By Chuck Carroll
Ring of Honor is undeniably WWE‘s chief competitor. Company officials deny that is the case, but it is true nonetheless. Top officials will say the promotion is just playing to a niche market, one that doesn’t intersect with pro wrestling’s Goliath. That may have been the case in the recent past, but now pro wrestling is in the midst of a seismic shift. Bullet Club t-shirts are commonplace in the front row of Monday Night Raw. Then there’s “one… two… sweeeeet” falsettos that echo from the crowd following near falls. Some may also say there was even talent poaching and a liberal borrowing of wrestling styles on WWE’s part. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s not necessarily working for Vince McMahon and company.
At a time when WWE is generating record revenue, the company is also experiencing audience erosion both in television viewership and ticket sales. Another competitor, Impact Wrestling, is actually paying actors to fill the stands. All the while, ROH has been steadily growing. The attraction of Kenny Omega and infusion of New Japan Pro Wrestling are catapulting the company to new heights. Sellout crowds are commonplace, and attendance records are being broken. And the momentum shows no signs of slowing.
In fact, ROH will attract a wave of new fans if federal regulators approve its parent company’s proposed multibillion-dollar merger, as expected. The planned deal could give Ring of Honor a presence in more than 70% of the country… you can do the math.
ROH isn’t just on the cusp of significant traditional media growth, they are also taking a large step forward in the digital realm. After once shunning the idea, they are now developing a subscriber-based streaming network. In some ways it will function like WWE Network, but it will also be uniquely Ring Of Honor. The service will be available online and as a mobile app for Android and iOS operating systems. The content will also be available on Roku with plans for Apple TV and Android TV as well.
COO Joe Koff is two steps beyond thrilled with the success the company is experiencing. He carries himself as a proud father, who finds it hard to contain the pride he has in the talent in the locker room. I had the opportunity to speak to Koff before the company holds shows in Fort Lauderdale and Lakeland, Florida this weekend. He filled me in on a few new details about the streaming service and the company’s potential for future growth.
The additional exposure in other markets can only help raise your profile. Do you plan to expand the number of cities that you’re touring in, given that you’re going to be on in additional television markets?
Well we always take into account the markets that have TV, and we look to see if there’s a match there. And if there is — does it make sense? So we have done that as we have grown our portfolio of stations.
There are a lot of markets we already go to because they’re in large markets, they’re in big markets. It might open up the West for us, which we’ve been talking about anyway — expanding out further west than we go. So that that’s a real possibility, and probably we’ll see some markets being added that might be attributed to their being there or just because we would have gotten there anyway.
Oh, by the way, I make my first ring appearance in two weeks on Ring of Honor television.
Oh really now? That must have been exciting for you.
What was exciting about it for me was really the process of how it developed and then how it ended. It speaks… to our company, and it speaks to why people are looking at Ring of Honor differently, because it was so collaborative. We knew what the desired result was going to be. And even involving me was a big ask, but it was so important to the story and important to what would happen that night. But there are a lot of people involved in that. And I love that, and I love watching that Polaroid develop. We were shaking it as it was developing, and there was so much input, so much creative wisdom and experience being poured into it. It was really exciting. … My part being the least, believe me.
I don’t think I’ve read the spoilers yet. Did you take a bump?
There’s nothing on that. The only spoiler I read — and the reason why you didn’t read a lot on it — is because it was the night that WWE had all of the infection stories going on and how it changed whatever that pay-per-view they did that weekend. So it [WWE] really grabbed all the headlines.
But I saw a report in the PW Insider the next day, and they talked about that situation. And the only thing they said was that Joe Koff put Bubba over. So I probably did what I was supposed to do.
The last time you and I spoke, you said there were no plans to do an additional streaming service; you were pretty happy with what was currently available on your website. But now, there are. What changed?
Yeah, we have an app coming out in the first quarter. It really became developmentally the right time to do it. We saw an opportunity. We had a long discussion about it. We looked at the business model and how it impacts our business. We just felt that this was the time to create our own Ring of Honor stream.
>>MORE: From the world of Pro Wrestling
What can fans expect?
You’re going to see an enhanced Honor Club. We tested it during the Global Wars Tour of streaming house shows to ringside members. You’re going to see a lot more content available, not only to everybody, but certainly in that Honor Club. [When we tested] streaming for two shows, our response was terrific from a quality standpoint and from an accessibility standpoint.
Would the plan be to also to put your Pay-Per-Views on that stream, and move away from the traditional Pay-per-View model?
Well we might continue both. I would like to migrate personally to stream model, because a lot of people are watching on those devices anyway. And the quality is so good. And you know a lot of those boxes are hooked up to big sets and smart TVs and stuff like that. I’m not ruling out traditional pay-per-views, but the world is going that way.
The Young Bucks just had an interesting run in with the WWE. What was your take on that whole cease-and-desist thing?
To be really honest with you, that was between them and WWE. I think they handled it perfectly. If they were to ask me my advice, I would probably have advised them to do it the way they did it. This is beyond Ring of Honor. It’s nothing that happened under our watch. We didn’t have anything to do with it. They acted very responsibly. They are very, very good businessmen. Not only are they gifted performers, they are very good businessmen, and they’re smart about how they do business. I think in their minds — I don’t speak for them — it probably wasn’t worth a war.
You could also argue that a lot of the success recently has been due to your enhanced association with New Japan Pro Wrestling. What kind of boost would you say that you’ve gotten out of that partnership?
Well, we’ve gotten a tremendous boost and I might have said this in another publication — that everyone says, “It’s New Japan, it’s New Japan.” The one thing that I don’t know is if they say in Japan, “It’s Ring of Honor. It’s Ring of Honor.”
This is a very, very strong relationship, and it benefits both sides of the world, because they are bringing in Ring of Honor talent, which is basically the talent that they use — American talent. We’re bringing in Japan. Part of the mystery is you don’t get to see these guys on a regular basis. They make appearances or they come in for a week or two. So it’s special. It works because we work so well together in that regard. The respect for both organizations from each organization is immense, and it is collaborative — how we use the talent, when we use the talent — what’s the outcome for the talent. Is there any way we can make storylines within both organizations, whether it be championships held on either side of the – you know East and West – in their respective counties and areas.
I can’t remember who the critic was, but they had expressed concern that maybe Ring of Honor was putting all of their eggs in the New Japan basket and that was actually going to hamper their growth long-term if that partnership ever fizzles out. Do you get that impression?
I don’t think so. You know, when you tour, you’ve gotta bring new kinds of things to that audience and to make them want to come back. Chuck, I gotta tell you, everyone will ask me, “Well, what about when this guy left, and what about when this guy left?” You know, we’re a pretty resilient organization. And while I have no inkling that the relationship is going to change, when it changes, if it changes, then we’ll deal with it at that time. I mean, we’re pretty resilient.
Let’s talk about an addition as opposed to a departure. Brandi Rhodes coming in now, working with Woman of Honor. That’s bringing some new fresh eyeballs to the company, especially with her new reality show also coming. Speaking of which, has WAGS been filming at Ring of Honor events?
That’s it. Yes. They have been there. One event I know for sure.
What kind of impact would you say she’s had on that division?
The best part that I can say about Brandi is that she’s really good wrestler. So the fact that she’s Brandi, and she has somewhat of a celebrity persona, is exemplified by the fact that she’s really good in the ring. So Ring of Honor people are not necessarily coming to see a particular person, but they’re looking for the person that represents the brand the way they do. And Brandi is a very good brand representative.
I know that people come to see Ring of Honor not necessarily for a specific talent, but Austin Aries is now kind of a free agent. Have you had any discussions with him about maybe coming back?
If there have been discussions, it’s not really been around me. The way I run this organization — operate it– it’s really… Creative does creative, and when creative needs that, then they come to the business side. There’s a lot of people probably talking to us. Because why wouldn’t you? We’re another opportunity out there for work and success. So I’d hope they’d all be talking to us. I don’t care about [anybody coming in] until it gets to a serious level.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.