Story courtesy of Eduardo A. Encine, Tampa Bay Times
TAMPA, FL — WWE proved this past weekend it can pull off the sensory spectacle WrestleMania is known for even without a packed house.
The professional wrestling promotion wanted to make its first event in front of a live audience since last March memorable, and a major part was using the Raymond James Stadium space to make everything seem bigger — down to the huge pirate ship it built on set.
For spectators, about 300 drones took to the air to enhance wrestlers’ entrances. Speaker systems blared, and lasers, pyrotechnics and fireworks came from all directions.
Not only was the stadium transformed physically, WWE used augmented reality to create virtual set pieces such as a huge Roman Reigns statue on the ramp before his introduction for Sunday’s universal title match. Fan cutouts were set up inside the lower bowl facing the camera to make the area appear more filled in, and AR was used in wide shots of the upper deck to place virtual wrestler branding over sections of empty seating.
“You have to figure out a lot of times based on architecture, how do you create a potent temporary visual space for our brand?” said Duncan Leslie, WWE’s senior vice president of technical operations. “The challenge to Raymond James was obviously that it’s open. But everybody was helpful and understood that this is a transformative process. It’s unlike any other show that comes into their venue.”
The buildup to WrestleMania in Tampa was several years in the making, long before the coronavirus changed live events. Along with the Super Bowl, Tampa put together a blueprint for the return of big-ticket events that others will follow.
WrestleMania was the most widely attended event since the pandemic hit, attracting a sellout crowd of 25,675 — a total slightly higher than the one for Super Bowl 55 two months earlier — for each night of the two-day event. WrestleMania’s two-night total was 51,350.
Rhea Ripley, who won the WWE Raw Women’s title on Sunday, said the stadium felt full both nights.
“When I looked around, all I saw was people,” Ripley said. “It felt like a packed-out stadium. It was insane, especially the first night walking out there and seeing everyone and knowing that I didn’t have a match, so I could sort of let myself go and really show that moment and take that in. It was just wild.”
Splitting the event into two nights— the first time it’s been done in front of a live crowd — was done to allow for more fans while spreading them responsibly throughout the stadium. Having two separate cards and two main events was an unexpected benefit, even for the talent.
“For us, it’s a lot less tiring splitting it up over two days because it’s two shorter shows but there’s still so much excitement packed into those two days instead of a seven-plus hour show,” Ripley said. “I really do like the two days. I think it keeps everyone super excited.”
Tampa wasn’t initially supposed to host either event season this season.
The city was awarded Super Bowl 55 in 2017 after the construction of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., delayed its opening. SoFi was also scheduled to host WrestleMania 37, but California’s social-distancing regulations likely would have prevented in-person attendance, so the event was awarded to Tampa a year after the pandemic forced WrestleMania 36 to relocate from Raymond James to a closed set at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando.
In fact, the humongous pirate ship was built last year in anticipation of WrestleMania 36 and stored in semitrailers.
“It got really lonely,” Leslie said.
The ship was the biggest spectacle on the set — Leslie said it’s longer than an ice hockey rink, which is 200 feet — and built to be in camera angles that the stadium ship couldn’t. Saturday’s wind gusts ripped one of the ship’s sails, but Leslie said that only added to the motif. Other minor damage was done to the set, but nothing that could have been easily repaired. Some pieces of the ship will be preserved, but most will be recycled.
The Super Bowl provided a blueprint for how to hold a major event safely during the pandemic. The Bucs opened Raymond James to a limited capacity in October, enacting mandatory mask-wearing, health questionnaires, temperature checks, enhanced sanitation, touchless tickets and concessions, socially distanced pod seating and other distancing measures throughout the stadium. WrestleMania followed many of those same protocols.
Despite reports that WWE wanted to fill Raymond James to 75-percent capacity, WrestleMania was staged before roughly 36 percent of what the stadium will hold for an event that included floor seating.
Health officials won’t know for several weeks whether WrestleMania was as safe as the Super Bowl.
The NFL championship game was predicted to be a super-spreader event, but Hillsborough County found that only 53 coronavirus cases locally and four more out of state were linked to the Super Bowl. Official festivities related to the game drew a total of 280,000 spectators, including 24,835 fans at the game, another 12,000 in event staff and media, and 240,000 who attended the NFL Experience.
“The state of Florida is back in business, and we were proud to host WrestleMania this past weekend,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement provided by WWE. “We look forward to continuing our work with WWE, along with other professional sports and entertainment properties, to operate safely while generating revenue and protecting jobs.”
The next two WrestleManias are slated for huge venues — AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, next year and SoFi Stadium in 2023 — in the hopes they will be able to return to full capacities. Will Tampa hosting this year’s event help the city draw more WWE showcases in the future? Mayor Jane Castor said in a statement that the city is looking “forward to conversations with our long-standing partners at WWE about future events.”
Even without WrestleMania, Tampa Bay has become a major operations point for WWE. The company produced its Raw, SmackDown and pay-per-view shows from its virtual ThunderDome set at Tropicana Field during the Rays’ offseason before moving this week to start a residency at USF’s Yuengling Center. It’s a popular arrangement with the many wrestlers who call the Tampa Bay area home.
The economic impact of hosting WrestleMania won’t be known for several weeks. Despite not gaining the benefit of a full-capacity event, Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said this was the best time for the area to host two events of such magnitude, given how much the tourism and hotel industry was hurt by the pandemic.
“I think we all firmly believe the timing here could not have been any better,” Higgins said. “When you look at everything that our community’s been through, to be able to have these two global events take place at the time they did was just a phenomenal opportunity to showcase talent on the biggest stages, so we’re just thrilled with the way that it shook out that we were able to have the events when we did.”