Inside WrestleMania 38, Brands Feel the Love of Fans

At wrestling's biggest event, an eager-to-please WWE and its partners—not sponsors—know how to put on a show

Leaders from Glossier, Shopify, Mastercard and more will take the stage at Brandweek to share what strategies set them apart and how they incorporate the most valued emerging trends. Register to join us this September 23–26 in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Undertaker stared at me through pale, dead eyes from a placard atop the baggage carousel at Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport as I picked up my luggage. Stone Cold Steve Austin’s smirk greeted me from a poster in the window of my hotel’s bar, with WrestleMania headliners Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair, Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns flanking me from ads on either side of the hotel door.

During check-in, I began spotting belts throughout the lobby. The rhinestone double W of the WWE Universal Championship was slung over one guest’s shoulder as he headed to the elevators. The stark white of the Raw Women’s Championship flashed past as another visitor headed toward the hotel restaurant.

It just added to a list of questions I’d begun formulating when my editors had approved this trip a few weeks earlier:

  • Why are so many people carrying championship belts? What are they the champions of?
  • Why would anyone pay a $10 admission fee to Superstore Axxess, a secondary event at a convention center that only offers you the chance to buy more things?
  • How do you fill a venue with the seating capacity of a small city for two nights when your last pre-pandemic WrestleMania was only a one-night affair?
  • Why do all of these people keep yelling “woo” as if it’s going to bring Ric Flair out of retirement?

These are the questions you ask if you aren’t a fan or have forgotten how to be one. 

The WWE spends much of WrestleMania and its attendant events thanking existing fans and supporters by giving them the access, Superstars, pyrotechnics, merchandise and memories they came for. 

The rest of the time, the WWE focuses on answering questions and making its case to the unconverted. Whether you’re a fan, brand or just a passive observer, the goal is to enjoy yourself at WrestleMania—or at least think about coming back for more.

Still, it didn’t sink in that I’d arrived at WrestleMania 38 until I saw the belts.

Kevin Owens and Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania 38.
Kevin Owens put Stone Cold Steve Austin in a WWE watch for the first time in 19 years… where Austin pitched his El Segundo Brewing Company lager.

Mania for the marketers

The first stop after leaving the hotel was the Man’s Shop by Wally Harden, a formalwear store in Arlington that first opened 50 years ago. During WrestleMania, it was the closest store to AT&T Stadium where an idiot who’d brought a French cuff shirt could buy cufflinks to stand in for those left at home. 

After a clerk asked why I was in town, my response prompted a story about how he tried to take his girlfriend out dancing at the outsized Billy Bob’s honky tonk in Fort Worth, only to run into Steve Austin greeting fans and promoting his beer brand.

He pointed me toward Hurtado’s Barbecue on Front Street, where WrestleMania was the talk of the 45-minute line. Waiting locals noted the increase in visitors, growth of Front Street’s dining and entertainment district, and increased residential and commercial development across the tracks to the East since AT&T Stadium first opened in 2009.

On Hurtado’s dining patio, I shared a table with a father from Chicago who’d brought his three sons to town for WrestleMania after finding tickets on resale sites for $30 to $60 apiece. I wished him well, headed back to the hotel to change, and made my way to the stadium for WWE’s Business Partners Summit.

Three hours prior to WrestleMania, there were already lines to enter the building. Inside, the concourse devolved into a crawling, undulating mass of humanity weaving its way through lines for WWE’s tightly clustered merchandise tables. 

Fans in shirts bearing wrestlers’ likenesses and catchphrases stood shoulder-to-shoulder, trading compliments on custom belts and eliciting the occasional “woo!” that echoed off the concrete and was met with a chorus of “woos” in response.

At the stadium’s Optimum Club, I was checked off the guest list, fitted with a red wristband and guided behind a velvet rope and glass doors. Inside, it looked as if Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had carved a Las Vegas lounge directly beneath the stadium’s lower bowl. 

