Despite a pandemic, many wrestling companies are running wrestling events for video or TV purposes, without fans in attendance.
The safety of those events varies and depends on factors, including the prevalence of COVID-19 in the local area, whether individuals participating are otherwise at risk of being infected, and the precautions being taken in advance of the event.
WWE is taking some precautions, but COVID-19 testing is not known to be among them. This is despite WWE being the biggest wrestling company in the world, running in a state in county where new cases are not in consistent decline. Meanwhile other companies in Florida like AEW and UFC have been able to conduct testing.
Events happening in Mexico — which are few — including one taping held by Lucha Libre AAA are probably similarly unsafe on an individual basis compared to WWE, for similar reasons: regional prevalence and precautions. Some precautions were reportedly taken, but testing was not among them. Again, though, it’s not known that WWE or AAA administered any tests before their events.
To be clear, AAA has held only two empty building taping, on April 18 and 19. WWE is taping several times a month, with sessions that probably last many hours, often enough to produce three weekly multi-hour programs.
All Elite Wrestling’s events, like WWE’s, are running Florida, where confirmed case prevalence is relatively high. Cases are still on the rise in each of the counties where WWE and AEW are holding events. AEW, however, at least is requiring its personnel to take COVID-19 tests.
Many companies in Japan (notably excluding the country’s biggest company, New Japan Pro-Wrestling) are running events without fans. There’s no appearance that any of them are testing. At least some, possibly all, are screening personnel before events and performing temperature checks.
Generally, though, in Japan and, in Tokyo particularly, COVID-19 prevalence appears to be much lower than it is in Mexico, the United States, or Florida. Data measuring confirmed cases and COVID-19 related deaths — even when accounting for high testing rates in the U.S. — suggests prevalence in Japan is much lower than it is in Mexico, the U.S., or Florida.
Official states of emergency in Japan, including Tokyo, have been lifted recently. The country will soon be entering phases where gatherings will be allowed again. Japan will probably be the first country to hold wrestling events with large numbers of fans in attendance. If Japan is nearing conditions in which it will be safe to run fan-attended wrestling events again, data shows that the U.S. and Mexico are still far from it.
A major factor that seems to be determining which companies are running events and which are not, less than health and safety, is the revenue companies gain by continuing to produce shows for media partners.
The rest of this article will focus on explaining that data and these tentative conclusions in detail and understanding each company’s situation.
Who’s doing empty building matches?
Since mid-March WWE and AEW have continued to produce weekly television programming out of empty buildings without fans, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. WWE is running out of their Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, which is in Orange County. AEW has been running mainly out of Jacksonville, Florida, which is in Duval County, with some earlier tapings in Georgia. A search of the Cagematch.net event database records that other companies are also running empty building matches.
In the U.S., Impact is running in Nashville, Tennessee. Its peers like Ring of Honor, Major League Wrestling, and the National Wrestling Alliance haven’t held any events since wider restrictions went into place in mid-March. In fact, executives with the latter three companies have specifically stated they will not be running events at this time.
In Japan: Dragon Gate is running empty building events in Kobe; All Japan Pro-Wrestling in Chiba; DDT in Tokyo; Ice Ribbon in Saitama; Pro Wrestling NOAH in Kawasaki. New Japan Pro-Wrestling hasn’t held an event since February 26.
In Mexico: Lucha Libre AAA ran two days of “Lucha Fighter” tapings on April 18 and 19, as mentioned. AAA’s main rival CMLL hasn’t held any events since March 13.
According to Luchablog, AAA promoter Dorian Roldan gave an interview saying the company is looking at postponing its major annual event TripleMania, which was scheduled for August 22. According to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, there have been internal communications in CMLL saying the company doesn’t expect to do shows with fans until September at the earliest. The Observer notes CMLL makes its revenue mainly from live events, so doesn’t benefit much from running events without paying fans.
What precautions are being taken?
Here are some quotes from WWE executives on the precautions the company is taking.
WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon to Variety, March 26:
“At a typical event, talent are milling about, they’re at catering or wherever when they’re not actually in part of the show… That’s not allowed now. There’s extensive testing and screening when you first come in the facility regardless of whether you’re a talent, a crew member, or anyone else. Working with our doctors, you have your temperature taken. If you have a temperature over 100.4 degrees, you are automatically asked to leave.”
