Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG — The last time the WWE staged one of its premier pro wrestling shows at Tropicana Field, it had the run of the place.

That was in January 2021, part of a four-month, 38-event residency at the domed baseball stadium that otherwise was empty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

With no fans allowed in, WWE crew hung a black curtain from the B-ring catwalk to create a ThunderDome-style set, used video screens to include a virtual audience and spread out the needed staging, setup and TV production areas.

The Royal Rumble is back at the Trop on Saturday, and it will be a little more crowded under the tilted roof.

Organizers said attendance projects to be among the largest for the event and in stadium history, challenging the Trop’s sporting event record of 45,369 for the Rays’ inaugural game (March 31, 1998) or even the overall mark of 47,150 for a New Kids on the Block concert (Aug. 11, 1990).

“It’s a major undertaking,” said Jim Previtera, the Rays’ senior director of security and stadium operations. “We’re right before spring training, we’re right after Enchant Christmas, and we’re putting this in here. But, obviously, it’s a no-brainer.”

Building off their previous relationship with WWE, Rays officials were invited to attend last year’s Royal Rumble in San Antonio. Previtera, event booking manager Nicole Bleess and stadium operations director Mike Ferrario came away impressed with the spectacle, especially the size and makeup of the crowd.

“After we left the Royal Rumble around 11:30 (p.m.), we couldn’t find anywhere to eat,” Previtera said. “Every place was packed. Hotel room service was backed up. We just sat in the hotel lobby and went, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’”

Rays event booking manager Nicole Bleess, left, and senior director of security and stadium operations Jim Previtera have been heavily involved in staging the WWE Royal Rumble event.Rays event booking manager Nicole Bleess, left, and senior director of security and stadium operations Jim Previtera have been heavily involved in staging the WWE Royal Rumble event. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]

They also noted the large number of fans who came from outside the state and overseas.

That led the Rays to view the event as a chance to increase exposure for the Tampa Bay area and downtown St. Petersburg — where a new stadium is planned — as a host site for other big non-baseball events. (WWE data shows tickets for Saturday have been sold to fans in all 50 states, plus several territories and 40-plus countries.)

Bidding for the Rumble became a regional project, with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission heavily involved.

As a result, it turned into something of a wrestling weekend, with former star The Undertaker hosting a 1deadMAN show Sunday in Clearwater, the weekly Monday Night RAW show staged at Amalie Arena, and a pop-up merchandise store at Raymond James Stadium hosting wrestler meet and greets.

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All during the annual Gasparilla celebration at that.

The Trop’s playing field wasn’t much of an issue, as the dirt and turf has been covered by plastic flooring and the mound lowered since Enchant opened in November. But there was still a staggering amount of setup work to be done. WWE brought in 60 trucks and seven buses, with more than 330 workers involved, plus Rays staff.

The 20-by-20 foot ring will be centered on the mound under a circle of lights, with wrestlers coming out of the Rays dugout, which is mostly covered by video boards. (No photos of the setup were allowed by WWE.) The team store will be repurposed as a WWE merchandise outlet starting Friday. Just about every room and inch of space in the stadium is in use, including under some tents in the parking lot.

Among the more interesting challenges? Finding somewhere (Charlotte, it turned out) to rent 9,000-plus chairs to use for floor seating.

Other logistics required extensive coordination, such as working for months with multiple agencies on traffic flow, highway signage, parking plans and increased SunRunner bus service. The Rays also talked with nearby restaurants and bar operators to let them know to expect big crowds early (gates open at 5:30 p.m., with the pre-show starting at 7:30) and late.

The Royal Rumble is one of the top five events on the WWE schedule.The Royal Rumble is one of the top five events on the WWE schedule. [ WWE ]

Rays staff from the top down has been involved and supportive, Previtera said, with some team officials and former and current players expected to attend.

The show, one of the WWE’s five jewel events and streamed on Peacock, is highlighted by 30-wrestler men’s and women’s rumbles. They start with two wrestlers in the ring and another added every 90 seconds, and often include surprise and/or celebrity entrants. There are several other matches, including a “Fatal 4-Way” featuring WWE universal champion Roman Reigns. There also is speculation Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson could make an appearance.

“This is a monumental undertaking; it’s not like a baseball game,” Previtera said. “All most of what our staff knew was what they heard from the people that were on the planning committee. We told them it was going to be big. And then the WWE arrived last week, and you start to see 10 people become 20 people become 200 people become 400 people. It’s just been a flurry of activity. …

“We were here late the other night, got done with a meeting in my office, which faces the field, and the three of us stood up and we were like, ‘Holy crap.’ It was one of those ‘oh, man’ moments. It’s going to be rocking.”

If you go

What: WWE Royal Rumble

When: Doors open Saturday at 5:30 p.m., pre-show starts at 7:30, show at 8.

Parking: Tropicana Field parking lots (pre-paid only) open at noon. Other nearby and downtown lots are available. Rays encourage ride share and use of SunRunner bus service.

Tickets: Visit Royalrumble.com

TV: Streaming exclusively on Peacock

Merchandise: The Trop team store opens Saturday at 10 a.m., portable outlets are around the stadium

• • •

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