Wrestling Doctor's Notes: The Future of Wrestling In the Post-COVID-19 World | Smark Out Moment
Welcome to another edition of Smark Out Moment WRESTLING DOCTOR'S NOTES where we discuss medical issues that are either being reported in the wrestling world or generally afflict wrestlers. As always, please review the disclaimer at the bottom of the article.

What follows is a brief discussion and opinion piece on the state of wrestling during the COVID-19 pandemic and what may be in store for the world of professional wrestling in the future as a result of this crisis. I hope it encourages some discussion.

wrestler medical reports WWE superstars injuries

Wrestling with COVID-19 In 2020


Unless you've been in a coma until right this very second (and if so, thanks for choosing to read this as the first thing you do after waking up!) you are more than aware of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world. Most states in the United States have issued state executive orders for people to quarantine at home with only a few exceptions. This has led to closure of businesses deemed "non-essential" and dramatically changed all of our lives. Only in the last week or so have states begun to relax their executive orders and businesses been permitted to open. But the process to return to normalcy is sure to be a slow one. And many states - namely the more populated ones - are nowhere close to returning to normal.

As a result of the ban on mass gatherings (the definition of "mass" varies from location to location, but wrestling events count) professional wrestling events across the board were cancelled. The majority of promotions completely shut down until further notice, cancelling shows and not producing any meaningful content since. This largely means that indie promotions and/or those without network television deals are out of commission for the foreseeable future. The only two promotions that have continued to produce significant wrestling content are WWE and AEW.

The weekly television shows of both promotions have continued without public attendance. A major reason this has been allowed is that professional wrestling was deemed an "essential business" in the state of Florida. Florida is home to Daily's Place (which hosts AEW's shows) and the WWE Performance Center. To say the least, this determination was controversial and much speculation has been given that some greasing of palms was involved in determining that professional wrestling is "essential." Nevertheless, we continue to have professional wrestling, but now without an audience. These empty arena shows have been a bizarre experiment but have at least produced a product that we can enjoy. AEW and WWE have handled the situation differently, with AEW scattering their own employees/performers in the stands whilst WWE has empty stands.

Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman address a non-existent audience
"Empty seats and the silent void that forces me to contemplate my mortality, my name ... is Paul Heyman!" Image courtesy of Forbes.

Multiple performers in both organizations have elected not to perform during the pandemic. Most notably, Roman Reigns of the WWE withdrew from his WrestleMania title match and has not been seen since. Roman has recurrent leukemia and is chronically immunocompromised, so this is clearly the wisest decision for him and his family without equivocation. Other performers have not taken part of WWE programming for social/political reasons. Namely, some performers disagree with the decision to continue having shows at all. Sami Zayn has been lumped into this latter category and there is speculation that the stripping of his Intercontinental title is a form of punishment for his decision. AEW issued a statement than any performer who didn't want to perform during the pandemic didn't have to, and not much else has been said about this since. Many AEW performers haven't been seen since the start of the pandemic, but there hasn't been any substantial reporting on the individual reasons for this. We can speculate that they are electing not to perform and that AEW is honoring that, but nothing is certain.

Roman Reigns looking forlorn
Roman Reigns is looking out for Roman Reigns. And I really hope the WWE is legitimately respecting that. Image courtesy of Sportskeeda.

Other wrestling organizations have simply closed their doors until further notice, staying in business and (importantly) paying their talent despite not working. New Japan Pro Wrestling is perhaps the most notable of these and has been looked upon favorably in comparison to WWE. Especially considering WWE's recent firing of many employees/performers despite not having other places to work at this time.

So yes, COVID-19 has not been good for professional wrestling.

What May Happen with COVID-19 In the Future?


At this point it's not clear what is happening with the entire world with regards to COVID-19. International health and science agencies are working furiously to study the virus in order to better understand its myriad effects on us and hopefully develop a vaccine that will be effective. As we learn more and more about SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease), the more complicated it becomes. The virus was originally a zoonotic one, meaning it was transmitted from animal to human originally (bat in case you're curious). This has happened before in our history, but the problem is when the virus mutates in said infected person and becomes able to be transmitted human to human. This should tell you that the virus is a creative bugger and can mutate quite freely. There is evidence that there are multiple unique strains of SARS-CoV-2 at this point which means that a single vaccine is unlikely to be universally effective. Some are also predicting that the virus is going to be able to linger in the population in a carrier state, never being totally eradicated.

