By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
With AEW heading out on the road this week and WWE reportedly taping its final shows at the ThunderDome this week, there isn’t a better time than now, right? So, let’s go.
This is the most obvious category to attack, which is why it’s first. Watching Daily’s Place week in and week out, it slowly morphed from an outdoor amphitheater typically reserved for concerts and comedians to a bonafide wrestling venue — and a fun one at that. One of the unsaid benefits of Daily’s Place throughout the pandemic was that it became a measuring stick for how close we were as a world to getting back to normal.
First, all we had was spectator wrestlers at ringside. Then, capacity moved to a few hundred. Then a thousand. Then, by the time Double Or Nothing came around in May, you saw the place jam-packed and you thought, “Hell yeah, we’re back, baby!” Or, something like that, at least. At this point, “Daily’s Place” means “AEW” and “AEW” means “Daily’s Place” to a lot of people. It wasn’t the flashiest of venues, but it sure did become a source of comfort.
The ThunderDome, though? Aesthetically speaking, at least, I don’t know how you can’t give WWE the edge. The video screens added a brightness to how everything looked overall, while the usual entrance ramp and backdrop we have seen WWE use for decades were still intact, complete with fireworks and the like.
Putting aside the fact that the top looked like a rejected U2 touring set, it deserves credit, and to be fair, WWE deserves credit for providing fans with something genuinely unique to look at on television. I can’t say Daily’s Place ever looked boring, but when you put it up against the pomp and circumstance of the ThunderDome, it really is no contest. Now, who else can’t wait to see the remnants of it at some AXXESS during WrestleMania weekend five years from now?
ThunderDome: 1. Daily’s Place: 0
I am of the mind that venues have souls. If walls could tell stories and the rafters could write a book about every single boiler room in the building, I, for one, would never stop reading. And so how often did either one of these places exude an aura about them in a way that stood out and transcended the airwaves onto our television sets?
Daily’s Place felt more real. It also felt alive, even when all we had were those spectator wrestlings hamming it up at ringside. Most importantly, though, Daily’s Place felt like an honest wrestling venue. A big screen in the back. A short ramp to the ring, A ring with chairs around it. And a commentator booth lurking in the back corner.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Daily’s Place is an updated 2300 Arena. After a while, people wanted to make the pilgrimage there if only because AEW connects with that exuberant, more hardcore fanbase than, say, WWE probably ever could or will again. And as the AEW video pointed out to some degree, that venue will now forever feel like home to that company. That’s important.
The ThunderDome, meanwhile, moved three times. First, we had the Amway Center in Orlando. Then, we had the Trop in St. Petersburg. And finally, it ended up at the Yuengling Center in Tampa, where it will ultimately be deconstructed for good on July 12. And while it looked aesthetically impressive on most every level, it never felt like much more than a movie set.
In fact, the ThunderDome, in my eyes, always seemed like a sterile environment. Peel back the curtain and look past the flash of the screens and the fireworks, and you had piped-in crowd noise that sometimes didn’t even make sense along with wrestlers that you could tell at times struggled to connect with what they were supposed to do. I don’t blame the wrestlers for that, of course, but it spoke to how little depth the venue offered. In short, the ThunderDome looked gorgeous on the first date, but you went home early after it became impossible to hold an interesting dinner conversation, while Daily’s Place showed up without much time to get ready, but you’re still out walking with it, talking about your favorite movies until 4 in the morning. Advantage, Daily’s Place.
ThunderDome: 1. Daily’s Place: 1.
This one is tricky because it’s not just easy, but imperative, to recognize just how innovative the ThunderDome was. In terms of production value and a sheer thinking-on-your-feet level, WWE deserves the awards it received for coming up with something like that. Will any other sport or form of entertainment copy it at some point down the line (even though the NBA kinda/sorta did)? I don’t quite know how or why or under what circumstance that would happen in the future, but never say never, I guess.
Here’s the thing, though: Did it advance the business of professional wrestling with its run? Some may say … cue the music … it may have set it back a day or two. Why? Because it allowed WWE to explore its own worst impulses without any real checks and balances. When Bray Wyatt started his whole split personality schtick, I was intrigued. At this point, I’m hoping he comes back as Husky Harris because The Fiend nonsense that took place during the pandemic and in the ThunderDome crossed the line from sports to entertainment and it wasn’t even entertaining. Ditto for Alexa Bliss, who was a great heel without any of these types of gimmicks.
