WWE’s decision to continue its live programming into the build to WrestleMania is a highly debated decision. Nearly all of the world’s major sports leagues have halted operations due to concerns about the coronavirus. While television entertainment and news programs still operate, the WWE product is unique considering that its talent physically engage with one another in the confines of a wrestling ring.
Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon spoke with Sports Illustrated to provide explanation of how WWE has worked to keep on-screen talent and production staff safe and healthy, despite concerns over the virus.
“In terms of safety measures and protocols, first and foremost, every performance is voluntary for our performers and crew,” McMahon says. “That is a really important note to highlight. Also, the Performance Center itself is a closed set. We’re shooting in waves. No one person, regardless of who they are, is allowed to enter if they have a temperature of over 100.4, or if they have been out of the country or been in touch with someone who has been out of the country.
“We also do pandemic-level cleaning, which includes fogging and ultraviolet light, in the facility every single night. That could be overkill, quite frankly, but we really are trying to put in the best safety practices that we possibly can given the circumstances. Those are some of the measures we are taking, and it is as comprehensive as it can possibly be. We also changed some of the format for WrestleMania. We’re not holding the men’s or women’s battle royal—that’s just too many people in the ring at one time.”
There is no doubt that media consumers exasperated by the lack of new content on television and the void that pro sports has left are in need of a diversion. Assuming it is done safely and properly, many people will welcome being able to watch something fresh during this weekend’s WrestleMania, as well as the enjoyment brought by a temporary feeling of a return normalcy.
The biggest risk for WWE is if someone was infected and spread it to the rest of the locker room, which includes Roman Reigns, who has twice won his battle with leukemia, Daniel Bryan, who has an autoimmune disease, which his wife Bri Bella revealed on her podcast, and The Undertaker and Bill Goldberg, who are both over the age of 50. A person spreading the virus would instantly become the story, overshadowing the cultural milestone that is WrestleMania.
McMahon was asked why it was the right decision in the face of such risk to continue to move forward with WrestleMania.
“We consider it a privilege and, in some regards, a responsibility to be able to provide this entertainment value for our fans,” said McMahon. “And again, this is all voluntary, and our superstars have said the same. Of course, we don’t want anyone to get the virus, whatsoever. This is an unprecedented time in our world, and we’re taking every possible precautionary measure that we can and doing everything we can to provide an entertainment experience for our fans.
“Our goal is to provide entertainment that will help you forget what you’re going through for a few hours. It’s a different experience. There aren’t fans in the audience. Some will be critical of the content because of that, but we’re doing the best that we can to provide that outlet for our fans during this time.”
Stephanie’s father, WWE CEO Vince McMahon, has a history of running his shows, no matter the circumstances. SmackDown ran only two days after 9/11 in 2001. WWE called upon the SmackDown talent to work Monday Night Raw in 2010 after a volcanic eruption in Iceland prevented the Raw roster from returning in time from Europe, Raw ran amidst a blizzard in 2015, and, more recently, WWE found a way to run SmackDown this past November after the majority of the roster was stuck far longer than planned in Saudi Arabia. But, given the current circumstances, the fate of this year’s WrestleMania was in doubt.
“It was, actually, because this is an unprecedented time,” said McMahon. “We all have been day-to-day really looking at all of this. Ultimately, as brands and leagues and companies are reinventing themselves, it’s important to stay true to your mission. And our mission is to put smiles on people’s faces. We’re a fan-first company, we always want to provide an experience that is worthy of our fans’ passion. We’re constantly looking at what other leagues are doing, what other providers are doing, assessing the landscape–can we make it as safe as possible? Where can we shoot the content? All of these different factors have come into play. We’re working with local, regional, and global agencies, we’re putting in the best possible testing measures that we can [and] all of the safety precautions that we’re taking to take this very seriously.
“This is not something where we’re just being bullheaded and moving forward. This is a concerted, very thought-through effort to entertain our fans with our biggest show of the year. It won’t feel and look like our biggest show of the year, but certainly from a content standpoint and a match standpoint, we’re trying to deliver.”
A report surfaced last week that Roman Reigns (cancer survivor Joe Anoa’i) chose to opt out of his high-profile WrestleMania title match against Goldberg, which Reigns confirmed in an Instagram video earlier this week. McMahon was asked if Reigns’ decision to not take part in WrestleMania was the result of a series of discussions between him, WWE officials, and their medical team—and if there is support toward him for his decision.
“With all of our superstars, it really is a voluntary basis,” said McMahon. “It’s not my place to give his personal situation, but we support our superstars. We support their personal opinions and concerns, and again, this is all voluntary. Especially when you have a talent or a performer with pre-existing conditions, or whatever the reason might be. If someone is uncomfortable, we will absolutely honor that.
“We want our talent to perform at WrestleMania, but only if they’re comfortable. Regardless of their reasons, they have to be comfortable. It has to be something they want to do. We absolutely support all of our superstars and their decision of whether or not to perform, especially at this time.”
There have been rumors and reports of other WWE performers taken off the WrestleMania card due to high temperatures or because they were feeling unwell. McMahon was asked if absences will be explained or addressed on this Friday’s SmackDown, which is WWE’s final television show before WrestleMania.
“Those are questions you’re going to have to wait and see how we handle creatively,” answered McMahon.
WrestleMania 36 will mark the first time McMahon has ever missed a WrestleMania, as she explained that she was not considered essential personnel to the show. With the world in a tenuous, uncertain place, and wrestling no different, McMahon touched on what she believes will be the lasting image of this year’s WrestleMania.
“What I think is going to stand out most is how this incredible group of people have come together,” said McMahon. “To put on a show in some of the most trying of circumstances, to do the best that they can to provide some entertainment and relief to an audience that needs it.”