Tampa, United States – Handmade banners, foam fingers and roars of rage and rapture.
All that and more finally returned to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) as the company hosted its first large crowd in more than a year, and did so at its biggest show – WrestleMania.
“I have personally missed the interaction with the audience tremendously,” said Paul Heyman, the on-screen manager of WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns.
“There’s a level of passion of WWE fans that I would dare suggest is unmatched on a global basis, and an intimacy that we share with our audience that is unrivalled.”
That passion was in full force on the first of two nights of action in Tampa.
Although the 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium was less than half full because of social distancing measures, the spectators still managed to create a special atmosphere.
‘A special moment’
John Clark, who travelled from State College, Pennsylvania, described the scene as “amazing”.
“It felt like more fans were in attendance. We’ve all been away so long and that must have pushed us to be louder,” he said.
Clark, a self-proclaimed “super fan”, said the most special moment was at the start of the show. All of the talent stood on the stage behind WWE chairman Vince McMahon, who expressed how much they had missed the fans and thanked them for coming.
“Some of the wrestlers had tears running down their faces. Some fans too. It was a special moment for everyone” said Clark.
With host state Florida having recorded more than two million COVID-19 cases, and about 80 percent of the US population still not vaccinated, safety was a major priority for WWE.
In addition to socially distanced seating, a raft of measures were implemented, including the compulsory wearing of masks by fans and temperature checks on arrival.
WWE’s safety plan was, however, severely tested early on. An incoming storm prompted a loudspeaker announcement that the show was being delayed and fans should take shelter in the concourse.
Al Jazeera observed crowding at stadium floor exits, and there were mixed feelings among fans regarding how the situation was handled.
Jason Kohls from Waterloo, Iowa, said he felt event staff did a good job.
“We kept distance as we exited, and we had the entire underground concourse that we could go to. Me and my friend were by ourselves in a corner,” he said.
Clark had a very different experience – calling the situation “chaotic”.
“Social distancing wasn’t being enforced anywhere and we were all much closer than 6 feet [2.5 metres]. Everybody was wearing masks though but there weren’t really any efforts to stay distanced from people. There also really wasn’t room to do so regardless,” said Clark.
It also appeared that, while the majority of fans were wearing masks, a number of them did not comply, with some guilty ones popping up on the venue’s large video screens.
Nonetheless, after a 30-minute disruption, the show managed to resume.
Chandran Nambiar, who flew from Los Angeles to be part of WrestleMania, said, “It was an awesome show. It was very safe. Fans were spread out throughout.”
Clark added: “I have no regrets about coming and will confidently be back for night two.”
Hearing such comments will be music to the ears of WWE officials eager to make this year’s WrestleMania extra special after a challenging 12 months.
After being classed as an essential business in Florida at the onset of the pandemic, to the surprise of many, WWE continued filming shows on closed sets.
But without fans, programmes lacked atmosphere and TV ratings plummeted.
Its flagship weekly show, Raw, drew an average of 1.880 million US viewers per episode in 2020, down from 2.418 million the previous year.
Nonetheless, in the face of adversity, the company did show it could adapt.
In a bid to win viewers back, WWE created a virtual arena for weekly programming known as the Thunderdome, which features hundreds of TV screens with live fan feeds from around the world surrounding the ring.
Much like English Premier League football matches during the pandemic, crowd noise was pumped in to fuel the ambience.
These efforts got a huge vote of confidence in January when US broadcaster NBC signed a $1bn deal to add WWE content to its streaming service, Peacock.
‘Show must go on’
Taking into account all the challenges and successes, Heyman, 55, said the resourcefulness WWE demonstrated bodes well for the future.
“We will adapt to any situation and circumstance that we face because there are people that count on being entertained by WWE.
“I think it’s to WWE’s massive credit that [during the pandemic] we never missed one week of television. Not one. Not a single week. Didn’t even take a couple of weeks or a month to adjust. We just forged ahead. That is the mindset of this global conglomerate that the show must go on no matter what happens.”
After WrestleMania, WWE will return to its virtual arena, and it is not clear when fans can make a permanent comeback.
Hopefully, everyone who attended in Tampa will stay in good health, and the only price paid for their fix of live-action was the admission fee.