So, in a lot of ways, you can’t necessarily blame the ThunderDome as a structure for that. But you can say that it set the stage for those things to happen. And when it comes to advancing anything wrestling-wise, I have a hard time parsing through its history to find where it lent itself in a significantly positive way to the stories told and the wrestling in the ring.
Such is why Daily’s Place is going to win this category almost by default. Sure, we had the Stadium Stampede (twice!) and there was the regrettable sliver of time when Matt Hardy teleported everywhere, but AEW didn’t bludgeon us over the head with those things while WWE just can’t help itself, even to this day. Cinematic matches were going to happen in both companies, but only one actually set a wrestler on fire — and subsequently “murdered” said wrestler! — in the middle of the ring. If that’s advancement, let me stay put.
ThunderDome: 1. Daily’s Place: 2.
THE FAN EXPERIENCE
It’s awfully easy to forget that 12 months ago, the notion of fans attending anything like a live professional wrestling show was beyond impossible. So, let’s not have revisionist history here. The crowds at these recent AEW shows have been a blast, and boy, they sure do make you realize how important of an element fans are to the professional wrestling equation.
But that’s only been the last month-and-a-half. And when the chips were down, and the majority of everybody was sitting around at home, beyond thirsty to just see someone other than their dog, their spouse or their children, WWE came up with a way to get real, live people involved at a time when everybody needed it. And say what you want about the ThunderDome perhaps becoming a little stale at this point, but WWE had more than 650,000 requests from fans to be on those screens as of March of this year.
It was August 27 when AEW opened Daily’s Place at 10 percent capacity. It quickly moved to 15 percent, which amounted to 825 people. The ThunderDome officially debuted on August 21, so while both companies started having fans at about the same, the ThunderDome provided more people with an experience than Daily’s Place could, even if Daily’s Place was allowing people to actually be in the building.
And that’s not to say AEW didn’t do a great job at accommodating fans and doing its best to make sure everyone felt safe; it’s just to say that when it comes to the fan experience, WWE was able to provide it to more people more often strictly because the ThunderDome was invented. For that, ThunderDome takes this category.
ThunderDome: 2. Daily’s Place: 2.
The inspiration behind this week’s piece, as I said at the beginning of this, was the video AEW put together that chronicled the time the company spent at Daily’s Place. The company was able to write that love letter because after a while, not only did it feel a connection with the venue, but its fans did as well. There wasn’t much fancy about it; it just kind of accidentally turned from a house into a home.
Call me crazy, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that when WWE signs off from the ThunderDome for the last time, we aren’t going to get a heartfelt montage of Matt Riddle riding around on a scooter and Sami Zayn shooting a (very funny) fake documentary. Will we get a Chronicle about the inner workings of the ThunderDome on Peacock someday? Maybe. But I don’t think we’re going to re-live throwing Rey Mistero off the top of Titan Towers.
And there’s something to be said for that. The ThunderDome, in all its glory, was tremendously impressive. So much so, in fact, that I think right now, we take it for granted and when perspective meets hindsight some years from now, I think a lot of people will look back on it with a less harsh light. It deserves the credit it gets and I can’t see how it is anything other than a massive success for WWE.
But just look at the contrast in names. “ThunderDome” plays off the worst parts of WWE these days — a departure from a focus on wrestling, gimmick-heavy, predictable and oftentimes bad writing. ThunderDome sounds like a C-list movie that can only be found on Pluto because Netflix wouldn’t take it because WWE, these days, is something like a C-list movie that can only be found on Pluto because Netflix wouldn’t take it. And for whatever reason, the heads at WWE seem to be happy with that.
Daily’s Place, meanwhile, fit AEW perfectly. Not too big, not too small. Shoot, even the name, “Daily’s Place” is humble, not aggressive, and sounds like the neighborhood bar at which you go to have a beer with your friends. So, while the ThunderDome is impressive and intimidating and innovative and intriguing and ingenious …
… Daily’s Place just felt like it was meant for a pure, less-frills wrestling show more than the ThunderDome was — and that’s even considering its name was the ThunderDome. And so it must be said.
ThunderDome: 2. Daily’s Place: 3.
Now let’s get back on the road.