Waitstaff lined the entranceway, holding trays of Champagne flutes. A chandelier of interlocking crystal rings hung above the oval center bar bathed in rosy light from the surrounding WrestleMania Business Partners Summit logos on LED screens.

Johnny Knoxville presses a button to activate pyrotechnics under Sami Zayn at WrestleMania 38
Johnny Knoxville ended his months-long promotion of Jackass Forever by defeating Sami Zayn at WrestleMania 38.

Don’t call them ‘sponsors

In an adjacent room, away from the communal sushi platters, a makeshift amphitheater of white chairs, a black riser and large screens hosted the WWE’s version of a TV upfront. Superstars Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods, part of WWE trio The New Day, made a pitch for their video game podcast UpUpDownDown and discussed previous brand partnerships. 

Jackass star Johnny Knoxville recapped his in-the-ring rivalry with Sami Zayn and his upcoming WrestleMania match. Fox Sports personality Tom Rinaldi interviewed WWE evp of development and digital Jamie Horowitz about streaming content and the upcoming NBCUniversal scripted series Pinned.

But WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon held the stage for much of the event. 

First up was a preview of the WWE’s impending NFT marketplace, Moonsault. Then she laid out the digital reach of influencer and WrestleMania challenger Logan Paul.

Then, McMahon brought out prospects from the WWE’s collegiate NIL program (including Olympic gold medalist and WrestleMania second-night participant Gable Steveson). She also announced broadcast deals in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. 

While McMahon thanked existing partners (“not sponsors”), calling out multiple executives in the room by name, she also made clear to potential partners that the company handles seven hours of weekly live shows, 52 weeks a year. If a brand is unsure about dipping a toe into NFTs, foreign markets or Paul’s sphere of influence, McMahon made clear that the WWE can serve as a buffer for an initial trial run.

Mania for the masses

About 20 miles away from AT&T Stadium, in Dallas, fans lined the halls of the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center waiting to get into the part fan festival, part merchandise market that the WWE dubbed Superstore Axxess.

On WrestleMania Sunday, I joined the crowds with my All Axxess pass. While in line, fans in front of me compared notes on each other’s championship belts, pointing out unique features from different eras, the age and origin of each strap, and the custom pieces specific to a Superstar’s piece of hardware.

Inside was an eye-widening display of kaleidoscopic fandom.

To my left, a toy store-sized Mattel display featuring costume pieces, collectibles and action figures displayed in period-specific dioramas. To my right, walls of WWE apparel reflecting both this era’s wrestlers and the WWE’s deep archive. Take-Two Interactive’s 2K division set up living rooms where fans could play its WWE2K22 video game while snacking on bite-sized Snickers kept in piles of boxes nearby.

C4 Energy handed out free cans of its drinks and gave fans a chance to pose with holograms or take pictures on a wrestling ring set. Fiterman Sports kept fans in line for autograph signings and wrestler meet-and-greets. A&E presented a Hall of Fame’s worth of wrestling costumes from throughout WWE (and its acquired properties’) history. 

Snickers may have topped them all: Not only did it allow fans to sit at an announcer’s table and record their call of a WWE match, but it stockpiled wrestlers’ walk-in music and graphics, built a giant screen entrance and let fans do their own ring walk. Children, parents, groups of adult friends and even Fox Sports Spanish-language broadcasters all joined in, with the crowd around the display going six or seven rows deep at various points.

Lastly, just in front of a full-scale WWE wrestling ring, there was a full display of championship belts. 

The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase’s belt of rhinestone dollar signs sat near John Cena’s “spinner” belts from his various championship tenures. The Rock’s brahma bull belt and Stone Cold Steve Austin’s smoking skull belts sat side-by-side. You could bring home a mini replica belt for $70, or you could spring for the $4,000 strap made specifically for WrestleMania 38.

