The State of Ring of Honor

“ROH is starting to turn into late game AWA. Every time you turn around, someone’s bailing for the WWE.” – Charlie Owens

What if Charlie’s right?

Michael Bennett. Maria Kanellis. Cedric Alexander. Moose. Veda Scott. Truth Martini. ACH. Donovan Dijak. Michael Elgin. Steve Corino. Kyle O’Reilly. Lio Rush. Keith Lee.

Soon, Bobby Fish.

Adam Cole? Dalton Castle?

That’s who we’ve lost from the ROH roster since the beginning of 2016. Look at that list. Some of them? Inconsequential. Others? Huge.

Bennett, Kanellis, & Moose headed off to TNA. Cedric was bound for the WWE Cruiserweight division. Strong was off to NXT. Dijak, ACH, Lee, & Rush are now members of the EVOLVE roster. Elgin stayed in NJPW and says he won’t be returning to ROH. Corino took a trainers job in NXT. O’Reilly is in limbo right now, having just recently resurfaced for a local fed in St. Louis, and he’ll be working a Rev Pro show as well. Scott headed back to the indies, maybe the WWE women’s tournament. Truth is running his own school.

Bobby Fish has made it clear that he’s available for indie bookings by the end of March when his current ROH deal runs out.

On his podcast, Jim Ross called Adam Cole going to NXT “the worst-kept secret in pro wrestling.”

And, according to Dave Meltzer, Dalton Castle has begun putting out feelers that he may be available for dates later in the year, coinciding with the end of his ROH contract.

What’s really going on in Ring of Honor right now?

Let’s take a look at where we are in ROH, how we got there, and what may happen going forward.

Ring of Honor is owned by Sinclair broadcasting, who bought the company from Cary Silkin in 2011. Sinclair is a pretty big deal; they’re the second largest television station operator in the US by sheer number of stations, and the largest in total coverage across the US. Their total assets exceed 5 billion dollars, with revenue in the billions coming into the company each year.

In short, for them, ROH isn’t much more than another line item on their budget, and it certainly doesn’t affect them all that much. Were it disappear, they probably wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

So that’s Sinclair, they own the team. ROH itself is run by a dude named Joe Koff, who is the COO of Ring of Honor. Hunter Johnston, also known as Delirious, is the head booker of ROH. They’re the main players in the company on the creative side.

What does Joe Koff think about ROH and their place in the wrestling world? Let’s take a quick look.

About expanding ROH’s fanbase: “But for the most part Ring of Honor is the aficionado’s promotion. If you want to see wrestling and if you want to see the most amazing artistry, integrity of the craft and the art, there is no promotion that out-wrestles Ring of Honor…

Whereas (WWE) calls themselves sports entertainment we call ourselves an entertaining sport. That’s one of the differentiators. An average match of ours is 20 minutes with 17 in the ring. Maybe five will be in the ring from the other side. But those guys are good on the mics. They understand their brand, and they understand what they do. We’re a wrestling brand.”

Are they competition for the WWE: “…..WWE is a 30-year overnight success. They produce a lot more content. They’re producing four to six hour of live TV content a week. They’re good at it, and they did it the right way, like they do everything.

I will never be their competition. I will be in their space, and Ring of Honor will do what Ring of Honor does. And I’m not going to be swayed by what they do or anyone else does. We are true to our brand. That is what kept us going and will allow us to grow.”

About former talent coming back to ROH: “When Chris (Daniels) wanted to come back, he was welcomed with open arms. And that’s the same with all of my ex-guys. There’s not any grudges or malice. They went to try what they wanted to try and for some of them, they’ll probably never come back to Ring of Honor. And that’s because it’s good that they’ll never come back.”

Source is the following:

What can we unpack from that?

First, Koff seems to be saying that the ROH model appeals to the hardcore fan and the hardcore fan alone. They aren’t looking to expand beyond the space they currently occupy. Okay, fine. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, one of the reasons that ROH is successful is that they ‘stay in their lane’ when it comes to their place in the wrestling world.

Here’s the rub, though.

The independent wrestling world has clearly changed over the last few years, and the main thing responsible is, of course, NXT. No longer does talent stay in ROH for a long period of time waiting for the shot at the big time. Now, even guys like Roderick Strong, a great wrestler who never seemed to fit into the WWE’s plans, gets a chance to maybe make it up to the main roster some day, and the pipeline is NXT.

