WWE GOES HOLLYWOOD: SoFi Stadium held a “launch party” in August to hype WrestleMania 39. More than 90,000 tickets were sold in 24 hours for the April 1-2 event. (Courtesy Venue)
Pro wrestling is a business of exaggeration, so forgive the WWE for its hyperbole.
“Wrestlemania Goes Hollywood,” the marketing materials exclaim, more accurate in sentiment than in geography.
The 39th edition of the premier event in the professional wrestling calendar will, in fact, be headed 12 miles south, to Inglewood.
SoFi Stadium hosts the now two-night extravaganza April 1-2; the geographic dislocation notwithstanding, the glitz, glamour and exorbitance evoked by the tagline sets a bar the venue’s team expects to meet.
In the nearly four decades since Vince McMahon conjured the idea of creating a huge pay-per-view event to finance his dream of busting open the old regional model of professional wrestling and taking his then-World Wrestling Federation national, Wrestlemania has matured into an annual event that’s woven into the fabric of American culture. Bringing wrestling out of smokey armories and auditoriums and into the shiny steel of modern arenas and stadiums will be the durable bullet point in McMahon’s admittedly complicated business legacy.
The explosion of Wrestlemania itself is a great object lesson in what the WWE has been able to accomplish for a form of entertainment oft-derided — wrongly so — as niche, lowbrow and downmarket.
The most premium of the company’s Premium Live Events, Wrestlemania spent its first three decades or so in a mixture of arenas and stadiums.
Los Angeles itself has hosted ‘Mania three other times, twice at the old Sports Arena in Exposition Park and, in 2005, at what is now Crypto.com Arena. For the record, despite being downtown, Wrestlemania 21 at Staples Center was also marketed as “Wrestlemania Goes Hollywood.”
There will be a smorgasbord of premium seating options. Merchandising is a critical component of the wrestling business; an old hand once described wrestling as a complicated art form designed to sell T-shirts to 8-year-olds. WWE has wedded premium seating to merch for years, starting with the perk of fans in the first several rows being able to keep their folding chair seats as a souvenir. For its biggest event, naturally, the perks are more extravagant.
The bronze level — starting at $531.25 — includes a hat and bag, along with exclusive entrances and merch lines. The top-of-the-line Gold and Champion packages add on visits from wrestlers, as the two-night schedule allows for performers working one night to glad-hand on the other. Also offered are excursions to Mattel’s El Segundo facility or to Stone Cold Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Ranch. Those passes run between $10,000 and $12,000.
With the exception of the 2020 version, which due to the pandemic was filmed behind closed doors at the company’s performance center in Orlando, every Wrestlemania since 2007 has been in a football stadium, drawing sellout crowds of 75,000, including floor seats.
The pandemic changed everything for WWE’s crown jewel event.
Wrestling fans during the WWE Monday Night RAW event, Monday, March 6, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
As Wrestlemania expanded in importance — appearing on the biggest show of the year is vital to proving the long-term viability of a wrestler’s career and earning potential — the show became extraordinarily lengthy. A less generous interpretation would be that it started to get bloated.
In 2020, unfettered by any venue constraints or local curfews — the WWE turned its biggest night of the year into its biggest weekend. Two four-hour shows are much easier to consume than one eight-hour show. Wrestling fans loved it.
For the foreseeable future, Wrestlemania will always be in stadiums and will always be two nights. And it will always be huge, the company breathlessly promising that each year will be better than the last.
All of that makes it a huge challenge and a huge opportunity for its host building.
Since its debut in September 2020, when it opened without fans in the stands for the NFL season, SoFi Stadium has played host to a Super Bowl, the CFP national championship, dozens of high-profile concerts — including four nights of k-pop sensation BTS and two-night plays by the Rolling Stones and Los Bukis.
“There’s the old saying you only have one chance to make a first impression. In our first years of operation, we have had a chance to have a lot of firsts,” said Otto Benedict, SoFi Stadium’s senior vice president of facility and campus operations.
SoFi makes a great first impression. It’s massive and full of super-modern and top-of-the-line technological whizbangery that, Benedict says, got the “cool creative juices” flowing for his team and for the team at WWE.
“We’ve been having meetings for over a year and we’ve been looking at each and every way they can utilize our 3.1 million square feet. That’ll be the cool thing,” he says.
No spoilers, Otto.
The unique thing about Wrestlemania is that it synergizes every part of a stadium staff’s skill set. There’s an element of sport, there are performance elements akin to a concert, there’s a festival atmosphere that surrounds it. All told, it’s those things blown to their biggest and most outlandish versions and combined into something greater.
“For us, this is a lot like when we did BTS,” Benedict said. “Both have a passionate fanbase and they are going to expect nothing but the best and we want to make sure what we do is amazing.”
No spoilers, Otto.
“We have 16 hours to convert the building, so that it looks like night one didn’t happen on night two,” he said. “We embrace the opportunity to do these amazing things in this building and because of our sheer size, we can convert in a fast way. From the Super Bowl to the CFP to four nights of BTS. They’ve been the best training.”
At its best, pro wrestling is sports with better stories and hyper-athletic theater in a fusion that depicts the base essence of emotion. The history of ‘Mania is saturated with shocks, with highlight-reel moments that will replay forever for the spectators in the stands and the viewers at home and the venue can play a critical role in those moments.
Wrestlers often use the event as a chance to roll out an entrance that’s even more spectacular than usual. It’s a vehicle for their imaginations and that frequently involves, well, vehicles. Wrestlers have come to the ring in everything from hot rods to low-riders to, on more than one occasion, a tank. Both nights are bookended by stupendous fireworks shows and there’s no shortage of pyrotechnics between.
WWE isn’t shying away from the Hollywood branding — and with Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista and John Cena, it has alumni to call on who are as bankable at theater box office as they were, and in Cena’s case, still are at the wrestling box office.
Benedict says SoFi offers opportunities for that sense of place to be more than metaphorical.
“They look at our center-hung Infinity Screen (by Samsung) and look at the roof cable net and say. ‘How do we incorporate that?’ ‘How are we going to make it part of the show?’ and Our answer is yes, let’s solve that,” he said, which leads to discussions with the stadium’s structural engineer.
“In the last few months, we’ve been diving into how this building works with them. They’ve been out here for our marquee events and sat back and watched, and that’s helped them,” Benedict said.
Benedict being a pro — and with our exhortation — won’t spoil the surprises, but …
“It’ll be awesome for WWE and for our building to show its capabilities. I am a little concerned with how well we’re doing,” he said, the knowing smile almost audible. “We’re always open to any ideas.”
In the days leading up to the event, WWE would not disclose the final set design.
Wrestling storylines are famously fluid and the final card won’t likely be revealed until days before curtain. Gimmick matches — like Hell In A Cell — influence set-up, which in turn affects capacity, another challenge for the venue.
SoFi is ready. Two and a half years of sports and concerts and a neighboring festival were perfect preparation.
It may not technically be Hollywood, but — no spoilers — Benedict and his team are ready to deliver what may not seem possible: exceeding the expectations of fans who are trained to expect the unexpected.
“It’ll be quite impressive the way we are utilizing the building. We are being pushed to our max capabilities,” he said. “But when you see…”
No spoilers, Otto.