In better days, the WWE traveled from city to city, its wrestlers performing to sold-out crowds in huge arenas. But after the pandemic put in-person live sporting events in a choke hold, the WWE began to do its televised shows from a closed set in Orlando.
Now, the center of the pro wrestling universe is Tropicana Field, where earlier this month the WWE began a residency that will last through the end of March, when the Rays season should begin. In the meantime, the WWE will produce its showcase broadcasts — Monday Night Raw, Friday Night SmackDown and pay-per-view events — on a 30,000-foot swath of field that starts near third base and makes its way into the outfield.
This is no normal production. The WWE does everything big, and without fans, the organization reimagined the presentation of its shows, creating a set named the ThunderDome — ironically the same name the Trop used to have before baseball — complete with lasers, spotlights, fire and drones as the arena experience is simulated for a huge LED wall of roughly 1,000 fans; they enter virtually to watch from home through video calls.
“What’s different is the scope and magnitude of the Thunderdome,” said Duncan Leslie, the WWE’s senior vice president of event and technical operations. “We have a very large footprint when we tour, up to about 30 trucks, but this is much more complex because of the amount of video product where we display all the virtual fans, and the lighting and the projections and lasers and pyro. So it’s a bigger footprint, and it takes more technical horsepower.”
Sunday night marks the first WWE pay-per-view event to take place at the Trop. TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs will be highlighted by St. Petersburg resident Drew McIntyre’s title defense against A.J. Styles in a match where using the aforementioned tables, ladders and chairs will not only be allowed but encouraged.
The first WWE show at the Trop was the Dec. 11 showing of Friday Night SmackDown, and aside from some interviews that take place along the stadium concourse, you’d have a tough time recognizing the Rays’ home. That’s by design; the ThunderDome is its own entity.
“To pretty much identify as the ThunderDome and not ThunderDome in a baseball stadium, we’ve draped it,” Leslie said. “So it’s almost like a portable theater in the middle of a baseball stadium.”
For the 35-year-old Scottish-born McIntyre, his career has come full circle. Like many current WWE stars, he cut his teeth wrestling in Tampa-based Florida Championship Wrestling when it was the WWE’s developmental brand a decade ago. Fans filled the FCW Arena in south Tampa and many of those wrestlers, like McIntyre, grew to become household names. And many of them stuck around to call Tampa Bay home.
“There’s a reason that I’ve made this my home for the majority of time I’ve lived in America,” McIntyre said. “I’ve been here for 13 years. I’ve lived in a few places and there’s a reason I keep coming back to the area, it’s because I love it so much. This is where I met my wife, this is where I’ve made my hometown.”
Before moving to the Trop, the WWE did its shows out of Amway Arena in Orlando, but was forced to move once the NBA’s Magic and the Solar Bears hockey team, a minor-league affiliate of the Lightning, began their seasons.
McIntyre isn’t complaining. His drive to work is now just 10 minutes, and he no longer has to deal with I-4 traffic.
The most unique aspect to the ThunderDome is the wall of fans. They register for their virtual seats days before an event and get assigned a time to enter.
“Our fans are our jet fuel,” said John Saboor, the WWE’s executive vice president of special events. “And we can’t wait to welcome them back in person. But the spectacle of the ThunderDome and Tropicana Field allows us to continue to create an exciting immersive and interactive experience for the WWE Universe.”
The closed set allows the ThunderDome to ramp up special effects. Drone cameras get close to the action, while the lighting and pyrotechnics give the set the feel of a WrestleMania-type event.
McIntyre’s entrance is one of the most elaborate and fitting for a champion. As the music swells from the sound of bagpipes to thumping rock, he appears on the stage wearing a kilt and weilding a sword. As McIntyre pushes the blade into the ground, fire shoots up 25 feet into the air on either side of him as he makes his way down the ramp. And there are more pyrotechnics in the ring. Everything about the presentation of the ThunderDome is prodigious, down to the 150-man technical crew Leslie has for every show.
“The visuals are unbelievable,” McIntyre said. “And it makes it more palatable for the viewer at home, but also as a WWE superstar, you feel like you’re back in that environment that we were used to back in the day. The biggest thing of all is getting the fans back, even if it’s just virtually. They react in real time, we see them on the screen. As we do our moves, they react and we hear them through the speakers. Even though they can’t be there physically, they’re still there.”
And the WWE ensures each event is a spectacle for them.
“This pandemic has taught the entire sports entertainment industry — has taught the entire world — how to rethink, reshape, redeliver everything,” Saboor said. “And I have no doubt that there will be a great number of best practices that are taken forward and applied to whatever the new normal is whenever that is. Right now we’re dedicated to delivering the best fan experience possible with ThunderDome and improving on that each and every time we bring that to air.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
Check it out
TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs
7 p.m. Sunday; WWE Network (pay-per-view)