In case you haven’t noticed, wrestling is cool again.
It’s now common to see someone sporting a Bullet Club T-shirt and it doesn’t feel out of place to discuss wrestling during a night out with friends.
There is a lot of it and a lot of good wrestling.
Ring of Honor has been one of the big winners of the wrestling boom. Now entering its 16th year, the company has slowly and steadily grown into the second largest pro wrestling promotion in the country.
ROH is drawing sellout crowds with its attendance records regularly being broken. Just a year ago, the Supercard of Honor drew its largest audience to date with more than 3,000 fans that traveled more than an hour from the WrestleMania host city of Orlando to Lakeland, Fla. to see the action.
ROH will break that record with this year’s Supercard of Honor event on April 7 with around 5,500 fans packing the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.
The company is steadily growing and has a ton of momentum behind a talented roster with the likes of the Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Ring of Honor World Champion Dalton Castle, and a relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
ROH is also taking a big step forward with its Honor Rising subscriber-based streaming network that launched last month. The service — now available online and soon as a mobile app on both iOS and Android along with Roku and Apple TV — includes live events and access to its video library.
You can hear the excitement in COO Joe Koff’s voice when he talks about Ring of Honor as he regularly does with fans, meeting and greeting them and watching the events many times as one of them in the crowd.
Sporting News recently spoke with Koff about Ring of Honor’s growth, it’s relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and the launch of Honor Club.
(Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
SPORTING NEWS: Does Ring of Honor feel like a different company now than it does from a year ago?
JOE KOFF: I think what's we've achieved in the last year makes it feel like a different company but I think the company is the company and it has its core. One of the things I've been very proud of doing from the time we acquired it is really preserving the core or what Ring of Honor represents. I think this year we've stimulated the progress of Ring of Honor significantly. So, does it feel like a different company? I think at our foundations it's the same but I think, from our expansiveness, it definitely feels different.
SN: Is there anything that stands out over the past year that surprises you when it comes to growth?
JK: I think what I'm seeing more than anything is the fruit of our efforts. One of the things that I pride myself on in running the organization and we, as an organization — it's a lot more "we" than it is "I" — is the fact that we are so collaborative in the way we think and the way we approach our talent and allowing them to bring us ideas and allowing them to tell their stories and I think when we talk about the last year, because it's really is from last year to this year because last year we were at the Lakeland Center and we had our biggest crowd ever. That was a good distance away from the action of all of the other WrestleMania events (Lakeland is about 60 miles away from Orlando) and it signified to me that we're doing something right. And a lot had to do, obviously, with the Young Bucks versus the Hardys at that time which was a signature event.
When I walked out and saw the size of that crowd, and again, albeit, relative to everything, our biggest crowd to date, I was just struck. I was struck by the fans adoration and the work the guys had put in to get us to that point. Now, one year later, we are, again, probably going to come close to doubling that size of that crowd in New Orleans. It has to be organic or it just has to be that the wrestling gods are watching over us. I think we're doing what we're supposed to be doing which is putting on a fantastic product, surprising the fans, keeping the stories fresh, keeping the surprises there. I just think we're doing our jobs and I don't want to give myself a jinx because I hate doing that. It's really work ethic. I think if you do what you're supposed to be doing every day that you do it, then it happens.
SN: The thing that stands to me regarding Ring of Honor is taking the basics, modernizing them, and trusting in your talent to be able to go out and use their energy and skill to play that out for the audience. That comes down to trusting the talent and working with them. What has this period been like when you have talent that you do, especially these creators like Cody and the Young Bucks who are on the forefront of wrestling?
JK: One of my other jobs in the company is training and development of people and managers and salespeople. I use a slide when I introduce the program and it's pretty close to what you said. I also ask people who are taking my class or working with me, even to my own guys in Ring of Honor, to trust the buoyancy and I think that's what you're talking about. There's a certain buoyancy in Ring of Honor and, no matter who's been wrestling in it, it always seems to be there and I think if you're true to your core, and true to your values, and true to your wrestling beliefs, if you trust that buoyancy, it will keep you afloat and even more.
I think that exists and I do trust my guys. And they trust us. There's a very, very good relationship that exists between talent and management and I think the foundation of that relationship is really respect. I think everyone respects what each other does in their roles and because of that, there's a very positive feeling and vibe that goes through our dressing room, that transcends to the ring which then transcends to the fan. I think we're very unique in that regard.
SN: What has it been like, from your perspective, to see the Young Bucks and Cody in what they've been able to do for Ring of Honor over this past year along with their growth as performers?
