The Executive Vice President of Talent and Development was a recent guest on The Bill Simmons Podcast where he talked at length about the challenges WWE has faced this year amid the pandemic and different approach needing to be taken due to not having a live audience.
"I think we were the first to actually have to deal with not having fans," he said. "It's a funny thing as I remember being in the Performance Center for an episode of NXT, because of a scheduling conflict at Full Sail, we had to move over to the Performance Center and set up to shoot in there. As I called Vince later that night to mention with all this pandemic talk going on, maybe we should leave all that stuff up just in case. He mentioned it might be worth looking into cost-wise what it would take to do that and then by the next day he was calling me saying, 'I don't care what it costs, leave it up. We might be headed that way by the end of the night.'"
"We went live that night with fans," he said. "By the time we were done, the NBA had shut down and we knew the trucks were turning around and headed to Florida and we knew we were going to be doing our stuff on a closed set with no fans. That was really the start of it and we never shut down. We were running the whole time and taking as much precaution as we could, following guidelines as obviously the health and wellbeing of our talent comes first. Now, here we are putting up an insane spectacle called the ThunderDome inside the Amway Center in Orlando. We'll be taking residency in there for the foreseeable future and that will start Friday night with SmackDown.
"It's going to be a spectacle," Triple H continued. "We're going to have virtual fans in there, not really virtual fans, but live fans coming in on screen in real time. I know the NBA is doing something similar, but we are going to have a lot more than that. It will be a full, large arena so we will have a lot more to fill in and it's going to be spectacular. I've seen it in renderings and I think with this company, any time you see something in renderings and then see it in person, it always blows you away and this won't be any different when it's done."
We are now five months in to not having fans at events, but a large portion of the audience still struggles with the presentation. Not only has it been a challenge for the audience on television to digest and adjust to the new format, it brings its own set of challenges to the performers in a profession that relies so heavily on that live audience interaction to tell them in real time what's working and what's not. Triple H brings up a great point that it has brought a different kind of challenge for the management team as well.
"When you think about it, we are really the first big sport where fans are interactive," he said. "All the cheers and jeers and bringing signs and actively participating in the show and that participation can change the outcome, or at the very least change the way the performers actually perform. Everything is designed to get reactions and without the fans, it really is a different product and we've been trying to figure out a way to get our fans back engaged in the product since all this started. The fans are what makes WWE at its core.
"It's like a stand-up comic with nobody in the room," Triple H continued. "He's hitting all of his jokes and making himself pop. It's surreal. For me, hats off to our performers or anybody that's doing this because it's not an easy task to go out there and do what we do. Especially if you've been doing it a lot of years. The physicality part of it hurts a lot worse when you don't have any energy in the building to feed off of. On the flip side, if you've only been doing this for a short time, everything we tell you is about fan reaction and listening to that reaction to change your psychology and where things are going. If the fans are letting you know this path you're on isn't working, you have to be able to pick up on that and go down a different path. That's everything we teach them and now it's all been taken away. It's hard.
"100 percent, we rely on that from our standpoint as well. You base almost all of that reaction from a company standpoint on how the crowd is reacting. It's based on a lot of factors like crowd reaction, ticket sales, merch sales and all those things. It factors into how you utilize your talent and the direction that you're headed in with them both short-term and long-term. Now, there's no crowd reaction and no ticket sales. There's still merch sales but it's different. Now it's just totally online sales."
"You mentioned it yourself. With social media it's just so tricky. Different platforms use different algorithms. Some negative algorithms are much stronger than others. Something bad happens and it will trend immediately. If something good happens, you won't hardly see it out there. It skews to negativity. I have said this since the beginning, in some manner the internet makes our job that much harder."
Simmons and Triple H then went on to discuss whether Degeneration-X would have been able to survive in the current pandemic situation. Triple H says they would have been fired immediately and the crowd was so instrumental in their success at the time because they ate up everything they were doing and forced the company to continue pushing the envelope to see how far they could go. Triple H likened the creativity from that time to how certain stars have been able to reach a new level of creativity for themselves.
"There's been a lot of things that have been done that have been groundbreaking in some sort of way for WWE," he said. "The Bray Wyatt Firefly Fun House thing at WrestleMania was like some crazy mind-trip. Could you imagine that crazy thing taking place on a screen inside an arena filled with 80,000 fans and nothing actually happening in the ring? It would have gotten tragically booed out of the building. We wouldn't have had the ability to even try something like that and it's really allowed us the opportunity to explore some of those different places, some good and some not."
"You also see some performers that can really connect emotionally with themselves to deliver things, those are the performers that can really excel and don't necessarily need that fan reaction. Randy Orton has that ability to just get inside his own head and deliver something that can just give you chills. Drew McIntyre is like that and can connect at a different level. We've seen several be able to that don't necessarily need that reaction from 10,000 people."
If you use any of the quotes in this article, please credit Bill Simmons with a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.