Thirty-one years ago, WWE (then the WWF) held the third and still the most legendary WrestleMania at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, headlined by Hulk Hogan successfully defending the WWE Championship against Andre The Giant. While the two had faced off numerous times across the country from about 1979 to 1981, that didn’t matter in a time where wrestling history was ignored. With the “undefeated” Andre (he wasn’t, but it was close enough to work) performing as a villain for the first time in the United States, he had a great hook to challenge Hogan, who had been champion for three years. While industry newsletters Wrestling Observer and Mat Results had reported shortly after Hogan’s 1984 title win that Hogan-Andre was being planned for Shea Stadium that year—and the seeds were clearly planted at the time—waiting was the best move because of the dueling undefeated streaks. After Hogan vs. Paul Orndorff packed a stadium show at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1986, it made perfect sense to book WrestleMania III at a similarly large venue, and there were none bigger than the Silverdome.
On March 29, 1987, as WrestleMania III aired live on pay-per-view and closed circuit television, the official attendance was announced live to all of the fans watching live in the building and via satellite: 93,173, billed as a new indoor world record. While it seemed at least mildly exaggerated, the Silverdome’s official football capacity of 80,000-plus made it seem as if the announced number was close enough to not be a huge lie. The stadium was clearly sold out and completely packed, as the photos from the last row show, and, since it was 1987, production kills (seats blocked off) for cameras and other technical equipment would have been minimal. The number became legendary, drilled into fans’ heads for decades as part of what felt like every single video package recapping the event that served as the peak of the ‘80s Hulkamania boom. While WWE now claims 2016’s WrestleMania 32 at AT&T Stadium as its all-time attendance record (announced as 101,763, but 80,709 went through the turnstiles per local police), the Silverdome number is still the number that matters. Through repetition and the sheer scale of the event itself, the “world record” of “93,173” is codified as a sacred cow in a way that something as mundane as attendance figures usually aren’t.
Several years later, as he has recounted many times, Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer was talking to Zane Bresloff, who worked on the local promotion for WrestleMania III through his Awesome Promotions company and had moved on to a job at WCW, WWE’s rival. In discussing a TV special about Hogan, Bresloff expressed surprise that Meltzer still believed that 93,173—or something close to it—was the real Silverdome attendance and immediately faxed him the ticket accounting paperwork, which showed about 78,500. Several years later, in 2001, at a time where Meltzer had a particularly good relationship with WWE, they gave him access to their internal records for a story on stadium shows. Those records confirmed not just the Bresloff WrestleMania III figure, but also lower numbers at the next few biggest WWE shows up to that point. For the next several years, this was a thing that only newsletter readers knew, and it wasn’t a big deal, just another example of something that a wrestling promoter distorted. That would change.
The first sign of trouble came in an August 2003 issue of Bryan Alvarez’s Figure Four Weekly newsletter. “Funny story,” he began. “As everyone reading this newsletter knows by now, the real attendance for WrestleMania III was 78,000 as noted by the promoter of the event itself, Zane Bresloff. For years, the Pontiac Silverdome website used to list the indoor attendance record for the building as 88,000 drawn by the Pope [later in 1987]. Well, recently a bunch of wrestling fans have gotten up in arms over the whole issue and repeatedly e-mailed the building asking for them to confirm the ‘real number.’ So now, the site has been changed to list the supposed 93,173 that WrestleMania drew, and because the Pope really did draw more, they changed his number to 93,682. What would God think about this?”
It’s not entirely clear what the sourcing for the item is: Meltzer has told basically the same story, but it’s not supported by Archive.org’s copies of Silverdome.com. The earliest copy with the figures mentioned by Alvarez is from May 23, 2003, and the previous copy, from a month earlier, has no mention of the building’s announced records. If there was a claim of the Pope drawing 88,000 as the building’s record, it had only been up a few weeks or less, not “years,” Regardless, the posted numbers still could very well have been a response to wrestling fans emailing them to request they settle the dispute.
