Wrestling with coronavirus is the ultimate test for the pro wrestling industry right now.
It’s a predicament that neither WWE nor AEW ever thought they’d find themselves in. Empty buildings. Shows canceled in anticipation of things getting worse. WrestleMania turned into a pretaped movie-of-the-week.
There’s never been a better or more critical time for the people running wrestling’s biggest companies to get creative. AEW, as shown in recent episodes of AEW: Dynamite, is handling it pretty well. WWE , not so much. I know, I’m as surprised as you are.
Getting creative and changing the established order will be vital to the survival of pro wrestling.
Otherwise, wrestling with coronavirus could end up as pro wrestling’s own retirement match.
As both of the major North American wrestling companies are wrestling with coronavirus, the first step is to take stock of their resources.
Now, neither company is light on resources. WWE is a juggernaut that, while weakened, will survive the hit to business caused by the pandemic. Same for AEW, which can lean on the deep pockets of Tony Khan.
But the resource both companies are ignoring right now are the television networks that support them.
Take TNT, the home network of AEW: Dynamite. The NBA playoffs would ordinarily be getting into full swing by now. In normal seasons, TNT can lean on NBA playoff games for big ratings nights every week through the end of May.
But, of course, there are no NBA playoffs right now. There is no NBA. Enter AEW. This is an opportunity for Tony Khan to say, “You’ve got holes in your programming. Here, cut our pay-per-views into two-part chunks and air one part every Wednesday for eight weeks.”
WWE has somewhat taken advantage by reaching out to ESPN. The worldwide leader in sports will air recent years’ WrestleMania events for the next few weeks. But those events won’t draw in new fans from ESPN’s established viewership.
Instead of full-on wrestling shows, give ESPN the WWE 24 or WWE 365 documentaries from the WWE Network. If I’m normally watching Major League Baseball on Sundays, WrestleMania 35 isn’t going to fill that void. Instead, introduce viewers to the wrestlers as people and athletes. Then you can ease them into the big shows.
Both AEW and WWE need to realize that their partners are wrestling with coronavirus, too. And it’s time for some mutual back-scratching.
Change The Format
Right now, WWE Monday Night Raw and WWE SmackDown are pretty much acting like nothing’s changed.
When ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin returned to Raw on March 16, he still did his four-ringpost salute to a crowd that wasn’t there. Daniel Bryan is still leading “Yes” chants for people who aren’t there. And it looks ridiculous.
Meanwhile, AEW: Dynamite has gotten creative. With their first no-crowd show, the wrestlers served as the crowd. Heels were on one side of the ring, babyfaces on the other. Part of the story for the show was the heels at ringside taking bets on the matches.
So while AEW is learning and adapting how they’re wrestling with coronavirus, WWE is going about business as usual.
For the time being, Raw and SmackDown need to dial it back. As in dial it back 30 or so years. It’s time for those shows to basically become WWF Superstars again. Can’t have wrestlers fly in? And can’t send camera crews to them? Guys, we’re living in the future. The wrestlers can record their own vignettes. If you want content, and you want to keep it as fresh as humanly possible, then these guys have to go without a script and get creative.
Obviously, you still have to have wrestling matches. It’s a wrestling show. But put on two or three new matches, run a classic PPV match, and air some backstage interviews and homemade vignettes. And for the love of Bret, stop with the in-ring microphone promos.
Unless you’re Matt Hardy. Those can continue.
And while Vince McMahon might be a lunatic, he’s not an idiot. If it works, the light bulb just might go off over his head. “We don’t need writers, pal! I’ve got a great idea – let the boys develop their own characters!”
Well, I can dream, can’t I?
Stay Fresh And Out Of The Can
Freshness is going to be key when it comes to wrestling with coronavirus.
Right now, WWE’s approach is anything but. As of this writing, filming for WrestleMania 36 is complete. I never thought I’d type that sentence.
But it’s not only WrestleMania that’s in the can. Weeks upon weeks of programming is already taped. Hell, the Raw after WrestleMania is already complete.
Obviously, everything can’t be live right now. It’s simply not feasible. Frankly, the decision to go forward with WrestleMania at all is not a good choice. To be fair, every choice surrounding how to approach WrestleMania is bad, so I don’t envy WWE on that one.
But you can’t keep the product fresh. WWE themselves learned that lesson in the mid-90s, right around the same time that WCW was learning it. Going live with everything is not an option, but that shouldn’t mean that everything goes to tape.
Furthermore, this is an opportunity to get fans interested in the wrestlers themselves again. This is a chance for the wrestlers to show themselves. People didn’t cheer for Hulk Hogan because the WWF churned out a heavily market-researched product. They cheered because he connected with them.
Letting the wrestlers connect with the audience is what’s going to keep them fresh, and it’s going to keep the fans interested in the product. And it might even bring a few new ones along.
Ready To Reboot
I feel like a broken record, but AEW is already doing a good job of prioritizing what stories are important and how best to proceed with them.
With so much material already taped, WWE won’t have that hold in their arsenal when wrestling with coronavirus. When relative normalcy returns, WWE is stuck with a stockpile of canned material that they will either have to press on with when they go back live or jettison completely.
And I say jettison it.
WWE is historically bad at contingency plans. To this day, I don’t know why they didn’t just have Undertaker ready to take the title away from Bret Hart on his way out the door after Survivor Series 1997. But if WWE is going to stockpile material, they’re going to have to have contingency plans.
Plans for if we return to normal in April or May. Or June or August. What’s the card for SummerSlam? Have we called everybody to tell them to be ready hop on a plane on these specific dates?
Those are questions I guarantee WWE has not answered. Or even thought of.
So there needs to be a plan to wipe the slate clean and start over. Like the world itself, WWE has to emerge from wrestling with coronavirus understanding that they may have to start over from scratch. They have to be ready to rebuild their product from the ground up.
And with Triple H in a diminished backstage capacity and Vince surrounded by yes-men like Bruce Prichard, I don’t see it happening.
Every disaster is an opportunity to rebuild. In the case of pro wrestling, it’s one of the few athletic and entertainment entities equipped to survive the pandemic and come out clean on the other side.
But they have to play it smart. They have to think outside of the box.
WWE hasn’t thought outside the box since 2001. And, if we’re being honest, AEW isn’t thinking far enough outside the box.
Right now the whole world is wrestling with coronavirus. AEW and WWE both have the tools to survive the pandemic.
All there is to do now is sit back and see if they use them. And if they use them correctly.
WWE airs three network shows per week. WWE Monday Night Raw airs at 9 PM/ET Mondays on USA. NXT broadcasts Wednesdays at 8 PM/ET on USA, and WWE SmackDown is live on Fox at 8 PM/ET on Fridays.
AEW: Dynamite airs Wednesday nights on TNT at 9 PM/ET.
WWE WrestleMania is scheduled to stream on the WWE Network on Saturday, April 4, and Sunday, April 5, with 8 PM/ET start times both days.
Feature image courtesy of All Elite Wrestling.