wrestlemania

WrestleMania’s Economic Impact on Its Host Cities Is an Illusion — Just Like Wrestling Itself

Like the Olympics and the Super Bowl, the riches that are promised from hosting pro wrestling’s biggest event are mainly a ploy to get the host city to foot the bill

The biggest event on the pro wrestling calendar each year, WWE’s WrestleMania, is this weekend. If you’re wondering how that’s possible in light of the coronavirus pandemic, that’s because the show, which is being split up into two nights, was pre-recorded in recent days at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. The decision to rip off the Band-Aid and keep storylines moving instead of postponing the event to an uncertain future means that the spectacle that is much of what separates WrestleMania from every other WWE show won’t be present. There will be no NFL-sized stadium, no elaborate ring entrances, no pyrotechnic displays, no gigantic ramp, no decorative canopy over the ring and no roaring crowd of more than 60,000 fans who traveled from all over the world to be there.

It also means that, more specifically, those tens of thousands aren’t descending upon Tampa Bay, the city that successfully bid on this year’s event. It’s not just Raymond James Stadium that will sit quiet either. There will likewise be no shoulder events at Amalie Arena, no WrestleMania Axxess convention at the Tampa Convention Center and no slew of unaffiliated independent shows running in and around the city to piggy-back off of WrestleMania. The blow to the tourist economy in Tampa, which also lost the Final Four to the pandemic, is huge. However, when it comes to the city government itself and its effects on the average taxpayer, the situation gets a lot more complicated.

I’ve spent the last year attempting to get as many WrestleMania-related records as I could by filing public record requests with host cities, specifically with an eye on pitch decks for their bids, contracts and other financials. While none of the cities that responded turned over bidding information specifically, there was still plenty to be found, and it’s a lot more revealing than you might think. Cities aren’t just giving tax breaks and providing the use of publicly owned buildings; they’re often footing the bill for expenses that bear them no direct benefit, not to mention outright paying large sums of money to the WWE.

The best and most wide-ranging information comes from WrestleMania 32, which took place four years ago at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, in Arlington, Texas. The city’s response to the document request included a 181-page disbursement report that, complete with a slew of annotated exhibits, laid out the reasoning behind every single dollar of the more than $3.1 million spent by the city’s Event Trust Fund on WrestleMania. Other cities turned over interesting documents, but nothing quite like this report, complete with the deputy city manager signing a declaration that the document could be sought under the Texas Public Information Act.

In total, Arlington spent $3,151,190 on WrestleMania 32 and its shoulder events. The biggest expense, by far, was a $1.5 million “stadium event fee” paid on February 18, 2016 to “Cowboys Stadium LP.” While AT&T Stadium is owned by the City of Arlington, it’s run by the Cowboys organization, with the various lease documents available on the city’s website listing Cowboys Stadium LP, specifically, as the tenant. This was, like some other large expenses, stipulated by the Local Organizing Committee’s contract with Event Services, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of WWE.

According to the contract, which is included in its entirety as the last 10 pages of the report, the fee was all-inclusive, covering WWE’s load-in, set-up, tear-down and load-out time, starting March 18, 2016 and ending April 7, four days after WrestleMania. Similarly, Arlington was also to pay $400,000 in “Arena Use Charge” to the private Center Operating Company LP, operator of the Dallas-owned American Airlines Center, for WWE’s rental of the building for that week’s WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony and Monday Night Raw events. The only public entity to directly financially benefit from that weekend was Dallas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, which housed the NXT TakeOver: Dallas wrestling card and WrestleMania Axxess fan convention. In that case, Arlington paid its neighbors “a convention center facility use charge” of $100,000 so WWE could have the building for several days. 

Meanwhile, for the 2017 WrestleMania 33 events in Orlando, a contract produced by Orange County, Florida for the Axxess fan convention at the Orange County Convention Center shows the city explicitly leasing the building for WWE, paying $180,360 in public funds, though an invoice places the total about $38,000 lower than that. In the documents produced, only a memo from Tampa — for 2020’s now-cancelled live events — outlines the kind of “free rent for WWE” arrangement you’d expect, for Axxess at the Tampa Convention Center. (You may notice that one portion of the memo mentions the initial proposal being for Axxess 2023, 2024 or 2025. That’s because, judging by an April 30, 2018 letter from then-Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to WWE’s John Saboor, city officials either had no idea that they had a shot at landing WrestleMania any sooner or preferred to host it after completing a project revamping the city’s downtown.)

Arlington’s contract with the WWE also mandated “development and management of an overall regional and citywide brand awareness campaign,” which they farmed out to Cowboys Stadium LP (for $100,000) and the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau (for $102,663.18). The Dallas CVB, also known as VisitDallas, is a non-governmental non-profit that’s received notoriously little city oversight. Their suburban neighbors in Arlington paid them an additional $505,257.22 as well — for a grand total of $607,920.40 — for various other duties, including managing “ancillary events,” wrangling volunteers and “facility operations” for NXT and Axxess.

As for that “brand awareness,” it mostly consisted of vanity advertising for WrestleMania, the type of which serves no function other than reminding tourists that they’re in town for Something Special. In particular, the 100 grand to Cowboys Stadium LP was to cover the giant, decorative signs on the outside of the stadium in WrestleMania logos and WWE talent photos, while the similar amount to Dallas CVB was for WrestleMania-themed “Dallas welcomes…” signs on lampposts. That’s not to say that Arlington never put its foot down on spending: The actual expense of the decorative signs, as paid by the Cowboys organization to ArtWorks Commercial Graphics, Inc., was $143,390.14, but Arlington would only reimburse the 100k it had agreed upon in advance.

