(CBSNewYork/CBS Local) – The world of professional wrestling is not immune to the ill effects of coronavirus. Nothing is.
The global pandemic is forcing arenas to shutter their doors and major conferences and leagues to postpone or outright cancel events. March Madness will have to wait until next year. Major League Baseball is postponing the start of the regular season. The NBA and NHL hope to resume their seasons at some point, but there is no guarantee that will happen. NASCAR drivers will be zooming around empty tracks for at least the next two weeks. And Vince McMahon’s relaunched XFL has scrapped the remainder of its season.
However, that is not the only one of McMahon’s properties being caught in COVID-19’s rapidly expanding web.
WWE began taking action Thursday afternoon with the announcement that Friday’s SmackDown, which was to take place in front of thousands of fans in Detroit, would instead go down at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando with only essential personnel in attendance. On Friday, PWInsider’s Mike Johnson reported that Monday’s Raw, which has advertised the return of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, would likewise be shifting to the PC rather emanating from Pittsburgh as originally planned. Additionally, this weekend’s non-televised events in Toronto and Youngstown have been cancelled.
There is also significant doubt surrounding the March 22 show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where a reunion of the popular Degeneration X faction had been advertised. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has banned gatherings of 500 people or more for the foreseeable future in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. A statement on the Garden’s website says the arena supports Cuomo’s decision. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who declared a state of emergency in the city, said the venue as well as Brooklyn’s Barclays Center may be closed for months.
Meanwhile, WWE’s NXT brand shows that had been scheduled for this weekend in Venice and Daytona Beach, Fla. are also being impacted after local officials implemented a ban on mass gatherings.
Other wrestling promotions are scrambling to put together contingency plans on short notice.
Ring of Honor made the decision to cancel Friday’s 18th Anniversary pay-per-view in Las Vegas with little more than 24 hours notice after consulting with local officials. A second show scheduled for Saturday was also scrapped.
“This extremely difficult decision was made in conjunction with the most recent developments surrounding COVID-19, known as the Coronavirus,” the promotion stated. “While the marquee ‘18th Anniversary’ and the very special ‘Past v Present’ events were ready to show the world why Ring of Honor is truly the ‘Best Professional Wrestling on the Planet,’ the safety and health of our fans, talents and staff are always our utmost priority.”
ROH officials are now weighing the possibility of rescheduling the show.
At least one top star in the promotion was unafraid of performing in front of a live audience despite the elevated risk of transmitting COVID-19.
“I’m not worried yet, because I was always taught until you know somebody that knows somebody that has this thing, you have nothing to worry about,” Flip Gordon told CBS Local Sports exclusively. “So far, I don’t know a single person that knows a single person that has it. And so therefore I’m not worried.”
Gordon also stated that he trusts local officials are taking the proper precautions to ensure fan and performer safety.
“If it’s not safe, the authorities make sure that the events are unable to happen for safety reasons. But me personally, I’m not scared,” he reiterated.
Elsewhere, All Elite Wrestling is making changes to its schedule for at least the next two weeks. Next Wednesday’s edition of Dynamite, which was to take place in Rochester, NY, will now take place in Jacksonville, Fla. under a restricted attendance policy. The March 25 episode, which had been promoted as the special “Blood & Guts” show, will no longer take place at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. A new venue has not been announced, but the company says that a restricted attendance policy will also be in effect that night.
AEW President and CEO Tony Kahn has also told talents and crew members that they will not be punished if they opt not to attend shows during the outbreak, according to Wrestling Observer Radio.
There is still one major domino left to fall — WrestleMania. Although Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is urging municipalities statewide to cancel events that could be considered mass gatherings for the next 30 days, WWE is hoping to move forward as planned. And for now it remains on the calendar.
“While we remain committed to hosting WrestleMania at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, April 5, we are putting contingency plans in place in the event that it is cancelled by government officials, civil authorities and/or local venues,” the company said in a statement. “The health and safety of our fans, performers and employees are our top priorities and we are monitoring the situation closely with our partners and government officials in Tampa Bay.”
Tampa officials stated Thursday that they would not be stepping in to cancel the show at this time but will reassess their decision next week. Should action be taken, it is possible that WrestleMania will be moved to another date later this year.
Theoretically, a postponement would allow European fans impacted by the Trump administration’s 30-day restriction on travel to the U.S. to attend.
The entirety of the situation is almost too much to grasp.
“There’s never been anything at this level and the sheer amount of cancellations across the scope of pro wrestling,” said longtime wrestling reporter Mike Johnson of PWInsider.com. “From major WWE television tapings to small independent wrestling events this is indicative of what’s happening across the country. … We’ve never had everything shut down like this with the exception of a terrorist attack.”
The timing is especially unfortunate for diehard wrestling fans who plan week-long vacations around WrestleMania. For many, the trip represents most if not all of their disposable income for the year. WrestleMania week isn’t exclusively about WrestleMania anymore. WWE’s schedule has swelled to a five-day extravaganza that begins Thursday with the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and runs through Raw on Monday. There are also dozens of smaller promotions, including ROH and top-tier independents, who converge on the region to capitalize on the mass numbers of fans.
“[Usually] we’re building up to an insanely excited fan base looking forward to descending upon what has become the Woodstock of professional wrestling,” said Johnson. “Instead there is a lot of hesitation, a lot of concern, and honestly a lot of confusion.”
Many of those events are now in limbo as well.
With its stock already in a free-fall, WWE is warning investors about the potential financial impact of COVID-19.
“It should be noted that the Company may be directed to cancel, postpone or relocate certain upcoming events and the number of these changes is unknown at this time,” a statement from WWE reads. “The Company is currently unable to quantify the potential financial impact of COVID-19, but the financial impact to the Company may be material.”
WWE also states that the health and safety of fans, performers and employees are top priorities.
So what will happen with WrestleMania? Stay tuned. A decision must be made sooner rather than later.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.