BUZZ OF HONOR
ROH Riding High After NJPW Co-Promotions

By Al Castle

Three years after being purchased by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, ROH might as well stand for Renaissance on the Horizon.

With a hot, new working arrangement with New Japan Pro-Wrestling, new deals for Internet and cable pay-per-view offerings, and some love from WWE, Ring of Honor is creating more buzz in the national wrestling landscape than it has in years.

“I think, right now, Ring of Honor is at the hottest point that it’s ever been,” said ROH heavyweight champion Adam Cole. “The company is just growing at a tremendous rate, and there’s no plan for us to slow down at all.”

Perhaps most exciting to American wrestling fans is the company’s newfound partnership with New Japan, which saw several internationally acclaimed stars, including Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi, compete at a pair of ROH events in May (see full results in “Arena Reorts,” page 96).  ROH officials hope to expand the agreement to include NJPW stars on future ROH shows on American soil, and also to feature ROH stars at NJPW events overseas.

“I think the buzz around the industry, from the fans’ perspective, has been nothing but positive,” ROH Chief Operating Officer Joe Koff said of the NJPW arrangement. “To be able to see a Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger in person, in America, is a big deal for wrestling fans.”

As part of the NJPW deal, which was brokered by ROH Creative Director Hunter “Delirious” Johnston, ROH regular AJ Styles toured Japan and captured the prestigious IWGP heavyweight championship from Okada on May 3. Two weeks later, Styles defended the championship against Okada and ROH top contender “Unbreakable” Michael Elgin in one of the most talked-about matches in the company’s history during the main event of ROH’s War of the Worlds event in New York City.

The acquisition of Styles, a former TNA World champion and number one-ranked wrestler in the 2010 “PWI 500,” also helped boost ROH’s profile and credibility as a major league wrestling promotion, Koff said.

“It validates what we’re doing,” he said. “In the eyes of the fans, it’s like, ‘Wow, AJ Styles is in Ring of Honor.’ He’s a special kind of wrestler. He’s got a special kind of work ethic.”

But, Koff points out, ROH is very much an ensemble cast, featuring some of the most seasoned and talented wrestlers in the sport, from the brash and dynamic Cole, who is closing in on a year-long reign as ROH champ, tag team champions Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, TV champion and former TNA standout Jay Lethal, controversial former heavyweight champion Kevin Steen, and the inimitable Briscoe Brothers.

There could be no bigger testament to ROH’s track record for creating stars than WWE’s current roster, which counts several former ROH, including World heavyweight champion Daniel Bryan, former ROH champion Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Luke Harper, and even the inactive CM Punk.

WWE has recently gone out of its way to credit ROH with helping build its top stars, with a feature story on wwe.com, and acknowledgements and ROH film footage on WWE DVDs and WWE Network documentaries.

 “I think they’ve showed us a great amount of respect, and I respect them for that, because it’s just as easy for them to close their eyes and act like we don’t exist,” Koff said of WWE, with whom he said ROH enjoy “very open lines of communication.”

“At the end of the day, you can’t deny that the stars of WWE that get the most bang are Ring of Honor people,” Koff said.

And while WWE’s spotlight helped give ROH a boost, Koff credits much of the company’s recent growth on its unique business model. As a Sinclair property, ROH’s weekly television show airs on all SBG stations, which are available in 40 percent of American homes. Because SBG owns the timeslots, it can locally promote ROH events, feature ROH stars in sponsor advertisements, and keep all the revenue—much of which, Koff said, is invested back into ROH.

SBG officials will not release viewership numbers, but indicate that ROH has exceeded expectations. On some weeks, ROH did about half the audience that WWE’s Main Event program did on ION stations, Koff said.

And there are other indicators of ROH’s growing audience. The company’s Facebook “likes” have grown from around 59,000 when Sinclair bought it in 2011 to more than 330,000. The size of live event crowds have grown steadily too, exceeding 1,000 in some markets. War of the Worlds, held in the prestigious Hammerstein Ballroom, was the fastest ROH sellout in New York City in years.

ROH’s steady growth has given company officials the confidence to embark on two major business ventures aimed at exposing the product to even more fans. The first was a return to Internet pay-per-view with the two joint ROH-NJPW shows in May.

Although ROH’s past “iPPV” offerings were plagued with technical problems that led to them scrapping the concept, this time around the company partnered with industry leader UStream (which has carried NJPW live events for years) and the shows went off without a hitch.

And, for the first time in company history, ROH was scheduled hold a live, cable pay-per-view event on June 22 with Best in the World. Koff, who credited business manager Greg Gilleland with making the deal, said ROH saw the opportunity to help fill a void created on pay-per-view with WWE’s transition to its over-the-top network model.

“Our intention is to provide as much product to as broad a population as we can,” said Koff, who emphasized he has realistic expectations for ROH’s freshman PPV. “My goal is just to give a clean feed and a good experience to our customers.”

Although ROH has no immediate plans for future Internet and cable pay-per-views, Koff said the company is always looking to expand, including by running shows in larger arenas. ROH will take a big step in that direction when it hosts a show in August at Brooklyn, New York’s 7,500-seat MCU Park.

Running in the minor league ballpark used for years by TNA is the latest evidence that ROH is, very much, the big leagues.

“I think we’ve come out of that indy level,” Koff said. “I don’t want to be WWE or TNA. I want to be Ring of Honor. And I think we’ve been very true to ourselves.”
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