World Wrestling Entertainment is a sport that relies on fan engagement and interaction more than any other. A big reason for that is the fact that it is staged. Yes, there is a substantial degree of physicality that goes into it, along with choreography and excellent timing. Yet, in the end, we know it is not real, and that is why the fans are so important. I have paid attention to most sporting events as they have tried to make a comeback from the closures in March. While they clearly suffer from a lack of fans, most of the events are still exciting and interesting, even without the cheers from the stands. When Lucas Giolito threw a no-hitter a few weeks back, it was exciting and real! You could cheer in your living room for him. This is different from wrestling; the WWE athletes need fan interaction and cheering to make the show. They need to be “distracted” by the fans at times to make the story work. WWE tried for a few months to put on shows without fans, and the rating plummeted. There were complaints about how boring it was.
What fans did not know is that all the while, behind the scenes was a growing audiovisual masterpiece, the ThunderDome: a special arena built by the WWE to host its events and bring in fans virtually. Since being introduced at WWE’s main summer event, “SummerSlam,” the reviews have been amazing, and the viewership numbers are starting to climb again. The ThunderDome is an arena that is covered on two sides by large LCD walls. Fans sign up to be a live part of this event, and they show up on the walls. So, now, the wrestlers can look at the fans, get them excited and feed off that energy. The producers of the show can choose when and who to unmute during the show — plus, they are actually producing the show with the audience. The producers speak to the audience directly, encouraging reactions such as booing, cheering or clapping. They decide when to pump that audio into the live feed. In fact, the producers can even pick certain audience members to participate in the show by being the distraction that is needed.
This leads to a question: What can we learn from this in the AV industry? I think mainly about the events companies and how drastic their business has fallen since this all began in the spring. Event companies have lost an enormous amount of their business as various events have been canceled. Looking forward, it is easy to see that this type of environment will continue at least through to the summer of 2021. So, what can companies do now?
I think we need to start being creative like the WWE has been — we need to be able to provide it at scale. Whether your business supports smaller events like weddings and small concerts or your company puts on huge concerts and corporate events, you need to think about ways to provide a service through the next several months. This is where a creative department in your firm will be helpful. We know we can not get over 50 people together in one space. Take a wedding as an example and think it through. Think about the event and what is important.
Let’s use a wedding as an example. We see commercials on TV with iPads on chairs during an outside wedding, showing people who could not be there in person. Is that really that far-fetched? Couldn’t a staging company buy 50-100 iPads and the appropriate WiFi devices to set up a wedding like that? Said company could also put cameras in churches or outside venues that would allow it to produce a wedding like a movie. You would need to decide on a platform to serve this production as well. You may want to show the bride walking down the aisle, with a picture-in-picture of the groom waiting at the end. Your standard Zoom meeting may not be able to accomplish that. You could have a station where the bride and groom have a digital receiving line, where you are moving the guests in and out of waiting or breakout rooms. You certainly could put on a show for the dances and announcement of the wedding party.
Indeed, for these things to be successful, you and your clients have to accept one simple fact: This will not be like normal. In some ways, you have to design for it to be the opposite. Design it and sell it for what it is — an experience for a very different time. Sell customers and clients an experience that may not be what they imagined a year ago, but will be memorable. Accept that some people will decide not to do it. In the case of weddings, perhaps some people just want to wait a year or two until they can have a wedding that fits the dream they have always had. But others may be interested in a completely different experience. By providing that experience, you not only keep yourself in business but perhaps learn, grow and create the future of these events.