N.O. tourism officials tout boon of 'WrestleMania'

The over-the-top, weeklong WrestleMania extravaganza that has descended on New Orleans — set to culminate Sunday with World Wrestling Entertainment’s annual pay-per-view professional wrestling event in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — is a far cry from the original wrestling showcase that took place in New York City 30 years ago.

At the time, wrestling was largely a regional phenomenon, with different federations putting on shows around the country.

But WWE CEO Vince McMahon had a vision of unifying the events into one national blowout event.

Now, when announcers refer to WrestleMania as the “Super Bowl” of the industry, it’s not just hype.

For years, Superdome general manager Alan Freeman thought WrestleMania was just the kind of event the city should try to lure. Leaders of other local tourism organizations needed some convincing.

“We had to educate folks as to what this event was all about,” Freeman said.

A trip to last year’s WrestleMania at the Met Life Center in East Rutherford, N.J., confirmed the potential for the extravaganza to be a moneymaker for New Orleans.

“The more we learned about it, the more we found out what it would do for the city,” he said. “I’ve seen ticket reports that attendees upwards of 40 foreign countries [will attend], and they’ll be here for four or five days, so it’s going to be a great event for the city. Hotels are going to do great. Restaurants are going to do great. Tourist attractions around town are going to do great. It’s a win-win for all.”

WWE estimates that last year’s WrestleMania weekend generated $102 million from visitors to last year’s event in New Jersey.

“We are bullish on New Orleans, and given the strength of this destination, we expect to meet or exceed last year’s economic impact,” said John Saboor, WWE’s executive vice president of special events.

WrestleMania draws 62 to 66 percent of its audience from outside of the host city’s 100-mile radius, and the visitors stay for an average of 4.4 nights. The company’s research shows that WrestleMania tends to be a family destination, and that families often combine it with a vacation.

“We’ve had a definitive focus on placing our largest annual asset in destination cities, the kind of cities that compel our worldwide fans to arrive early and stay late and really consume the host city for the experience around WrestleMania week,” Saboor said.

While WrestleMania means big business, it can still be a puzzle for nonfans, perhaps perplexed by a sporting event that isn’t quite a sport, where male performers are “superstars” and women are “divas.”

“It’s entertainment, and the guys from the WWE will tell you that,” Freeman said. “But these guys and women are great athletes. Look at some of the stuff they do in the ring.”

The WWE made “Entertainment” part of its name in 2002 when the World Wildlife Foundation legally forced it to stop using its former initials. That change helped it get away from the “Is it real?” question that haunted the entire profession to such a degree that wrestler “Dr. D” David Schultz cuffed ABC News’ John Stossel on camera during an episode of “20/20” for asking it.

WrestleMania itself has evolved from a one-day event into a weeklong series of activities, including Fan Axxess, which allows fans to meet and get autographs from the wrestlers at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The WWE holds its yearly Hall of Fame induction ceremony during the weekend as well, and “Monday Night Raw,” its flagship television show, also takes place in the host city.

Because of the number of venues and hotel rooms the event would require, Freeman brought in the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation, the New Orleans Saints and the Convention Center to help make it happen.

And like other major events that New Orleans regularly hosts, WrestleMania has expanded to include charity work and community events.

The New Orleans Museum of Art on Thursday hosted a red carpet charity gala for “Superstars for Kids,” a partnership between the WWE, the Brees Dream Foundation, and the Boys and Girls’ Club. The WWE is one of the founding partners for the 2014 Special Olympics’ USA Games, and on Wednesday, divas the Bella Twins and superstar Titus O’Neil were at Tulane for a Special Olympics basketball game, where they served as coaches.

Amie Dugan, director of marketing and communications for Special Olympics North America, says WWE provides production, assistance and support. The WWE shot promotional packages for the games, but it’s most helpful in its ability to raise awareness.

“If they mention us in a tweet, our social media goes through the roof,” Dugan said. “We can try 100 things and it won’t do as much as one of their tweets.”

As much as the economic ripples from WrestleMania will be felt in New Orleans, this year’s event could also prove particularly lucrative for WWE. The company in February launched WWE Network, a video streaming service that allows subscribers to see WrestleMania on Sunday night and all of the company’s pay-per-view events, new programming and archival material from its past, as well as other domestic and international wrestling federations. The New York Times recently lauded the network as “the cutting edge of Internet television,” and the company’s stock value tripled in the past year, partly due to anticipation of the network’s launch.

“It’s a huge opportunity for fans to experience all the different time periods, all of the different content and how the story played out to what it is today and WrestleMania,” WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon said. “Our goal is to be everywhere. We want our fans to be able to consume our content anytime, anywhere, on any device.”