WrestleMania III attendance redux: I think I know what happened!

Because I LOVE to beat some dead horses in my spare time.

Screenshot: WWE Network.

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As many of you reading probably know, almost two and a half years ago, I wrote an article for Deadspin where I attempted to do as well-researched a job as possible of getting to the bottom of the actual attendance figure for WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1987. If you haven’t read it before, or just need a refresher, stop what you’re doing now and read it before you go any further.

The Cliff’s Notes are:

  • That the longtime claim from Bryan Alvarez (and, if I’m remembering correctly, Dave Meltzer as well) that the Silverdome website “changed” the building records they had up “for years” to satisfy angry wrestling fans is not true. While the “official”/worked WWE figure for WM3 (93,173) and a new worked figured for the Papal mass later that year (93,682) were posted to the site in May 2003, Wayback Machine archives show that there was no mention of those records on the site beforehand. If the site ever had 88,000 or a similar figure for the mass listed as the building record, it was only for a few weeks.

  • Literally everyone—from mainstream media to the Silverdome to the WWF to Meltzer—was in agreement that a sellout for WM3 was about 88,000 fans until a pair of Detroit Free Press articles two days before the show, at which point figures in the 93,000 range started to be floated.

  • Meltzer’s version of how he found out that the official records from the event placed the total attendance in the 78,500 range (local promoter Zane Bresloff, now in WCW, faxing him the paperwork after a mid-’90s Hogan profile used the 93,173 figure) is both contradicted and complicated by his own past writing. Not only was he writing as early as 1990’s WrestleMania issue of the Observer that 93,173 was “a work number,” but back in 1987, about two weeks before WM3 (and about 10 days before it sold out), he reported that the advance for the show was…78,500.

  • Because of TV blackout rules, the legit fixed seat capacity of the Silverdome at the time was well known to be 80,638.

  • We’re not getting any official Silverdome records because Pontiac’s former Emergency Financial Manager never returned them.

  • The Secret Service was attending WM3 to work on the Pope’s security plan for the Silverdome mass. (A Freedom of Information Act request for anything related to WM3 and the mass, pending when the article was published, came back with a “no responsive documents” letter.)

So with that out of the way, why am I writing this now?

As I’ve tweeted about sometimes of late, finding out that I have free access to the Gale OneFile database (anyone in NY state has the same privileges) has been a huge boon for research, as it contains a lot of trade publications that covered wrestling, from multiple TV trades to Amusement Business. But they also have a deep archive of PRNewswire press releases going back to 1983. In searching through that cache, I found the press release that the WWF sent out about WrestleMania III ticket sales a week before the show. The figure it gives is “more than 88,000,” and there was no follow-up press release published using the 93,173 figure after the show. Arguably, this implies that the “real” number was meant to be expressed as about 88,000 with 93,173 simply being the “entertainment number.”

But this isn’t the only further information I’ve gathered in the last 2+ years.

In the comments of the Deadspin article (no longer visible), one reader talked about being at WM3 and how the halls and restrooms were filled with fans who got in free and just wanted to be there. This was backed up by an email I got around the same time from then-WWF photographer Tom Buchanan. Without demonstrable proof that the Silverdome’s fixed seating capacity was a work, this made 78,500 through the turnstiles seem even less plausible than before.

Meanwhile, fan/historian Max Tamalie tried to count the floor seats using the high resolution photo of the crowd on the Detroit News website (mirror here) and came up with a tally of about 6,300; he came up with 6,568 for the mass more recently. He’s also repeatedly pointed out that according to the level by level breakdowns of Silverdome seating, there were 1,246 seats on the suite level and 7,342 club seats. If you subtract those 8,588 seats from the official fixed seat total—which has varied slightly with renovations but always sat at 80,000 and change (the final capacity was 80,311)—you get a figure in the 72,000 range. (71,723 for the final capacity and 72,050 for the circa WM3 capacity.) If you subtract the approximately 6,300 floor seats from the approximate internal WM3 attendance figure of 78,500, you get 72,200, a number in the same range as the stadium minus club and suite levels figures.

In other words? For some reason, it looks like the building settlement that Bresloff sent Meltzer (which Meltzer further verified in 2001 when WWE gave him access to internal records, although he’s never given an exact number) was, for some reason, missing the suite and club level ticket holders. It can’t be a coincidence that the math keeps taking us to the same place, with about 88,000 people there for both WM3 and the Papal mass. With Meltzer’s past claim that the mass somehow drew about 10,000 more people than WM3 (“They were more jammed in,” he said in 2005) clearly being inaccurate based on photos and video of both events, and I’m pretty confident that we more or less know what happened now:

WrestleMania III drew about 88,000 fans (about 85,000 paid), the number was worked up to 93,173, internal paperwork somehow omitted the club and suite levels (separate sales channels? separate entrances without turnstiles?), and the discrepancy fueled decades of arguments.

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