The Return of the Capacity Crowd
The consensus seems to be in a positive direction; we are nearly completely out of the pandemic.
While sports in general found sound footing without fans or with partial capacity, some sports had it easier than other. For some sports fans are so much a part of the sport that the absence of screaming fanatics and ambient movement off screen focus was too much to overcome.
One such sport was wrestling. Look, I get it, it's not so much a sport but rather a TV drama with live stunts. But the validity of professional wrestling isn't the point.
The WWE, though not without its rivals, is the top dog in professional wrestling, but the company saw a pretty severe drop-off in viewership when it had to cease its live tours and hunker down in the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida to perform three live shows per week without fans.
No cheering, no booing. No "This is Awesome!" chants. Just silence, apart from the ambient sounds of bodies hitting the mat and the showmanship of each performer.
The lack of fans was too much for me, a once passionate fan of professional wrestling, to continue to tune in. The crowd in professional wrestling is the fourth dance partner in a match: the heel, the face, the referee, the crowd. It's a symbiotic relationship. Wrestling is a tough sell without its crowd to push forward the narrative with honest reaction.
This past weekend, the WWE hosted WrestleMania 37 in Tampa Bay, Florida as a two-night event. It was the first time the WWE had performed in front of a live, capacity crowd (no "Thunderdome," screens and no produced reactions) in a full year, one month and a day.
As The Miz would say, it was "Awesome!"
Sure, the Texas Rangers held a full capacity crowd a few weeks ago, but Saturday and Sunday saw roughly 25,000 fans fill Raymond James Stadium to participate in the "Show of Shows." The WWE, headed up by a cold open with Vince McMahon, acknowledged how the company as a whole had missed its fans and the appreciation it felt to see the smiles on the faces of those in attendance.
While WrestleMania can often draw crowds triple the size of that in Raymond James Stadium this past weekend, the event felt normal. Like it fit in with WrestleMania 35 and all those before it.
Hearing fans cheer on Bianca Belair in the historic main event of night one as she and Sasha Banks battled over the Smackdown! Women's Championship returned the emotional value that is so easily attached to underdogs. On the flipside, fans booed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns, a Pensacola, Florida native, and his cohorts Paul Heyman and Jey Uso (Reigns's cousin, who played football at West Alabama along with his twin Jimmy) out of the building returned the fun of wrestling stories that build up such angst in the crowd to see the "Big Dog" fall.
But this achievement in wrestling stretches further.
While it's certainly unsettling after a year of the pandemic altering our reality to see fans not taking part in social distancing and only about half of those shown on cameras wearing masks, seeing a capacity crowd was the ultimate reminder that we have nearly crossed the finish line.
A-Day this Saturday will feature 50% capacity at Bryant-Denny Stadium. After a full season of 25%, it feels like the sun is creeping from behind the clouds at a much faster pace in 2021.
Who knows, maybe this fall Bryant-Denny will be packed for the home games on schedule. We certainly draw closer to that reality every day, which is the biggest positive the sports world as a whole can ask for.
After all, football, and sports in general, have just as much emotion wrapped up in its crowds as wrestling. There's a real desperation in the cries for "De-Fense!" and true elation when our teams score the game winning touchdown. While not totally absent in 2020 for all, nearly every venue felt shortchanged by the lack of a capacity crowd.
We are getting there. Sporting events, concerts, everything that has been tarnished by the lack of a crowd or dismissed altogether is on the verge of returning as we once knew it.