Sports of all sorts make use of the crowd as part of the visual presentation on television, or as elements of the game itself – with various cheers, songs, and things like away team taunts. Most of the appeal of a crowd at a sporting event is the FOMO response in the home audience – or fear of missing out. A fun, engaged crowd makes a world of difference, which is why every TV sports director puts cameras on the audience. It sells more tickets, adds to the emergent narrative of the event, and more people physically in a building means more chances to sell merchandise.
While not a sport, pro wrestling absolutely, definitely uses crowds – perhaps more than actual sports.
Part of the appeal of pro wrestling is that the crowd is, more so than most sports, a part of the show. Fans cheering or booing is used to cement storylines, and because wrestling uses more direct storytelling with writers or bookers behind the scenes, that crowd response can make or break the stories being told. Famously, in WWE, the breakup of the three-man faction The Shield was intended to make a breakout star in Roman Reigns, a tall, built man from the Anoa’i Samoan wrestling dynasty, which includes The Rock. Because the other two members of the unit were more skilled in the ring and often better at promos and building hype for their matches, the fans rejected his ascension, booing loudly and angrily anytime he was featured. This, quite hilariously, led to WWE finding ways to level the audio response of fans for the home crowd, that by Wrestlemania 32 in 2016, was used to reduce the vitriol directed at Reigns. This came to a particular head the night after the next year’s Wrestlemania, where Roman kicked off that week’s episode of Raw with a promo segment that included him being booed and having profanities chanted at him without ever saying a word. That doesn’t sound all that impressive until you hear how long he went without speaking – 8 minutes. For eight minutes, fans mercilessly voiced their disapproval of the story being told with him. It took until last year for WWE to finally lean into that response, by changing Reigns into a heel, or villain, which has led to him being one of the most well-rounded acts in all of wrestling.
So in March 2020, when stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19 and the myriad of restrictions that caused came into play, wrestling was in a particular pickle – not unique among sports, but perhaps worse off for it. No fans were allowed to attend shows, and the very production of shows themselves was in jeopardy – weekly live television for multiple hours would require a lot of talent travel which was not an easy thing to solve for under those restrictions. Both major US promotions – WWE and AEW – solved for this by locating in Florida, which was under reduced restrictions due to brain worms. It made sense, too – WWE’s main training facility is in Orlando and AEW is owned by the same people as the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL, which gave them easy access to the Jaguars’ stadium and its attached amphitheater venue, Daily’s Place. WWE immediately moved to setup the main floor of their Performance Center facility as a makeshift arena, while AEW built a setup similar to it in Jacksonville.
The early pandemic era of wrestling was…weird. WWE setup the early shows with empty seating sections around the ring, and shot the show like it was a normal event with fans, so around a hundred empty seats were just sitting on-camera at any point in time. AEW at least pointed the cameras at the stage, but without an audience, side shots were eerily empty. Both shows suffered from a weird lack of fan response, which points out the nature of wrestling – absent crowd noise, the show is kind of quiet in a bad way, and there’s no crowd feedback for cool moments to draw your attention in further. Both shows taped a pile of episodes like this, with WWE being stuck doing Wrestlemania 36 in the Performance Center, marking a bizarre moment where the storylines that had been built with live audiences until the last few weeks prior to the event were paid off in front of no one, WWE even holding to a hosting deal with Rob Gronkowski and paying him to host an event for no live audience! AEW had to move shows to Georgia temporarily, taping weeks of TV in a few short days at the wrestling school of one of the executive vice presidents of the company before getting the clear to return to Jacksonville.
As this era of shows advanced, both companies got better at presenting the empty crowds. AEW started using trainees to cheer and boo, to give the call-and-response that wrestling kind of needs to function as an entertaining show. WWE eventually did the same, but because WWE’s trainees are…active wrestlers on their third television brand, it was very weird to see wrestlers who would perform on Wednesday nights, on TV, instead being members of the audience. But the sound and visual of fans was helpful to the immersion of the show, and it helped create a more interesting environment. When AEW returned to Jacksonville, the trainees came along, both to be in the crowd, but also to then wrestle on their YouTube series Dark (Dark matches are a wrestling thing where shows are held prior to or after a televised event, hence “dark” and not the more scandalous meaning it would normally have in a video context). Both shows were rolling and finding a groove, but there was something missing.
