PHOTO: NBC News
For decades there’s been debate over what the correct attendance was for Wrestlemania III at the Pontiac Silverdome on March 29, 1987. The WWF famously announced that night in the ring, and has celebrated ever since, that the attendance was 93,173. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter first reported in its November 14, 1994 issue that Wrestlemania III’s total attendance was about 78,000.
The capacity for football games of the now-demolished Silverdome was widely reported to be just over 80,000. So it raises the question, given that 1) Wrestlemania III was at least close to sold out and 2) that there were thousands of fans on the field — two assumptions that are less controversial — how was the attendance not well over 80,000?
A few years ago I had a short discussion with Observer editor Dave Meltzer, who said that venues often had exaggerated capacities, which would explain why the attendance of Wrestlemania III wasn’t well over 80,000. So even for Detroit Lions games, seemingly, the real capacity would’ve been under 80,000.
The capacity of the Silverdome for football emerged to me as a key issue underpinning Wrestlemania III’s legendary and controversial attendance. In addition to that, AEW All In’s attendance on Sunday is threatening to break the record for the highest verifiable (non-North Korea) attendance in pro wrestling history. Yet there isn’t a consensus about what the record is that they’re chasing. This inspired me to try to verify whether the Silverdome’s capacity was exaggerated and was in fact a lot lower than 80,000.
Based on photos from Wrestlemania III, I estimate there were about 6,120 attendees on the floor. Assuming bowl-level seating (all the fixed seats that would be available for a football game) was close to capacity and that there were about 6,120 attendees seated on the field, for 78,000 to be the correct total attendance means the football capacity of the Silverdome that day must have been about 72,000.
Unfortunately, we can’t go to the Silverdome today and physically count the seats. The venue was demolished in 2017. Since 2021, a robotic Amazon fulfillment center now stands at the site where Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant.
But there are a lot of images, even drone video footage, of the Silverdome after the roof came down but before it was imploded and while most of the seats were still in place. So I took on the tedious task of looking at those images and counting the seats.
To be clear, I didn’t manage to find a countable image for every section in the stadium but I did count every “section shape” in the symmetrical Silverdome and extrapolated. Materials used for this project are provided at the end of this article.
After counting and estimating seats visible from photos of the empty Silverdome, it’s evident the football capacity of the Silverdome at the end of its lifetime was at least close to the stated official capacity of about 80,000. I estimated 77,063 seats across the three bowl levels, not including suites or wheelchair seating. Adding the official 2003 numbers for those (1,246 and 256, respectively), brings my estimated capacity to 78,915. In any case, 77,063 by itself is 5,000 more than the 72,000 that the football capacity would need to be for the 78,000 reported attendance for Wrestlemania III to work out. Looking at available Silverdome ticket stubs, I suspect my estimate left out some rows in the lower levels that in photos are hidden in the shadows.
Edit: I realized a math error in Section 109 that brings my estimate of seats to 77,063 instead of 77,413. The latter number was originally used above.
I’m unaware of information to suggest that the capacity of the Silverdome increased any time after March 29, 1987. To the contrary, it seems capacity slightly decreased over time. Earlier published capacities — including in The New York Times (in 1987), Detroit Free Press (1986), Chicago Tribune (1985), and LA Times (1985) — put the venue’s seating for football at 80,638. Later, the capacity was listed on the Silverdome’s official website in 2003 as 80,325, slightly lower, and close to the end of the dome’s life, capacity was reported to be 80,311.
But even if the Silverdome’s football capacity was upwards of 80,000, was Wrestlemania III really sold out?
There’s at least one compelling reason to believe nearly all tickets to Wrestlemania III that could have been distributed were distributed — whether sold or comped. WWF executive Basil DeVito was quoted three days before the event, discouraging people from going to Wrestlemania III if they didn’t already have tickets. “I’m just afraid we’ll have people showing up Sunday, looking for tickets,” he told the Lansing State Journal on March 26, 1987.