“If you’ve been out of the country or been in touch or in contact with anybody who’s been out of the country you’re not allowed in the facility… We’re taking every precaution we can. It’s also why you don’t see talent or anyone else in the audience. We really are adhering to all the guidelines that we can to maintain the health and safety of our crew and our performers.”
WWE CEO Vince McMahon and EVP Paul Levesque on WWE Q1 earnings call, April 23 (AUDIO / Automated transcript):
Steven Cahall (Wells Fargo analyst): Vince, could you maybe talk a little bit about talent morale? Some of the other sports leagues, they’ve been shut down, I think in part because players in unions have wanted safety restrictions or testing in place before they get back on the field or on the court. Can you just touch on how your talent is responding to production and also how you’re thinking about access to testing and if you’ve had any insight there and how that might impact your ability to continue producing content?
Vince McMahon: As far as testing is concerned, we do everything imaginable. You can’t even come on the premises, and in fact, if you have a fever, obviously. We have this whole form you have to fill out, and you have to do it every week, in terms of whether or not you’ve been exposed, the idea is a whole long gone.
So we’re doing everything we can for safety and making sure the environment is as good as it possibly can be. Not only monitoring our talent, but our employees as well. Anyone who’s at the training facility, and we’re very careful as to how many people work in and out at one time. We put our talent in a sequestered hotel when they’re here.
We’re performing in small groups in terms of waves. And as far as in the ring is concerned, we have changed the turnbuckles and the ropes in all that kind of stuff between matches. We sort of have a pandemic cleaning, I guess I would say, on a very frequent basis, the Clorox 360 stuff, but we have something additional as well. And Paul Levesque is on the call. Paul, tell us about that new stuff you did was.
Paul Levesque: So it’s a company called Allied BioScience that we worked through. They have a spray that is – there’s a process which makes it cling to surfaces, and the surface, once it’s coated with this, it lasts for 90 to 120 days, and it acts like, sort of how it was explained to me, is it’s like a sword that punctures the cell wall of the virus or what causes the virus and kills it on contact. And that lasts for 90 to 120 days. And it lasts through even the other cleaning and various levels of everything we’re doing.
So we coated our facilities, the Performance Center, our warehouses, even our production trucks with all of that. In addition to what Vince said, it’s a level of cleaning, every single usage, and cleaning between everything. We’re taking every precaution that we have been advised is a best practice to take and then some.
Vince McMahon: And then again as – when these testings come along, you can do this, you can do that. When they become more prevalent and hopefully more accurate, we’ll be right there with the first.
As mentioned earlier, despite AEW and UFC doing testing ahead of events in Florida, and despite Vince McMahon’s comments above that WWE would be doing testing as soon as they’re capable, there’s no impression yet WWE is doing so.
I contacted WWE multiple times to ask for an update on precautions the company is taking and to ask whether any COVID-19 tests have been administered. WWE has yet to respond as of the publishing of this writing. If WWE responds, this article will be updated.
Here are some quotes from AEW executives about their precautions.
AEW President Tony Khan on Twitter, May 6:
AEW EVP Cody Runnels on AEW media call, May 21:
Cody Runnels: It’s so wild, there’s so many stories online about what precautions, you know, wrestling is taking in presenting this. But just to get in the hallway where my office is here at Daily’s Place, I have to get a temperature check. So not only a temperature check in the parking 09:01 lot but a temperature check to get into this hallway. You’ve seen on the program, if you watch Dynamite, the wristbands on everybody’s wrist. [We’re] doing COVID testing in quarantine situations so that you don’t cross-pollinate, the ring crew [is] working overtime to sanitize, the use of masks as much as you possibly can. It’s just been a really unique challenge. Doc Samson and Brice, our medical team are already presented with the challenge of a violent wrestling show. Now there’s this global pandemic, and they have just been so above and beyond and countless hours and making sure that everyone is genuinely tested. No one in this bowl, in this building, no one touching a camera, are wrestling in that ring hasn’t been tested, and that was something that I’m very proud of, team medical, and how they’ve done.
