no means a triumph; there have been outbreaks of the virus, there are people in all tiers of the industry who have downplayed or denied there even being a pandemic to begin with and it's also safe to say that reported illnesses are probably lower than the actual numbers. Outside of WWE, a great many promotions and wrestlers have taken considerable financial hits. Things, all things, specifically, have not been good. But viewed generally, pro wrestling has navigated this situation better than expected, on par with other professional sports.

On March 11, 2020, Rudy Gobert, center for the NBA's Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19. It prompted commissioner Adam Silver to issue an immediate shutdown of the entire league and, in (vague) turn, resulted in practically all of the United States entering stasis to try to mitigate the spread and impact of the virus. But yet, citing the desire to entertain, to take people out of the circumstances of their daily lives, pro wrestling — particularly its biggest players in the US, WWE-NXT and AEW — chose to roll on.

It wasn't easy. AEW started taping its weekly show, Dynamite (along with YouTube-only show, Dark) at Daily's Place, an amphitheater adjacent to Shad Khan-owned Jacksonville Jaguars' TIAA Bank Stadium, before a mass-COVID testing site in the parking lot had them moving to Georgia. In Georgia, at the Nightmare Factory training center, the company had to pack in nearly two months' worth of Dynamite and Dark tapings because the state imposed its own stay-at-home orders before the promotion was eventually able to return to Jacksonville.

WWE and NXT, meanwhile, camped out in the Performance Center, the latter not able to run at Full Sail University and the former eventually developing its "ThunderDome" style of virtual fan interaction first at the Amway Center, now at Tropicana Field and soon to be at the Yuengling Center (all in the Tampa, Florida area) post-WrestleMania. IMPACT Wrestling has opted for a zero-fan (and zero-ringside wrestlers-as-fans) approach to its weekly shows on AXS, and yet seems no worse for wear. In fact, IMPACT is getting new wind under its sails with a partnership with AEW which is set to hit its apex on April 25 with the Rebellion pay-per-view featuring IMPACT/TNA World Champion Rich Swann versus AEW World Champion Kenny Omega in a winner takes all bout.

WWE, AEW, IMPACT and the indies were able to push through

To be clear, none of this encapsulates the entirety of the risk involved. It can very easily be argued that pro wrestling has been playing fast and loose with the rules, and the nature of secrecy and "kayfabe" in the industry could belie much worse in terms of virus mitigation efforts, severity and reach of outbreaks, and the rigors of testing. That Florida governor Ron DeSantis considered professional wrestling an "essential" business in his state — the one in which both AEW and WWE-NXT call home and have been able to do said business — has much to do with those companies rolling uninterrupted regardless of public health experts' recommendations is not lost on your writer.

There have been numerous wrestlers who have gotten sick — Charlotte Flair is one recent WWE example. And to criticize these companies for being irresponsible at any given turn is not wrong. What is the risk? What is the reward? Could not, at least, the billion-dollar companies like WWE or AEW afford to take a break? But what of the independent promotions, whose most prolific stars have very regularly quit the day-job life to do this full-time in a boom period for the industry? As with most everything during this pandemic, it is both complicated and unprecidented. But, also, as with most anything during a pandemic: It is about survival.

Outdoor shows have been a thing (even in AEW, as Daily's Place is a covered, but outdoor, amphitheater). Highly limited indoor shows, requiring masks and temperature checks, have been a thing. Routine, up-to-date COVID testing and now, vaccination confirmations, have been a thing. WWE seems to keep ratcheting up its diligence. Even larger gatherings in the independent sphere, such as October's rescheduling of the Game Changer Wrestling-led Collective shows, haven't, to our knowledge, spurred major outbreaks. Erring on the side of caution has, for the most part, worked. And it's preserved professional wrestling in the United States as much as it can.

Of course, all of this is going to be pushed to its limit in less than two weeks' time, when WWE WrestleMania 37 takes place at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium and various independent promotions will also be descending upon the area to run shows (as is custom during this time of year). Additionally, AEW has added a house show to its schedule for April 9 at Daily's Place. WWE could be selling up to 25,000 tickets a night to its two-night event, the largest-scale sporting event to take place in the US since the pandemic erupted. While it is to be assumed WWE talent will be protected, it's hard to say what public health situation might arise from such a crowd. Where the virus is concerned, a light has emerged at the end of the tunnel but we're not quite there yet.

Still, it's kind of wild to think about how WWE, AEW, IMPACT and pro wrestling as a whole has manged to soldier on over this past year. Whether through virtual fans, as in the WWE ThunderDome, an empty venue (IMPACT), wrestlers-as-fans (and now fans in attendance, in limited numbers) in AEW, or carefully enforced mask requirements and small crowds in the indie scene, professional wrestling has found a way to make it through a serious crisis.

Published 29 Mar 2021, 20:45 IST
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