The purple banners downtown bear the glaring images of over-the-top characters: wrestlers like Roman Reigns, Asuka and Nia Jax.
In the world of professional wrestling, they are some of the superstars. And this Sunday, they will be in New Orleans to compete in Wrestlemania 34, a five-hour extravaganza in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that will be broadcast to millions over the WWE television network.
But Wrestlemania, as many local businesses learned when the event came to New Orleans in 2014, is more than just a wrestling match. It’s the centerpiece of a week’s worth of events that draw thousands of visitors to the city’s hotels, restaurants and other attractions.
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Hotel occupancy over the weekend is expected to get close to 95 percent, just shy of the 96.5 percent occupancy seen during the Super Bowl in 2013 and comparable with a typical Mardi Gras. Last year, when Wrestlemania 33 hit Orlando, Florida, fans spent $24 million on lodging alone, and New Orleans expects to see similar numbers.
With events take place at the Superdome, the Smoothie King Center, and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the Warehouse District is preparing for big event crowds.
Dave & Buster’s at the corner of Loyola and Poydras is planning for the weekend based on the business it does during sporting events. Special Events Assistant Kelly Richard said, “If it’s close to our area, we get some pretty decent traffic.”
Walk-Ons General Manager Marshall Hahn said he started seeing visitors from out of town as early as Wednesday, and he has staffed up for this week and next as if it were one extended weekend.
“We know our fans are coming early and staying late, and consuming everything the host city has to offer,” said John Saboor, the WWE Executive Vice President of Special Events.
When Wrestlemania Week came to New Orleans four years ago, it had a $164 million economic impact, with out of town guests staying for three to four days.
The addition this year of “NXT Takeover: New Orleans” — another wrestling event featuring the WWE’s future stars — and “Smackdown Live” on Tuesday, fans are likely to stay longer. In all, Wrestlemania fans last year spent $181 million and averaged five-night visits in Orlando.
All of which might come as a surprise to those who don’t follow the WWE. It’s a phenomenon that has spawned major mainstream stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dave Bautista, but it takes place without the local fan bases or public events of professional sports, so it often flies under the radar.
Still, more than 3 million people watch “Monday Night Raw” each week, and the show is the longest-running weekly show on a cable network, having debuted in 2000. Because it’s live each week, only “60 Minutes,” which debuted in 1968, has generated more episodes.
Jay Cicero, CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, said he encountered some resistance when he started trying to rally support to bring Wrestlemania to New Orleans the first time.
“At first, people asked, ‘Wrestlemania—what is it? That crowd’s going to be really rough,’” Cicero recalled. “But that’s not really what it is.”
In reality, the WWE aims Wrestlemania Week and its programming mainly at families and kids. The matches involve violence, but PG-level violence. The action is not as cartoonish as it was during the era of Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Hillbilly Jim, the latter of which will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame Friday night, but it’s not as intense as it got during the late ‘90s when The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin were its biggest stars. Blood was banned in 2010.
Pro wrestling plays a tricky game.
Since the company’s inception as the WWF in 1952, its focus has been storytelling. Professional wrestling has always been the staged conflict between the good characters and the bad ones, with each match part of a longer story arc that plays out in soap opera-like fashion over the space of weeks or months.
WWE CEO Vince McMahon’s innovation was to try to reach a national audience like his competitors did in the 1970s. He achieved that first through syndicated television programs, then in 1985 he teamed with NBC to present “Saturday Night’s Main Event” in the Saturday Night Live time slot.
That aired occasionally until 1991, but it pointed the way forward for WWE, first into deals with cable networks and finally, in the 2014 launch of the WWE Network, which came just in time for Wrestlemania 30 in New Orleans. The network had 1.47 million subscribers at the end of 2017, and this weekend’s events will all be broadcast there. “Monday Night Raw” and “Smackdown Live” will also appear on the USA Network and stream on Hulu.
Because WWE matches are stories, the company focuses on what it calls its “Superstars”— the people in those stories and the faces dotting the signs hanging in the Warehouse District and CBD. They are also part of the WWE’s community outreach program that connects non-profit organizations with the Wrestlemania host community.
One such activity kicked off the week at the National World War II Museum when Hall of Fame inductee Mark Henry was on hand at a job fair for veterans organized in part by Hire Heroes USA, an online portal that helps veterans join the workforce.
“They’re big idols to many people,” Cicero said. “And for the most part, they’re big people.”
For Christopher Plamp, CEO for Hire Heroes USA, the exposure the WWE gives them is invaluable. “They’ll talk about this to an audience and fan base that we couldn’t reach otherwise,” he said. “We bring in about 12,000 clients a year online and work with them. About 10 percent of our people come in through workshops or events like this. After we do one of these events, registration and demand for our services go up.”
The Hire Heroes USA event helps make local employers conscious of veterans as prospective employees, while other events address literacy, bullying, and breast cancer awareness among issues. “They do a great job of being a part of the community, wherever they go,” Cicero said. “It’s really nice to have them involved in the community efforts.”