When the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic shut down the country, the worlds of sports and entertainment were hit hard. Movies and TV shows shut down production, while sports leagues canceled or postponed seasons. Professional wrestling falls into both categories, and has been fighting an uphill battle to remain on the air.
Two of the top promotions in the world have kept going by doing something risky. WWE and AEW both started holding weekly shows with no crowds, and the two experiences couldn’t be more different for viewers. While WWE had success with both WrestleMania and the Money in the Bank pay-per-view events, the reviews and social media response to Monday Night Raw and Friday Night SmackDown have been disappointing.
Meanwhile, most reviews of AEW Dynamite have remained positive, with many critics pointing out that AEW found a way to keep the empty arena shows entertaining.
Shawn Spears used to work for WWE as Tye Dillinger, but he is now a rising star in AEW. In an exclusive interview with CBR, Spears said he feels having wrestlers around the ring during the matches as the “crowd” is what helps AEW stand out from WWE during these empty arena shows.
“I love being out there. as an audience member,” Spears said. “It gives the audience a little bit of something different. Like, why are these wrestlers sitting in the audience? And why are they heckling at this guy and that guy? I think it just brings a different little, you know, addition to the overall show.”
When AEW made the call to tape shows with no audience, the company tried to figure out how to go about making it entertaining and different. According to Spears, all the credit for the wrestlers in the crowd goes to Tony Khan, the President of All Elite Wrestling.
“That was a Tony Kahn idea,” Spears said. “The night before I went out there in the audience for the very first time, he called the night before we talked about it. He went out there and said go have some fun. It’s been a staple in our shows ever since.”
With people still cheering and booing the wrestlers in the ring, as opposed to a WWE empty arena show which is almost dead silence outside of the wrestlers talking smack, the two companies’ product feels significantly different. But, Spears emphasized, it isn’t just about giving the matches a different presentation — it’s also about the wrestlers in the audience using the time to further their characters.
Dr. Britt Baker has utilized her shoes as a weapon when wrestlers get too close to her. Having smaller, lesser-known wrestlers in the audience has allowed Lance Archer to destroy one of two of them on his way to the ring. It presented the chance for SUGE, aka Pineapple Pete, to make an impression on fans who had no idea who he was.
Billy Gunn and his sone Austin have become a staple of AEW Dynamite thanks to the empty arena shows, and Brodie Lee, formerly WWE’s Luke Harper, was able to set up his match with Marco Stunt thanks to the Jurassic Express member standing among the wrestlers at ringside.
As for Spears, he said gambling with MJF about who would win matches did a lot to get him more screentime and helped him further develop his heel character. He also said that when the camera scans over to him, Baker, or Joey Janella, there is a reason for that and they are getting screentime they never would have received in a regular arena setting.
“I am well aware of that. I’m sure Britt is and I know MJ knows,” Spears said. “So, you know, those are opportunities in themselves for young talents.”
AEW Dynamite airs every Wednesday night on TNT at 8/7c.
A former WWE superstar points out why AEW Dynamite has remained entertaining during empty arena shows and who was responsible.