Roman Reigns is the first to admit he wouldn’t be in the position he is in at the head of the table and atop WWE as Universal Champion if it wasn’t for the fans comprising the WWE Universe.
Whether they’re cheering or booing The Tribal Chief, Reigns, who made his main roster debut in November 2012, still draws some of the loudest reactions from fans.
“There’s never a time when my music hits, where it’s ‘Oh, I don’t care.’ It’s either ‘I love this guy’ or ‘I hate this guy,’” Reigns said. “I’ve always been able to really pull on the emotional strings of our crowd. For me, that reaction has always been an incredible strength of mine and it’s always been something I’ve been able to rely on.
“Yeah, you say you like this person or think this person should be in my position or this person deserves it or they’ve been through a greater journey or more adversity, but when it comes down to it, who makes the crowd louder? I’ve always, always been that guy. There’s only a handful of guys in the history of our company and the history of our business that can say they have it—that factor that registers with the people, that makes the people stand up and make noise, and I’m in that group.”
Unfortunately for Reigns and the rest of the WWE superstars, professional wrestling’s lifeblood—its live in-person audience—was nonexistent since March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. WWE took up residency in the ThunderDome starting in August, hosting fans virtually with virtual production/fan experience company The Famous Group for more than 70 live shows.
But after more than a year of waiting, WWE is packing its bags and returning to live touring beginning with Friday Night SmackDown on July 16 from the Toyota Center in Houston.
Money in the Bank, their first pay-per-view back on the road, is two days later at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. WWE, which typically performs more than 500 live events across the United States and abroad each year, will also make stops in cities including Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Chicago, Tampa and Phoenix prior to SummerSlam on August 21 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. WWE makes its triumphant return to the tri-state area and New York City for SmackDown on September 10 from Madison Square Garden.
“The best way to sum it up is just to say that we can’t wait,” WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon said. “It’s been far too long without our audience. Our audience is such a huge part of our show; they’re the soundtrack of our show in essence. Their reactions influence what we do in every way, whether that’s in-ring content or whether that’s business decisions we make outside of the ring. Our fans, our consumers, they’re part of our family and we can’t wait to have them back.”
Being forced to suspend live touring during the pandemic was a huge challenge for WWE across all facets, but the past year provided an opportunity for experimentation with various technologies including pyrotechnics, lasers, augmented reality and virtual reality that the company plans to further incorporate into production moving forward.
McMahon confirmed WWE will debut a new set design for Friday’s SmackDown and they will utilize more digital and augmented reality integrations. Entrances are going to be more dynamic and captivating thanks to a higher-resolution set for the Jumbotrons used, resulting in more of a theatrical presentation.
“We’ve learned a lot during this time utilizing these different techniques and we’re really ready to merge the physical and virtual worlds in ways we never have done before,” she said. “… We’re always looking to be slightly ahead of the curve. From a technology standpoint I think that we’re constantly reinventing ourselves. While we were utilizing some of these techniques, I think the key learnings during Covid absolutely sped up the adoption of those technologies in this way.”
The production and broadcast aren’t the only things reinvented or updated as a result of the pandemic. Superstars, who traditionally play off reactions and interactions from live in-arena audiences, had to alter how to continue their character development and storytelling without that living, breathing, real-time response from the WWE Universe.
Reigns, who returned to WWE last year at SummerSlam to attack The Fiend Bray Wyatt while later aligning himself with Paul Heyman and establishing himself as The Tribal Chief, said he was able to thrive in that environment and sharpen tools he’s never had to use or display, which made him an even better performer.
“We’re in a business of moments,” he said. “We’re always trying to create and capture these transcending and electrifying moments that really happen at its greatest when our audience is there and our crowd is live in-arena or in-stadium. For me, not having that portion of the performance to lean on really showed me how important the bridges of continuity are, the small details, the nuances of storytelling and the subtle pieces of information that can bridge the gap between huge moment to huge moment.
“Especially for a weekly product, something without an offseason—we don’t have a 3-5 month break where we go back to the drawing board and craft this narrative to put on for the rest of the year—this is something that is continually evolving and being hashed out in real time. It’s really important to be able to rely on those basics—the detailed portions of the storytelling to be able to create and craft a very complex, sophisticated but still very entertaining narrative.”
WWE took pride in doing just that even when the rest of the world shut down during the height of the pandemic. The company proudly never missed a week of production, and even hosted more than 51,000 members of the WWE Universe between April 10 and 11 for WrestleMania 37 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Outside of the ring, WWE revamped and expanded its content offerings to support an audience stuck at home during the pandemic. In April, the company migrated streaming service WWE Network to Peacock in the United States in a deal worth a reported $1 billion. Two new shows, Biography: WWE Legends and WWE’s Most Wanted Treasures, also debuted on A&E that month. WWE’s reach expanded on social media during the pandemic with the company now boasting the most-popular sports channel and fourth-most popular overall on YouTube (78.7 million subscribers) while its 11.7 million TikTok followers are more than the NFL (6.4M), MLB (3.2M) and NHL (1.3M) combined.
“For WWE, it wasn’t a question of if, but how,” McMahon said. “We felt a responsibility to our fans to provide some levity, if nothing else to provide an escape, especially in the beginning when everything was so frightening and scary and there was so much unknown. We wanted to be that bright spot and an option for families to come together and even forget just for a little while what was happening.
“We always want to be there for our audience. That’s something about WWE—we’re always on. No matter what you’re going through in your life, in your personal life, professional life, you can always escape with WWE. We’re always here for the WWE Universe.”