Chuck Carroll (CBS Sports): Cody my question is what if, god forbid, somebody in the company does unfortunately test positive right now for COVID-19, the coronavirus? What steps are in place, what measures are there in place that would ensure that you all would be able to continue moving forward?
Cody Runnels: It’s a great question. The testing is done under quarantine measures. You have scheduled-out blocks for the testing and team medical is the very first individuals to be tested. So there is no cross-pollination. We don’t have – because they’re not done at Daily’s Place – they are done under the quarantine measures. Meaning if you were to test positive, you would then get the nose swab test to confirm the positive, or perhaps it was a false positive. But you would not be in proximity to any of the talent, to any of the crew. They’ve also separated the crew. Their testing measures are done elsewhere. And the talent testing measures are done elsewhere. So those are also two locations. It’s been a lot about spreading out, per our dual doctor role. And we also have multiple doctors, because you then could cross-pollinate potentially if there’s a positive on a test. So we have it set where it would not shut down the production. And I am absolutely not rooting for a positive test but we do need to keep it in mind. And UFC just went through this. We’re testing everyone who comes into our bowl, everyone. Everyone who you can see with your own eye, so if a positive test was to come forward, well, it would just indicate that the testing does work, and that the measures need to be taken. We however have been incredibly fortunate to have no positive test. Hopefully we have no positive test moving forward. But doing [tests] under quarantine measures, according to Doc Michael Sampson, as some of you may know, he’s been in the wrestling industry quite some time, has been the right call for everybody.
Lucha Libre AAA
According to Luchablog, AAA’s precautions for their April 18 taping included “social distancing and facemasks backstage. The wrestlers were in given separate dressing rooms (though they may have not strictly been forced to stay in them; there’s a video of LA Park & Pagano pulling a prank together.) [The] ring and microphone were disinfected between matches, and they were said to be doing the same backstage as often as every five minutes. Match announcers were on separate sides of the stage (and then did it from a studio for the final episodes.) It appeared they were doing temperature checks on the way in, but no COVID testing.”
Dragon Gate is apparently doing temperature screening. They pulled wrestlers twice from performing due to high temperature: Yosuke Santa Maria on March and Strong Machine J on March 22.
https://twitter.com/DragonGateEN/status/1233980999161147392 Mar 1, Yosuke Santa Maria
According to an English translation of a May 5 statement from DDT President Sanshiro Takagi, the company is taking the following precautions:
- temperature and health screening each morning
- wrestlers told to stay home as much as possible
- everyone participating has their temperatures checked
- all non-wrestlers must wear masks
- press are required to check temperatures beginning 3 days prior
- video crew wear hazmat suits
- nonessential personnel are off-limits
- locker rooms and equipment are disinfected
What have leaders of wrestling companies that haven’t been running empty building events said?
NJPW President Harold Meij, official statement, May 13
Data has clearly shown high levels of infection within cities like Tokyo, and therefore we believe that to stage events even in empty arenas involves a level of unnecessary risk. Even if we take all the possible precautions to maintain the safety of the venue and do all we can to ensure the staff and the wrestlers are healthy, the fact remains that safety is by no means guaranteed.
Meij said NJPW would hold events in Japan and the LA Dojo in the U.S. without fans “when and only when the state of emergency restrictions are lifted, the number of new coronavirus infections declines, and when matches can take place in properly disinfected and safe settings.”
To hold even empty arena matches in these circumstances would reflect badly on ourselves and our industry, and we will not trade our reputation as a positive force for social good, even in the wake of harsh economic realities… It is the goodwill that we have fostered with our audience, our partners, and society that led to Wrestle Kingdom 14 this year becoming a tremendous success allowing us to continue operating in the black. That goodwill must be protected at all costs.
Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff to POST Wrestling, April 14:
I think it’s great for WWE that they are able to operate how they see fit, or how they may even need to for their business. It doesn’t necessarily change our approach to the pandemic though. The safety of all of our performers, staff, vendors, and fans are the most important thing to us right now and we are continuing to improve our infrastructure and find ways to connect with them during this time. Are we eager to get back? Absolutely. For now, we will be monitoring day by day.
