Florida Deemed Pro Wrestlers ‘Essential’ Workers, and the Political Ties Are Sketchy

The relationship between WWE founders Vince and Linda McMahon and President Trump has deep roots.
April 16, 2020, 9:05pm
WWE Raw John Cena 2015
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Last spring, Linda McMahon left her position in President Donald Trump's administration, resigning from her role as the head of the Small Business Administration in favor of becoming the top fundraiser for a pro-Trump super PAC called America First Action.

The super PAC started the month by announcing that it was dropping $10 million on television ads "focused on Sleepy Joe Biden," commercials that will air in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with later additional ad buys of $8 million in North Carolina and $18.5 million in Florida.

"America First is making the Florida and North Carolina reservations because we are confident we can secure inventory at the best possible rates in these crucial battleground states," America First Action President Brian O. Walsh said in a statement.

But some have connected the dots between that $18.5 million ad buy and an executive order that Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed the same day, one that declared professional wrestling to be an "essential service" in the state. Linda McMahon is, of course, the co-founder and former president and CEO of what is now World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Her husband, Vince, is the current chairman and CEO of the company.

In his list of additions to Florida's existing list of essential services, DeSantis wrote in "employees at a professional sports and media production with a national audience—including any athletes, entertainers, production team, executive team, media team, and any others necessary to facilitate including services supporting such production—only if location is closed to the general public."

Shortly after that—Friday was a big day—Vince McMahon announced that the company would resume filming three live shows a week from its otherwise empty Performance Center in Orlando. WWE had previously been running pre-taped shows on all three networks that carry its programming.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings confirmed DeSantis' decision on Monday. "Originally, they were not deemed an essential business. With some conversation with the governor's office regarding the governor's order, they were deemed an essential business," he said.

On Tuesday, DeSantis gave a strange defense of his updated executive order, suggesting that it was because we're "starved" for things to watch on television. “People are chomping at the bit,” he said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “If you think about it, we have never had a period like this in modern American history where you’ve had so little new content, particularly in the sporting realm. I mean, we are watching reruns from like the early 2000s."

But it's hard to overlook the longtime connection between McMahon—both McMahons—and the president. In addition to Linda's former role in his administration, and her current position as a high-dollar fundraiser, the couple have personally donated to Trump's pre-presidential causes.

In 2017, Forbes reported that Trump's 2007 IRS tax filing revealed that WWE donated $4 million to the Trump Foundation, which was "114 times as much" as Trump gave to his own namesake foundation. A WWE spokesperson told the outlet that the donation wasn't actually from the WWE, but it was a gift from the McMahons themselves. (And who can forget that Trump 'fought' McMahon at WrestleMania 23, and that he has since been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.)

But why would it be so important for WWE to resume its live shows during a serious pandemic? Possibly because of the nature of its contracts with NBC Universal and FOX. According to Wrestling Inc, there is a limit on the number of pre-taped shows that WWE can use every year—the rest of the shows have to be filmed live—and if that number is exceeded, then the networks might have leverage to "change up the deals." With an increasing number of cancelled events, postponed tours, and zero ticket sales for live shows, the company is increasingly leaning on its television revenue.

Whether or not Trump would get involved on behalf of McMahon, the other McMahon, or the WWE will undoubtedly continue to be a source of speculation.

"I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that the McMahon family is very tight with the Trump's and the fact that Linda McMahon is raising 300 million dollars for Trump's Super PAC, and the governor is very tight with the President," Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg told ESPN West Palm. "You know, I'm sure it had nothing to do with that, right?"

A spokesperson for America First Action told ABC News that suggesting such a thing was a symptom of "Trump Derangement Syndrome" and an example of "looking to connect some sort of dots that simply don't exist." America First Action said that the $18 million Florida ad buy was planned a week ahead of DeSantis' updated executive order.

"We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times," WWE said in a statement. "As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance."

The WWE's first "essential" live episode, Monday night's WWE Raw, had its smallest viewing audience of the year. On Wednesday, the company announced a corporate restructuring plan that included a significant "reduction of talent expenses." It released 20 essential wrestlers, including Rusev and Kurt Angle, and also released or furloughed nine essential producers.

Keeping the business profitable seems to be the essential part. The wrestlers themselves... less so.