All of this and more finally returned to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) as the company welcomed its first big crowd in over a year, and did so at its biggest show – WrestleMania.
“I personally missed the interaction with the audience tremendously,” said Paul Heyman, WWE Universal Champion’s on-screen manager Roman Reigns.
“There is a level of WWE fan passion that I would venture to suggest is unmatched on a global scale, and an intimacy we share with our audience that is second to none.
That passion was in full swing on the first of two nights of action in Tampa.
Although the 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium is half full due to social distancing measures, spectators still managed to create a special atmosphere.
‘A special moment’
John Clark, who traveled from State College, Pennsylvania, described the scene as “incredible”.
“It was like more fans were there. We’ve all been gone for so long and that must have made us make more noise, ”he said.
Clark, a self-proclaimed “super fan,” said the most special moment was at the start of the show. All the talent stood on the stage behind WWE President Vince McMahon, who expressed how much they missed fans and thanked them for coming.
“Some of the wrestlers had tears streaming down their faces. Some fans too. It was a special time for everyone, ”said Clark.
With Florida, the host state, having recorded more than two million cases of COVID-19, and about 80% of the U.S. population still unvaccinated, safety was a top priority for WWE.
In addition to socially remote headquarters, a series of measures have been implemented, including the compulsory wearing of masks by fans and temperature checks on arrival.
WWE’s security plan, however, was severely tested from the start. An impending storm prompted a loudspeaker announcement that the show was being delayed and fans should take shelter in the lobby.
Al Jazeera observed a congestion at the exits of the stadium, and supporters’ feelings about the way the situation was handled were mixed.
Jason Kohls of Waterloo, Iowa, said he felt the event staff did a good job.
“We kept the distance on the way out, and we had all the underground hall that we could go to. My friend and I were alone in a corner, ”he said.
Clark had a very different experience – calling the situation “chaotic.”
“Social distancing was not enforced anywhere and we were all much closer than 6 feet [2.5 metres]. Everyone wore masks but there was no real effort to stay away from people. There was also no real room to do it anyway, ”said Clark.
It also emerged that while the majority of fans were wearing masks, some of them did not comply, with some culprits appearing on the hall’s large video screens.
Nonetheless, after a 30-minute hiatus, the show managed to resume.
Chandran Nambiar, who flew from Los Angeles to be a part of WrestleMania, said: “It was an awesome show. It was very safe. The fans were scattered everywhere.
Clark added, “I have no regrets for coming and will be back with confidence for the second night. “
Hearing such comments will be music to the ears of WWE officials keen to make this year’s WrestleMania even more special after 12 difficult months.
After being classified as an essential business in Florida at the start of the pandemic, to the surprise of many, WWE has continued to film shows on closed sets.
But without fans, the programs lacked atmosphere and TV ratings plummeted.
Its flagship weekly show, Raw, averaged 1.880 million US viewers per episode in 2020, up from 2.418 million the previous year.
Nonetheless, in the face of adversity, the company has shown it can adapt.
In an effort to win back viewers, WWE has created a virtual arena for weekly programming known as Thunderdome, which features hundreds of TV screens with live fan streams from around the world around the ring.
Much like English Premier League football games during the pandemic, crowd noise was pumped out to fuel the mood.
Those efforts got a huge vote of confidence in January when US broadcaster NBC signed a billion dollar deal to add WWE content to its streaming service, Peacock.
‘Show must go on’
Considering all the challenges and successes, Heyman, 55, said the ingenuity shown by WWE bodes well for the future.
“We will adapt to any situation and circumstance that we face, because there are people who expect to be entertained by WWE.
“I think it’s to WWE’s great credit that [during the pandemic] we never missed a week of television. Not one. Not a single week. It didn’t even take a few weeks or a month to adjust. We just moved forward. It’s the mindset of this global conglomerate that the show must go on no matter what.
After WrestleMania, WWE will return to its virtual arena, and it’s unclear when fans will be able to make a permanent return.
Hopefully everyone who attended Tampa will stay healthy, and the only price paid for their dose of live action was the admission fee.