The documents sent over by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority for 2013’s WrestleMania 29 at MetLife Stadium aren’t nearly as complete. They consist mainly of their Local Organizing Committee’s expenses and records of that weekend’s events at the NJSEA-owned IZOD Center. There, the LOC spent $319,905.62, right on target for its budget of $420,000, plus or minus $100,000. Almost exactly two-thirds of that spending ($213,176.68) was for a “welcoming, branding and awareness campaign” similar to the one that the Dallas area would employ three years later.

Perhaps most illuminating, though, is that, at least for AT&T Stadium, the city was paying WWE to bestow the honor of WrestleMania upon it. Namely, “in consideration for User’s selection of Arlington, Texas and Dallas, Texas as the sole site for WrestleMania Week and the [Local Organizing Committee]’s right to serve as the local organizing committee for WrestleMania Week,” Arlington paid WWE a $350,000 “sanction fee.” The city also paid WWE $250,000 toward the installation of a temporary riser seating system that extended AT&T Stadium’s lower bowl seats onto the field (which was part of WWE’s total cost of $435,078.40 incurred from SGA Production Services).

The remainder of the costs incurred by the city are pretty mundane: Legal fees and $40,000 to the firm that did an economic impact study of the event. WWE’s own study, released seven months after the event, would claim that WrestleMania “generated $170.4 million in economic impact for the Dallas/Arlington region”; it also purportedly generated “approximately $23.8 million in federal, state and local taxes.” 

But such economic impact studies, which we always hear about around events like WrestleMania and the Super Bowl, have long been questionable. A College of the Holy Cross study cited by CBS News in 2015, for example, estimated the actual impact of that year’s Super Bowl on the Phoenix area would only be $30 million to $130 million, a mere 6 to 26 percent of the $500 million figure thrown out by the local committee who put in the winning bid. If you apply similar math to the economic impact claim for WrestleMania 32, the range becomes more like $10.2 million to $44.3 million.

Victor Matheson, the Holy Cross researcher cited by CBS, who “does about 100 media interviews a year on the topic,” also pointed out to LVSportsBiz.com in February, “[NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell has a vested interest in convincing Las Vegas [and other potential host cities] that the Super Bowl will bring record profits because Goodell is going to personally ask for somewhere between $20 million and $50 million in handouts from the city in exchange for the rights to host the game.” A past Super Bowl “bid book” that’s been leaked, he also noted, contains almost 200 mentions of provisions being provided “at no cost to the NFL.” 

While we don’t have any similar “bid books” for WrestleMania, the fact that the WWE has extracted building rental fees and a “sanction fee” from Arlington, the host city we have best documented, sure makes it seem like it’s working from the same basic playbook.

Other odds and ends don’t shed much light on the financial arrangements between WWE and a given host city, but are amusing nonetheless. Tampa released a “Mayor Bob Buckhorn Briefing Document” that WWE sent to him for the March 7, 2019 press conference officially announcing the 2020 events, the contents of which were reported the following day by the Tampa Bay Times. It included a list of “WWE DO’S AND DON’TS” such as, “Please do NOT use the term ‘professional wrestling,’ instead using WWE or Sports Entertainment to describe our brand.” The memo also featured a callback to one of WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon-Levesque’s planned bullet points: “As Stephanie mentioned, WrestleMania is a week-long series of events that will bring an incredible economic windfall to the region.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was how resistant the city of Orlando, being in the famously transparent state of Florida, repeatedly told me that it would cost four figures to fulfill my requests, even after narrowing them down to a few specific documents. (It’s a particular shame because their key venues are publicly owned and operated.)  Another reporter, though, was able to send over a trio of documents they’d received — the Camping World Stadium contract with WWE, the building settlement and the profitability report, the latter two of which overlap.

Of particular interest: The profitability report shows a $865,507.35 profit margin on $1,895,658.71 of expenses. It also outlines some of the nuts and bolts of the finances of WrestleMania proper that aren’t readily available in WWE financials. While WWE announces “official” attendance for WrestleMania every year, Vince McMahon has repeatedly admitted that the announced numbers don’t reflect the amount of fans in attendance. WWE’s SEC filings allow you to calculate an approximate paid attendance based on how they break down average paid attendance in a given WrestleMania quarter, listing figures that both do and don’t include WrestleMania. 

So despite WrestleMania 33’s attendance being announced as 75,245, the median of the range shown in the public financials was, per “Wrestlenomics” expert Brandon Thurston, 64,900. The official verdict isn’t far off: 62,396 tickets were sold. Including comped tickets, 62,768 fans went through the turnstiles, meaning that, give or take whoever didn’t show up for whatever reason (illness, family emergency, unsold scalper inventory, etc.), it looks like less than 400 comps were circulated. The gross ticket sales for the show, or “gate,” totaled $14,230,959 (an average of $228.07 per paid ticket), while concessions grossed $1,453,376 ($23.15 per head) and “novelties” another $944,868.54 ($15.05 per head).

Again, what this means to the overall WrestleMania coffers is hard to know. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for some restraint. Because a city giving the WWE free use of its publicly owned buildings is one thing. But paying an additional large sum of money out-of-pocket for things that a billion dollar company can certainly afford is another matter entirely.