The COVID-19 outbreak forced World Wrestling Entertainment to rethink its plans, as it did for the NBA, the NHL, MLB, and on and on. But against all advice, the WWE is steaming ahead this weekend with WrestleMania 36, which could be the last major mainstream sporting event for the foreseeable future.
“The Beast” Brock Lesnar will defend his WWE championship against the Scottish “Chosen One” Drew McIntyre; John Cena will go toe-to-toe with the Fiend; and the SmackDown women’s championship is on the line in a no-holds-barred five-way elimination match.
It promises to be the strangest WrestleMania yet. Originally set to take place live from the 65,000-capacity Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, WrestleMania 36 will now be hosted over two evenings — “Too Big for Just One Night!” is the new, official slogan. The event has been prerecorded with superstars performing to an audience of none at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, a training facility for rookie wrestlers. (Since March 13, all matches have been fought on a closed set, with WWE’s two biggest weekly shows, RAW and SmackDown, being aired live or, more recently, as prerecords.)
The obvious question: why is WrestleMania still going ahead? The answer: Money, mostly. WrestleMania is WWE’s biggest earner, with the 2019 edition of its body-slam marathon earning the company a cool $16.9 million, making it the second-highest grossing event in WWE history. (WrestleMania 36 will stream “live” on the WWE Network and be available for pay-per-view purchase.) But WWE isn’t the only party with cash riding on WrestleMania. For those who gamble on professional wrestling, there’s money to be made.
Tim Jarrell is one of those people. A lifelong wrestling fanatic, he remembers watching his first WWE wrestling match almost to the day. It was 1998, he was nine years old, and during an episode of Monday Night RAW, he looked on in awe as tag-team duo the Hardy Boyz moonsaulted themselves from great heights. “Ever since then, I've watched wrestling religiously,” he says. “I saw them jumping off the top rope, and I was hooked.”
After 22 years, Jarrell’s childhood obsession with masked babyfaces and greased-up heels has become a career. Now, from his home in central California, he earns a living fansplaining wrestling rumors to over 166,000 subscribers through his YouTube channel Pro Wrestling Unlimited. Between talk of feuding superstars, he helps viewers strike it big in the world of WWE gambling, sharing up-to-date betting odds and insider tips each week.
Betting money on scripted sports is, by definition, a ridiculous concept, where any element of luck or good fortune is thrown out the window (or through a table). A professional wrestler’s winning streak doesn’t come down to athletic ability. Who wins or loses is determined by a team of writers, sometimes months in advance.
“In soccer, a red card, a misplaced pass, hell, even a sudden gust of wind can impact the game,” says Graeme McGaw. Born in Scotland but now living in Kingston, Ontario, McGaw is the founder of Bet WWE, a popular WWE gambling site and podcast. “That’s the same with all sports, except wrestling.” Like Jarrell, McGaw is a wrestling diehard; he’s gone so far as to dedicate a piece of his once tattoo-less flesh to his favorite superstar, the Ultimate Warrior. Now, he spends his time attempting to beat the bookies.
Professional wrestling falls into what some sportsbooks call special or novelty markets. Specials cover non-sporting events or gossip, from who will be the next James Bond to whether Kim, Kanye, and Taylor will appear on Dr. Phil to quell their very public beef. In Britain, where gambling laws are more relaxed, wrestling odds have been available for nearly a decade. As the online gambling industry has grown, U.S. sportsbooks are finding value in scripted sports, too.
“There has been growth outside of the U.K. [for WWE betting], particularly in North America and Africa,” says Rhys Wynne from Manchester, England. Wynne is owner and lead writer at the U.K.-based Wrestling Betting, the self-proclaimed “number 1 source for WWE Betting tips.” Wynne has seen recent growth in the market and has noticed sportsbooks increasingly being advertised on wrestling podcasts.
In the U.S., laws in the 17 jurisdictions where sports betting is allowed forbid markets on events with predetermined outcomes. The rules differ for online sportsbooks, though, as many go through offshore companies. Two of the biggest sportsbooks used by American gamblers, Bovada and 5Dimes, both are based in Costa Rica. Bovada is legal for all U.S. players except those in Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, or New York, while 5Dimes is legal for all Americans irrespective of their location.