The WWE Network and their huge appetite for talent and programming are the other biggest factor, of course. Over the last few years, the WWE has put on the Cruiserweight Classic and the UK Championship tournament. And it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. A women’s tournament is planned for later this year, apparently. Multiple promotions are angling to possibly air their content on the Network, including some of the UK feds.

EVOLVE. Arguably the 2nd largest independent promotion in the United States, a serious case could be made for them being ahead of ROH in many key areas, not the least of which is their working relationship with the WWE. With guys like Lio Rush, Keith Lee, and Donovan Dijak gravitating towards that promotion, we can see a real progression where most of the top talent on the independent scene is looking to EVOLVE as the future, not Ring of Honor.

See, the problem with the list above is not the amount of talent leaving, it’s WHO is leaving. Guys like O’Reilly, Rush, Lee, and Dijak are all young and have their best years ahead. The Ring of Honor paradigm has always been to get young talent while they can (Bryan Danielson, Nigel McGuinness, Samoa Joe, CM Punk) and push them out there to be seen, with the full knowledge that they would be leaving someday when they were ‘noticed’ by the big guys. Danielson stayed for 7 years, Joe for 5, Punk for 4, Nigel for 6. Today, that seems like an eternity.

But the young talent doesn’t need ROH any more for that purpose. Now, ROH is arguably a less than desirable place to achieve that goal; there are better options out there for that young talent to be seen. With the incredible proliferation of online streaming services, anyone can watch almost every major promotion’s show if they want, from New Japan World to PROGRESS to EVOLVE to Revolution Pro; Ring of Honor isn’t unique on the aspect that they present an excellent in-ring product anymore. Good wrestling is everywhere now, accessible to everyone.

What about the Sinclair commitment to ROH? What about it? This is a multi-billion dollar company, one that could eat the WWE for lunch if they chose. The fact that they don’t want to challenge them on any level speaks volumes. Notice that ROH TV hasn’t changed all that much over the last several years, in presentation or otherwise, even though even a minor investment from the parent company could go a long way to improve the look of the show. Yet, year after year, show after show, we get the same thing.

They own 15 years of archives, some of the earliest matches in the careers of multiple WWE main-eventers. Yet, their streaming service for Ringside members is severely behind companies like the WWE or NJPW. They continue to push DVD heavily, a dying format, as a main revenue source, whilst also relying on traditional PPV pricing in an era where Wrestlemania is 10 bucks.

Despite all that, ROH manages to finish in the black year after year, according to most published numbers. House shows remain strong for the company, something that other companies (cough*TNA*cough) have huge issues with. They have a working relationship with both NJPW and CMLL, giving them a nice pipeline to international talent for the company.

So, you’ve got a wrestling company that performs extremely well on the balance sheet, has a celebrated history in the pro wrestling world, and has allies that should allow it to be at least a decent-sized fish in the pond.

Why are so many wrestlers leaving?

Could it be that the parent company really, really doesn’t give a shit? Let’s face it: Sinclair isn’t going to invest heavy money into ROH, because if they were going to, they would have by now.

What did Meltzer have to say in the Observer two weeks ago?

“Sinclair has not put ROH in a position to have television production at the level of TNA, and even owned by a network, as opposed to a privately owned TNA until recently (and Anthem is peanuts as far as the size of its network compared to Sinclair, which is actually a far larger company than any company that owns a wrestling franchise including WWE), they don’t have the international distribution. In today’s environment the backing and aggressiveness in spending means more than talent and booking.”

Basically, they don’t want to spend the money. And the talent knows it.

What else did you have to say in that issue, Uncle Dave?

“There have been a lot of suppositions about current buzz and popularity. There were markets down toward the end of last year. However, things have been largely good this year. The 3/4 show at the Hammerstein Ballroom did a sellout of 1,800 fans, a number the company didn’t hit regularly during its heyday unless it was a major show or a PPV show, and that was with Cole vs. Fish, Bucks vs. Lio Rush & Jay White and Will Ospreay vs. Dragon Lee as the top advertised bouts. That number was drawn without anyone knowing the Hardys or Bully Ray would be there. The Hardys being on that show led to more talk, based on Google searches for the product than any time in its history, 15 percent above the peak set during last May’s New Japan tour, and 22 percent above the peak prior to that during June 2014. Then the PPV saw that record setting level of interest topped by another 28 percent.