JK: I only met Cody when he joined Ring of Honor a little bit more than a year ago. But the Young Bucks, I think, were on our very first program that we did back in 2011. I always thought they were amazing talent. I always liked them and I liked them, not only as performers because I think they put everything out there. They're really smart but, this is really me, they're really good people. They're good fathers, they're good husbands, they're good family people. They have really good values. They're really extraordinary at what they do. One of the things I wanted, when the Bucks signed with us on an exclusive domestically, I really take pride in the fact that they were listening to what I was saying which was we can offer you a place to work where you don't have to work every weekend on shows that put your bodies at risk and enjoy your family because I really believe there's a balance.
As performers and as influencers, and they are definitely social media influencers, the fact that Cody chose to work in Ring of Honor really speaks more to the levels of what I'm talking about. He could have gone anywhere. I think here he understands that he's respected, he's appreciated, he's loved, and he really delivers to us what we need him to deliver. I think that their understanding of the business is just amazing. The halo effect of what they do in the locker room has been fabulous. I'm really pleased with the relationship. I hope I can say they are as well and I'd like to see it continue. Who wouldn't?
Cody belongs in Ring of Honor and Cody represented Ring of Honor and was a great champion and maybe again. The way he carries himself and the way he comports himself is so professional. I think he feels at home here. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact we are a back-to-basics organization but very much in touch with what's going on now. I think there's a comfort for people like Cody, performers like Cody, stars like Cody and the Young Bucks and Marty (Scurll) and Jay Lethal and the Briscoes. I can go down the list. I think they all feel that way which makes it special.
SN: We've seen so many people have successful runs with ROH and then move on to a WWE career. Are you surprised that some of your talents, including the Briscoes and Jay Lethal, are still with Ring of Honor?
JK: No, I'm not surprised at all. A lot has to do with career maturity, I'll call it. The younger guys, they've grown up idolizing the WWE and they've always felt they need to get their start on the indie circuit. That's not going to stop. There's always going to be people that feel that's where they need to be because, in their minds or the minds of some of their fans, that's the epitome of success. I don't know whether it is or it isn't. I've been in broadcasting a long time and I've never worked in New York City. I don't know that I need to, and don't know that it ever really crossed my mind. My job was to be the best at what I did wherever I was.
When you look at a Jay Lethal and you look at the Briscoes, they have perspective. They have a little more perspective than I guy that just came through the business five years ago. And I think they realize what Ring of Honor represents to them. It represents a good living. It represents not (working) 200 dates a year. It represents an appreciation. I use our talent far greater than people know because we have a huge organization, but they've gone on sales calls with me. They've appeared in front of training classes. This is a little different or an organization than a wrestling promotion and that's because it's part of our business and this business happens to be wrestling. I think, from that perspective, if people understand that, it makes more sense for them to stay in Ring of Honor. But at the end of the day, people have to do what's best for their families and what they think is best for their career and I will never stand in the way of that. I love all the guys that wrestle for me and I only wish them the greatest success when they leave Ring of Honor.
SN: I do wonder what the argument is like when you talk to talent now. They are so smart about everything that is going on and they know their careers, they know where they want to be, and they know what works for them. We know some of them dream of going to WWE but we see how strong wrestling is now outside of there with Ring of Honor and New Japan and all of these other places in the U.S. and around the world. What is the discussion like now with talent in saying this is the right place for you?
JK: I can only present what we represent to them as part of our organization. They have to make their own choice. There is so much life outside of the WWE world. I don't want to take anything away from them because they've created an amazing infrastructure and they really are the best of the best in our industry. I'm not saying their wrestlers are the best of the best but as an organization and what they've achieved. But let's not lose the fact that I watched the forerunner of the WWE as a child. That's where I started watching wrestling, in New York. It was called Capitol Wrestling and it was Vince McMahon's father. I was in Madison Square Garden for Bruno Sammartino and Gorilla Monsoon and all of those days. I'm in my 60's and I started watching wrestling at the Garden when I was 8. This is not an overnight success. This has been a long process and they've prospered because they're good at what they do. They're focused on what they do.
Ring of Honor is a young organization. We just had our 16th-anniversary show. We're only 16 years old. We're a rambunctious teenager. We're mature at times and maybe sometimes we appear to be immature but we have a lot of good growth ahead of us that excites me. I think people who want to be a part of that can see that. We're also not an independent organization in the sense that sometimes people like to label us. We have television every week. We do 40 some odd events. We have pay-per-views. We have live streaming. We're a formidable competitor and it is this formidable competitor that's Ring of Honor that's raised the level of professional wrestling in general.
The synergies between New Japan and Ring of Honor, they're just so easily understood if you watch both promotions and how they operate. Together, we're stronger. I like the fact that wrestling is at a high point right now. If you've followed the history of wrestling, it's cyclical and, right now, we're in a good, high cycle. A good high cycle of the men's talent, very good, high cycle for women. Why? I don't know. I'd like to say it's a little bit coincidental that it's tied to Ring of Honor's rise and Ring of Honor's popularity and maybe the fact that we're forcing other promotions to see it, to see wrestling differently than we do it.
