Entertainment

A WrestleMania Coronavirus Shutdown Would Be a Catastrophe for Indie Wrestling

"I’m not kidding, if this is a full cancellation, I’ll likely sell my house,” one promoter said.
March 13, 2020, 4:46pm
Vince McMahon speaking
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

World Wrestling Entertainment’s 36th annual WrestleMania, is, as of now, scheduled for April 5th at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Not only is it a massive event, but it’s a particularly international one.

According to an economic impact report released by WWE, the fanbase descending on WrestleMania last year in the New York City metropolitan area came from all 50 states and 68 countries, with similar numbers the previous two years in New Orleans and Orlando. WrestleMania is more than a singular wrestling card; it also features multiple shoulder events like a weekend-long fan convention, a Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and three additional arena-sized in-ring wrestling events. WrestleMania weekend is also much more than WWE these days, with numerous unaffiliated independent promotions running shows, making it akin to pro wrestling’s version of South By Southwest. That event, of course, was cancelled by the city of Austin due to coronavirus concerns, leaving the organizers of the official event in a hole since their insurance doesn’t cover disease outbreaks.

WWE, at least as of this writing, appears to be playing a game of chicken with the local government agencies in and around Tampa, with neither side willing to blink first. Answers were expected to come early Thursday afternoon at a public meeting of the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group, but they decided not to cancel anything after learning that WWE had deferred to them on the matter. In the grand scheme of things, WWE will be fine, regardless of what they do: They’re a big company, and even if they have to cancel events, whether part of the WrestleMania festivities or regular week-to-week TV tapings, they have spaces like the WWE Performance Center training facility in Orlando that can host scaled-down TV shows. That’s exactly what they’re doing for the next episode of their SmackDown broadcast, with only “essential personnel” present, in lieu of the originally scheduled arena-size event in Detroit.

Where things get a lot more complicated and financially perilous is in the realm of independent wrestling. Every year since 2013, an increasing number of independent promoters have run shows in the WrestleMania host city designed to attract out-of-town fans. Some are run individually, and some as part of larger, multi-show hubs, but they’re part of the fabric of the weekend now, and cancelling them would be catastrophic for the independent scene. If you’re an independent wrestler, a spot on one of the bigger shows can be a massive showcase, leading to more fans buying merchandise and more bookings as the year goes on. For some wrestlers, the problem right now is much more acute: They’re able to bank a lot of bookings in a short period of time. Current WWE star Matt Riddle, for example, worked a whopping 11 matches in about two and a half days two years ago in New Orleans. At the upper tier of the independent scene, that amount of booking quickly adds up to a lot of money.

Staten Island’s Chris Dickinson, who’s been wrestling for over a decade and has made a full-time living at it for the last four years, will be hit as hard as any wrestler would be with cancellations. Not only does he have nine matches booked WrestleMania weekend, but several of them were against prominent Japanese stars. If anyone was going to see their stock increase, it was him.

“This is unfortunately not only financially devastating, as it is the biggest wrestling week of the year, but it’s extremely demoralizing, especially for me,” he told VICE. “I had a lot riding on some of these matches and a lot of eyes on me. This is a time where I could really break through to the next level, and it’s all either going to be postponed or some of these opportunities may never present themselves again.”

Dickinson places his potential losses in the thousands in booking fees alone. When you factor in not just the larger positive effects on his career but also merchandise sales, which tend to be particularly strong after the kind of showcase matches he’s booked in, the number increases significantly. Speaking more generally, Black Label Pro promoter Michael Blanton, who has two shows scheduled in Tampa, classified a cancellation to VICE as “an astronomical loss” for the wrestlers, comparing it to “a nine-to-fiver being cut from 40 hours to five.”

“This is the indie wrestler’s big bonus that they work all year for,” he added. “Taking this away would take away a huge portion of your yearly take.”

The potential financial damage can be even bigger for promoters, especially those for whom the weekend is a major undertaking that, while normally lucrative, necessitates a massive financial outlay. One of the key players is New Jersey’s Game Changer Wrestling, which quickly carved out a space after its first ‘Mania weekend show, “Joey Janela’s Spring Break, became the viral hit of the 2017 festivities in Orlando. The following year in Orlando, the sequel drew the biggest independent crowd of the weekend, and last year they broke away from the hub of events hosted by WWN, a WWE affiliate, to start their own, The Collective, a showcase of events from strictly independent promotions. Aside from a few poorly-promoted non-GCW shows, it was a success, and this year, The Collective was booked to encompass a multi-stage venue, The Cuban Club, with some events even overlapping.

Early Wednesday afternoon, before the world started to end, The Collective tweeted a statement pledging to move forward as planned regardless of what WWE were to decide. But a the other shoes started to drop and fans expressed more concern in the replies, GCW promoter Brett Lauderdale responded at 11:42 pm ET to ask for fans’ patience. “The reality is that some things are out of our hands,” he said when reached by VICE. “All we can do is wish for the best. Regardless of Thursday's outcome, we will remain in close contact with our fans and do our best to create a positive outcome for everyone involved."

The other big indie player is Highspots. Started by Michael Bochicchio in Charlotte, North Carolina as a company that sold Mexican luchador masks, Highspots now sells wrestling merchandise, in-ring gear for wrestlers, and wrestling rings for promoters, on top of doing wrestling-related video production. Every year, during WrestleMania weekend, they put on WrestleCon, the biggest wrestling autograph/meet-and-greet show of the year, along with associated wrestling cards. Their signature show is a reliable sellout every year, and they’re a big enough deal to be hosting shows from multiple major promotions this year, but the convention proper is the big draw. Even if someone’s not into indie wrestling, they may very well hit up the convention for autographs, photos, and nostalgia. But attracting those fans is a massive undertaking requiring big money to get big stars: The lineup in New Orleans, for example, included Steve Austin, with ticket packages for his session available to fans for $316.

A couple of hours after announcing the full card for one of WrestleCon’s in-ring shows, as pressure mounted, Bochicchio tentatively laid out where things stood in a tweet: “Best guess is we either have our events in three weeks as planned or 2020 is cancelled (and refund tickets),” he wrote. “I don't see a scenario where we merely postpone.” A couple of hours after the Hillsborough County meeting, though, Bochicchio tweeted that he was going to wait on a formal WrestleMania decision before making any kind of move towards cancellation.

Complicating all of this is that neither Lauderdale nor Bochicchio have cancellation insurance on their events, although, as SXSW showed, it probably wouldn’t help if they did. That doesn’t mean there aren’t levels to this: A government-mandated shutdown that would directly affect them—as opposed to WWE calling off WrestleMania and the other WWE events on their own—would at least trigger the force majeure provisions in contracts that allow for refunds to promoters. It wouldn’t be everything, but it would certainly be better for them than if they cancelled without “officially” being forced to. “Better” is relative here, though.

“I’m not kidding, if this is a full cancellation, I’ll likely sell my house,” Bochicchio told VICE. “You can put it on the record, it’s true.”

Follow David Bixenspan on Twitter.

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