LOS ANGELES -- Just weeks before they host WrestleMania 34 next month at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, the WWE announced it would be holding WrestleMania 35 next year at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Next year's event will mark the 13th consecutive WrestleMania held at a football stadium that holds at least 70,000 fans -- and all but one of those venues has also hosted the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl of professional wrestling is now regularly held where the actual Super Bowl is, and packs the building every time, but that wasn't always the case.
In 1991, WrestleMania VII was scheduled to take place at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which was going to be configured to hold 106,000 fans for the event. At the time, the WWE held regularly sold-out shows at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which sat about 16,000 for wrestling and spoke to the strength of the fan base in the area.
"There was a streak of about two years where they would sell out the Sports Arena basically every month regardless of what the card was," said Coliseum general manager Joe Furin, who was the event manager at the Coliseum and Sports Arena during that time. "We were enjoying a very healthy string of sellout shows with Hulk Hogan, 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, The Ultimate Warrior and 'Macho Man' Randy Savage."
After WrestleMania V, Furin decided to put together a bid for Los Angeles to host WrestleMania. While the Sports Arena was one of three venues used to host WrestleMania 2, his vision for bringing WWE's biggest show back was much grander. He wanted to host WrestleMania at the Coliseum.
While multiple cities now regularly bid to host WrestleMania like they bid for the Super Bowl, that wasn't the case in 1989; the WWE was coming off WrestleMania IV and V, which both took place at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.
Furin wanted to show the WWE that the Coliseum was serious about the bid, so he put together a six-minute video highlighting the history of the Coliseum, which had been the home of nearly every major sports event -- two Summer Olympics, two Super Bowls and a World Series -- but not a WrestleMania.
"We wanted to let them know we wanted to host WrestleMania, but we wanted to get creative. We wanted to do something more than just call them up, we wanted to show them how much we wanted it," Furin said. "So I put together this video and set it all up where we talked to fans at the show and put a ring in the middle of the Coliseum with an overhead shot of what it would look like. It was a lot of fun."
Furin recently found the video of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum's bid to host WrestleMania, which was previously only seen by the WWE officials being pitched on the idea nearly 30 years ago.
While the bid, which was made in 1989, states it's for WrestleMania VI, that event had already been given to the recently opened SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) in Toronto. But WWE owner Vince McMahon knew he wanted to hold WrestleMania VII at the Coliseum after watching the video and touring the stadium a few months later.
"As the story goes, it was a done deal after he watched the video," Furin said. "He came out to the stadium and fell in love. He could picture WrestleMania taking over the Coliseum."
The first commercial for WrestleMania VII at the Coliseum aired a full year out from the event, during WrestleMania VI -- something unheard of at the time. McMahon, narrating the ad, says, "Join the over 100,000 screaming fans for what will be the biggest WrestleMania extravaganza ever." The ad already had a phone number for fans to call and purchase tickets that night, and WWF Magazine ran full-page ads that indicated fans could either call or mail in their ticket orders.
"The wrestling community in Los Angeles was so rabid that when we would open the doors for an event, the first thing they would do is run to advanced-ticket window and we'd sell about 6,000 tickets for the next show before the night was over," Furin said. "The card hadn't been announced and they basically found out the date when they got their ticket, but they knew they had to be there. That was the thinking of putting it out a year in advance. The same thing was going to happen but on a much larger scale."
WrestleMania VII simply did not work out that way. For a variety of reasons, ticket sales for WrestleMania VII never went beyond the normal interest for a regular house show at the Sports Arena. The country was in the midst of the Gulf War, which stretched from Aug. 2, 1990, to Feb. 28, 1991, and tensions were high. Security concerns were serious enough that some questioned if Super Bowl XXV should even be played on Jan. 27, 1991.
It was played, of course, but only after a multimillion dollar security screening system was implemented in and around Tampa Stadium on a scale that would not be seen again at a sporting event until after 9/11.
The WWE also turned off many fans with what was perceived to be a shameless exploitation of the war. They took Sgt. Slaughter, an "All-American" soldier character who was featured as a hero as part of the "G.I. Joe" cartoon series, and made him an Iraqi sympathizer. They then pitted him against Hulk Hogan, the "Real American" hero. The tagline for WrestleMania VII was "Super-Stars and Stripes Forever!"
The WWE knew it had a problem on its hands when box office figures had them around 14,000 tickets sold less than two months before WrestleMania VII was supposed to take place at the 106,000-seat Coliseum on March 24, 1991. While security and the cost of securing the Coliseum during this time was becoming a bigger issue than the organizers had originally thought, it wound up being a problem especially not worth dealing with if they were looking at a stadium that would be less than a quarter full.
As bad as ticket sales were, the WWE was technically better off than if it had sold some middling amount above 17,000 tickets. That allowed it to stop ticket sales in early February and go to a Plan B -- one that did not even cross the organizers' minds a year prior when the Coliseum was booked.
