2020 has been an unprecedented year across the globe, most notably due to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic that has affected every single country across the world, and every single aspect of our daily life. As people have been confined to their homes in local and national lockdowns, the world has shifted online. People are going online to shop, connect with loved ones and for entertainment. There has been a boom in internet sales across the globe, increased demand for streaming services and growth in online gaming, including gambling. As pro-sports seasons have been cancelled or curtailed, fans have been clinging to any semblance of normality. Some sports have been more able to adapt to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic and have been able to continue behind closed doors, this has affected major sports like the NFL, NBA and pro-wrestling.
Covid-19’s impact of AEW
There have been no fans in attendance at a pro-wrestling match since WWEs Friday Night SmackDown on Friday March 13, and AEW relocated their scheduled taping of Dynamite in Boston to behind closed doors in April 2020. For the first time in history, fights were broadcast without fans in attendance, stripping the sport back to its essentials: a ring, a microphone, and a referee. Whilst contestants have not been able to rouse the crowd, get the chants going and create the usual dynamic atmosphere, the situation has provided for other aspects of the sport to be brought to the fore.
- The fights have become more cinematic in style, with contestants talking straight into the camera making those watching at home feel like they are speaking directly to them, making it feel more intimate and more personal.
- The fights themselves also feel more intimate, with fans being able to hear what the contestants are saying without the roar of the crowd behind them.
- The commentary, when not competing with the crowd, has been funnier, with more jokes and more impact.
- The artistry and athleticism of the competitors has been better showcased, as it is not reliant on the support of the crowd, and contestants have been able to try new things and demonstrate just how gifted they really are.
- Newer competitors, like Andrade, Drew McIntyre, and Aleister Black have been featured quite heavily as more established stars such as Roman Reigns and Sami Zayn have removed themselves from the circuit due to the pandemic.
Is there need for a crowd in pro-wrestling?
Although there may be benefits to not having an audience at some pro-sports events, in pro-wresting the crowd is an absolutely integral part of the offering: after all, pro-wrestling is part sportsmanship, part performance, and what is a performance if there is no one to watch it? Competitors feed off the energy of the crowd and play a part specifically for them. As there were no crowds to contend with, most of the fights being broadcast were pre-taped, and the performances without an audience became somewhat lacklustre; viewing figures for RAW were the lowest in history, and SmackDown averaged its lowest audience on FOX. The combination of some of the big stars staying away, no live shows, and no audience has taken the excitement out of the sport, and fans are just waiting for normality to return.
This was also the case for the sports betting industry who were also waiting out for live matches in major sporting events like pro-wrestling to once again take back to our screens. As several states have recently legalised sports betting, this industry has seen a huge growth of fans placing their bets on live sporting events. With the pandemic stopping live matches and instead broadcasting repeat matches, the sports betting industry was majorly hit. So, just like eager fans waiting to return to the stadiums, sports betting sites that operate in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey were thankful when live events resumed one again.
The return of fans
Slowly, as people have become used to the Covid-19 restrictions and what they mean, and venues are starting to look at how to create Covid-secure environments, audiences are slowly being reintroduced to the world of professional sports. The NBA for example, has allowed part capacity for some of its games at some venues: in Florida, state legislature allows for venues to operate at 25% capacity to allow for social distancing. Wresting started with bringing the audience into the venue in the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida via giant LED screens in the ThunderDome from August 21.
AEW and WWE are lucky in that they have their own venues, and are therefore in complete control of what the venues can look like, changing layouts inside to allow for social distancing and not relying on external bodies to provide the setting for a return. As states open up following months of coronavirus restrictions, the AEW and WWE will be looking at ways to get their fans back into play. They recognise what a valuable part of the operation the fans are, and what they add to the proceedings.
The atmosphere of pro-wrestling is just not the same without the fans; this is recognised across the board, from changes in the atmosphere in the ring, the contestants no longer being able to feed off the energy of the crowd. There has been a marked difference in the fighting style, tailored to the new environment.
Initially, both AEW and WWE will focus on getting fans back into their venues, getting back to normal, showcasing their performers and building back up to where they were pre-pandemic. However, it is unclear when this will happen experts had initially predicted that within a couple of months, fans would be back in their seats, and the AEW rescheduled their April Dynamite for June. However, both are now aiming to have fans back in in greater numbers towards the end of 2021. From there, they will also then be looking at how to reinstate their touring schedules and take the show on the road once again.