Many wrestling sportsbooks are based in the U.K. where gambling laws are more relaxed, with big players such as Sky Bet, sold for £3.4 billion ($4.2 billion) in 2018, and William Hill in on the action. “We try to treat wrestling like a ‘real’ sport, but with a big pinch of salt,” says Lee Price, head of press relations at U.K. sportsbook Paddy Power. "In most sports, you can make an informed decision and the pricing will be commercially informed. But with WWE it’s a stab in the dark." These bets are far from Paddy Power’s biggest earners.
“These bets are for fun. And if people win a few hundred dollars, that’s great.”
“We usually lose money on wrestling," Price says, explaining that it’s a service to the fans. After realizing many of their Twitter followers were pro wrestling fiends, Paddy Power began live-tweeting matches. This quickly earned them a dedicated following and with it, new customers.
Paddy Power offers bets on all pay per view wrestling events, but its big four are WrestleMania, Royal Rumble, SummerSlam, and Survivor Series. Who wins or loses a main event are common wagers, but customers can also bet on celebrity appearances. Currently, you can wager on whether boxer Tyson Fury will permanently join the WWE after he retires. In 2017, gamblers could bet on the hypothetical scenario of Barack Obama appearing at the 30-man brawl that is the Royal Rumble; he was +100000 favorite to win, meaning a $1 bet would earn you $1,000 if he pulled it off. Sadly, the former president did not participate.
Given the unpredictability of the wrestling betting market, most sportsbooks offer a maximum bet of $50, a relatively low-risk, low-reward stake. "These bets are for fun; it’s for entertainment,” Price says. “And if people win a few hundred dollars, that’s great. That’s what it’s there for."
In more typical sports — those decided on points and not painful finishing moves — who you place your money on is decided by what happens on the field or court. But in the rehearsed world of professional wrestling, many of the deciding factors are determined outside of the ring, not in it.
“You bet on what WWE think is best for business,” says McGaw, who looks out for a number of factors before placing wagers. "If someone’s wrestling in their hometown you bet against them because they always lose," he says. “[WWE] think having someone lose in their hometown means money the next time."
Brand power is another factor, says McGaw. At 2019’s Clash of Champions, superstar Sasha Banks was the favorite to defeat Becky Lynch for the RAW women’s championship. However, McGaw felt the title would remain with Lynch, who was due to be the first professional wrestler to appear on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. McGaw’s hunch was right.
But can you make money from this? McGaw has proven you can. His predictions — all 352 of them at the time of this writing — are posted on his website. If you followed those over the 10 years since Bet WWE began, placing $50 wagers on each one, you’d be $9,602.59 richer. (He was correct on 196 occasions, wrong on the other 156.) It may not be life-changing money, but a win is a win.
Jarrell has helped friends win $20 here and there, but he admits, “I’ve never bet on wrestling myself.” So if not for money, why do it? Mostly, these part-time gamblers and bedroom statisticians are trying to demystify the guarded world of how WWE storylines reach the ring.
“There’s no democracy involved in WWE’s creative process. It is a dictatorship.”
All storylines stem from WWE creative, a broad team of former soap opera writers, comedians, and reality TV staffers. Los Angeles comedian Matt McCarthy, whose acting credits include The Angry Birds Movie and Will Ferrell’s The Other Guys, worked two stints with the WWE creative team, one as a writer from 2011 to 2012 and another, as a consultant, from 2016 to 2018.
Each week, McCarthy would pitch a complete show, either RAW or Friday Night SmackDown, to the lead writers, who then presented the best ideas to WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon. “There are a lot of people who give Vince input and ideas,” says McCarthy. “But he is the ultimate decision maker.”
McMahon’s chokehold on the company has lasted for almost four decades, making his net worth an estimated $1.8 billion. For a time, Eric Bischoff was McMahon’s right hand man, or at least one of them. Bischoff was RAW's general manager from 2002 to 2005 and returned in 2019 as SmackDown’s executive director, albeit for just four months. Like many former WWE employees, Bischoff’s relationship with the boss is complicated.