Joe Koff on PWI Podcast, April 30:
The decisions that we made, and these go back to early March, we were probably one of the first major promotions that stopped the presses so to speak. It actually happened the week of the Anniversary show, which was on, I think March 13th…I would not have been able to attend the event in Las Vegas because, I was not exposed, but I was in a hotel where somebody tested positively. This was at the beginning of March. Nobody really knew what it was or how to treat it. Everyone was in somewhat of a panic mode. The emergency room wouldn’t even let me come in because I really had no symptoms and had no reason to go in, thank goodness. But, they said don’t travel and don’t go into work.
My guys were already in Vegas. This was Wednesday, the show was Friday. I’m beginning to feel a little uneasy with what I’m sensing and what I’m seeing. One of my concerns was getting everybody home and safe and where they wanted to be. We have a lot of international talent…I just needed to be sure in my mind as a responsible person and somebody who is in a community of human beings with empathy and compassion that we can get these people home…We acted pretty quickly but the main concern has always been and will always be the people, not only the fans who are very important to me. I wouldn’t want to put anybody in any kind of compromised situation by coming to a Ring of Honor show if it wasn’t a healthy environment for them to watch it. It wasn’t a hard decision to make. It was the only decision to make and I’m glad we did it. (credit ewrestling for transcription)
Major League Wrestling executive Court Bauer on whether MLW would run empty building events in Florida, to POST Wrestling, April 14:
No. I will not put my athletes, crew and staff along with their families at risk of contracting the virus.
Bauer to Newsweek, May 13:
I looked at [the situation] pragmatically and talked with my network partner and they were very comfortable with my strategy to fill content,” Bauer told Newsweek.
Live television has value,” Bauer explained. “But because of the pandemic you don’t know if people are going to covet live sports programming the same way without having something that’s taped for moments like this or be more forward thinking to have a docu-series like The Last Dance.
National Wrestling Alliance VP Dave Lagana in an official statement, March 16:
The National Wrestling Alliance, given the uncertain course of this world health crisis, is suspending normal operations until June as far as any live performances… However, we will continue to produce content in the interim, and thank fans in advance for their continued support.
The health and safety of our wrestlers, in-house and NWA staff, and fans are of the utmost importance during the global pandemic of COVID-19. We look forward to seeing you all soon.
What does COVID-19 data tell us about the safety of empty building wrestling events?
First, what metrics are we going to look at?
- COVID-19 tests
- confirmed cases of COVID-19
- deaths due to COVID-19
These metrics will mostly be considered on a per capita basis, to adjust for the difference in population among the regions that will be compared.
We’re looking at daily measurements of those three metrics, in effort to understand how COVID-19 prevalence has developed over time. In some cases, I found data going all the way back to January, in other cases, only going back to mid-April.
The regions mainly concerned with are:
- United States, and with in that
- Florida, and with that
- Orange County
- Duval County
- Florida, and with that
- Japan, and with in that
- Tokyo metro area
I’m not aware of long-term data in particular for cities like Mexico City, Orlando, or Jacksonville.
What are we trying to learn?
We’re trying to learn whether any of this data can tell us something about how safe or unsafe it is to continue to do empty building wrestling shows in some of the places where they’re happening.
Where did the data come from?
The Florida data for April 17 and after is from the Florida Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard; data for April 16 and prior is from The New York Times via Google.
The Tokyo data is from Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s CSV files.
The national data for the United States, Japan, and Mexico are from CSV files found on ourworldindata.org, which ultimately sources their data from government data sources via the European CDC. Further explanations about their data sources can be found on their website.
You can see how I organized the data in this Google spreadsheet.
Before going further, let’s recognize some limits of this data, including:
- A study of confirmed COVID-19 cases doesn’t count many cases that are not confirmed for a number of reasons (inaccurate testing, lack of available testing, etc.)
- A study of COVID-19 deaths may be incomplete due to a lack of ability to confirm the death was COVID-19 related, due to the same problems related to studying cases. It seems to me, though, the portion of uncounted deaths would be considerably lower than the portion of uncounted cases, since it stands to reason a person who dies from the disease is likely to have received medical attention immediately before death and therefore those people are more likely to be tested, maybe repeatedly so.