Breakdown of the SARS-CoV-2 structure
Seriously coronavirus, eff you. Just ... you just suck alright? Image courtesy of the NIH.

It's possible that a vaccine may come out in the future, but at this point it looks like it will be more like the influenza vaccine rather than other vaccines. The influenza virus mutates and recombines yearly, and the annual flu vaccine (that we should all be hopefully getting if possible) is targeted towards the "best guess" at what the major strains will be that year. If enough people in the population get immunized against the flu virus in a given year, the overall disease burden is markedly decreased and many lives are thereby saved. Sound familiar? The logic is similar to our current quarantine situation. Decrease the overall burden of disease in a population to benefit the population overall. SARS-CoV-2 is looking like a similar pattern, so what we now call "cold and flu season" will likely be called "cold, flu, and COVID season."

But even if we develop a vaccine that is 100% effective in preventing future infections, I don't think we're returning to normal. The world has seen what a new virus can do in the modern era of globalization, and it's not good. There's nothing realistically that can be done to stop another zoonotic illness from cropping up, and it could be deadlier the next time. Does this mean we'll be quarantining half the year, every year from now on? It seems unlikely that is going to happen to the degree that we're experiencing now. But the precedent has been set and now that we've done it once, don't be surprised to see some of these quarantine elements be instituted annually. The best guess at this point is that the winter seasons will now be met with social distancing, mask wearing, advising the elderly and immunocompromised to stay home, and limitations on how populated restaurants and other businesses are allowed to be. It's conceivable that there may be a ban on mass gatherings during the COVID season every year as well. This is going to have a lasting effect on society, but we'll likely adapt.

What remains to be seen is what will happen with social gatherings presently. At this point it's completely unclear when large social gatherings are going to be opened up again, and the decision will likely be made on a state by state basis here in the U.S. But even if large gatherings are allowed, a given organization may not necessarily be willing to have events. Furthermore, an event could be hosted but the public may not be comfortable attending said event. Low attendance figures would mean events may be cancelled before they're even held. It's tough to predict at this point. It's going to be very interesting to see what types of sporting/entertainment is able to adapt to the situation and which will not and suffer as a result. Those that are able to increase their presence through digital methods and improve the viewing experience for remote, online supporters will be the best suited for the future. Those that rely completely on live, crowded venues are going to continue to be hit hard.

Is this what's in store for us in the immediate future? I think it's quite possible. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

How Will WWE Be Affected Going Ahead?


For the purposes of this article, let's assume the worst of what I've posited so far.

The first thing that comes to mind is that WWE is going to be particular about where they have events. States that are prolonging quarantine and are being more conservative in general are unlikely to be hosting wrestling events any time soon. From a business perspective, there's no point in scheduling a live event in a state that is trigger happy with shutting events down. Far better to stay in Florida which is more accommodating to the needs of the McMahons. More crowded, populous locations may ironically be less likely to be selected to host wrestling events since they may have more restrictive state and local policies.

Vince McMahon looking furious for one reason or another
"Oh YEAH California?! Screw YOU! I'll make my OWN state! The capitol will be MCMAHONIA!"

Larger events such as SummerSlam are almost going to certainly be changed. The location of the events will likely change to a more favorable city that will permit crowds, and the dates may get delayed with anticipation of restrictions relaxing. Again, I wouldn't be surprised if Florida has a ton of WWE events for the foreseeable future.

If and when live crowds are permitted for WWE events, WWE will need to address concerns of safety. Even if crowds are going to be allowed, the paying public isn't going to jump back into the stands as much as they did pre-COVID. Many people are going to feel that the risk isn't worth attending in person and so attendance numbers will be poor for a while. Furthermore, we can expect a lot more hassle with live events as there will almost certainly be screening protocols and social distancing measures enforced at some venues, even if people are allowed back in. We may even see arenas where people are only allowed to sit in every third seat or so to maintain distancing. It could get even weirder than empty arenas if you can believe it.

We will also likely see a change in the yearly schedule for WWE. My guess is that fewer events - both PPV and live events - will be held during the winter months. I don't know if they'll elect to have empty area events for every November through March going forward, that seems silly. The more likely scenario is that events that are typically held during winter may be rearranged to other parts of the year, leading to a dearth of wrestling in winter and an even more jam-packed schedule the rest of the year.