That would indicate the most interest in the ROH product of any time in its history was, over the past two weeks, and by a substantial margin. That isn’t to say this couldn’t be WCW in February 1998 when they were on fire and had a string of 23 straight sellouts but it was pretty clear they were going down. And the amount of talent leaving is a significant story.

The 3/10 show in Las Vegas at Sam’s Town Casino sold out for the PPV, which means little since it was only 900 tickets, but they were up 100 tickets for the TV tapings in comparison to the same show last year when they had most of the key New Japan talent as opposed to this year with nobody from New Japan. The 4/1 show in Lakeland has more than 2,200 tickets sold, far ahead of the last two years even though they are about an hour away from Orlando, and they are at the pace to set the all-time company attendance record. They are running a larger building, but there are also far fewer people coming to Florida this year as compared to Texas. Granted, that is being drawn by The Hardys vs. Young Bucks and the Hardys aren’t staying. The company may set its record, but it’s not necessarily a sign of building something that will sustain things at a higher level going forward. But it hardly supports the business falling due to lack of interest either.”

So, the product has enough interest to generate attendance. It has enough to get people to show up without being ‘prompted’ by appearances from guys like Matt and Jeff Hardy. The hard numbers seem to support that ROH is in a fine financial position right now.

But they can’t keep wrestlers. They can’t seem to sign wrestlers, outside of Bully Ray.

See, I keep circling back to the one thing that seems to stand out the more and more that I research this whole thing – Ring of Honor is owned by a company that is completely content with what they do, but they’re content enough not to try to move forward or up in the world at all; rather, they’ll be happy with not losing money on the company and that’s it.

So, when you’re a young, talented wrestler, the idea of Ring of Honor becomes less appealing on a certain level when there’s hotter feds out there, and the WWE has their very own version that is a proven way to eventually get to the main roster. Why would you go to a company that, even with an admittedly sterling history, doesn’t have much backing from the principal owners? When there are other options to help you hit the big time?

Ring of Honor can go on pretty much forever in its current state, this much is true. But what is it going to look like?

As I was writing this, the news broke that the WWE has been in talks to buy ROH. Let’s check back in with Meltzer and this week’s Observer:

“There had been stories going around wrestling of talks between Sinclair and WWE regarding buying ROH in recent weeks, to the point over the past month, there were people asking questions to those in the company about the story. Those in the company denied the story being accurate at the time to talent that had asked…..

A major key to the deal would include the purchase of the ROH library, which has early matches of many of the current top WWE names including Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan, A.J. Styles, Austin Aries and many others. We’re told WWE first inquired about purchasing ROH dating back to August, and wanted to do so for more than just the tape library. There have also been at least minor inquiries and feelers about purchasing other independent companies, both in the U.S. and the U.K., for tape libraries and perhaps to limit outside options for talent.

If WWE was to purchase the company, the question becomes would they operate it and honor the contracts or close it down, like was the plan with TNA when there were negotiations to purchase that company a few months ago largely for the videotape rights and intellectual property going forward. WWE has a lot of developmental talent that really needs more ring time in front of fans than they are getting in the current system. It’s also beneficial for the company, as far as being able to keep pay for the top rising stars down by taking away alternatives, to control as much of the full-time U.S. marketplace as there is…..

As noted many times, Sinclair has never gotten fully behind the company, which was ahead of Impact in a lot of facets including overall interest, but never was able to get the television production quality necessary to get the type of overseas money deals and national cable deals that have kept Impact barely afloat over the past year. The production of the television has improved over the past year. Still, both companies lost Destination America at the same time, but Impact was able to get on Pop TV, while ROH got on Comet TV, which was mostly low power broadcast stations that weren’t on most cable systems. Because of being on Sinclair broadcast stations, ROH reached more viewers weekly than Impact, but still lagged behind in production and overseas penetration.

Those in WWE had talked about meetings for such a deal two weeks ago, and for a few days the story was being talked about by people on the inside in other companies, but nothing had materialized. At this point there is nothing concrete as to where this stands or the odds of it actually taking place.”

Well, maybe we won’t have to worry about any of this much longer.

I’ve been an ROH fan for more than a decade. I write my recaps not for money or clicks from people (because I’d be failing miserably on both those fronts), but because I like what they do and want more people to like what they do. It’s worth it to me to do it.

I don’t have any answers here, only one question in the end.

What is going on with Ring of Honor?

Charlie, I hope you’re wrong.

As always, thanks for reading this thing I wrote,

Rick Poehling
@MrSoze on Twitter