- Confirmed cases (and deaths) may be higher in areas where testing is more prevalent.
With that said, what does the data show about COVID-19 cases, deaths, and testing in the aforementioned regions?
How do confirmed COVID-19 cases (per capita) compare among the United States, Japan, and Mexico? The U.S. has more confirmed cases per million people than the other two countries, by many multiples. Confirmed cases for the U.S., though, are declining, as indicated by the direction of the 7-day moving average for the U.S.
Let’s take the U.S. off the chart so we can better compare Florida, Mexico and Japan.
In mid-April, daily cases per million for Mexico and Japan were about the same. Since then, cases are on the rise in Mexico, and on the decline in Japan.
Confirmed cases per million in Florida greatly outpace that of Japan as well.
More concerning, cases in Florida are on the rise most days since May 11. This comes as Florida is easing restrictions, reopening many businesses and services.
A weekly breakdown of cases provides a another comparison among these regions.
From May 14 to May 21, Japan found 3 confirmed cases per million, compared to 283 in Florida, and 550 in the overall U.S.
What if you don’t adjust for population?
Japan has a much higher population than Florida, about 126.5 million in Japan to Florida’s 21.5 million people. Even so, Japan is seeing fewer confirmed cases than Florida. Here we can also see daily cases are declining in Japan while they are increasing in Florida since May 11.
As mentioned, though, there are limits around only studying confirmed cases. There are many kinds of COVID-19 testing. Many tests return false negative results, and many actual cases are probably recovered from without the infected person ever testing positive or being tested at all.
But might the reason why the U.S. (and therefore maybe Florida also) have relatively high numbers of confirmed cases is because the U.S. has a high number of tests?
Testing units in the available data are in different types, unfortunately. The data for Japan counts people tested. The data for Mexico counts cases tested. The data for the U.S. is inconsistent. Even so, the margin is so wide that it’s very likely true that the U.S. is well ahead of Japan and Mexico for tests per capita.
So does the high number of tests happening in the U.S. actually over-represent COVID-19 prevalence in the country? Not necessarily. In fact, despite leading in testing, Japan is ahead of the U.S. in terms of total tests per confirmed cases. Again, the data available is in inconsistent units, but the data suggests that testing in the U.S. is finding positive tests at a higher rate than in Japan.
That apparent fact is complicated by inaccurate testing. At a minimum, though, it doesn’t support the idea that the U.S. is only far ahead in COVID-19 cases because of its high number of tests.
Looking at the testing data by the three individual countries, testing numbers are growing in each.
Maybe, though, deaths provide some hints about the relative prevalence of COVID-19 in the regions we’re looking at.
How do the United States, Japan, and Mexico compare for COVID-19 related deaths? Similar to the results for confirmed cases, the U.S. is ahead (though to a smaller margin) than either Mexico or Japan. And deaths in the U.S. are on the decline. Deaths in Mexico are on the rise.
What if you take the United States off the chart?
In recent weeks, deaths per million in Mexico are increasingly ahead of those in Japan.
And more recently, deaths per million in Mexico are increasing ahead of those of Florida, where deaths are declining.
On a closer look at deaths in Japan, though, the 7-day moving average indicates deaths in that country are not yet in a consistent pattern of decline, averaging around 20 deaths per day for the last few weeks.
Duval County, Orange County, Tokyo metro area
Let’s look more specifically at regions where high numbers of empty building wrestling events are taking place: Duval County (home of AEW’s events in Jacksonville) and Orange County (home of WWE’s events in Orlando), compared to the Tokyo metro area. DDT is running in Tokyo; All Japan and Ice Ribbon have run events in nearby cities Chiba and Saitama.
How do confirmed cases compare?
Cases per capita in Duval and Orange counties are higher, by multiples, compared to the Tokyo area. In fact, cases in Tokyo are in a consistent pattern of decline; cases in the two Florida counties have been in a consistent pattern of growth since the beginning of May. Like the increase in cases in Florida overall, this increase coincides somewhat with the easing of restrictions in the state.
What does the data mean for empty building wrestling events?
COVID-19 prevalence is probably the strongest factor in determining the risk associated with operating wrestling events, as it relates to the health of the people involved and the public who they will subsequently come in contact with. In other words, the more prevalent the virus is in a given area, the less safe it is to operate events in that area that bring people in close proximity, if all other factors are equal.