SN: You mentioned the partnership with New Japan. How do you think that has developed over time and where do you think Ring of Honor would be right now without the synergy between the two companies?
JK: That's a fair question. I get asked that a lot: where do you think New Japan would be without Ring of Honor right now? I think there's not one up on either of them. It happened because both promotions have a similar philosophy of wrestling. There's a history, obviously, with New Japan and Ring of Honor but it's really been developed over the last five years under our guidance and under our aegis. I think that together we are stronger as an international organization and also as a place for talent because if they can offer dates and we can offer dates and we can put together a good year at good pay, then we've done a good service for the wrestlers who are wrestling for both of us.
I think it's a really good relationship. I would only want it to sustain but they're a business and we're a business and they have to do their business the way they need to do their business. I fully understand that, but we're working with them. They offer real wrestling. I was in Tokyo at the end of February to watch Honor Rising and there's a real respect there for our wrestlers and, obviously, a real respect for the New Japan wrestlers. I'm glad that they're given that opportunity to be seen on both sides of the world. It's important. I hope it continues.
Matches, tickets, #HonorClub, and more!
Sat Apr 7 in NOLA!! pic.twitter.com/QYm9dquuSh— ROH Wrestling (@ringofhonor) March 22, 2018
SN: Is there any concern that it would not continue?
JK: As a businessperson, I'm concerned about all of those things. Some of it's in my control; some of it's out of my control. Ring of Honor has been a resilient organization. We've had amazing people in Ring of Honor and have left Ring of Honor. There's been lots of obits written when those people have left. The organization has never been stronger. I think one of the reasons that the organization has a lot of strength is we have distribution, we have television, we have a strong company that backs us, and we have a strong belief system in what we do. While name talent has always been part of Ring of Honor's lore, Ring of Honor is a brand and a style of wrestling.
When certain people have left, and I can name them all through history going back to CM Punk who is now in UFC, and then Bryan Danielson, Kevin Owens now and Sami Zayn who are big stars on "SmackDown." You could see it then that's what they wanted and they were really good then but the organization didn't stop when they left. The organization kept going because it's organically strong. I like that part. So, if New Japan goes their separate ways and wants to become a competitor in the United States for professional wrestling, then we'll deal with that when we have to deal with that.
SN: We mentioned the 16th-anniversary show and you talked about Ring of Honor trying to surprise fans and keep them excited. One thing that was really surprising was seeing the Impact Wrestling Champion Austin Aries appear on that show. What is the relationship with Impact Wrestling right now?
JK: I've always had a very good relationship with Impact Wrestling. I try to have a good relationship with all of the promotions because why wouldn't I? We're all in the same space. We're all doing the same thing. It's good for the business. That was a creative angle that came out. Austin Aries, who’s a former Ring of Honor wrestler, has never held the belt (ROH Television Championship), and I think he's on a quest to hold every belt he can. It seemed like a natural opportunity. There was no agenda involved. It was a good spot. It surprised the fans. That show had a lot of surprises. When the bear took off his head and it was Kenny Omega. That was unbelievably exciting. But our relationship with Impact, we're happy. They had to agree to it. They did. It certainly doesn't hurt their brand. It was a win-win for all.
SN: What would you like to see going forward when it comes to possibly utilizing talents from other promotions?
JK: We talk about that. Right now, we're into preserving our brand and stimulating our own progress. I don't want it to be muddled. It has to be a good situation. We saw the beginnings of that. It never ended that well because of an organizational switch. But last year, when we had the Hardys and the Bucks together, that was supposed to be like a home-and-home series but because Impact was unable to resign them and they signed with WWE, the back half of that home-and-home series never got played out. If there's a good, creative angle that makes sense for both organizations that enhances both brands and appeal, we would always be open to that.
SN: Do you ever think there will be a time in the near future where there is a relationship with WWE where you exchange talent for big shows?
JK: Anything is possible. I don't think that's in their mindset. We've almost been more open to ideas and thinking like that. I won't speak for them and I really do have a lot of respect for that organization. It just doesn't seem to be the kind of thing that they would be interested. But if they were interested in it, they know how to reach me.
SN: You recently launched the Honor Club streaming service. How do you feel it has gone so far?
JK: I think it's been great. Like with anything in early text, there's going to be a glitch here or a glitch there but we have been adding members daily since we started the service. Obviously, events push that number a little bit. I expect when we do Supercard we will see a spike in numbers for the service. I think it's great. I mean, to be able to live stream our shows — what wrestling fan wouldn't want to watch that?
SN: One of the things people have wondered about is the classic footage. Are we going to be seeing more of that in the near future?