What really ramped up the contentiousness over the numbers was the rise of Wikipedia. Around 2007, users started to go back and forth editing the article to reflect the two conflicting figures. It got bad enough that the event’s entry is listed as one of the site’s “lamest edit wars,” and from then on, it became a cudgel in arguments about WWE’s honesty, Dave Meltzer, attendance figures in general, and just about anything else that could be remotely relevant. It only got worse with Meltzer’s arrival on Twitter as well as the 2016 launch of former WWE executive Bruce Prichard’s podcast. As part of Prichard’s anti-Meltzer shtick, he has made somewhat circular attempts to defend the larger figure. That many of Meltzer’s old primary-source documents were inadvertently disposed of during a house cleaning doesn’t help matters. Neither does the fact that the WWE truthers do actually have some good points. So how hard can it really be to try to suss this out?
The best argument for the pro-93,173 side (and the anti-78,000 side, since some believe neither figure) is that the building is clearly full and very few seats would have been killed for production purposes, but the lower number falls far below the football capacity. It’s one thing to work the attendance up, but who would care about the number of fixed seats in a stadium? Especially a stadium that was at the center of the ‘80s NFL blackout rules, which required that a game sell out in order to be broadcast locally. As a result, everyone knew full well from the local media, like this 1986 Detroit Free Press article, that a football sellout was 80,638. Surely a WWE sellout with seats on the floor and during a time where there was no elaborate entrance set had to be significantly bigger...right?
In 1987, the 93,173 figure did not appear to be controversial in the wrestling media that existed at the time. Dave Meltzer reported in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter that there were 2,300 comped tickets (implying 90,873 paid), but that was about it. Mainstream media was reporting the 93,173 total attendance as fact, too. That’s notable in a sense because Toronto-area newspapers had reported a relatively legitimate number for WWE’s last stadium show, 1986’s “The Big Event” at CNE Stadium in Toronto. While WWE announced a crowd of over 74,000 fans, the local media reported it as 65,000, which roughly matches up to the official attendance that Meltzer got from WWE 15 years of “about 64,100.”
However, there were already some hints of a myth: For starters, two weeks before the show, Meltzer—who was in regular contact with the WWE office at the time—reported that the advance was, oddly, the 78,500 figure that he later said was the total crowd. His 1987 self added that this figure was “9,500 shy of a sellout” of 88,000, which is also the same figure that Meltzer and Alvarez later said was the real number for the Papal mass. The Detroit Free Press had used that same 88,000 as the expected turnout for most of the run-up to WrestleMania III, even as late as the day before. The Associated Press and Lansing State Journal had as well. The day of the show, a Gannett News Service blurb (no byline, but embedded in a larger Gannett WrestleMania III piece by the same author as the Lansing article) cited WWE’s Basil DeVito as the source of the 88,000 figure. It added, though, that DeVito had changed his prediction to 90,000-plus. Meanwhile, the previous Tuesday, a Reno Gazette-Journal blurb appeared to attribute the 88,000 figure to Silverdome executive director Mike Abingdon. There were more, but you get the idea: It looks like the Silverdome and WWE were both claiming 88,000 in the weeks before the show.
Two days before the show, a claim that 93,000 tickets had been sold appeared in a short article in the Free Press about the expected closed circuit and pay-per-view audiences. Making this all the more confusing is how that article appeared on the same page as part of a match- by-match preview that still touted 88,000 spectators. Clearly, these were written at different times and not cross-checked: Another Free Press piece from that day said that there were 92,926 tickets out, a figure that would include comps. Yet another article on that same page as the first two, with a “WrestleMania by the numbers” theme, surprisingly did not mention ticket sales or attendance, but did note that there would be 2,500 concession workers brought on. Vince McMahon has, in fact, copped to including event staff in WWE attendance numbers in the past. Throw in that it seems exceedingly unlikely that the number of seats could suddenly change by the thousands for a meticulously planned event, and you start to smell some shenanigans. But not necessarily shenanigans that suggest that the attendance was less than the football capacity or that the football capacity was actually lower than believed by the general public.
It’s not exactly clear how Meltzer’s two-weeks-out advance sales number fits into this. The earliest reports of a sellout came three days before the show in the Lansing State Journal (which said 90,000) and the Detroit Free Press (which said 88,000). Only the $9, third-level seats were left as of March 17, per the Free Press.
