WWE: The only 'live sport' on SA television

WWEs Drew McIntyre (Supplied)
WWEs Drew McIntyre (Supplied)

South Africans love their sport, which has made the last few weeks even tougher to bear as the world navigates its way through the global coronavirus crisis. 

The Premier Soccer League (PSL), Super Rugby and the domestic cricket season all came to a standstill when the national lockdown was first announced towards the end March while, internationally, products like the English Premier League and European football and rugby were also halted. 

The 2020 Formula One season is yet to get out of the starting blocks while golf, tennis, cycling, athletics and pretty much every sport has been suspended. 

South African broadcasters SuperSport have had to find creative ways of providing fresh content to their subscribers, punting sporting documentaries, movies and re-runs as part of their offering. 

There is, simply, no live sport on South African television.

Or, is there? 

As the rest of the sporting world takes a break from competing, the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) industry has soldiered on in quite bizarre fashion. 

Based out of their performance centre - a training complex - in Miami, Florida, WWE have continued to tape their flagship shows - RAW, Smackdown and NXT - and have screened them weekly.

Even as the United States entered its own lockdown period, WWE was somehow signed off as an "essential service" by the city of Miami and allowed to continue filming. 

No fans have been allowed inside the performance centre during taping, though, and it has made for a testing few weeks for a business that normally feeds off the energy of its live audiences. 

Wrestlemania 36, screened over April 4 and 5 this year, was taped and aired in front of zero spectators at the performance centre for the first time in its history. 

By then, sport in South Africa had come to a complete halt, leaving Wrestlemania as the only current, mainstream entertainment doing the rounds on SuperSport's channels that weekend. 

WWE is certainly not everybody's desired viewing, but somehow it has managed to keep ticking along and SuperSport viewers can either watch the shows 'live' - they are aired at ridiculous times in the mornings - or on DSTV Catch Up.

Head of communications at SuperSport, Clinton van der Berg, confirmed to Sport24 on Tuesday that the already healthy appetite for WWE had skyrocketed in South Africa during the lockdown period.

"It's such a unique product that cuts across colour and class and our viewers have really shown a huge interest," he said. 

The move to the performance centre happened just before Wrestlemania, where superstar Drew McIntyre took the WWE Championship off of Brock Lesnar. 

McIntyre, now 34, has endured a long and often difficult road with the WWE and in 2014 was released from the company after a programme with a stable known as the 'Three Man Band' had grown stale. 

He returned to WWE in 2017 improved and, since then, his star has risen to the very top of the industry. 

McIntyre was due to have his 'Wrestlemania moment' in front of over 50 000 people at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa when he defeated Lesnar, but instead, he celebrated the accomplishment of his professional life in an empty training centre. 

"It was a very private moment that everybody got to see. I would normally be jumping up and down, but because it was so quiet, I was in my own world," McIntyre remembers.

"I was running through the history in my head and all the sacrifices my family and my wife had made to help get me to that point."

Now, as champion, McIntyre is tasked with headlining RAW on Monday nights as he builds up to his Money In The Bank pay-per-view championship match against Seth Rollins this weekend. 

It certainly hasn't been the title reign that he envisaged, but McIntyre is taking in the responsibility of putting smiles on faces during these uncertain times. 

"I long for the day when we can all get back together with the fans in the arena," he said.

"The cool thing about it is that the performers, when it comes to their interviews and promos, have really had a chance to tell the story effectively and that's the biggest benefit. WWE, at the heart of it, is all about story-telling and right now we've got a really good opportunity to get those characters established.

"Leading up to it, I was a little concerned about how it was going to go, but as soon as my music hits I just slip into character. Now, I am used to it.

"I'm very proud of what we're doing right now. It's unchartered waters for us as a company. I speak to my buddies back home and they tell me how they're missing football, rugby, cricket or whatever their sport is. They're starved for sporting content and they say they're really glad the WWE is still going.

"We've made some new fans that way and the fact we're keeping people's minds off such difficult times is the number one thing I'm most proud of."

This weekend, meanwhile, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns with UFC 249: Tony Ferguson v Justin Gaethje taking place on the morning of Sunday, 10 May 2020 (SA time).

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