Although DeVito’s later claims that the event sold 90,000 tickets lack independent support, it would be against the WWF’s interests to discourage fans from buying tickets in the days before Wrestlemania III unless the supply of tickets was truly near zero.
Based on my estimate, it seems likely the football capacity of the Silverdome on the day of Wrestlemania III was close to the official capacity at the time, 80,638. That number likely includes suites. In 2003, the Silverdome’s website said suites could hold 1,246 attendees, which is perhaps more than the Silverdome’s suite capacity in 1987, as venues often increase suite capacity over time. In the interest of being charitable to the notion that the attendance was less than 80,000, though, if we assume any suites were completely empty, then the venue capacity not including those on the field was 79,392.
Based on DeVito discouraging walk-up attendees, virtually all tickets were likely distributed, but it’s reasonable to assume the event was not at exactly 100% capacity. We should account for no-shows, for one thing. At least today, configurations for wrestling events are finalized late and a small number of tickets are often released close to show time. Unlike a modern Wrestlemania, though, there weren’t thousands of seats blocked off for the entrance stage — because there wasn’t a stage. Photos indicate production kills were few. So it may be fair to estimate the available football seating that day was filled to about 99% of capacity. Therefore, without any suite attendees, the football seating for Wrestlemania III was probably close to 78,598 (or 99% of 79,392). Adding 6,120 floor seats allows us to conclude the total attendance of Wrestlemania III was somewhere around 84,718 (78,598 + 6,120). And maybe that number is a little low because it assumes there were no attendees in suites.
To clarify, though, I see no reason to believe the attendance was close to 93,173, as announced.
As for the paid attendance, if about 10% of attendees had free tickets — which is around the average rate for today’s WWE, and may or may not be aggressive for 1987 — then about 76,246 (90% of 84,718) tickets were sold for Wrestlemania III. That number isn’t far from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s report that paid attendance was 75,800. But it’s hard to be confident. If the comp rate was about 3%, as implied by the Observer’s total and paid attendance ratio, then if total attendance was really closer to 84,718, then the paid attendance might’ve been more like 82,000.
According to Meltzer, the 78,000 number is attributed to former live events executive for both the WWF and WCW, the late Zane Bresloff, who was the local promoter for Wrestlemania III. Meltzer says Bresloff confirmed the 78,000 number publicly on Mike Tenay’s radio show some years before his passing in 2003.
So why the difference? I don’t at all believe Meltzer is trying to deceive anyone. And it stands to reason that Bresloff would be in as good a position as anyone to know the true attendance of the event. But the 78,000 report seems to rely on the notion the football capacity was closer to 72,000 than 80,000, an assertion that contradicts visual evidence and the notion that the capacity of a major sports venue is apt to be lower (not higher) in 2017 than in 1987.
Was something overlooked by Meltzer or Bresloff when looking at records related to Wrestlemania III? Or maybe I made a mistake in my count of seats in the Silverdome. Fortunately, my study is repeatable, and I encourage others to try to replicate my research and see if they come up with similar or significantly different results.
And when it comes to All In, what’s the bar that the AEW event at Wembley Stadium would have to clear to achieve the highest verifiable total attendance — excluding Collision in Korea — in pro wrestling history? I think the answer is around 85,000, set by Wrestlemania III.
For All In to set a new record for paid attendance, Wrestlemania 32 likely sold around 80,000 tickets in 2016 and certainly in the range of 74,000 to 86,000 tickets sold, based on WWE’s own disclosures. And I can believe paid attendance for Wrestlemania III was anywhere between 75,800 to a little over 82,000.
Download Excel file – I used this to calculate and estimate seating capacity.
Download PowerPoint file – I used this to count seats and make other notes. The slides are also displayed in (probably lower resolution) images below.
Pastebin text file – Excerpts from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, 1987 to 1999, referring to Wrestlemania III attendance
Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.
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