While it may have seemed strange just a few years ago to see any sort of WWE coverage let alone WrestleMania on ESPN, 2020 has led to a lot of things one likely never thought they’d experience in their lifetimes. The new decade has caused everyone to flip the script, literally in the case of television networks such as ESPN, whose programming relies on a cornucopia of live events, none of which are currently running. It was evident within the first few days after Wednesday, March 11th, the day that the world lost sports one by one, that the sports media giant was going to have a hard time filling their programming schedule for not one, not two but eight networks and their ESPN+ digital platform.
ESPN had to get creative. In the first few days following sports armageddon, ESPN aired the entire UFC 246 fight card no less than four times. That had been a high-level PPV event and just two months or so after it first aired, ESPN was giving it away for free. A second UFC card, Fight Night 170, airing live from Brazil, was also moved from being an ESPN+ subscriber-only event to free programming on TV. The network was scrambling, desperately waiting for NFL free agency to begin so that there would be something to talk about in the sports world again. But talk about free agency didn’t fill the void that ESPN was facing without XFL, international soccer leagues and friendlies, weekly NBA games, the Masters, ATP tour action and the soon-to-be start of Sunday Night Baseball.
As great as ESPN’s specials are, running marathons of 30 for 30, Basketball: A Love Story, OJ: Made in America and more, can’t fill almost 24 hours of daily content for eight different networks. So ESPN dove deeper into waters they had previously only dipped a toe in. Looking ahead to a March without live sports and holding a commitment to fans to keep them entertained, Disney, ESPN’s parent company, and WWE announced on Friday that the two companies had agreed on a deal that would see ESPN, starting this Sunday, air three WrestleMania events over the next three weeks.
“This unique opportunity is a byproduct of the terrific working relationship we’ve enjoyed with WWE over the years and the unprecedented circumstances we all find ourselves in,” said Burke Magnus, executive vice president, programming, ESPN, in a statement shared with Variety TV. “WrestleMania is one of the most popular global events in sports and entertainment and the spectacular content it provides will be a treat for fans.”
While not quite live sports, ESPN airing WrestleMania is an opportunity that will no doubt benefit both them and WWE. On one hand, this gives ESPN content that is sure to be fresh to some of its viewers. On the other, it gives WWE a huge presence in front of an audience who may give wrestling a try given they don’t have much else to watch these days. These three weeks of ‘Mania airings will all lead up to the spectacle that is WrestleMania 36, which this year will be held in an unprecedented way. While other sports leagues opted for cancellation, WWE instead is going the no-fans approach. For the first time, WrestleMania will be held at the Performance Center with only essential personnel and will air live on the WWE Network as part of a two-day event. It will be hosted by Rob Gronkowski.
“It is a privilege for us to deliver historic WrestleMania content to our world-class partners at ESPN and provide more premium programming to our fans; putting smiles on their faces particularly during this trying time,” said Stephanie McMahon, the WWE’s chief brand officer, in a statement shared with Variety TV. “We look forward to celebrating WrestleMania history with ESPN as we head into our two-night pop-culture extravaganza on April 4 and 5.”
Variety reports that the three WrestleMania airings will be for 30, 32 and 35.
WrestleMania 30, officially titled WrestleMania XXX, which aired in 2014 and was critically acclaimed among wrestling journalists, is known in large part for two huge moments: Brock Lesnar ending the Undertaker‘s 21-match winning streak at the Show of Shows, and Daniel Bryan finally ascending to the top of the wrestling world by defeating first Triple H then Batista and Randy Orton in the same night, to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. WrestleMania 32, from 2016, had incredible commercial success and set attendance records. It also featured NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, Shane McMahon’s in-ring return for the first time since 2009 and appearances by such mainstream stars as the Rock and John Cena.
Finally, WrestleMania 35, last year’s spectacular, saw a 16-match card (four matches took place on the pre-show), which included Kurt Angle‘s final match and Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey in a historic winner-take-all main event.
Historically, ESPN’s relationship with wrestling is not as absent as one might think. In its early days as a network, ESPN used to air AWA Championship Wrestling as well as World Class Championship Wrestling/United States Wrestling Association up until 1991. Vince McMahon‘s public announcement that wrestling was a staged sport more focused on entertainment value did not exactly earn him many fans at the network. That said, ESPN continued to run wrestling, this time Global Wrestling Federation, for three additional years as well as had WWE wrestlers occasionally take part in “This Is Sportscenter” ads.
Not doing much with wrestling in the mid-90s onward, ESPN hosted Brock Lesnar for an interview in March 2015 as well as Roman Reigns and Paul Heyman in-studio to promote their WrestleMania 31 main event. This led to WWE and ESPN, which had hired former WWE personality Jonathan Coachman years prior, starting to develop a partnership that included WWE coverage as part of Sportscenter in the “Off the Top Rope” segment as well as a subsection of ESPN.com devoted to professional wrestling. The segment didn’t last when Coachman returned to WWE, leaving ESPN in 2017. That primarily put the partnership on hold though ESPN.com continued to cover WWE stories through wrestler interviews. In 2019, Becky Lynch, who appeared on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s Blockbuster issue was also featured in three new “This is Sportscenter” ads.
While this partnership only covers three weeks of television, with there seeming to be no end in sight to the sports shutdown, it would not be surprising to see ESPN air more WWE content in the coming weeks and months, especially if the WrestleMania reruns do solid ratings. It also won’t be all that surprising to see the network cover WWE and possibly even AEW as pro wrestling right now is just about the only thing that hasn’t entirely shut down in light of the coronavirus’ global impact.
Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. You can catch WrestleMania 30 in its entirety, this Sunday at 7 PM ET on ESPN.