Part of why wrestling is a somewhat in-demand TV product right now is that it has new content every single week no matter what. There is never an off-season and the whole business has a deeply engrained “the show must go on” mentality — WWE often touts how it has had a new episode every week for the last 20+ years. This is why, even during a global pandemic that has shuttered sporting events across the globe, wrestling keeps on happening in its cockroach-like way. In the last couple weeks, both WWE and AEW ran shows without an audience for the first time, with limited personnel on hand. The results have been weird, to say the least.
Wrestling’s lifeblood is the crowd reactions, and most of my posts have centered on how the art form is so heavily based on manipulating the audience and getting them invested in matches. One of the reasons I watch is for those really heated emotional moments on either end of the spectrum, whether it’s the entire crowd hating Brock Lesnar or rejoicing when he gets beaten. Needless to say, without a live audience, those moments don’t exist. So what’s left?
As it turns out, there have been obvious downsides, but also some surprising revelations from this experiment. To start with the negatives, the matches are tough to get into without a crowd reacting at specific spots. AEW’s first show without fans seemed to solve this issue by having wrestlers serve as a de facto audience, rooting on the good guys or bad guys based on their alignment, which led to a show with much more energy than WWE’s approach that had empty chairs in the background at their Performance Center and a clear apocalyptic vibe. But due to the CDC recommendations on crowd gatherings, that was nixed last night, so now both shows are running with as few people around the ring as possible.
AEW’s matches have suffered less, because they tend to be more focused on athleticism and back-and-forth action than WWE’s, which are typically about advancing a story and engaging the crowd in a battle of good against evil. With so many hours of TV to fill and with not a ton of people on hand, WWE has been using their extensive back catalogue of old pay-per-view matches to fill time and pace the shows a bit, seemingly recognizing that the no-crowd matches weren’t particularly fun to watch. Both shows have tried to find creative ways to mimic a crowd. AEW had a backstage room with wrestlers cheering for others, while WWE has put various people on guest commentary and had them cheering for specific wrestlers and advancing a story. These are decent band-aid attempts given the restrictions, but nothing that really comes close to matching the feeling of a live crowd being into a match.
This hasn’t all been negatives, though. In fact, one part of the show has actually improved. WWE has let loose their best promo people in these weeks and they’ve thrived without having an obnoxious crowd interrupting them or trying to make the show about themselves. As a huge fan of promos, this period has been a goldmine for me: wrestlers like Bray Wyatt, Edge, and Becky Lynch have cut some of their better promos, because the quiet setting lends an intimacy and intensity to the proceedings that isn’t there typically. Instead of playing to a crowd, these confrontations are just between the wrestlers, and it makes them feel more like real-world conflicts. I noticed even non-wrestling-fans on Twitter were observing that no-audience wrestling resembled some kind of bizarre stripped-down theater production.
WWE has the advantage of currently building up to WrestleMania, their big stadium spectacle that will now take place in an empty arena. AEW has less of a clear direction (and just doesn’t emphasize promos as much as WWE), so they haven’t been as successful in this regard. I also have felt since the beginning that AEW’s boisterous crowds have covered up a lot of the show’s flaws — when an audience is cheering wildly, it has a psychological effect on many where they convince themselves it’s great, and a lot of fans are so happy for a major league non-WWE show that they cheer for everything.
I really felt this in the final segment of AEW’s last show, which involved Broken Matt Hardy, a ridiculous, campy character that caught on with wrestling fans because of its over-the-top wackiness. Hardy signed with WWE a few years ago, they never “got” the character, so now he’s jumped ship to bring it back and show off his brilliant creative mind. His first promo, with no audience, felt like the worst segment in the history of wrestling to me — it was like watching really bad children’s theater. Without fans going wild for Hardy and cheering for his outlandish character, shouting his catch phrases, the curtain was pulled back and I realized this is an idiotic gimmick that already feels stale. In the moment, I hated this segment more than anything, but I can’t even tell if it’s a fair assessment because of the lack of fans. My guess is a lot of stuff I have loved in wrestling would not seem nearly as good if it had played to an empty arena.
These shows feel like they’re on borrowed time: both have been operating in Florida, which is going to enforce a stay-at-home order, and obviously if a wrestler tests positive for Covid-19 it all likely stops. WWE has recorded a bunch of their shows in advance through Wrestlemania, at which point we will probably enter the first wrestling hiatus in forever. When the wrestling stops, that’s when you know things are going really bad.