"There was a short window before the event, and we really didn't know what kind of run-up we would get at that point, so they asked about moving the event next door to the Sports Arena and they wanted to see if we had anything booked that weekend," Furin said. "We checked and we did not, and so that was an open window for them. It was not our decision to move the event. We just worked with them and made it work for them when they decided to make the move."
Ticket sales for WrestleMania VII stopped the week of Feb. 5 after the final ad for the event at the Coliseum aired on Wrestling Challenge. Even that ad was different from previous versions, as McMahon went from saying, "WrestleMania is coming to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Join the more than 100,000 screaming fans ..." to "WrestleMania is coming to Los Angeles, California. Join the legions of enthusiastic fans..." By Feb. 17, the WWE was billing WrestleMania VII as a sellout on TV and billboards. WrestleMania VII would ultimately attract 16,158 to the Sports Arena, but the primary focus leading up to the event was to make sure to accommodate everyone who had originally bought a ticket for the event at the Coliseum.
"Ticket sales were already slow, but then the Gulf War happened, and I think people were just more cautious about going to outdoor venues, so they decided to move it indoors, which we did," said Sherry Caldwell, the director of the box office at the Coliseum and Sports Arena. "I tried to relocate most of the people that had bought tickets on the field myself because you're going into a smaller venue with not as many ringside seats, so I wanted to make sure it was fair. I wanted to make sure they got as good a seat at the Sports Arena as they were going to have at the Coliseum."
Furin and Caldwell took the seating chart for WrestleMania at the Coliseum, overlaid a wrestling seating chart at the Sports Arena, and tried to reassign seats as fairly as possible. Fans who had paid $10-$50 were getting an upgrade no matter what, as their seats would be much closer to the ring than they would be at the Coliseum, but the big issue was making sure everyone who had paid $150 for "Golden Ringside" tickets was happy. There was a ticket exchange program put in place through which fans could either exchange their tickets in person at the Sports Arena box office or through mail.
"I just sat in the back office and relocated all the tickets," Caldwell said. "I looked to see what they had at the Coliseum and I tried to give them the best seat I possibly could at the Sports Arena. Those people who had tickets in the first few rows around the ring at the Coliseum, I had to make sure they were in the first few rows around the ring at the Sports Arena. It was important to take care of those people, and I did the best I could. I think everyone went home happy. It wasn't easy, but it all worked out."
The timing of WrestleMania VII fell into a fortuitous window. The Sports Arena was the home of the Los Angeles Clippers at the time and they had a home game that Friday against Charlotte before traveling to Oakland to play Golden State on Saturday. They would not be back at the Sports Arena until Monday night for a game against Phoenix, so the WWE was able to take over the Sports Arena for the whole weekend for WrestleMania VII.
When the day finally arrived, moving indoors proved fortuitous in another way, as it ended up being an overcast day in Los Angeles with temperatures around 55 degrees. It did not rain during WrestleMania, but rain did start to fall Sunday night through Monday morning as the WWE packed up and left Los Angeles.
Furin smiles as he looks back to what was one of the first bids from a city and a venue to host WrestleMania. The event is now a weeklong extravaganza, attracting visitors from around the world, stretching from the WWE Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Friday to NXT TakeOver on Saturday to WrestleMania on Sunday to Raw on Monday and SmackDown on Tuesday. Last year ,Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer announced that WrestleMania 33 generated $181.5 million in economic impact for the Orlando region, according to a study conducted by the Enigma Research Corporation. It was the sixth consecutive year that WrestleMania generated more than $100 million in economic impact for its host region.
WrestleMania has changed a great deal over the past 30 years, and Furin thinks it's time for the WWE to finally come back and host the event in the stadium McMahon dreamed of hosting a WrestleMania 30 years ago.
"I think it would be great to see WrestleMania 36 or 37 at the Coliseum," Furin said. "That's definitely a call we're going to make. I think I have to update the bid video, but the reasons remain the same. We've hosted every big event except for one, and it would be great to finally come full circle and check that box and host WrestleMania."
While the $2 billion Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, which is slated to open August 2020 as the new home of the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers, will be in line to host WrestleMania one day, 2020 or 2021 may be the perfect time for the WWE to finally come back to the Coliseum. The stadium is currently undergoing a $270 million renovation that will be completed by 2019. The renovation will include replacing every seat in the stadium, installing new field and stadium lighting and building a new structure on the south side that will include suites, loge boxes, club seats, a new concourse and a press box.
The Coliseum, which will seat about 77,500 after renovations, will be the first stadium to have hosted the Olympics three times, with Los Angeles set to host the 2028 Summer Olympics. The Sports Arena was demolished two years ago and replaced by the $350 million, 22,000-seat Banc of California Stadium, which is the home of MLS expansion team LAFC.
Should the stars ultimately align, the L.A. Coliseum will be ready.
"WrestleMania has certainly grown, and the Coliseum has also grown with the city of Los Angeles," Furin said. "If you have a big event, you want to go somewhere that has hosted big events. There's sometimes a risk in taking it into a new facility that is still working the bugs out, but you'd like to have it somewhere with a history and a track record of hosting big events, and there's no stadium in the world with that kind of history and track record of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum."