Professional wrestling since 2001 has existed in two silos: the mighty WWE, and everyone else. No promotion is likely to catch the ever-growing WWE anytime soon (in 2016 it brought in $729 million in revenue and had its highest profit since 2010, according to the Wrestling Observer). At the same time, the WWE is no longer seen as the end goal for some wrestlers. Many choose to not sign exclusive contracts with WWE (see Zack Sabre Jr., Kota Ibushi, Cody Rhodes), opting for the flexibility of working for multiple, smaller promotions—and often finding they can make just as good a living.
The nexus of non-WWE wrestling in the U.S. is happening most visibly at Ring Of Honor, by many measure the second-largest pro wrestling promotion in the country. It’s a company that has seen its touring business on the rise in recent years, buoyed by a roster of ROH stalwarts plus outside talent from its relationship with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The promotion is currently embarked on a sold-out four-city tour that features some of the best in-ring performers in the world: Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, Kushida, Minoru Suzuki, Marty Scurll, and ROH world champion Cody.
Ahead of its Global Wars Chicago pay-per-view Sunday, The A.V. Club spoke to Ring Of Honor C.O.O. Joe Koff on where he plans on taking his company in 2018 and beyond.
The A.V. Club: Is the term “indie wrestling” a pejorative?
Joe Koff: I don’t see it as pejorative at all. When we bought the company from Cary Silkin back in 2011, Ring Of Honor was considered one of the top independents in the country. We’ll always be labeled as that because that’s how we’re remembered, and sometimes memories are much stronger than present tense. But I hardly look at us as an independent promotion. We’re in the middle of a four-day, four-city tour. We have weekly television. We have incredibly distribution. We’re on internationally. I don’t think we’ll ever get that [indie connotation] out of the hardcore fan’s mind. I’m not insulted by it by any means. But when you lump everything into that category, then we’re either at the top of that category or we shouldn’t be included in it at all.
AVC: Ring Of Honor, by all accounts, looks to be doing healthy business. At the same time, you’re bringing in big names like Kenny Omega, and you’re signing established stars like Cody Rhodes to multi-year deal. I guess this is a chicken-or-the-egg question, but which one allowed the other to happen?
JK: There’s a lead lag in business. We had to establish ourselves as a viable brand and company to attract talent to let them know we’re not “that indie promotion.” We had to overcome that. It really didn’t take long—we’re owned and backed by a huge company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, who’s been innovative in local news and now in wrestling. There’s a natural skepticism, going back to indie kind of wrestling world. How many promotions have we seen come and gone since Ring Of Honor even started? So you have to deliver.
Part of the delivery, and I think it’s what helped Ring Of Honor established itself, is our ability to have distribution. And every time we’ve added a new market due to Sinclair’s acquisition strategy, Ring Of Honor has been in that market. We just began in Montana. We have that ability and that gives us a lot of strength, and it also creates a barrier of entry for others to try to emulate that.
Once we got to that point, and the guys understood my management philosophy, all of a sudden guys said, “Okay, we’ll try it.” And they liked it. They started to feel part of a family, where their work was respected. Our locker room is an incredibly vibrant, energetic, very civil and supportive place. So I’m probably using words that don’t exist in a lot of wrestling promotions, but stars started to be attracted here, and stars started to stay. That gave us some stability. Who doesn’t want to work in a place where they’re respected and their creativeness is accepted and open and welcome?
AVC: If wrestlers do leave Ring Of Honor, one reason might be the WWE could offer them more money. Sinclair is in talks to acquire Tribune Broadcasting, and if that deal closes, you’ll be getting distribution in the country’s largest markets—Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. How does the potential deal affect your locker room? Would you be able to sign more wrestlers and give them more lucrative contracts?
ROH: I’m gonna answer that question backward. Before the deal was even announced, we were making those kinds of signings. We’re methodical and disciplined in our business fundamentals. We don’t rely on TV, we’re not Lucha Underground. We have a touring business, we sell merchandise and tickets. It doesn’t hurt to have a bigger distribution source. The one thing I like about the proposed Tribune-Sinclair deal is that it would take us across the country. Assuming that when we have a station that becomes part of Sinclair, Ring Of Honor finds a place on it. There’s been no discussion at this point because we’re in a phase of the deal where it doesn’t make sense to get distracted by that. We’re in a middle of a four-city, four-day tour. It’s ambitious. Show me another “indie” company that does that. So I think it would be great, the Tribune portfolio of stations certainly is not going to hurt us. Will it bring more viewers, more revenue? Yeah, it should do all those things. And that goes back to chicken and egg, there’s a lead lag. Once those things happen, we can invest further into the business. But we’re not waiting for that to happen to continue to grow our business.
