Sports and other forms of live entertainment are free to return to Florida, so long as they stay closed to the general public.
Last week, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order adding “professional sports and media production with a national audience” to the list of “essential services” (pdf) allowed to resume operations during the state’s shelter-in-place order.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), which has a production facility in Orlando, announced it would resume live shows (without an audience) immediately. Last night, WWE aired its first live episode of its weekly series, Raw, after weeks of pre-taped programming. “As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance,” the company said in a statement. It said it would take “additional precautions” to ensure the health and safety of its performers and staff, but did not elaborate on what exactly that means.
According to Jerry Demings, the mayor of Orange County, Florida (where Orlando is), WWE was originally not among the pro sports deemed essential. But DeSantis, an ally of US president Donald Trump, reversed the decision, Demings said during a press conference yesterday. Vince McMahon, the owner and CEO of WWE, has donated millions to Trump, who has appeared in WWE events. His wife, Linda McMahon, served in Trump’s cabinet from 2017 until 2019 and now chairs a pro-Trump Super PAC.
A spokesperson for DeSantis told ESPN that WWE and other services were deemed essential because they’re “critical to the state’s economy.”
Other leagues haven’t publicly announced a return to Florida, though that could happen soon. Even before the executive order, Major League Baseball was considering a plan to split its regular season games between Florida and Arizona at teams’ spring training facilities. (The MLB season was meant to begin in late March.) The National Football League, meanwhile, is not scheduled to hold real games until September, but the Florida ruling could bring preseason play back to the state in the mean time. The league is currently conducting a “virtual offseason,” which includes its upcoming draft.
While major American sports leagues mull their options, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) could be the next to resume operations in Florida. UFC president Dana White has made it clear he wants to stage fights as soon as possible. He pushed for the company to air its April 18 event on ESPN as scheduled, but relented after executives at Disney, which owns ESPN, asked him to back off after fielding concerns from state officials in California, where the event was to take place. Like WWE, UFC owns event space in Florida, where it could conceivably resume airing contests.
That decision could not have been easy for ESPN, which has been hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic than perhaps any other television network. According to Axios, the company has lost 139 live events on its flagship channel alone, and hundreds more when you add in the events that were going to air on its other channels and streaming apps. ESPN was forced to air a seven-hour Spelling Bee marathon over the weekend to fill programming time.