TAMPA, Fla. - Triple H walked with his arms crossed like an X -- his signature Degeneration X symbol -- with his 7-foot tag-team partner Joel Embiid to ring a ceremonial bell last month before a Philadelphia 76ers playoff game.
His theme music blared through the arena and nearly 19,000 fans hanging from the rafters roared when the wrestler hoisted his bad guy weapon-of-choice sledgehammer and struck the bell.
Sure, the setting wasn’t WrestleMania -- though Triple H lost a match in the same building when the event was held there in 1999 -- but for the superstar-turned-executive, the frenzied atmosphere was a reminder of what WWE lost during the 16 months it ran without live events and raucous crowds.
"It was a fun opportunity to get back into an arena packed full of fans and have them go nuts," said Triple H, known these days as WWE executive Paul Levesque. "That adrenaline rush, there’s nothing like it."
WWE hasn’t been the same without its "Yes!" chants or "This is Awe-some!" singsongs once the pandemic relegated the company to running empty arena matches every week with a piped-in soundtrack and virtual fans.
Much like the intro to the DX theme, WWE has one question for its fans: Are you ready?
With most American sports leagues settled into their old routines, WWE is finally set to ditch its stopgap home in Tampa and resume touring starting Friday night with "Smackdown" from Houston, a pay-per-view Sunday in Texas, and a return Monday to Dallas for the flagship "Raw" TV show on USA. WWE is set to spruce upsets, bring back old stars, and hit the reset button on TV programming humbled with record-low ratings and a strong need for new stars.
WWE Universal champion Roman Reigns stared down each opponent in the ring -- from Sunday’s main event foe Edge to WrestleMania victim Daniel Bryan -- and demanded they " acknowledge me " as best in the game.
It might have been nice to hear what the fans had to say -- or jeer -- to the ultimatum.
"I do think if we were doing this in front of the live crowd, it would have been a situation that would have made me an even better performer," Reigns said. "As a live performer, that simultaneous response keeps you sharp. We had to adjust and adapt to the times that were in front of us."
With Hulk Hogan in the house, WWE held only WrestleMania this past April 10th and 11th at Raymond James Stadium with fans. WWE last ran a weeknight televised event with a paid crowd on March 9, 2020, in Washington.
WrestleMania 37 at Raymond James Stadium (Courtesy: WWE)
WWE then moved to its in-house performance center in Orlando on March 13, before setting up what it dubbed The ThunderDome -- where fans registered for spots on LED digital videoboards -- for stretches in Florida at the Amway Center, Tropicana Field, and the Yuengling Center.
WWE tinkered with its formula during the pandemic and taped cinematic matches, used more augmented reality, and dabbled with an "underground" concept that never reached its potential. With WWE pushing the reaction buttons, it guaranteed fans wouldn’t veer from the hopeful creative direction and boo fan-favorites for sport as they have in the past with Reigns and current Hollywood heavyweight John Cena.
"People like Roman have been able to emotionally bring a performance that, maybe with people cheering over him, or booing over him or going into different directions over him," have benefited, Levesque said. "But that’s the beauty of what we do, to go be entertained, however, you want to be entertained. As a performer, sometimes that’s difficult. But if you’re not entertaining, sometimes they’ll entertain themselves."
The ThunderDome (Photo courtesy: WWE)
WWE’s fan shutout didn’t completely lay the smackdown on the bottom line, with the company reporting $974.2 million in revenue in 2020.
Even without ticket revenue, venue merchandise, and the loss of a lucrative Saudi Arabia show, WWE’s billion-dollar TV deals with Fox and USA Network and a move of its standalone streaming network to Peacock -- home of Sunday’s Money in the Bank event — will keep the company profitable for years.
WWE’s July 5 "RAW" on USA Network hit 1.472 million viewers, the lowest in the 28-plus year history of the show. Off the holiday weekend, "Raw" rebounded to 1.609 million this week. Last Friday’s "Smackdown" had 1.986 million viewers on Fox. WWE never missed a TV event during the pandemic.
Levesque, WWE EVP of global talent strategy and development, said the company would "take a hard look" at how it can attract more fans to the product each week. WWE can only hope the combination of live crowds and the return of box office attractions such as Becky Lynch, Goldberg, and Cena can ignite interest and grow ratings during the build to the marquee Aug. 21 SummerSlam at the home of the Las Vegas Raiders.
"It never is one thing," Levesque said. "We see this as a moment in time to shift everything. I think you’ll see it in just the layout of everything, the set designs, the way it’s presented. There’s a greater emphasis on utilizing the spaces that we have and the TV aspect of it while still engaging the fans. A lot of that comes from the time we had to experiment inside the ThunderDome."
The first start is putting fans -- holding their homemade signs and wearing their catchphrase T-shirts -- back in the seats.
"When we have that live crowd, sometimes they almost become the cameras for a lot of the performers," Reigns said. "But when you don’t have that real-time, flesh interaction, the red light becomes the focal point for the performer."
Reigns is ready to add some more of his own to the highlight reel.
"Our production, our display of the show is so much greater with a live crowd," Reigns said. "Being able to visit different markets, different towns, and cities and incorporate a group of fans that haven’t seen us in a while, there’s nothing that’s ever going to be able to replace that."