As Dave Scherer mentioned yesterday, I flew to Orlando to cover the Grand Opening of the WWE Performance Center. To say I was blown away by the facility would be one of the biggest understatements I've ever written. The media jaunt was a long day with Triple H personally providing a tour of the facility, followed by a complete official Grand Opening presentation, then post-ceremony interviews before finishing up with a four hour plus NXT taping (see the main page for a report on that). Now that I have flown back to NYC, I am still trying to find the words to convey what an amazing facility the Performance Center truly is..and it really did give me hope for the long-term future of WWE.
For many years now, I (and to be fair, others) have been writing and saying that I was worried about where WWE would be once the current generation of veterans like Triple H, Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Booker T, etc. would eventually get to the point that they had to exit the ring. With John Cena, CM Punk and well, not many others truly set for the top-tier, WWE seemed to be heading into a direction where the next generation would be far less versatile at performing, getting over and breaking through as legitimate in-ring workers and captivating personalities. There was a genuine worry that things could eventually hit a point where they go off the cliff and where WWE goes, goes the entire industry. So, the idea of going off that cliff is a pretty frightening proposition.
After visiting the facility, I really do feel that WWE is doing everything they can to address that. I have no doubt that yesterday was one of the most important days in company history. In many ways, it's really appropriate that the opening came on the same year as the 50th Anniversary of the company's existence. There was a lot of talk about history as much as there was the future yesterday during the Opening Ceremony and with good reason - you have to know where you've been in order to properly assess where you need to go.
Nestled in an industrial complex in Orlando, the Performance Center is pretty understated from the outside. Unless you know exactly where to look, you probably won't find it. When I entered it, the training camp for Drago in Rocky IV first came to my mind, just this massive machine to create the best WWE-centric athletes there could be.
If all goes according to plan, the building could soon be as much of the heart and soul of WWE today as Madison Square Garden was during the territory days.
In looking around the facility, it was obvious WWE put their money where their mouth was in terms of the creation, development and nurturing of their next generation of performers. No more lip service. In many ways, this was the natural evolution of not just talent development but also the company's Wellness Program.
There was talk yesterday the facility cost them upwards of $3-4 million dollars. That investment, probably the largest in the history of the company's developmental program, was as much about WWE, the entity, growing up and embracing themselves as not just a pro wrestling company, not just a sports-entertainment company, but as an entity that controls its own genre, a genre they have to tend to and have to self-govern it. This was as much about WWE embracing their future as much as it was about training new wrestlers.
As much as the Davis Arena in OVW has its loyalists and as much as FCW has churned out names like Sheamus and The Shield, those facilities were a Junior High School gym in comparison to the Olympic Training Center that the Performance Center will be for World Wrestling Entertainment. 26,000 square feet is a lot of space and WWE has filled it with every aspect of what their modern day performers would need, not just to train in the ring but to provide the support and maintenance that goes with the lifestyle of a professional wrestler.
Walking into the facility, there were seven rings set up and the sight of that was just massive, really giving you an impressive immediate visual over what a huge undertaking this is for the company. One of the rings was designed specifically for working out aerial moves so that those practicing can hit a state of the art softer mat in order to lessen the physicality of those bumps as they hone their skills.
Bill Demott, Norman Smiley, Steve Keirn, Sara del Rey and Billy Gunn were overseeing training in five of the rings. No one was working matches but talents in the different rings, depending on who was running them, were going through different styles of drills. It appeared that Keirn and Smiley were going through basic drills with one group while Demott and Taylor were working on finer points of how to work holds in another. Del Rey was training all the new potential Divas. Billy Gunn was working with some of the more experienced talents, like Kassius Ohno. Some of the beginners were wearing head gear to prevent trauma to their head as they learned to bump.
The central ring sits under a state of the art lighting truss so that should WWE decide they want to film material here, it's all ready-made for their HD broadcast quality. Every corner of the facility is wired with cameras that can broadcast in HD and be immediately sent to WWE HQ in Stamford, CT. There's no pulling of tapes to look at someone. Vince McMahon can now sit down at a monitor and watch potential talents working out live from the facility as they are in the ring or cutting promos. Not only will that streamline the process with immediate feedback, but the idea that everything is being filmed and recorded will keep everyone working hard and prevent laziness from the talents who are there working. WWE will always be watching.
