“History has been made… whether it’s good or bad in others’ opinion, it’s history.” That was pro wrestler Jamie Senegal’s initial reaction to last week’s announcement that WWE’s premier event would be moved from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., to the company’s Performance Center in Orlando, and move forward with no fans in attendance.
That feeling of shock and realization Senegal described was shared by the greater wrestling audience as well, even as the decision became the only clear option with each passing day that WWE, the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County refused to put the issue to bed.
In the end, WWE made the right call. But the apparent standoff between these parties amid rising concerns about the coronavirus pandemic didn’t just affect WWE. It cast waves of anxiety and worry on the pro wrestling industry as a whole.
Over the past decade, WrestleMania has come to be defined just as much by the myriad independent promotions that run shows in the event’s host city. That independent footprint grew steadily over time as independent pro wrestling experienced a boom thanks to the advent of streaming services, social media marketing and the financial success of WrestleMania weekend shows.
Part of that expansion is an increased focus on growing the culture around wrestling and carving out spaces for LGBTQ and other marginalized communities within it. Multiple promotions have popped up in recent years with the mission to provide stages to performers within those spheres that haven’t always gotten the chance on other stages.
Maybe one day...but for now we are postponed! pic.twitter.com/YD56QbGIhF— EFFY (@EFFYlives) March 17, 2020
And 2020’s WrestleMania weekend was set to represent that mosaic this year with the most culturally diverse lineup of shows ever featured. Now, all of that is out the window as major independent promotions like Game Changer Wrestling (GCW) and the Highspots’ owned Wrestlecon struggle with the financial burden caused by the city’s choice to let WWE decide its event’s fate.
“It’s going to be a start-all-over-again scenario… This is going to have the effect of five years of work being wiped away,” GCW owner Brett Lauderdale told the Tampa Bay Times. Both GCW and Highspots likely face losses upward of hundreds of thousands of dollars after force majeure contract provisions weren’t triggered due to WWE announcing WrestleMania’s cancellation, rather than the government. “I’ll likely sell my house,” Highspots owner Michael Bochicchio told Vice. “These refunds have decimated our bank account,” he added on Twitter.
The ripple effect is impacting independent wrestling nationwide, including a number of shows focused on the LGBTQ community that were scheduled for Tampa. EFFY’s Big Gay Brunch, which was set to run as part of GCW’s The Collective, was set to be the highest profile one of the bunch. It’s currently in postponement limbo along with the rest of The Collective.
The fact that GCW maintains its commitment to hold the show is pleasing, including a promise from EFFY to “be back bigger and gayer than ever,” but losing the international platform WrestleMania weekend provides is a huge disappointment. “It’s absolutely undeniable that there were a lot of cultural shifts that would have happened,” Uncanny Attractions producer and pro wrestler MV Young told Outsports. “It would have shifted indie wrestling and pro wrestling as a whole.”
“EFFY’s Big Gay brunch and our show would have showcased people that otherwise don’t get a platform… not that we aren’t going to make platforms created for ourselves going forward,” Young added. “We were days away from a very great week in pro wrestling history. So, it’s sad that it’s not gonna happen.”
Uncanny Attractions is another company that was set to make a statement for LGBTQ and marginalized voices during WrestleMania weekend. It was also one of the first companies to cancel its show, making the decision days ahead of WWE. “We saw the severity really quickly. An environment where people would congregate, with a disease that spreads quickly where there’s probably over 100,000 people, it just made sense,” Uncanny Attractions producer Darnell Mitchell told Outsports.
“I’m a huge sports fan and never in my lifetime have I seen every major sports league cancel… if major sports leagues are canceling, there’s some shit going down,” Young added. “it was very much a punch to the gut.”
Mitchell knows losing that stage hurts, but agrees with Young that other platforms, including Uncanny Attractions, will continue to provide those opportunities across the independent scene.
“We’re a company who prides ourselves on being the same year round. What I think people should do in this situation is search out companies like Prime Time, Ryse, Battle Club Pro, Hoodslam and more who run queer shows or shows with diversity all year round,” Mitchell told Outsports. “Now is the time to actually support the independents that cater to this lost demographic at all times.”
Senegal’s LGBTQ-focused event JALEX: Take Back The Power was also canceled due to coronavirus concerns, but the Punk Rock Kween remained positive in the wake of the decision. “JALEX: Take Back The Power was set to be a big deal for the LGBTQ community as it was being run by my boyfriend Alex Ocean and I. It is awful that it had to be canceled, but I would love to pick up where we left off in the future,” Senegal told Outsports. “Postponed until further notice is a better term… my and Alex’s intentions were to change the game and it is not our fault or any particular person’s fault it isn’t running. It’s just how nature intended.”
The positive messages despite the lasting effects of 2020’s WrestleMania weekend are uplifting, but the circumstances have caused some to wonder if WrestleMania weekend will continue to exist in its current state as a SXSW-esque festival of pro wrestling. Young, Senegal and Mitchell don’t believe that it will change too much going forward, but it might alter how independent promotions approaching running shows going forward. “I personally feel this will be the last time we might see things like grouped events and a lot of people will break off. Wrestling will continue to evolve and we hope to evolve with it,” Mitchell said. “A lot of us had all of our eggs in our Mania basket; promoter wise and wrestler wise. It definitely was an eye opening experience for all of us,” Senegal said.
“This is a once in a century event that we’re having right now. Maybe, after all this, pandemic insurance will be a thing,” Young added.
One thing is for sure though: nearly all involved have had some choice words for how the situation between WWE and the City of Tampa unfolded. “I just think it’s ridiculous,” Senegal said. “I understand the insurance issue but we’re talking about people’s health and ability to fly… it’s a bunch of people with loads of money playing with people’s lives and financials. It was a shitshow,” Mitchell exclaimed.
“I see people glorifying Vince [Mcmahon] still for doing this and ‘fighting the virus.’ There are people that wear [WWE] so much on their sleeves that they actually are believing that Vince is this big tough guy for doing that when it’s really just stupid,” Young said. “It would have been a cesspool of spreading this virus. Do you think that any of these sports leagues don’t want to make money? You think that they are out of their mind for canceling? Everyone is losing money on a national scale. Why do you think that you’re the one that’s gonna beat it? It’s just ridiculous.”
Now, with WrestleMania weekend in its original form in the rear view, the focus for independent promotions shifts toward the future. One where even empty arena shows like GCW’s Acid Cup 2 and EWA’s Quarantine won’t be feasible as more municipalities implement strict limits on mass gatherings and “stay-at-home” orders. It can come across as bleak, but Young sees some silver linings.
“Independent wrestling and independent entertainment as a whole is going to take a hit because, I mean, we’re almost certainly heading into a recession. The entertainment business always suffers in a recession,” Young lamented. “You’re giving a lot of people time to sit at home, think about their characters and promote their characters. We’re not beating our bodies up and not getting dropped on our heads. We’re just sitting at home for the first time in a lot of our careers saying, ‘Hey, we got to take it easy.’ We’re gonna come back very antsy; very ready to have great matches… it’s a very long tunnel right now, but I think that there is light at the end.”