They may be larger-than-life, seemingly-indestructible figures in their parallel universe, but on Wednesday the WWE wrestlers woke up to the harsh realities of the coronavirus crisis. The company released close to 30 workers — including wrestlers, producers, referees, and writers — and the process is likely to continue. Part of the massive cull was Kurt Angle — pro wrestling legend and former Olympic gold medallist who first signed with the company in 1998 and was working as a backstage producer since retiring last year. Other notable releases include Gallows and Anderson — a tag team that featured in the marquee event WrestleMania earlier this month, and Mike Chioda — a referee who had been with the company for 31 years.
In a statement, WWE noted that “due to COVID-19 and current government-mandated impacts on WWE,” the company will also be reducing “executive and board member compensation,” cutting expenses and consulting fees and putting off construction on its new headquarters for at least six months.
It’s been an eventful week for WWE, after the company was first deemed “essential” in Florida which led to scrutiny over CEO and chairman Vince McMahon’s wife and former cabinet member Linda’s ties with US President Donald Trump. The layoffs also signify ‘coronavirus’ finally infiltrating Vince’s bubble.
Chief among the well-documented quirks of the eccentric, 74-year-old billionaire is his hatred of sneezing. McMahon grimaces if someone sneezes in his presence, and zones out for a solid 20 minutes if he’s the rare offender. “It’s just because he doesn’t like anything he can’t control. The fact he can’t control the sneeze makes him upset,” daughter Stephanie once revealed.
The pandemic though has proven to be the great uncontrollable. When WWE held its first empty arena show on March 13, words like ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘COVID-19’ were banned. “Due to prevailing circumstances” was initially used to acknowledge the bizarre scenario of performers pantomiming, grappling and performing stunts i.e. telling a story, with nobody in attendance.
— Drake Maverick (@WWEMaverick) April 15, 2020
Even that verbiage was soon dropped, as wrestlers pulled out and were replaced by others with no explanation.
Wednesday’s press release mentions that the reduced headcount and salary cuts will save $4 million monthly, but also says that “the Company has substantial financial resources, both available cash and debt capacity, which currently total approximately $0.5 billion.” The company’s 2019 fourth-quarter report noted revenues worth $322mn.
BREAKING: WWE has come to terms on the release of Drake Maverick (James Curtin), Curt Hawkins (Brian Myers), Karl Anderson (Chad Allegra), EC3 (Michael Hutter) and Lio Rush (Lionel Green). We wish them all the best in their future endeavors. https://t.co/cX449nNSLU
— WWE (@WWE) April 15, 2020
The shattered illusion of larger-than-life superstars reduced to tears by pink slips notwithstanding, the timing of the move has led to heavy criticism. Though the mass release of wrestlers in April was once a tradition, WWE had spent the last couple of years on aggressive talent expansion; hoarding wrestlers with no apparent plans of utilising them, just to keep them from falling into the hands of smaller rivals gaining steam.
The cutting spree also comes a day after President Trump named “The great Vince McMahon” in the industry leaders who he said will be tasked with helping restart the US economy. “We want to get our sports back, so importantly,” Trump said at his daily briefing. “We have to get our sports back. I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old.”
On April 9, Florida decreed WWE an essential service, putting professional wrestling on par with hospitals, law enforcement and grocery stores. As a result, WWE is one of the only sporting properties to hold live matches from their training facility in Orlando.
Till the middle of last week, the plan was for WWE to tape five weeks of programming in three days and then all the workers would stay home. That would have meant reduced travel and increased social distancing, which sounds even more reasonable considering WWE disclosed its first case of coronavirus on April 11!
The company confirmed that an “on-screen talent” tested positive for COVID-19.” Among wrestlers, Roman Reigns, currently the company’s biggest star who has battled leukemia and is immunocompromised, pulled out of the world championship match on WrestleMania.
Then came Florida government’s amendment which permitted “employees at professionals sports and media production with a national audience” to stay open only if “the location is closed to the general public.”
When Mayor Jerry L Demings of Orange County, home of the training facility where the matches are taking place, was asked about the decision, he replied: “With some conversations with the governor’s office regarding the governor’s order, they were deemed an essential business.”
During a news conference on Tuesday, Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters, “We do need to support content, especially like sports and events. Now, we’re not going to have crowds there. If NASCAR does a race and can televise it without large crowds, I think that’s a good thing.”
DeSantis, who issued a stay-at-home order in Florida on April 2 after heavy criticism for refusing to do so, added, “I mean, if you think about it, we’ve never had a period like this in modern American history where you’ve had such little new content, particularly in the sporting realm.”
Within hours of WWE being deemed an “essential business,” the American First Action political action committee, chaired by Vince McMahon’s wife, Linda, announced a total of $18.5 million in television advertisement spending in Florida media markets.
In 2016, Linda McMahon, listed as the co-founder of the WWE, infused a super PAC (Political Action Committee) supporting the Trump presidential campaign with $6 million. Earlier, between 2007 and 2009, the McMahons donated $5 million to Trump’s charitable foundation.
Linda, who ran for the Senate twice, was appointed by Trump as the administrator of the Small Business Administration, where she served for more than two years before resigning in 2019. She is now chairwoman of America First, a pro-Trump super PAC. “Once you’re his friend, he is loyal to the end,” Linda said after her appointment in Trump’s cabinet. “He’s an incredibly loyal, loyal friend.”
Trump’s partnership with the McMahons began in 1988 when he was pushed as the “sponsor” of Wrestlemania IV, which was held across the street from the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The following year’s Wrestlemania V was also held at the same location, till date the only instance of the marquee event running at the same venue back-to-back.
Trump appeared sporadically on WWE television before an on-screen feud with Vince McMahon in 2007 got him inducted in the company’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
UFC president Dana White, another of the loyal friends and supporters namedropped in the task force by Trump, was similarly hellbent on going through with his MMA event scheduled for April 19, going as far as to zero in on a “private island” before partners ESPN (and top honchos at Disney) pulled the plug. To UFC’s credit, however, they haven’t announced any roster cuts till date.
A theory goes that McMahon’s arm could have been twisted by broadcasters Fox and USA Network. According to the deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars, WWE is reportedly only allowed three non-live shows per year. But this is an unprecedented situation, and with the whole sporting world on pause, one can’t imagine the networks prioritising live content over public health. WWE also has a video archive of close to a hundred thousand hours, and that could’ve helped the wrestling fans tide over.
After seizing control of the company from his father in 1982, McMahon monopolised on what used to be a territorial business and made it a global phenomenon and a great American staple. “Woven in the fabric of the society, brings families together” is how WWE explained its decision to stay live.
But it seems unfair to wrestlers who travelled to Orlando, Florida braving a pandemic and were fired over the phone two days later. His dealing with the coronavirus crisis has been Vince McMahon’s biggest show of weakness so far.