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With all the twists and turns in 2020, I didn’t picture myself attending another wrestling show this year. As it turned out, I had a family obligation within driving distance of Jacksonville that I was able to time up with Full Gear. Despite my concerns for safety, I made the decision to attend the show. I wanted to know what the pandemic experience was like and if it’s reasonably safe to attend an AEW event.
My journey began with a 6:00 a.m. flight from Minneapolis-St.Paul to Charlotte. This was my first time in an airport since the beginning of the pandemic. The number of people in the airport was far fewer than usual for the time. There were plenty of reminders for social distancing, some seats near the gates were blocked off, and TSA agents were more lenient. There wasn’t the usual cluster of AEW fans decked out in gear like there have been for shows in Las Vegas and Chicago, but that was to be expected and with a layover.
My flight with American Airlines wasn’t at full and there was nobody in the same row. However, depending on the airline, there is a greater chance of exposure than most activities in everyday life. If anyone is on the fence about going on the plane, but is concerned about being in close proximity to others, it is best to just stay home. On all flights masks were required, but it is nearly impossible to be six feet away from anyone.
When I arrived in Charlotte I came to find out that while masks were still required, social distancing was non-existent. The Charlotte airport was the biggest cluster of people I had seen in-person for quite some time. The level of risk shot up exponentially. Near my gate for Jacksonville, there were a few AEW fans. One had a Chris Jericho “Little bit of the bubbly” t-shirt and AEW duffel bag while the other person wore a Kenny Omega “Street Fighter” stylized shirt. One individual was from the Charlotte area whereas the other drove up from Georgia. The flight to Jacksonville was a little over an hour on a jam-packed flight. Thankfully, the hotel I booked was next to the airport. This gave me a couple hours to hang out before requesting a Lyft to Daily’s Place.
While waiting for my room, I found a couple more AEW fans, both in Young Bucks t-shirts. They said they had tickets to Double or Nothing, but couldn’t wait any longer to see another AEW show. They traveled from Las Vegas and planned on staying the weekend in Jacksonville with intentions of attending the Jaguars football game on Sunday afternoon. I requested a ride to Daily’s Place by 5:00 p.m. so that I could get a spot in line before doors opened. My maskless Lyft driver had a difficult time finding Daily’s Place as she had not heard of that nor knew where the Jaguars played (GPS?). At one point, she stopped in the middle of an intersection, then proceeded to exit the vehicle and ask a police officer for directions. Thankfully, the amphitheater was only a few blocks ahead.
There was a sizable line outside Daily’s Place like there usually is for AEW pay-per-views. Nearly half of the fans took the opportunity to take off their masks while chatting with others in line. I tried to stay near the masked folks, even letting people jump ahead of me. I tried to step out of a line a few times to gauge the merchandise people were wearing and the demographics. The most popular style of shirts were the AEW specific events (Jericho Anniversary, Bash at the Beach, All Out, etc.) Then it was a good mix of Kenny Omega, Chris Jericho, Orange Cassidy, and variations of the Bullet Club. I was surprised at the number of kids around the ages of 8 – 14. One kid I talked to begged his mother to take him to the show. I would guess he was about 13 years-old and he knew all the AEW wrestlers, NJPW, and WWE. He said that he first heard about AEW from following Kenny Omega on Twitch; then he started looking into every piece of wrestling he could find. His knowledge of the business blew me away.
When entering Daily’s Place, you first go through the field house where all tickets are digitally scanned. There is also a screen detector that very quickly takes your forehead temperature. There were several reminders that masks were required at all times. The merchandise stand was next to the Daily’s Place entrance, but it didn’t have the signature long lines. My understanding was that most if not all merchandise sales were done through an exclusive email link that allowed those in attendance to purchase their merchandise in advance then pick it up at the stand. It takes away the mania of it all, but this is a smart concept to continue when there are more fans. Sometimes the lines were so long that fans would miss portions of the show to buy a shirt.
I knew my single seat would be fairly socially distanced from others and it was! I sat five rows up from the beginning of the section and there was nobody directly in front of me. There were three people two rows up and over to the right. The people in my row were four seats away on one side and six seats away on the other. It was bizarre to not be jam packed for a major show, but it was comfortable. Fans were still settling in and reacting to the match graphics on the screen. It seemed to me that Kenny Omega vs. Hangman Page got the biggest reaction.
Allysin Kay vs. Serena Deeb: Modest reactions throughout the match. Most were familiar with Allysin Kay, but it didn’t feel like people were invested in the outcome. Thunder Rosa made a surprise appearance after rumors were circulating that she may be headed to WWE or MMA. Biggest takeaway was that people are really into Rosa and they want to see more of her.
Hangman Page vs. Kenny Omega: AEW isn’t shy about putting on big matches early in the show, but I thought this was a major risk. With how good the match was likely to be, I thought they could kill the crowd. Kenny Omega was a huge babyface, getting roaring cheers, showing no signs of fans turning on him. When Page came out, there were cheers, but a sizable amount of boos as well. Throughout the match, fans treated Omega like the face and Page like the heel. A very different response compared to Revolution back in February. The crowd fed off the energy from this match and carried it throughout most of the night.