JK: We're working on that. A lot of that footage needs to be digitized. It really needs to be cleaned and cleansed and stuff like that. I think you'll start seeing more footage coming probably as we go from current back as opposed to starting at the beginning and coming forward. I watch a lot of programming and I watch a lot of YouTube videos and stuff like that. The older stuff, it's classic and as much as we love to see it, it doesn't really hold up technically to the aesthetics of the person's mind. Until we can deliver that content that way, I would be more comfortable knowing it's aesthetically pleasing while also delivering the punch of the content.
SN: Is there any kind of hang up when it comes to utilizing footage that includes some talents from over the years? Do you have the rights to that programming?
JK: I have the rights to any time they were part of Ring of Honor. We have the rights to that, to the use of their images and most matches. Absolutely. That has not been a problem.
SN: What is the process when it comes to digitizing and how long of a rollout are you looking at when it comes to that footage from over the years?
JK: I can't give you a timeframe because we're in that process. I would like to think that by the end of one full year we'll have a good majority of it up but I don't want to be held to the fire. Most people are more interested in current stuff anyway. There's no question that the older content is still watched but it's really the current content... I think people would rather see the live streams of current shows and shows with the Young Bucks and New Japan than worry about something from 16 years ago. I really do.
Go in depth: https://t.co/R0jRmjEqrUMarch 13, 2018
SN: Supercard of Honor is coming up in the near future and Dalton Castle is now the Ring of Honor World Champion. What has it been like to watch his progression to becoming the representative of Ring of Honor as the world champion?
JK: He's an incredible worker and an incredibly skilled wrestler. Once you get past that entrance, which is still fantastic and everyone just loves it and the building still pops when they see that graphic come up with the feathers, but when you watch his in-ring work, you're really seeing a champion. His development has been sensational and he's getting stronger and stronger not only as a champion but as a professional wrestler. So, we're really pleased with him as our champion. He's a good champion.
Look at who he's been challenged by. We're putting him in really good matches. He's got a good match coming up at Supercard with Marty. And Marty is a really, really skilled wrestler as well, probably one of the best technicians in the ring. That match should really have an elevated status for both men. I don't know the outcome. I never know the outcome. I never ask for the outcome because I want to be surprised as the fans are. I expect a really, really good match. Very entertaining, very interesting. They're both very charismatic. They're both very expressive. I think it would be really good and I think it will elevate both men, which I'm excited about.
SN: When it comes to Ring of Honor live attendance, you mentioned last year's show in Lakeland and the upcoming Supercard of Honor in New Orleans, which is more than double the size. There's a lot of talk about what Cody and the Young Bucks are doing with their All In event. How far away do you think we are from Ring of Honor doing a 10,000-seat arena?
JK: We might see it before this year is over. That's the hope for All In. I have great faith in what they're trying to do and we're supportive of it. We're working with them in making sure that all the things that are needed are going to be there for them. I don't think it's far-fetched at all. I think that there's a hunger and if you feed the hunger, people will come. People are recognizing in better numbers than ever what a Ring of Honor event is like and what Ring of Honor style of wrestling is like. I think we're starting get more interest in it and I think Honor Club will help with that. There's nothing like a live Ring of Honor event because you can actually feel — you can feel — the emotion, the attention, and the energy and the vibe of that arena. I think 10,000-seats is doable. Hopefully, it will be this year. Wouldn't that be something?
SN: What is that process from your standpoint of wanting to grow and grow incrementally but also, at some point, wanting to take a jump but knowing when the right time is to do that?
JK: We keep testing that this year. Going to the UNO Lakefront Center; it's a big building. I think we saw after last year, we're capable of attracting, especially when you're in the same city and not too far away. We think that is a more attractive option. Of course, the match itself, the main event match, also doesn't hurt but was an announced match and that sold a great preponderance of the tickets. But when you look at the card underneath it that match, while it's still the main event match, every one of those matches is a main event match. I think from a value perspective, we're going to give the fans all of their value that night. I won't be surprised and I haven't been surprised since we've owned Ring of Honor that out show usually on WrestleMania weekend is held as either the best or equal to the best or second best of that weekend.
SN: If we talk one year from now, what do you want to be saying about where Ring of Honor is and what goals do you have laid out for this coming year?
JK: I have a feeling there will be a lot of similarities because, over the last seven years that we've owned Ring of Honor, we've had a plan. We've exercised our plan. We've watched it happen. It never happens fast enough for me but I understand that in business those things just don't happen. I think we'll be talking about bigger houses. I think we'll be talking about the same things. I think there will be the same WWE questions. I think there will be the same New Japan questions but as long as we're having that conversation a year from now, I'll say that we've achieved everything we needed to achieve in the last year.
Source : http://www.sportingnews.com/us/wwe/news/joe-koff-ring-of-honor-young-bucks-cody-njpw-supercard-of-honor-new-orleans-honor-club/11pbdhrvwglm518d7o0h2gvrcu