WWE retools in-venue presentation with its ThunderDome


During World Wrestling Entertainment’s last quarterly earnings call with financial analysts, company chairman Vince McMahon blamed the property’s recent and concerning double-digit television ratings declines on its inability to have in-venue audiences due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. 

“As far as ratings are concerned, more than any other sports, surely our audience is a part of the program,” McMahon said. “Audience interaction that always is the plus, and it goes all the way back to the origination of the genre. The audience is integral to our success and our television ratings because of the interaction or lack thereof.”

Looking at a minimum of several more months, and possibly more, before any large-scale crowds in the United States are allowed to attend any type of live events in-person because of the public health crisis, WWE is now dramatically retooling its event presentation, both in venue and for viewers at home.

The property has created what is now calling the WWE ThunderDome, shifting out of the WWE Performance Center, where other recent WWE events have been staged, into the much larger, nearby Amway Center for its SummerSlam Weekend beginning August 21 with Friday Night Smackdown.

Using the lack of other live events at the downtown Orlando, Florida, arena, typically the home of the National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic, to establish a open-ended residency at the venue, the WWE ThunderDome will feature a wide array of LED videoboards, lasers, drone cameras, pyrotechnics, smoke effects, and amplified crowd noise to create its most elaborate venue set ever. 

Some elements of the WWE ThunderDome borrow from what the NBA has been doing in its season restart, also in Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, particularly with regard to virtual fans on videboards set up courtside. 

But instead of a short series of flat videoboards, the WWE ThunderDome will have its virtual fans encircling the ring in numerous rows in an attempt to recreate the audience frenzy of a typical wrestling event. Fans were invited to register in advance to be part of the WWE ThunderDome, but the participation came with several preconditions including WWE’s intent to replace fans on the screens who are absent for extended periods of time.

Going forward, the WWE ThunderDome will be used for key programs Raw and Smackdown, as well as pay-per-view events.

Duncan Leslie, WWE senior vice-president of event technical operations, discussed the development of the WWE ThunderDome with SportBusiness’ US Editor Eric Fisher.

How would you describe the new production elements you have implemented for ThunderDome?

We were at our Performance Center for an extended run, and that was a great experience because we kept the product alive and fresh. But now we’re in a world-class arena, one of the normal arenas that we would go to. And we decided this was a great opportunity to create a spectacle for our fans. We’re building this to look amazing, which it will, but also to partner with our fans at home. In this Covid environment, they can be part of the show. 

Of the various enhancements you have made, what do you see as being particularly impactful?

We’re partnering with [California-based fan engagement outfit] The Famous Group, who are going to curate audiences for us. We’ll be displaying real people, real fans, in the thousands, who are at home and immerse them in our environment. ThunderDome is not only lasers and lights and LED boards, but it’s also a platform to see our fans and bring them into an enriched experience. So the conceit behind the ThunderDome is to bring the fans back as best we can in this environment.

As you put all this together, what kind of influences were you taking from the major stick-and-ball sports properties that are obviously also reinventing their fan experience and game presentation?

We’re looking to use our technical and design prowess to creatively enrich the experience for the fans. To me, having been here a while now, this almost feels like a mini-WrestleMania setup. We’ve used so much of the available space  to us because there are no physical fans here, and we’ve replaced them with artistic elements. The videoboards surround the ring almost in the same way the fans did when they were here in person. 

But to answer your question, we didn’t want to go down the road of cardboard [cutouts]in empty seats. We wanted to fill our arena, as “normally” as we could.

During the last WWE earnings call, Vince McMahon talked about the impact of not having fans present and the effect on your TV ratings. To what degree do you see these enhancements addressing that, particularly with regard to recreating that fan energy?

I’m on the technical side. But I do know what we’re creating is going to be so full of energy and so immersive for our fans that it’s going to create a lot of buzz. We’re doing everything we can on the technical design side to help our fans engage and have almost a partnership with us in terms of their viewing habits. 

To what degree were these efforts enhanced by being able to get into the Amway Center on a sustained basis and create this residency situation? Before Covid-19, you would go into an arena, do your event and then leave, and the arena would also quickly move on to their next event. 

It does help a lot. The set that has been designed and deployed is large in scope, very powerful and visually impactful. The fact that we have a residency, as you mention, has allowed us to really expand on the physical characteristics of the set. 

Can this type of set be redone in other buildings in other markets? Will you do this elsewhere?

Sure. Anything’s possible. The set’s very complex. But I think we’re being very pragmatic about it. We’re here and we’re going to make the best use we can of the arena we’re in. 

Once we get to some type of the ‘other side’ of the pandemic and you can have fans back in the building, how much of these new enhancements will be retained?

I think we’re going to have a proven design that is still amenable to change. As we go forward, whatever happens, we’re still going to have a lot of technical firepower to enhance both the in-venue and at-home viewer experience.