It was when WWE took us on a tour, led by Triple H, that one really understood how massive the facility truly is.
To the right of the main room sits the main offices of the Performance Center, including a massive steel conference room table that looks like something a group of super-villains would have a conference around. The hallways are decorated with framed posters of old WWE PPV events and large photos of different legends, a quiet reminder to the talents as to what they are aspiring to reach and who they should be inspired by. The main conference room was connected to several smaller offices.
Given that pro wrestling isn't just about the physical aspect of what happens inside the ring, the Performance Center also houses several studios allowing the talents to hone and grow their skills outside of the ring. When I toured the facility, Dusty Rhodes was overseeing potential promos with the Wyatt Family in a small promo room that allows the talents to cut promos, watch them back for feedback and have a place to experiment and find themselves. The studio will be able to be operated by the talents themselves, allowing them the freedom to create whenever they want and not leaving them at the mercy of when someone is available to film them.
Another nearby studio was designed to help develop announcers and interviewers for the company - a modern day studio where they could call older matches and work with veteran announcers to improve. Another room housed a green screen background, perfect for shooting vignettes and practicing pre-taped. All of this was held together by High Definition broadcasting quality equipment and a state of the art editing studio that could conceivably allow them to shoot something at the Performance Center at 7 PM, then have it edited, cut and ready to broadcast live on Raw at 8 PM.
The facilities and hallways lead to the medical office of Dr. Michael Sampson, the doctor who saved Jerry Lawler's life when he had a heart attack on Raw. Here is where the WWE Wellness Policy comes into play in the Performance Center. Sampson will have regular office hours here in order to provide medical care to ailing or sick WWE developmental talents. Since Sampson works for the company, he will be well versed in the nuances of the business, Sampson will know the best way to treat the issues at hand and provide specialized care for a specialized athlete working in the unique world that is professional wrestling. The days of the pro wrestler going to a doctor that doesn't understand the business or worse, one that's willing to help them medicate their issues, could be coming to an end.
Another major evolution of the WWE Wellness Program that comes with the opening of the facility will be the state of the art rehabilitation center. Instead of sending talents elsewhere to work on healing their injuries, WWE staff can personally oversee the process, again, with an understanding of mindset that wrestlers have and with a well-versed education into the physicality that performers have to put themselves through to perform in the business. WWE will have a regular physical therapist and a trainer on staff full-time, also allowing for immediate care if talents at the facility have any issues. All of this allows a new level of protection and nurturing for the talents. The rehab center is large enough to care for 6-10 talents at once if necessary. While not stated, the company also now has a facility to send talents if, for example, John Cena or someone suffers an injury that requires rehab. WWE's staff can now oversee the talent's healing and prognosis themselves, just like a major sports franchise would for their players.
Of course, the Performance Center also houses a MASSIVE workout area with state of the art Rogue workout equipment. The idea here is not to just have weights and workout equipment for the talents to use but also medical rehab equipment, strength and conditioning equipment with Joe DeFranco, who has worked with the NFL for years, coming on board as a strength and conditioning advisor to the Performance Center. The workout area could have easily have housed anything from Olympic gymnasts to MMA fighters given all the equipment it housed.
All of this collected under one roof is more than just a training facility or a medical facility or even a wrestling facility. It's WWE protecting and embracing their future as well as providing a legitimate concrete destination to bring potential partners, potential investors and potential recruits to give them a taste of what WWE is and how it works, since it doesn't fall neatly into any one genre. Sure, you can whine and dine people and dazzle them over Wrestlemania week, but that doesn't really give them a deep understanding of what it takes to work and excel in the business. WWE now has that headquarters - as well as a fighting chance to develop the new breed of talents that will hopefully, if all goes according to plan, will replace the Undertakers and Triple Hs and eventually, the John Cenas and CM Punks.
For all the talk online over the years of all the negatives that Triple H has allegedly brought to WWE, this one move may eventually prove that his true legacy in the business was insuring not just its continued survival, but by putting a system in place where talents can develop and thrive from day one under the WWE umbrella.
No system is ever perfect and for sure, at some point, there will be stumbles and falls and mistakes, but on 7/11/13, WWE opened the doors to what may truly be the brand new era that their press release proclaimed it to be.