A large number of corporations in America have struggled to balance worker safety and satisfying their bottom line. In sports and entertainment, there have been several examples of companies that have prioritized shareholders over employees. Arguably the worst example is not Major League Baseball, but World Wrestling Entertainment.
The U.S. containment of COVID-19 was thought to be possible in early spring. Toward the end of March, however, those hopes were dashed. States began to lock-down restaurants. Most sports leagues including the NBA, MLB, and the NCAA postponed and in some cases canceled the current and upcoming seasons.
The WWE, for their part, stopped live shows and began pre-recording programming without fans in attendance. According to executives, talent was told that these tapings would be voluntary and would not receive punishment for refusing to attend either financially or otherwise.
Wrestlemania, the largest pro wrestling pay-per-view of the year was held in the performance center in Orlando, Florida. Florida was coincidentally one of the last states to enter lock-down and was open during the taping of Wrestlemania.
The company acted proactively with two of its wrestlers Dana Brooke and Rey Mysterio who showed signs of illness by pulling them from shows. Roman Reigns, a wrestler in remission from leukemia took a leave of absence from performing over concerns over his high-risk status for Coronavirus. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during March.
By early April all states had entered into varying degrees of lockdown, and Nationally the U.S. outpaced the rest of the world in total COVID-19 deaths. With only essential business open in most states, WWE was declared an essential by Florida Governor Ron Desantis despite not initially labeled as such. Around the same time, the Connecticut based company decided on April 10th to resume live shows.
Vince McMahon cited the change by implying the networks carrying his programming could cancel their television contracts if the company did not continue to perform live shows regularly. Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer reported that USA Network and Fox denied considering dissolving their agreements. McMahon reversed course and eventually allowed pre-taped episodes to resume.
On April 15th, WWE released a business update announcing the furlough of talent as well as other cost-cutting measures. Over 30 wrestlers were released, not including behind the scenes workers This included Miroslav Barnyashev formerly known by his in-ring name of Rusev. Rusev had recently donated $20,000 of his own money to help those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
A week later the company’s quarter one earnings report was released and the biggest highlight was the increased revenue from the previous year’s first-quarter earnings: A net positive of 60%. During April there was a confirmed but unidentified employee who contracted coronavirus. The individual was not a wrestler but did work at shows. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during April.
There were not many new developments from the business perspective of World Wrestling Entertainment, however, the content of their programming led to frustration from fans and employees alike. Fans began noticing Reigns had been edited out of more and more programming. He had not made an appearance in over a month so in some regard, it was understandable that his name was not often referenced during or after matches.
What was harder to understand was the manipulation of certain highlight packages removing him entirely. This included matches he was heavily featured in. Previous to this instance only one wrestler had been effectively removed from the annals of history: Chris Benoit. Since the American Somoan’s conduct had been spotless it was unclear why these decisions were being made.
Also, Sami Zayn was effectively stripped of the Intercontinental title. While this may seem like a storyline angle at first glance, it’s important to note Zayn was participating in Canada’s quarantine protocol as he was a Canadian citizen and could not attend the Orlando tapings due to international travel restrictions. His failure to comply cost him his place despite the company’s earlier assurances that no worker would be punished for skipping voluntary tapings.
Jordan Devlin had an almost identical experience. As the Cruiserweight Titleholder, Devlin was unable to defend his championship and there was a tournament to determine who would hold the belt during the interim similar to how UFC deals with injured fighters. However, the word interim was dropped without explanation and it’s unclear if Santo Escobar, the winner of the aforementioned tournament, will have to defend his title against Devlin when the UK native eventually returns. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during May.
This month WWE has made every effort that it could to return to normal. Developmental wrestlers, friends, and families began attending pre-recorded shows to give the performers and audience at home a more authentic fan experience. For the first time in months, there were boos, cheers, and even chants to fill a mostly empty void of fan interaction.
This week, a cascade of bad press has been unloaded upon the pro-wrestling giant. It was announced on Monday that a developmental wrestler who had attended a taping has tested positive for coronavirus. Reports surfaced from multiple sources stating that face masks were not permitted inside the performance center premises during tapings. This is in contrast to the early April CDC recommendations on wearing a face mask in public.
WWE responded by explaining to fans and news-outlets that masks were unnecessary since all employees and fans in attendance maintained proper social distancing and followed Florida state policy to the letter of the law (despite fans being shown high-fiving talent and disregarding the six feet minimum of each other of the episode in question).
Possibly the most disturbing report released this week was that on some occasions, fans were allowed to attend shows despite having a fever if there were special circumstances. On Wednesday the company implemented the first wave of COVID-19 testing to its wrestlers. At this time there has been no announcement of regular testing.
WWE’s Coronavirus response looks worse with context
All companies have the legal right and ability to hire and fire employees at their discretion. All publicly-traded companies are expected to be at least somewhat responsible with their finances to appease the stockholders. All businesses should be able to set forth policies for their workforce.
The problems lie when WWE is compared to smaller wrestling promotions who have done an objectively better job keeping their employees safe while staying afloat during these difficult economic times.
All Elite Wrestling on TNT has returned to their regularly scheduled live shows. Before each show, all fans, wrestlers, and staff are all tested before they can enter the building. AEW along with even smaller groups like Ring of Honor and Impact have not fired, released, or furloughed any wrestlers. At shows, you will see masks worn by referees, interviewers, and even fans. These groups have proved you can make every effort to serve your employees first and put the bottom line on the backburner and survive as a wrestling organization.
World Wrestling Entertainment may have fulfilled its legal obligation to its shareholders, but it has severely failed its ethical responsibility to its staff, especially the talent which is the main product for consumers of pro-wrestling.