Apparently in advance of empty building events, most, if not all, are screening for symptoms. So the number of tests isn’t as relevant, unless we know who is being tested. In the United States if mainly symptomatic people or people who had contact with a COVID-19 case are being tested, which seems likely, then the testing data may not apply to wrestling situations. Any people exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms are probably excluded before they enter the building.
Broad testing shows about half of people who are infected with COVID-19 don’t show symptoms.
To help me understand this data, I corresponded with Dr. Alex Patel, an ICU doctor from Toronto. I shared the data and my initial impressions of it with Dr. Patel, who also discussed the data with a colleague who has a background in epidemiology.
“We know from Iceland,” Dr. Patel wrote, “that if you broadly test the whole population you will get a positive rate of about 0.8% (87/10,797). If you do target testing of high risk people (symptoms, travelers, close contacts), its about a 13% positive rate. Those numbers vary by country, but what is interesting is that half of all cases in the general population are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.”
Let’s assume the average person working on a wrestling event is probably similar to an average person out of the population.
Dr. Patel wrote further:
[People working empty building wrestling events] may be at higher risk because of traveling, but let’s just say [they’re like the] general population,” Dr. Patel wrote. “Let’s also assume the risk of having [COVID-19] in all comers is X%. We know X is likely higher in the U.S. and Florida than in Japan, based on the number of positive tests they are getting, all things being equal, per thousand.
We know that based on symptoms, they will identify about half of the positives. The other half (X/2) will slip by, and we know this number is greater in the U.S. and Mexico than Japan. Likely twice as high in the U.S., if not more, since they are testing more broadly, [and are] likely testing more asymptotic [people] than Japan, we assume.
The safety of the show hinges on the odds that someone slips by the screening system and into the arena, where they are currently checking for symptoms. We can assume that the ratio of asymptomatic to symptomatic is close to 50% each, so, roughly, they will catch half of the cases.
The odds then that someone presents to the door with COVID-19 is dependent on what the rate of community prevalence is of the disease. That means the percentage of people that have it without an identifiable reason to do so (e.g., long-term care, healthcare workers, travelers).
So if we assume that of the testing done daily, about 30%-50% is going to be on those at high risk like long-term care and healthcare workers, so about 50-70% is going to be on community members who have symptoms or contact with a person with symptoms, but no real high-risk exposure.
The percentage of positive testing reflects a larger degree of community spread and a larger proportion of positives hitting the door.
The odds that a random person presenting to the empty arena show will swab positive for the virus is higher in Florida, we would assume, based on the data.
To have a chance of excluding people who are positive cases but are asymptomatic companies would need, at a minimum, to be enacting some form of COVID-19 testing — which WWE apparently doesn’t do, despite still producing many hours of TV each week. And while many COVID-19 tests result in false negatives, it’s certainly provides more cover than not doing testing at all.
There are obviously economic motivators at play for all promotions that are weighing into their decisions about whether or not to run events, and how often. New Japan doesn’t have major TV rights fees, so gains little by running events; they haven’t ran any kind of event since February 26. WWE and AEW are heavily financially dependent on TV rights fees, so they have continued.
It tells you something about how much safety is weighing into the decision-making. Above the health of personnel and the public, the bigger deciding factor seems to be how much media revenue is at stake.
Although they have plans to do so, New Japan still haven’t run empty building events, even though its home area has probably been safer for some time than it is currently in Orange and Duval counties and much of the U.S.. Additionally, many of the next-biggest companies in Japan are running empty events, so there seems to be some bandwagon cover for them. But maybe the other Japanese companies have more to gain financially due to their TV commitments, which I don’t know much about.
I do wonder if the U.S., or certain large areas within the country, had Japan or Tokyo’s level of COVID-19 prevalence, whether we would already be seeing fans welcome at events again, maybe on a limited “social distancing” basis or not.
According to the latest Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Vince McMahon was hoping to be able to do Summerslam in Boston in August, which is unlikely based on comments made by Boston’s mayor, ruling out the possibility of baseball happening at Fenway Park by August.
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