WWE in a Losing Situation During COVID-19 Pandemic

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By Dylan Lazaga, CONTRIBUTOR
Ever since the COVID-19 health pandemic led to the suspensions of many major sports leagues and events, sports fans have had very few things to look forward to. World Wrestling Entertainment, has continued to produce shows despite tighter restrictions present in the ongoing pandemic. While it has provided an escape route for its fans away from current world events, chairman Vince McMahon is taking a lot of risks that put himself and his brand in a lose-lose situation.
As the coronavirus pandemic worsened throughout March, WWE had to make substantial changes to its events, which included moving to their training facility in Orlando, FL. for the foreseeable future. Since Mar 12, WWE switched between live and pre-recorded shows due to constant changes with the pandemic, including pre-taping its biggest annual event WrestleMania. Among other changes include disallowing wrestlers into the facility if they show signs of illness and limiting show attendance to “essential personnel.”
Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s Executive Vice President for Global Talent Strategy and Development, outlined a clear necessity to proceed with WrestleMania in the state that the world is in. “We say what our jobs are every day is to put smiles on people’s faces all over the globe,” Levesque said in an interview with ESPN’s SportsCenter. “And we truly believe that. And at this time, maybe more than any other in my memory, people need those smiles right now more than anything. So you know, we choose to carry on and to try to be able to deliver those smiles.”
It is commendable that WWE has continued to weather the storm of the pandemic and run shows with the circumstances changing daily, including a decreasing production crew and wrestling roster and Florida issuing their own stay-at-home order. However, the quality of these empty arena shows has been tuning out fans, in part due to the reliance on match replays and the overall crowd less nature.
On the positive side, however, the closed-set shows have allowed the wrestlers to freely express themselves better on promos, while in-ring action has recently been more frequent. Granted, those same fans tired of the empty arena shows should expect even more of the same going forward until the coronavirus pandemic simmers down.
WWE announced on Apr. 10 that they would return to live television tapings at their Performance Center starting with the Apr. 13 edition of “Monday Night RAW.” Many of the wrestlers in the company internally were unhappy with Vince McMahon’s decision, according to Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful. WWE defended their decision, in a statement to ESPN, with the belief that people need a diversion from the world’s ongoing hardships, with the superstars providing a sense of unity and hope.
Those same superstars providing such hope of unity continue to put themselves in danger of possibly catching symptoms of the coronavirus. An unspecified on-screen talent tested positive for COVID-19 following the initial set of tapings near the end of March, according to WWE. While that person managed to make a quick recovery, continuing shows present a health hazard to the wrestling roster, especially those who live outside of Florida that now need to travel to the shows in the training facility.
Florida, like here in California, also remains a stay-at-home state, only requiring essential businesses to remain open. Florida’s stay-at-home order only lists newspaper, television, and radio as “essential,” but the Florida governor’s office elected otherwise. Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, after discussion with the Florida governor’s office, announced on Apr. 13 that an executive order was signed days prior to considering WWE and other sports with national television audiences as “essential businesses.”
Professional wrestling, like all sports, isn’t essential at this moment in time, as running shows with more than a skeleton crew would further encourage the other major sporting leagues to produce live games when it hasn’t been deemed healthy to do so yet. But Florida governor Ron DeSantis bizarrely made a case that WWE shows are helpful for people looking for content.
“I think people are chomping at the bit,” DeSantis said in a news conference on Apr. 14. “I mean, if you think about it, we’ve never had a period like this in modern American history where you’ve had such little new content, particularly in the sporting realm.”
Not only are the wrestlers’ health at high risk, but so is WWE’s financial stability. Vince McMahon is a corporate billionaire financially struggling during the pandemic, considering the lack of WWE live events, the recent bankruptcy of the revamped XFL football league, and paying its wrestlers and personnel. WWE’s television deals with NBCUniversal and FOX Sports, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, are the company’s remaining source of revenue. Those same deals, as well as paying staff, are also why McMahon is concerned about taking a hiatus.
The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer mentions that under WWE’s current television deals, both television companies only allow a certain number of pre-taped shows per year, with the USA Network and FOX legally able to rework their deals if WWE breaches them. In the current state of affairs, it is doubtful that both television companies would prevent WWE from pre-taping their shows, but with all three parties struggling financially, McMahon didn’t want to risk a restructure in the television deals. However, McMahon’s own financial concerns continued to come at the wrong time.
On Apr. 15, WWE announced in a press release that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would be making major changes around the company. These changes include the release of several wrestlers, furloughing of its other personnel, and decreased operating expenses. Many of the wrestlers released previously signed large contracts that were offered by Vince McMahon, who wanted to keep them away from competing wrestling companies. Now they are all released at the worst possible time because those wrestlers won’t be able to sign with other wrestling companies, who are also financially struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.
All in all, the health of WWE’s remaining roster can’t be taken for granted during this pandemic; thus, WWE should’ve wisely addressed the uncertainty of the pandemic by giving its wrestlers an offseason, which never occurs in professional wrestling. To replace the lack of current wrestling shows, the company could have aired their large archive, including old episodes of “RAW,” “Smackdown,” and “NXT,” along with select vintage pay-per-views and documentaries that would’ve sparked interest within a casual wrestling audience. If WWE still wanted to string together shows, it should’ve done what All Elite Wrestling did and mass tape shows monthly.
Vince McMahon elected not to do either option, opting to go for more live shows. This decision keeps McMahon’s business afloat during the pandemic through television revenue. But it not only continues to put all the talent at risk, but it could also dampen the morale within the company. Also, while WWE gave a memo allowing wrestlers to stay home if they don’t feel comfortable working shows, there’s also fear from the wrestlers themselves that they may lose their spots on television, which should be considered as a very small concern for them.
The easy solution could’ve been for WWE to take a hiatus, in order to keep its wrestlers healthy, especially with the fact that one employee already tested positive for COVID-19. But in the end, Vince McMahon and the WWE remain in a lost situation because of McMahon’s questionable business tactics, as well as endangering their roster to the health risks of the coronavirus.