But even if things go 100% back to normal with no restrictions whatsoever, attendance at WWE shows is going to be lower than it was. Everyone's lives have been shaken up by COVID-19 and that includes the content and method by which they are entertained. There are going to be people who have stopped watching wrestling that just aren't going to come back. WWE is going to need to anticipate this and figure out a way to draw in new fans or lapsed ones. And considering their track record with that goal, good luck to them.

It will be very interesting to see how WWE handles specific performers that have had their careers altered by COVID-19. Roman Reigns was slated to be in a tope spot at WrestleMania but now is not even mentioned at all. When/If he returns, is he going back to the top of the card? Or has his star lost its luster in the eyes of Vince McMahon? Will we see outspoken critics like Sami Zayn sink to jobber status or even be let go?

Sami Zayn in professional attire looking perturbed
There are reports that Sami has heat backstage for his decision to not work during the pandemic. What place does a decent but vocal guy have in the WWE? I guess we'll see. Image courtesy of Sportskeeda.

How Will the Rest of Professional Wrestling Be Affected Going Ahead?


This is the more frightening discussion in my mind. AEW will likely be fine, though they will be facing the same challenges as WWE. What AEW is missing is a strong online method of consuming their product such as the WWE Network. In order to have a firm foothold in the post-COVID world, AEW needs to develop something like this that allows fans to consume their content more easily and in a single place.

NJPW is going to be fine. Their fan base is strong, multinational, and loyal. And New Japan has built up some good karma credit for their respectful handling of the crisis and support of their performers. I do not know how Japan is going to go about relaxing their regulations with regards to COVID, but the Japanese as a people are respectful of others in their community and willing to perform a bit of self sacrifice to adapt to a situation. As such, we may see a more successful return to live crowds with implemented social distancing in Japan than we will in the U.S.

Other smaller promotions are going to suffer a lot, and I anticipate that many of them are not going to return at all. It's hard to predict how promotions like ROH, NWA, and MLW are going to bounce back as we don't have intimate knowledge of their ledgers. If their success is mainly predicated on gates from live attendance, they're in trouble. If they are able to transition in some manner where more income is made digitally from remote viewership/membership then they may make it through. It's conceivable that this may actually be an impetus for smaller promotions banding together. In any case, I think this aspect will be the most interesting to see unfold. WWE and AEW will be fine. I'm not so sure about these other U.S. based promotions.

Jacob Fatu looking like he usually does, murderous
No Jacob, the coronavirus is not something you can beat up. But if anyone was able to do it, it would probably be you. Image courtesy of 411mania.
And what of the talent? Wrestlers ho are not signed to big money contracts are suffering hard right now. With no live wrestling events, there is no reliable income other than prowrestlingtees.com for these people. WWE has been cutting people from their rosters, and you have to imagine that AEW and other smaller promotions aren't going to be hiring en masse anytime soon. I sadly think we're going to see a fizzling out on the independent scene where a lot of performers just don't come back. The effects of this may not be felt immediately. But in the next few years, I anticipate we're not going to be hearing about quite as many hot independent talents than we did pre-COVID.

Final Thoughts


Sigh.

Professional wrestling felt like it was really turning a corner there didn't it? We had another big promotion to compete with WWE, other promotions were doing well and making waves, and the pool of young talented performers was looking healthy. Now there's so much uncertainty about the future of the business. Obviously there's uncertainty about everything at this point, and it won't be going away for a while. I hope that WWE and AEW make wise decisions about how to proceed in terms of reintroducing live fans, as they are going to be the trendsetters for others. I really hope that other, smaller promotions don't just dry up. And I hope that the overall fandom of professional wrestling doesn't dwindle as much as I'm predicting.

One step forward, two steps back. Thanks for reading.

Disclaimer: These articles are general discussions about medical topics/diagnoses. As we are not personally interacting with wrestlers and do not have intimate knowledge of their maladies, we cannot comment specifically on their medical courses unless information has been previously freely reported. These articles reference wrestlers as examples based on what is either reported by them or their companies, but what is said beyond that is only speculation based on the general course of a given diagnosis. Any information here should not be used for self-diagnosis. If you are experiencing medical issues yourself, I advise you to see a licensed physician for a full evaluation.

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AUTHOR OF THIS POST: ETHAN NEUFELD

Ethan Neufeld is a snarky but avid wrestling fan, an amateur chef, an exhausted dad, and nerd to the core. He is also a board certified neuroradiologist and spine interventionist who contributes to the sciencey/medical stuff the occasionally leaks into the professional wrestling world. If you fancy, you can follow him on Twitter.

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