How the Rays' Tropicana Field was converted to host WWE's Royal Rumble

street. PETERSBURG — The last time WWE held one of professional wrestling's premier shows at Tropicana Field, it was in control of the place.

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

With no fans allowed in, the WWE crew hung a black curtain from the B-ring stage to create a ThunderDome-style set, used video screens to include a virtual audience and spread out the required show, set, and television production areas.

The Royal Rumble returns to the Trop on Saturday, and it will be a little more crowded under the sloped roof.

Organizers said attendance projects will be among the largest at the event and in the stadium's history, challenging the Trop's sporting event record of 45,369 for the Rays' home opener (March 31, 1998) or even the overall mark of 47,150 for the new kids in the stadium. Concert (August 11, 1990).

“It's a major undertaking,” said Jim Privitera, the Rays' senior director of security and stadium operations. “We're right before spring training, we're right after a magical Christmas, and we're putting this out there. But it's obviously a no-brainer.”

Based on their previous relationship with WWE, Rays officials were invited to attend last year's Royal Rumble in San Antonio. Privitera, Event Booking Director Nicole Bliss and Stadium Operations Director Mike Ferrario came away impressed by 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,” Privitera said. “Everywhere was packed. The hotel room service was backed up. We just sat in the lobby and said, 'Wow, this is really cool.'

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Rays Director of Event Booking Nicole Bliss and Senior Director of Security and Stadium Operations Jim Privitera were heavily involved in organizing the WWE Royal Rumble event. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]

They also noticed the large number of fans who came from out of state and beyond.

This led the Rays to view the event as an opportunity to increase exposure to the Tampa Bay area and downtown St. Petersburg — where a new stadium is planned for construction — as a host site for large events other than baseball. (WWE data indicates tickets for Saturday were sold to fans in all 50 states, as well as multiple territories and more than 40 countries.)

Bidding on the Rumble has become a regional project, with Visit St. Paul participating. Pete/Clearwater and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.

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

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All during the annual Gasparilla celebration at the time.

The Trop course hasn't been much of an issue, as the soil and grass have been covered with plastic pavers and the hill has been lowered since Enchant opened in November. But there's still a surprising amount of setup work to be done. WWE brought 60 trucks and seven buses, with more than 330 workers participating, as well as Rays staff.

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The 20-by-20-foot ring will be set up on the hill under a circle of lights, with the wrestlers emerging from the Rays' dugout, which is mostly covered by video boards. (WWE has not allowed any photos of the setup.) The team store was repurposed as an outlet for WWE merchandise starting Friday. Nearly every room and inch of the stadium's space is being used, including under some tents in the parking lot.

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

Other logistics require extensive coordination, such as working for months with multiple agencies on traffic flow, highway signage, parking plans and increasing SunRunner bus service. The Rays also spoke with nearby restaurants and bar operators to let them know to expect large crowds early (gates open at 5:30 p.m., pre-show starts 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 employees from top to bottom participated and provided support, and some team officials and former and current players are expected to attend, Privitera said.

The show, one of WWE's five core events broadcast on Peacock, is highlighted by 30 male and female wrestlers. They start with two wrestlers in the ring and another wrestler is added every 90 seconds, and often include surprise participants and/or celebrities. There are several other matches, including a “Fatal 4-Way” featuring WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns. There is also speculation that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson may make an appearance.

“This is a huge project; it's not like baseball,” Privitera said. “All our staff knows is what they heard from the people who were on the planning commission. We told them it would be great. Then WWE arrived last week, and you started seeing 10 people become 20 people, become 200 people become 400 people. It was just a flurry of activity. …

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“We were here late last night, and we finished a meeting in my office, which faces the square, and the three of us stood up and said, ‘Oh my God.’ It was one of those ‘Oh man’ moments. It’s going to be a roller-coaster.”

if you go

What: WWE Royal Rumble

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

parking: Parking at Tropicana Field (prepaid only) opens at noon. Other plots are available nearby and downtown. The Rays encourage ride sharing and use of the SunRunner bus service.

the tickets: Visit Royalrumble.com

television: It is broadcast exclusively on the Peacock Channel

goods: The Trop store opens Saturday at 10 a.m., and there are mobile sales outlets around the stadium

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