ESPN Plans to Air Classic ‘WrestleMania’ Events (EXCLUSIVE)

Bristol, CT - March 26, 2019 - DC2: Roman Reigns in front of the historical ESPN sign(Photo by Melissa Rawlins / ESPN Images)
Melissa Rawlins / ESPN Images

Of all the sports ESPN has shown over the years, professional wrestling matches from WWE haven’t really been on the list. That will change this weekend.

For three Sundays, the Disney-owned sports-media giant will air classic WrestleMania events on its flagship cable network and stream them on its mobile app. The initiative commences this Sunday at 7 p.m. eastern, when ESPN airs WrestleMania 30 from April, 2014. The colorful headlocks, figure-four leglocks and sleeper holds mark the latest example of ESPN working to fill its schedule with unorthodox content in the wake of the nation’s coronavirus crisis, which has put a stranglehold on all kinds of communal gatherings, including sports events.

“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 prepared statement. “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.”

Airing the event will also help the WWE, which has unveiled plans to stream a two-night WrestleMania event in early April at multiple locations, with only essential personnel working on closed sets. Football great Rob Gronkowski will host.

“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. “We look forward to celebrating WrestleMania history with ESPN as we head into our two-night pop culture extravaganza on April 4 and 5.”

ESPN’s store of live sports events, including end-of-season NBA matches, has been depleted by the coronavirus pandemic, and its executives have vowed to find ways to keep sports fans entertained without the games. In recent days, ESPN has relied more heavily on its venerable “SportsCenter,” but also on talk shows like “Get Up” and “First Take” and some of its “30 For 30” documentaries. The company has come up with some stunts as well, announcing the return of “The Ocho,” a day of programming devoted to off-kilter sports like cornhole and cherry-spitting. On Friday, ESPN announced it would re-air a critically acclaimed documentary series, “O.J.: Made In America,” a look at the tragic saga of one-time football great O.J. Simpson.

WrestleMania 30, which is scheduled for Sunday, March 22, features an appearance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, as well a a fight between Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker. WrestleMania 32, on March 29, showcases  Roman Reigns against Triple H for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks in a match for first WWE Women’s Championship. WrestleMania 35, slated for April 7, features Rhonda Rousey, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks in the first main event focused on women’s wrestling.

ESPN has dispatched “SportsCenter” personnel to WrestleMania events over the years and famous WWE figures have appeared in the network’s long-running “This Is SportsCenter” promotional campaign, but wrestling from WWE has never been an ESPN main event (the network has aired professional wrestling from other organizations as well as bouts of kickboxing).  Under Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, the company has started to show more interest in so-called “combat sports,” including boxing and UFC matches.

But seeing WWE content on ESPN is an eyebrow-raising concept in the sports world. WWE’s main deals are with NBCUniversal and Fox Sports, which air wrestling perennials like “Smackdown.” and “WWE Raw.” The bulk of archival WWE content would typically appears via pay-per-view or the company’s streaming WWE Network. WWE has aired one-hour specials on national TV , but not a series of its big annual event in this fashion