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WrestleMania’s departure leaves indie wrestling in a stranglehold

Now that WrestleMania has relocated to a closed set in Orlando, planners are chasing hundreds of thousands in dollars they’ve invested in shows that won’t go on next month.
Hundreds of fans watch NXT matches in Thunder Alley in front of Amalie Arena during the initial WWE On Sale Party announcing WrestleMania 36 would be held in Tampa. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the event has moved out of the area, leaving indie promoters scrambling to recoup costs. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

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TAMPA — Though WrestleMania 36 will go on without fans April 5 at a closed-set location in Orlando, the independent wrestling community, scheduled to hold shows throughout original host site Tampa in conjunction with it, has been dealt a devastating financial blow.

“It’s going to be a start-all-over-again scenario,” said Brett Lauderdale, owner of Game Changer Wrestling. “This is going to have the effect of five years of work being wiped away.”

Lauderdale was slated to hold an event called the Collective in the three days leading up to WrestleMania. It included 12 live wrestling shows, stage shows, podcast tapings and parties at the Cuban Club in Ybor City. He had been organizing the event for more than a year and had put more than $100,000 into renting the venue, contracts with staff and wrestlers, flights and equipment.

Last week, as the spread of the coronavirus prompted professional sports leagues to put their seasons on hold, Lauderdale and other independent wrestling organizers waited anxiously for the state or city to ban gatherings so they would be able to recoup their money. The state issued guidelines for gathering but hasn’t forced the shutdown of events.

So when the WWE announced Monday it was closing all public events in Tampa and moving its pay-per-view event across the state, it left independents on the bad side of a lot of contracts.

The non-WWE schedule is yearlong, and promoters count on revenue from one event to finance the next. Running their events within the backdrop of WrestleMania is the most lucrative opportunity for independent organizers.

“The revenues and profits are counted on for everything we do; it’s a springboard for the rest of our year,” Lauderdale said. “In addition to hoping I can get a refund, I have six figures in refunds that have to go out to fans. I know it will change my business dramatically and change my life dramatically. And it would change the lives of a lot of the people who work with me and for me.”

The Cuban Club in Ybor was set to host the Collective independent wrestling event next month.

Michael Bochicchio, owner of highspots.com, a retailer for professional wrestling and mixed martial arts, has run what is now called WrestleCon for the past seven years. A few weeks ago, he was anticipating thousands of fans flocking to Steinbrenner Field for a roster of 200 guests throughout wrestling, highlighted by Mike Tyson (though known as a boxing champ, Tyson leveled Shawn Michaels in WrestleMania 14 to give Stone Cold Steve Austin the WWE title), Chris Jericho and Kevin Nash. His event also was to include several live shows at the Ritz in Ybor City.

Bochicchio had spent $250,000 in down payments to hold the event, not including $141,202 that the Marriott hotel chain said he owed for a room block that will go unfulfilled because of cancellations. Bochicchio tried to enact a force majeure clause, which allows someone to get out of a contract due to forces outside of his control, to get his money back. It didn’t work initially.

Then Jericho posted on Twitter on Tuesday: “Hey @wrestlecon, no court in the world would force u to pay this bill AND if we go into city wide lockdowns, they won’t have a leg to stand on anyway. In the meantime shame on u @Marriott for taking this stance in such an uncertain time! I have tons of fans who feel the same way.”

That fueled a social media storm in the wrestling community, and later in the day, Bochicchio said Marriott honored his claim. Steinbrenner Field will also refund his deposit but needs time to do so.

Wrestler Chris Jericho warms up while preparing for a kick-boxing session with his trainer Ty Brett at his home in Odessa on Feb. 24. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Lauderdale’s biggest event of the year, Joey Janela’s Spring Break, was to be held at the Cuban Club. He was expecting 3,000 people. “Just losing that event alone is devastating, brutal,” he said.

Janela, a member of the popular All Elite Wrestling circuit, tweeted Monday night that this is “nearly an independent wrestling death blow. … The money gone is astronomical. … We will not allow the casket to shut and come back stronger than ever!”

None of these promoters wanted to run his event during a pandemic. They had hoped only that the state or city did more to force cancellations so it would be easier to get their money back. The best-case scenario for Lauderdale was if WWE rescheduled WrestleMania in Tampa and the Cuban Club was available for all three days, though he realized that was unlikely.

“Going back several weeks now, I never once believed this event was going to happen as scheduled,” Bochicchio said. “I can’t imagine that anybody would want to put 75,000 people at risk in a stadium. So just everybody (had been) waiting for what’s next and who is going to flinch first.”

Bochicchio said he will refund all ticket purchases. He is already working toward next year’s event for WrestleMania in Los Angeles and understands how important it is to keeping his base loyal.

Lauderdale tweeted that the Collective event is postponed until a later date. Without WrestleMania as an anchor, holding it in Tampa may not be viable. He is trying to get some of his deposits back, but his equipment rental company is among those holding firm to their contract.

He is offering refunds to ticket holders who want them but also promising that those who keep their tickets will get added special benefits. “We are asking you to invest in the future of independent wrestling.”

With WWE seemingly committed to holding its pay-per-view events on closed sets absent of fans — and it could continue to do so for months — what happened in Tampa for WrestleMania could happen in Baltimore, where the WWE’s Money in the Bank event is scheduled for May 10. After that, pay-per-view events are scheduled for San Jose and Boston over the summer.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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