WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon recently spoke with Insider to discuss The ThunderDome, and WWE running shows during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was noted that WWE officials had "stressful meetings taking place at a board-room level" as the company tried to figure out how to navigate the worldwide coronavirus pandemic during the early days of the outbreak earlier this year.
McMahon added that the atmosphere in WWE was "tense" because multiple cities around the world had already locked down by mid-March, just weeks before WrestleMania 36. She said she can laugh about it now, but the weeks leading up to WrestleMania were very stressful. WrestleMania ended up taking place over two nights on a closed-set at the WWE Performance Center, and was taped ahead of time.
"First and foremost, we had to take into account the safety of our fans and of our superstars and employees — that's paramount," Stephanie said. "Working with the local government offices in Florida, the CDC, and the World Health Organization, we made sure we were aligned with all the recommendations from the organizations to do the right thing."
WWE officials considered various scenarios ass they looked for a way to continue fulfilling their business plan while trying to guarantee the safety of fans, employees and talent.
"There were a lot of scenarios being planned all at the same time," she said.
WWE also had discussions about whether they could even hold WrestleMania, let alone pull off such a spectacle in the middle of a pandemic. WWE decided that they had a responsibility to fans and partners to continue to produce programming.
"We had to quickly pivot to decide — A) does the show still go on? and B) if so, where and how? We decided that yes we have responsibility to our audience, and to our partners, to continue to produce our programming," she said. "We wanted to provide an opportunity for our viewers to escape. We still do. It's our mission to put smiles on peoples faces. WrestleMania took place at our Performance Center over two nights in front of absolutely no people, and it was definitely a unique experience."
Stephanie noted that the final ThunderDome experience blew her away. She also said WWE was hoping to be back in arenas with fans by now.
"We were hoping to be back in arenas by now with fans in attendance but obviously that just wasn't meant to be," Stephanie said. "All along we were really learning, playing with audio, different types of graphics packages — all different things. Then we realized we're not going to be in different arenas and starting to travel again, so what are we going to do, and how can we create the best experience for our fans."
WWE worked with The Famous Group to turn the Amway Center in Orlando into The ThunderDome. The Famous Group is a Los Angeles-based technology company that specializes in mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual events. WWE reached out to Famous for a way to bring fans into an arena via virtual reality. Jon Slusser, owner and partner as The Famous Group, said he believes that WWE's ThunderDome has birthed a new industry.
"I don't think this is just a new platform," he said. "I believe you can monetize a virtual experience that leagues, teams, and promoters can sell tickets for globally, for a local event. There are super fans for every franchise out there, who would love to be at the game or event, but they can't be, and if they have the ability to be close to the game, rather than just watching it on television, they'll sign up to it all the time.
"As a result, this is a new business model. You can bring in fans who can get a unique experience either through exclusive camera angles or extra content. Plus, the most important thing, is that they feel like they're in the building. Their presence is with the players, or the artist. That is unbelievably powerful. I know leagues, teams, promoters, are going to see an opportunity to increase revenue and expand their global audience with this platform. This is absolutely going to happen, going forward. It looks like the future because it is the future."
McMahon said "anything is possible" in regards to a ThunderDome-esque experience complimenting the traditional fan experience after the pandemic.
"We really do want to create the best possible experience for our fans," Stephanie said. "One that's worthy of their passion so we're examining all kinds of things and you could see both. I think we're going to see a lot in all businesses and in particular the entertainment industries and sports, a lot of combinations of the new learnings from all this technology, plus the fundamental foundational learning that we have to move our businesses forward. So it'll be an intersection of what works best."