So that’s what the contemporary reporting about WrestleMania III says. Where else can we look? Well, we can see what those reports said about the Pope’s visit. Less than three weeks before WrestleMania, stadium officials told the Detroit Free Press that they estimated that 88,000 could fit in the stadium with seats added on the field along with the Pope’s staging. After the mass, they pegged the crowd at 90,000, as did other newspapers.
The Silverdome was a public building, so a public records request to the clerk’s office in Pontiac seemed like the best idea. However, after several weeks, the clerk’s office explained that everything we asked for, which were building department records with the maximum occupancy listed as well as anything from the public Silverdome Authority with the number of fixed seats, was gone. Specifically, the office of the emergency financial manager who took control of the city during a period of crisis and helped sell the Silverdome never returned everything like they were supposed to. The city employee who informed Deadspin about this was apologetic and noticeably frustrated in explaining what happened.
What else? Well, three days before WrestleMania, the Detroit Free Press ran an article revealing that, to help develop the security plan for the Pope’s visit several months later, the U.S. Secret Service would be attending WrestleMania III. A Freedom of Information Act request for records of that visit is still pending. The Detroit Archdiocese, when asked, was only able to provide press clippings about the trip.
As for the 93,682 figure first posted by Silverdome.com in 2003, it does not show up on Newspapers.com until coverage of Pope John Paul II’s death in 2005, with Florida Today citing that number. The Detroit Free Press also used that number a few days later in a story on the announcement that the Silverdome was being shut down. As for Google Books, the only hit is for an Oakland Press article about the closure of the stadium from 2006. It seems perfectly reasonable to believe that this number was indeed made up in 2003.
Meltzer was already outright saying in 1990 (in that year’s WrestleMania issue of the Observer) that 93,173 was “a work number.” That was when Bresloff was still a WWE contractor and thus before he sent his documents to Meltzer. However, in what appears to be the Observer’s first reference to a specific lower number in 1995 (in his coverage of the combined WCW/NJPW shows at Mayday Stadium in North Korea), the part about WrestleMania III says that “later reports have the actual ticket count in the building at 78,000.” The sources of those “later reports” are not specified. The April 9, 2001 issue where Meltzer had direct access to WWE’s records pegs the real number as “about 78,000” with paid attendance at “about 75,700.” A request for WWE to either provide the same records to Deadspin or comment on the dispute has not yet been returned as of this writing.
With Bresloff having died years ago, there’s one person who Meltzer usually points to as being able to back him up: Steve Harms, a sometimes ring announcer who would do work for Awesome Promotions when Zane and his assistant had too much on their plate. Harms, though, doesn’t quite seem sure what the absolute truth is. “About a week before the event Zane mentioned to me that they could probably sell 90,000 tickets,” he told Deadspin. “They wanted the Silverdome to look full for TV, so it was time to ramp up the comp tickets and that’s what they did. I don’t know, or remember, how many comps were out there by the event date.” While he knows former WWE employees who agree with the smaller number being the real one, he’s also not sure if that was the total number of people in the building or just the number of tickets sold. “Does that number include comps? Probably not,” he added. “I’m quite sure there weren’t 93,000 people or 90,000 for that matter at the event.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone will ever get down to the real number. It seems clear that WWE exaggerated by at least 5,000 people, but the idea that there was a significant gulf between the crowds at WrestleMania III and the papal mass seems unlikely based on newspaper reports and photos of both events. Meltzer has noted in the past that he believes that fixed seat capacities for many stadiums and arenas are already exaggerated based on accounting paperwork he got for wrestling sellouts in the era before staging blocked off much of the fixed seating. That is the only thing that could put the WrestleMania III crowd under 80,000 since the building was clearly full with minimal fixed seats blocked off, if any. But if that isn’t the case, then short of an eventual Secret Service FOIA response that includes capacity and/or attendance figures, there aren’t any clear options left beyond trying to count floor seats. The Detroit News’s website has the highest resolution version if you really want to try.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix