The coronavirus is officially a global pandemic. Yet WrestleMania is still scheduled to take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on April 5.
There is much uncertainty regarding the coronavirus, but one thing that is for sure is that large gatherings of people should be avoided. Holding an event at a football stadium in front of over 70,000 people is asking—perhaps even begging—for trouble. Even for Vince McMahon, a renegade-turned-business tycoon, the risk is simply too high.
Sports Illustrated reached out to over 20 members of the WWE roster, connecting with a dozen. Each expressed concern about performing in front of such a massive crowd, especially with the possibility of the situation worsening before WrestleMania.
Talent could only speculate on the fate of WrestleMania, but the majority felt it will be canceled due to the evolving situation with the outbreak.
All signs point to a cancellation. And soon. But sources close to WWE have confirmed that McMahon wants to proceed with the event.
WWE released an official statement on Thursday:
“While we remain committed to hosting WrestleMania at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, April 5, we are putting contingency plans in place in the event that it is canceled by government officials, civil authorities and/or local venues. The health and safety of our fans, performers, and employees are our top priorities and we are monitoring the situation closely with our partners and government officials in Tampa Bay.”
Officials in Tampa said Thursday that a decision on the fate of the event did not have to be reached immediately.
“We’ve got the luxury of time on our hands for some of the larger events as well,” Mayor Jane Castor said at a press conference. “We don’t have to take immediate action for events that are occurring weeks down the road.”
The city will wait to see what WWE plans to do before stepping in.
“Right now WrestleMania is out about three weeks,” Hillsborough County commissioner Les Miller said at a public meeting Thursday afternoon. “We came to the conclusion that at this point, we don't want to pull that plug. However we wanted to give it at least a week to see what was going to happen, if WWE was going to do anything at all. If they don't, at that point, I will suggest that we do come together for an emergency meeting to discuss what we do at that particular point in time.”
There are limited options if the show must go on.
WWE could opt for an empty stadium show. The crowd plays an integral role in the success of pro wrestling, but an empty stadium “Showcase of Immortals” would do big business if it aired for a fee on ESPN+.
There is a tremendous amount of money at stake, which became even more clear when WWE stock nearly 17% on Thursday to $32.50 per share, its lowest in over two years. Moving to a pay-per-view platform on ESPN+ would allow WWE the chance to recoup losses from refunding tens of thousands of tickets and from the potential loss of advertisers, which is an advantage the subscription-based WWE Network does not provide. (WWE has reportedly already been discussing the possibility of moving its pay-per-views to ESPN+.)
WWE could also attempt to sell the broadcast rights to a cable network. If WrestleMania were broadcast on network television, it would draw an outrageously high rating. Would a network like Fox, which already airs SmackDown, be willing to meet McMahon’s financial demands for the rights to air WrestleMania?
Friday night’s SmackDown is set to take place from the WWE Performance Center in Orlando without an audience, but WWE would be smart not to move WrestleMania to the training facility. The striking visuals and creative possibilities of wrestling in a deserted football stadium would far exceed anything that could be produced in the Performance Center.
The show could also stay in Tampa with a new date. I have heard Labor Day weekend floated from more than one source, but that is only weeks after SummerSlam and could conflict with the Buccaneers’ schedule.
At this point, there are more questions than answers.
WrestleMania plans could change in an instant if a talent contracts the virus. The tenuous nature of the situation showed this past week. American pro sports changed the moment it was announced that Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. If Gobert were healthy, would the NBA still be playing? The NBA suspending its season was the first domino, with the NHL, MLB and NCAA all following suit.
For now, in the midst of the hysteria of a worldwide pandemic, WrestleMania is still set for April 5.
But if we have learned anything from this past week, that is certainly subject to change.