In August of last year, both companies found ways to “fix” what ailed them and to bring back more of the flavor of crowds. AEW fixed this more simply – by complying to CDC “pod” regulations and bringing limited numbers of fans to shows, since their venue was outdoors. WWE went the other direction, by creating a branded experience called the “Thunderdome.” Instead of live fans or performers cheering and booing as directed, WWE got residency agreements across 3 different arenas for this concept – first the Amway Center in Orlando, then the Tropicana Field in Tampa, and finally the Yeungling Center in Tampa – and built a standard WWE touring set but then surrounded the ring with LED video boards so that fans at home could, essentially, conference call into the show and have their faces on screen. It was similar to what the NBA did to bring fans into their games, but with more fans shown. There were some teething pains since the fans were live in with the show (a KKK hood showed up once, along with a still image of Chris Benoit, a wrestler who murdered his wife and youngest son before committing suicide in 2007) and fans who used the opportunity to make their voices heard (in the wake of last summer’s #SpeakingOut movement, several WWE talent were implicated, and one fan put “Fire Velveteen Dream” on their screen – a performer who had been named in allegations). Over time, these things became less common and the Thunderdome was just an accepted part of the show. On top of the video walls, they also piped in pre-recorded fan noise to fill out the experience.
Both shows were doing a lot better with this, but it was still weird. AEW had multiple new signings debut during this era, with no or limited audiences in attendance, in sometimes sad ways. The entire AEW run of Brodie Lee, from his signing last spring to his death in December, was done in front of limited or no crowds. After winning the AEW World Championship at Revolution 2020 in late February, the vast majority of Jon Moxley’s title run was for no live audience, although at least he was able to get a loud fan reaction on winning the title. WWE had to run an entire Royal Rumble, including the re-return of Edge and the surprise in-ring return of his long-time tag team partner Christian, with no live audience short of Thunderdome screens.
However, as the pandemic restrictions in the US ease due to increasing vaccination rates, both AEW and WWE have formalized and announced their plans for resuming touring. AEW already started, with the July 7th episode of Dynamite live from Miami, and WWE has taped their final episodes of Raw and Smackdown from the third and final home of the Thunderdome, before this upcoming weekend’s Money in the Bank live event in front of fans in Fort Worth, Texas.
Returning to normal has been messy already, in some ways. WWE was able to run this year’s Wrestlemania, the 37th edition, live in Tampa as was originally planned for last year, but with reduced crowd size, and the first night of the show was subject to a thunderstorm delay, as it was at the outdoor Raymond James Stadium. AEW’s first night on the road in Miami this week was subject to a fan rushing the ring, but also came with one of the few genuine shocks in modern wrestling, as the former Aleister Black from WWE debuted as a new character, which was a surprise because while he had been recently released from his WWE contract, their normal terms are a 90-day non-compete, but due to a paperwork error, his had only been 30, so he was able to appear sooner than anyone expected, which was a massive win and resulted in a huge response from the live audience. In many ways, wrestling’s return to normal is a microcosm of the same things happening on a larger scale – as people enter the new way of things, there are some teething pains.
Overall, the pandemic era of pro wrestling, like a lot of television and movies that were produced fully or in-part during this time in history, is going to look very weird in a decade (hopefully, provided that variant strains don’t push us into perpetual lockdowns and misery). From people on-camera in masks, to the weird, empty shows – there were a lot of strange moments. Stone Cold Steve Austin kicked the era off on 3:16 day in 2020, giving his standard call-and-response promo to an empty room, with cameras showing the seats and the silence, and that really set the tone for the entire genre over the last 16 months. There have been debuts to no crowd, entire company runs with no one to perform in front of, the rise of cinematic matches like the Boneyard Match, the Firefly Funhouse match, and Stadium Stampede, and then finally the delight visible from fans and performers alike as crowds have returned and made wrestling… well, whole again.
It was a bizarre time, and both WWE and AEW started it off with promos about how life needs habit and normalcy, and producing shows weekly was a normal thing and a moment where you could tune in and forget what’s going on – as if such a thing were possible in these times. Both companies were overly proud, although of course this was obviously also cynical – fulfilling TV contracts, continuing to make merchandise sales, PPV sales, and the like, and both companies had some flaws in how they approached the pandemic (WWE was doing temperature checks only for the first several months and had multiple locker-room COVID outbreaks, while AEW did better with actual antibody testing in addition to temp checks, but neither show had full bubbles as talent flew in and out on a weekly basis). But at the same time, there is some measure of truth in those statements. For a lot of people, myself included, life in quarantine was about ritual – about having fixed events like raid nights, friend events done virtually, and appointment viewing to give measure to time and at least keep things somewhat lighter than the actual state of the world reflected.
But also, man, it was fucking hilarious to see the weird ways in which wrestling found its way through the pandemic, and it will be especially interesting to see how a new crop of performers who started on TV or sharpened their skills in this time period adapt to live crowds. It’ll be hard, for sure!