Bischoff is currently under a nondisclosure agreement from the WWE, but he explains that storylines can come from anywhere. “Once a script comes forward, it doesn't matter who wrote it, whether Vince McMahon conceived an idea or a caterer says, ‘Hey, I have a good idea,’” he explains over Skype from his Wyoming home.
Does that democratize the creative process? “There's no democracy involved in the creative process,” he says. “It is a dictatorship.” And that’s McMahon at the top? “Yes,” he replies.
Despite McMahon’s overwhelming control, leaks are a problem. They often come down to human error, though the WWE does its best to protect against that. “It was my job to pick up every script after a production meeting and rip it up so that someone who works at the arena couldn’t take it,” says Brian Maxwell Mann, a former writer for WWE now living in New York.
Leaks can, and do, affect betting markets.
These are low-level leaks, Mann says, but higher-level ones are sometimes more calculated. “People are very aware of their spots in the wrestling industry, so someone may be concerned about their relationship with certain online publications,” he explains. “I’m not naming any specific person, but people talk, and if you want to make sure you’re written about positively, that’s business.”
These leaks can, and do, affect betting markets. At WrestleMania 30, the Undertaker’s 21-year unbeaten streak was broken by Brock Lesnar, much to the disbelief of fans. As Forbes reported at the time, Bovada offered -3000 in the Undertaker’s favor, meaning a bet of $3,000 would win only $100. But by 6:15 pm on the night of the event, these odds mysteriously shifted in Lesnar’s favor.
But to most sportsbooks, wrestling’s small margins mean the risks caused by leaks are limited. “Wrestling is entertainment, so for punters the stakes are low,” Price says. “If this became a huge betting market, that would actually affect the amount of bets we’d be able to offer. Otherwise, it would be totally out of control.”
For a while last month, it looked certain that WWE would be forced to do what it had never done before: cancel WrestleMania. Amid the chaos, though, there was still money to be won. MyBookie, headquartered in Costa Rica, offered odds on whether the event would go ahead, but these were quickly pulled. In an article dated March 12, Bovada sports communications director Ross Stevens told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that there was an 83 percent chance of WrestleMania being postponed or canceled.
Even though WrestleMania is going ahead, many viewers aren’t exactly thrilled by WWE’s decision. Ratings have fallen over the past few weeks, and fans have taken their anger online. Some say the event puts wrestlers' health at risk, others believe that an empty arena isn’t worthy of WrestleMania’s usual grandeur. “No April’s Fools jokes from me today, don’t worry,” tweeted the WWE gossip account WrestleVotes on Wednesday. “This year’s presentation of WrestleMania is enough of a joke already.”
The changes are a problem for gamblers, too. As WrestleMania is now prerecorded, and thus more exposed to leaks, many sportsbooks, including Paddy Power, have decided against offering odds. Spokesperson Price says that to accept bets “would be against instruction from the [British] Gambling Commission.”
The Gambling Commission has stated that “in a world of social media and rapid communication, the outcome of these markets is likely to be known to an ever-expanding group of consumers before the result is formally announced,” but that betting is still allowed.
Some sportsbooks remain unfazed by these changes, though. Back when WrestleMania’s status was less certain, 888 Sports, a sportsbook headquartered in Gibraltar, allowed gamblers to bet on which order the matches would take place or which superstars would turn up at all. (Roman Reigns, for one, pulled out over health concerns.) Fans can still wager on everything from which match will run the longest to whether the good guys win more matches than bad ones — what’s been dubbed a “Babyfaces vs. Heels” offer.
Otherwise, it’s business as usual for professional wrestling’s flagship extravaganza. And besides, there’s still money to be made.
WrestleMania’s new format “will change how I bet, for sure,” says McGaw. “It seemed likely that Drew McIntyre would defeat Brock Lesnar, but will they stick with the status quo there? Or will they save Drew’s coronation for later?” By which he means when there’s a live audience.
“The situation will make the betting more of a challenge,” McGaw adds, “but I’ll relish that.”