Paul “Triple H” Levesque has set himself a pretty monumental task. Amid the most difficult and uncertain of times that the collective world has known for generations, the executive vice president of the WWE wants to make you forget about your problems.
Levesque knows the distraction won’t last, that the worries and concerns and stark realities for America’s public aren’t going to suddenly disappear. He doesn’t have the magic solution that might quell COVID-19 and slow its inexorable spread.
However, over two nights this weekend, the 50-year-old performer-turned-executive and his organization will endeavor to use WrestleMania, the biggest event of the WWE calendar, to fill some of the entertainment void caused by the ravages of the coronavirus. (You can order WrestleMania 36, live Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m. ET, on FOX Sports pay-per-view here!)
“Now, more than ever, entertainment is needed,” Levesque told me in a telephone conversation this week. “We want to be there for people, to be an escape and a release and something to take their mind off things amid all this.
“What we try to do is to put smiles on people’s faces and allow them to live in this fantasized moment. At this time, we have an added responsibility, because there is so little else happening.”
Tomorrow, the two-night spectacular begins. Buy #WrestleMania now and don’t miss a second of action that is ‘Too Big for Just One Night’.
➡️: https://t.co/3iQRUhKZmC pic.twitter.com/XmLw60p4U9
— WWE on FOX (@WWEonFOX) April 3, 2020
In Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s Maximus famously asked: “Are you not entertained?”
And, in truth, right now we are not. Not as sports fans. Not like we are used to. America’s sports lovers are usually a spoiled bunch, aren’t we? On a typical basis, there is never much of a wait from one great event to another.
The Super Bowl gives way to the madness of March. Opening Day and the Masters guide us towards the NBA and NHL playoffs. Summers bring Olympics and major soccer tournaments. And, then, football comes around again.
The last time anyone heard someone complain that there just wasn’t enough sports on television, well, let’s just say the bottom of NBA shorts still sat closer to the waistline than to the knee.
Since the rapid and comprehensive shutdown of major events, pretty much every league is trying its darnedest to cater for its fans. The NBA has players squaring off against each other on video games. Virtual racing across NASCAR and other motorsport disciplines is booming. The engagement from the superstars and fans alike has been uplifting. But it is not the same.
WWE finds itself with an opportunity but also, like Levesque said, a responsibility. As scripted entertainment, it is unbound by some of the restrictions other sports face.
“To me, whether the fans are there or not, I’m still thinking about the millions at home… I want to prove that you can be just as invested without the bonus of a live audience.” — @MsCharlotteWWE pic.twitter.com/c92qCo3mG1
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) April 3, 2020
The organization has the luxury of a performance institute in Orlando, which is where WrestleMania has been moved to from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. A small skeleton staff and crew can be used, with no fans in attendance.
Athletes will cycle in and out to reduce the number of people in the building at one time, in order to remain within Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Medical screenings will be set up and some segments have been taped in advance. Furthermore, the decision to spread the event over two nights, for the first time in history, allows extra flexibility in ensuring any risk is kept to a minimum.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Levesque said. “Three weeks ago, none of this was a factor at all. Then it started changing, and changing almost on a minute by minute basis. We would make a decision and then another report would come in that changed everything. You have to rethink on the fly.”
Yet things never quite got to a point where WWE was left with no option but to cancel. And the more the show stayed alive, the more Levesque, Chairman Vince McMahon, and his athletes became determined to put it on.
This year’s #WrestleMania will be an event unlike any other.@DMcIntyreWWE spoke to our @MrogersFOX about what it’s like to prepare for a WrestleMania with no crowd, and how he hopes his own story will continue to inspire fans worldwide: https://t.co/esiqvgCQtd
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) April 1, 2020
Trying to predict the viewing figures for Saturday and Sunday is a fool’s errand because there has never been a situation like this. WrestleMania always does a huge number, but this one could smash normal expectations.
Because, right now, the public needs some kind of connection with normalcy. Sports is far, far less important than the fight being undertaken by our doctors and scientists and policymakers, but it still provides one of the anchors of life for millions.
So, while wrestling fans will salivate over matchups like Brock Lesnar v. Drew McIntyre and The Undertaker v. A.J. Styles, many who do not usually follow WWE will still get a kick out of the tremendous athleticism and the unashamedly over-the-top storylines.
While we sit in our homes and wonder what comes next it is okay to take a couple of hours over the weekend to laugh along with event host Rob Gronkowski and to cheer for new favorites and smile at the outrageous storylines.
WWE is not traditional sports, and that’s the whole point. It is made to be larger than life. As life for so many is being squeezed into a shell of its former self, maybe it is just what we need.