At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, three of the four major sporting leagues in the U.S. were temporarily shut down, The Masters was postponed, and nearly every sporting event across the world was put on hold. Even Hollywood production houses hit the pause button on all their projects.
However, WWE didn’t miss a beat and continued producing shows at its Performance Center [Capitol Wrestling Center] in Orlando, FL, where it hosted all three of its weekly TV shows [Raw, SmackDown, and NXT] before introducing ThunderDome at the Amway Center.
Stephanie McMahon, the Chief Brand Officer of WWE, recently appeared on the 2020 Forbes CMO Summit Virtual Series and spoke of the challenges faced by WWE at the start of the pandemic.
“For WWE, we never stopped producing our content, and that was a very difficult decision in and of itself,” said Stephanie. “First and foremost, we had to ensure the health and safety of our talents, crew, and employees.”
She went onto talk about how WWE had no choice but to adapt to the new normal.
“WrestleMania, for example, was supposed to be an event attended by 80,000 fans [at Raymond James Stadium] and instead became a two-day event at our Performance Center, which is essentially a warehouse where we develop and train our future stars.
“It was a stark contrast to what WrestleMania normally is,” she added.
Stephanie emphasized that the pandemic era has made WWE realize just how crucial the fans are to its programming.
“We continue to produce 7 hours of live programming every week, and produce content for a myriad of channels and platforms. And we never stopped. What we found [through this experience]] is that our fans mean everything. They bring the energy, the excitement, and the spectacle, and without them, the shows are just not the same.”
While touching upon WWE’s ratings decline at the start of the empty arena era, Stephanie said WWE tried to bring in developmental talent to be a part of the audience but “that wasn’t enough” to bring back the excitement to the live programming.
“We had hoped to be back in the arenas during the fall but that wasn’t to be,” she revealed. “So, we decided to double down and invest in the ThunderDome. Today, we have 1,000 virtual fans every show and nearly 100,000 fans who have signed up for this experience.”
She continued, “These fans are live, they give us real-time reactions, and we see their faces. We also mix in additional audio, which we found very helpful. We bring that audio into the arena [besides piping in the noise for TV] because the performers need to hear the audience too, and feed off that crowd.”
Stephanie said ThunderDome has also enabled its production crew to explore technologies such as AR, Drones, Pyros, and Lasers in ways that “we had never been able to do before.”
She added, “Through ThunderDome, we have brought the spectacle back to WWE and have seen our ratings increase because of that.”
WWE will be moving its ThunderDome set to Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, FL, starting with the episode of SmackDown on Friday, December 11.