So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #062: No Audience? No Wrestling!

With the increasing pressure of the CDC, state governance, and… well… common sense, live entertainment may be on the verge of hiatus. I speak specifically of professional wrestling — with both the WWE and AEW continuing to produce shows weekly. This perhaps coming to no greater head than Wrestlemania itself. Let’s just unpack that, shall we?

Vince McMahon’s first ‘Mania was the gamble that paid off to dividends still reverberating today. The WWF of 1985 presented the carnival-tinged cavalcade of muscle-bound pugilists in a venue and scope that prognosticated future success to the tune of billions of dollars earned. Fast-forward to the COVID-19 stricken wastleland that is America at present. Wrestlemania 36 just ended it’s 2-night audience-less presentation. In spite of death-defying stunts, first-and-likely-last-time-ever matchtypes like the Boneyard Match between the Undertaker and AJ Styles, or the Firefly Funhouse match between John Cena and The Fiend… after 7 hours of grunts and prat falls to the echos of an empty warehouse, I’m astounded this was considered a good idea. At all.

Professional wrestling proved beyond the shadow of doubt, that audience participation is absolutely a part of the final presentation. The WWE and AEW both “heroically” sought to put on audience-free shows since social distancing and quarantine has become the norm. And perhaps for the first week or two? It was watchable. But with each passing show — now including literally the largest show of all of “sports entertainment” attempted — the fans are falling off in droves. Any who have seen these cheer-and-jeer-free episodes can’t deny the truth. Watch as wrestlers walk out on to the ramp, arms raised for non-existent fans. It’s like watching an artsy off-Broadway play. You know the kind. The players pantomiming and cajoling in the black empty void. It’s not entertaining there, and here it’s mostly depressing.

Credit where it’s due of course: that either company would attempt these shows is admirable (if not a wee-bit stupid). They both attempted to shape their content for the change in venue / format. The WWE recorded a limited set of matches and paired them with content from their massive content library. AEW — with a smaller time-footprint to fill, presented more matches, but seemed to work with a small crew, and filled spaces sparsely with other talent (set the perform later during the same tapings) to maximize the bang-for-the-buck. And all major matches and angles were ground down to a pause; smartly phrasing key matches to come at later date(s).

But enough of the Wikipedia and mansplaining. Let’s get down to what matters here: my opinion.

Empty arena pro-wrestling has its place in the genre. The Rock and Mankind did it wonderfully. Matt Hardy did it stupendously. Hell. From what I’ve heard, the aforementioned Boneyard match was actually watchable. But I wouldn’t know. Nor will I. As I’ve stated multiple times prior: as long as Vince McMahon accepts blood money from Saudi Arabia, I will not financially reward his company — save only for my DVR-and-fast-forwarding-through-most of RAW and Smackdown shows. I watched YouTube recaps of ‘Mania, and got from it what I wanted. Knowledge of which matches had ending I thought made sense, and which didn’t. But my desire to watch any empty arena pro-wrestling is middling at best. While I’m personally loving AEW so much these days… without the way-into-it fanbase, I can’t help but feel like the over stars are themselves failing. Simply put: I’ve been taught that reaction breeds success in the business. As a fan, you take away that reaction and it feels like failure. I don’t want to feel that way for stars I enjoy.

“But Marc!” the internet wrestling community begins, “what about in Japan, where the Tokyo Dome is SILENT for all but the biggest spots! Certainly, THEY show it can be done!”. Sorry. I’ve watched my share of NJPW and the like. Big, polite crowds are still big crowds. And getting reaction from them — which is harder than it is in America — is part of the appeal of the show. Remove that, and it’s the same farce.

I recognize and applaud the attempt, but frankly, I think it’s time to hit pause. For the WWE, this is actually easier than you’d think. Create shows from the archives. Append it with well-produced promos from the current stars. Create vignettes and go back to the drawing board with the current roster. Give the talent the break to be with their loved ones. Heal. Train. Create ideas. So when the arenas are safe to fill again, you’ll have a rabid crowd ready for the new. For AEW, where it will be much harder to maintain it’s already stagnating momentum, I beg for much of the same. The fed is barely half a year old. Cut together bits from All In and the previous PPVs. Cut promos. Heck; 15 minutes a week could be lent to Brodie Lee to troll Vince McMahon, and it’ll crush on social media the following day.

Safety above all else. Because a fading fanbase will eventually snuff a wavering flame. Have some dignity. Have some faith. Have a heart. We, the fans, will come back when it’s safe again.