Yes, the average fan who attended Superstore Axxess paid $10 for the right to spend more money. But for the hardcore fans and families of devotees who sought out the brands’ experiences and the merchandise, it seemed more like a privilege.

Mania for me

WrestleMania is a two-night event that goes on for nearly a full week.

By the time I’d arrived in Arlington, the superstore had been open for two days and the WWE had already taped an episode of Friday Night Smackdown at American Airlines Center in Dallas, as well as the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony. My Saturday travels guaranteed I’d miss a WWE NXT event in Dallas during the afternoon. I left on Monday morning knowing full well I’d miss the post-WrestleMania installment of Monday Night Raw in Dallas that evening.

The two nights of actual WrestleMania—spent in a WWE Ring of Honor suite—distilled the necessity of all the other events.

Cody Rhodes, the son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, left WWE in 2016 and later helped found a successful competitor in AEW. When he returned during the first night of WrestleMania, the audience noise drowned out his entrance music until he entered the ring

In a post-match interview, he was incredibly candid about forming AEW, his father’s legacy, his desire to bring a title home to his family and reconnecting with fans

Going ringside with Triple H

At Monday Night Raw, Rhodes repeated all of it with a quick shout-out to WWE president of global talent strategy and development Paul Levesque. He was once given the ring name Hunter Hearst Helmsley. During his glory days, Levesque was better known as Triple H. 

Back in March, Levesque announced his retirement from in-ring performance after going into heart failure during a bout of viral pneumonia last year. He made one last ring walk on WrestleMania’s final night, spat water in the air, welcomed and thanked the crowd, left his boots in the middle of the ring, hugged his daughters at ringside and walked away with the crowd chanting “Thank you, Hunter.”

Rhodes and Levesque each succinctly summarized why Adweek went to WrestleMania in the first place: The WWE’s powerful, generational relationship with its fans. McMahon regularly took physical abuse in the ring and verbal abuse from fans as a villain during the WWE’s Attitude Era. WWE CEO Vince McMahon spent part of this most recent WrestleMania on the receiving end of a Stone Cold Stunner during an in-ring reunion with Steve Austin. 

WrestleMania grows up

Fans who watched Hulk Hogan kick King Kong Bundy off of a steel cage during WrestleMania 2 are now the parents (or grandparents) of kids who watched Bianca Belair come out with Texas Southern University’s marching band and land the Kiss of Death on Becky Lynch to win the Raw Women’s Championship. It’s built right into the WWE’s “Then. Now. Together. Forever.” marketing.

Our fans give us their love and admiration. In return for that, we give them everything we have. We leave it all in that ring for them.

Paul Levesque (aka Triple H), WWE

There’s a shared love and respect between the WWE’s stars and its fans that’s been forged in equal measures of tragedy and triumph. During a kickoff party held on the last night of WrestleMania, representatives from 2K said the 42% of WWE2K22 players who were new to the game’s franchise likely included a lot of older fans. Agents and athletes in the WWE’s NIL program said they were not only drawn by the organization’s fanbase, but were fans themselves.

When the WWE takes risks for fans, it’s rewarded in revenue—which is now up to roughly $1.1 billion.

“They love it so passionately that they also love our partners: our partners that are willing to reach out directly to them through this remarkable brand that they love, and give them that love and in loyalty in return,” Levesque told those gathered at the Brand Marketing Summit. “They love you because you support what they love, and they give you that love in return, they give you that loyalty and they engage with your brands.”

By the WWE’s own count, WrestleMania drew 156,352 fans from all 50 states and 53 countries. As noted by a bartender at a Downtown Dallas taqueria, unlike many conventioneers or sporting-event visitors, WWE fans will actually spend money with a host city’s local businesses. That leaves brands with a decision: either stand around aloofly asking questions about T-shirts and title bouts, or get in the ring and give the fans what they want. When they yell “Woo!” follow the WWE’s lead and yell “Woo!” right back.