John Silver vs. Orange Cassidy: It’s true that John Silver is over with a segment of the audience. Nowhere near the levels of a top act, but fans stood up and did the Dark Order hand gesture and were thoroughly amused by his act. Orange Cassidy got his typical big time reaction. Fans loved the athleticism and were starting to get more comfortable with the idea that we were there live watching AEW for the first time in a long while.
Cody vs. Darby Allin: Dare I say that Darby got a bigger reaction than Cody. Fans were ready to see Darby win and this was the right time. Everyone was invested in the drama and were hopeful that Darby would come out on top instead of just reacting to big moves. Fans got their wish, then immediately started looking around the amphitheater for AEW’s advertised surprise. In hindsight, the surprise appears to be Cody adding Rhodes to his name, but fans were looking for Sting. There were a number of shout outs to Sting and some minor chants. Instead, Team Taz came out and they had a brawl. It wasn’t clear if people knew who Will Hobbs was when he chased off Cage and Ricky Starks.
Nyla Rose vs. Hikaru Shida: The crowd was still energized for this and treated it like another major match. The miscues were not apparent in person which made the match look smoother. Vicki’s screeching was met with groans, but overall people were satisfied with Shida taking the victory.
The Young Bucks vs. FTR: Huge reactions for both teams. What I thought was a heel vs. heel match up turned out to be face vs. face with their pops coming to the ring. As the match played out, fans became more invested in The Bucks and the story of the match with Matt Jackson wrestling on a bad knee. All the drama and excitement sucked the energy from the crowd.
Matt Hardy vs. Sammy Guevara: Whenever there is a cinematic match, it always comes with controversy. This was a Matt Hardy production, so there were bound to be surprises and a mix of tones. In the amphitheater, many took this time to go to the restroom or concession stands. It also allowed for the ring crew to do a thorough cleaning of the ring. Some people were looking at their phones, but those watching The Elite Deletion were into it. They reacted big to Gangrel and the overall absurdity of it. Not all the sound effects were audible in the arena, but in general the crowd liked this. It was clear that it was going on for too long when people stopped reacting and grew tired of watching a pre-taped match. I don’t expect this style to last long when full capacity returns. Unless it’s something really big, fan could start rejecting this fast.
MJF vs. Chris Jericho: Chris Jericho is a babyface. The fans want it; they love him. Not a single person wasn’t singing along to Judas when he came out. Jericho appeared to be working hard during the match, but people weren’t expecting another five-star classic. The strong personalities carried the match. Many were shocked when MJF was able to roll up Jericho and stood up in disbelief.
Jon Moxley vs. Eddie Kingston: As we approached the four hour mark, fans were exhausted. There was still excitement for the match, but many were ready to start making their way towards the exits. Despite that, there were a number of Kingston supporters in attendance and some were really hoping for a title change. The brutality of the match doesn’t have the same impact after seeing such dramatic matches and the wild Elite Deletion. For the finish, Moxley wrapped barbed wire around his hand and choked out Kingston. There was no microphone to hear Kingston say, “I Quit” leading to a somewhat anticlimactic finish. Afterwards, Moxley stuck around in the ring, posing with the belt. He showed an honest appreciation towards the fans in attendance.
As I was leaving, Tony Schiavone greeted fans who brought birthday signs for him. I also spotted referee Mike Chioda in the parking lot thanking fans for attending. On my Lyft ride back to the hotel, I explained to my second maskless driver what show I had been at. His ears perked up when I told him it was wrestling. He said he was a major wrestling fan, but had not heard of AEW. He’d been to several WrestleMania’s and had been watching since the early-’80s. He claims to watch every Raw, Smackdown, and sometimes NXT. He was thrilled to hear that Chris Jeircho was still wrestling and Jim Ross was on commentary. I told him they run shows every Wednesday and tickets are very reasonable. My ticket for this show was a little over $80 with fees compared to $170 for front row at Revolution and $40 for upper level at All Out 2019.
Overall, AEW manages to keep a fairly safe and fun environment for their shows. The biggest issue is getting there. I estimated that a good chunk of fans flew in or came from outside of the Jacksonville area which increases the risk of potential exposure. For those within driving distance of Daily’s Place, it may be worth their while as you can be as far away from other people as you’d like. It’s no worse than going to the grocery store or being at the mall. Fans were just thankful to be watching wrestling and put in a good faith effort to remain masked throughout and generally stayed away from others apart from the lineup outside the building. Two days removed from the event, I remain COVID-free, but time will tell if this was a major mistake. I took all precautions possible and made sure to keep a safe distance from family. It felt great to be back at an AEW show and I remain confident that they will retain their momentum when we get back to some semblance of normalcy.