AVC: Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, and Kyle O’Reilly are the new hot stable in NXT. Is your expectation that the top Ring Of Honor stars to eventually leave for WWE? Or do you hope to build Ring Of Honor to a place where it’s the end destination?
JK: If we’re perceived to be the step to the WWE, I’m not sure that’s a terrible thing. They have their own development program, but it seems that the guys that come from ROH have somewhat more cachet. A lot of guys aspire and think they can be Wrestlemania mania event. But guys have left the top position in Ring Of Honor to enter into that program—some of them have succeeded, some of them are still finding their way. That’s a personal choice. I never stand in the way of personal choice. I have very special relationships with some of these guys. People do what they need to do and you have to give them the freedom to make those choices.
AVC: If the WWE won’t clear him to wrestle, what are the odds that Daniel Bryan—or Bryan Danielson as many know him—would be wrestling in Ring Of Honor when his contract ends next year?
JK: I’m not gonna give you odds, I wouldn’t even know how to set those. Bryan’s under contract with the WWE, from what I understand, until September 2018. If he chooses not to renew that contract, and he is able to wrestle from a health standpoint, I would welcome him. It would be a triumphant return. I think we would be the right place for him, the right fan appreciation, the right respect from the industry plus management plus everybody. But there’s so many variables in that. Even though it’s not far away, a year in wrestling is a long period of time. But he is more than welcomed to come back and I would love to have him on our roster.
AVC: You have a vast back catalog of wrestling footage. Can we expect a Ring Of Honor streaming service anytime soon?
JK: It’s in development right now. I would expect it to be around the first of the year or a little bit after.
AVC: A number of outlets have reported that there were talks earlier this year between Ring Of Honor and WWE. What were the talks about?
JK: I would just say it was really about content. They put together a Kevin Owens DVD and we were talking about licensing some of the footage. And conversations got into, “Would you be interested in doing more and sharing content.”
AVC: I take it those talks went nowhere.
JK: Well, not yet. Not in the foreseeable future.
AVC: How does New Japan’s entry into the U.S. market affect your business relationship with them? Do you see it as mutually beneficial?
JK: I love our relationship with New Japan as evidence by what we’re seeing in the center of our country this weekend. They’re a very viable, vibrant, robust promotion. They had a successful show in Long Beach and I was thrilled for it. We did a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff to help them. We have a very solid partnership, one that’s based on respect and integrity. Their philosophy and style of booking is very similar to ours. Together the two make for a stronger in-ring promotion. But they did two shows in U.S., and they have a nice clearance on AXS-TV. Not to take anything away from the quality and what they represent, but quite frankly, ROH has helped them in exposing their talent and exposing their people to a broader audience. We’re over-the-air carrier, you don’t need to pay to get us. If a New Japan star is working on Ring Of Honor television, they’re getting to see that for free. So I think the relationship is mutually beneficial.
You know, something I was thinking over last set of days is that I’m asked about WWE, I’m asked about New Japan. I get it. But I wonder if the press is asking in Japan whether Ring Of Honor is the reason why New Japan is so great. And I’m speculating in my mind, because The Bullet Club, The Young Bucks are American. Marty Scurll, English. Their success in New Japan is branded in a lot of non-Japanese wrestlers. So maybe on the other side of the world, maybe they’re asked the same question. Is it that New Japan is why Ring Of Honor is so good right now? Or is it Ring Of Honor because New Japan is so good right now? I don’t know that matters. What matters is we have a relationship that complements both promotions because everyone’s on the same page. That’s what everyone should be talking about: how to build a relationship, whether one is doing it for the other or not.
AVC: Professional wrestling in 2017 to me has a very specific look and feel. It has a rhythm, cadence, a set of innovative and explosive offensive set all its own. Where does ROH fit into this style?
JK: I think we are wrestling of 2017. When you see Ring Of Honor and that specific style, it’s more a brand more than a style. If you’re watching The Briscoes wrestle The Addiction, you’re seeing fan expectations being exceeded, but perhaps not in the same way you would see The Young Bucks vs. The Motor City Machine Guns. I think the level of talent is so superior in Ring Of Honor, the guys are so good at what they do, so honed in on their craft. It’s about delivering a great match to the fan. Jay Lethal-Silas Young is going to have a different feel with The War Machine vs. The Briscoes. The fervor and the way fans proceed it is no different. They expect an incredible match. We are there to create a moment, a moment of wrestling amongst the community that is in that arena. Wrestling, I view, is a community. It’s not mainstream, I’m not walking into the Starbucks line going, “Did you hear about the Jay Lethal match in Buffalo?” People would look at me like “what is that?” But when you get to a wrestling match and you get amongst wrestling fans, you’re free to be you. And that freedom is in the community of wrestling.
Ring Of Honor’s Global Wars Chicago airs on pay-per-view Sunday, October 15.