I spoke to Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff ahead of this Friday's ROH 15th Anniversary PPV. Just a couple of days before bringing on The Hardys and Bully Ray, Koff talked to me in regards to the direction of the company, NJPW and more. Make sure to check out ROH 15th Anniversary Friday night, as well as our live coverage and discussion of the show! You can find out how to order the show at this link. Over on the FITE App, WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross will be doing a live chat during the show.
You can hear the full interview above, and download it at this link.
Motivation behind Tradition of Anniversary Shows In Las Vegas:
KOFF: "What is this our third time doing it there in a row? … It’s a Vegas thing because we think it’s a big event and Vegas likes big events and quite frankly it’s a wonderful facility for us, there’s always a large fanbase that’s in Las Vegas any time we’re there, which gives fans on the west coast or in places that don’t normally get to see a Ring of Honor live show (a chance) to experience it while they’re also experiencing Las Vegas. It’s kind of a—no pun intended, because of where we’re going—a “Win-Win” for everybody."
Will there be more PPVs out west? It's worked out well so far in Vegas:
"KOFF: It has. And I think a lot of that has to do with the location, it has to do with Sam’s Town as the venue. We ventured once, when Wrestlemania was out in the San Jose area, to do a show that far out. We probably will make Vegas our most western terminus for now. There are no shows further west scheduled for 2017, but I will tell you that we are tempted to do (more shows out west) because we know we have a large fan base in California … as evidenced by the size of the crowd that came to the show in the San Jose area. So, it’s not in out of the question, it’s just not in the schedule right now."
Mixture of old and new talent on the card, and the turnover at ROH:
“Oh, I think that just happens. I don’t think it’s any specific reason. One thing I’ve always encouraged for anyone who works for Ring of Honor is to do what’s best for them as a performer, as an employee, and if Ring of Honor satisfies their wishes and fulfills them from a growth perspective and an income perspective, then I would hope that they would stay. But you know, people come and go in this world, it’s not uncommon to change jobs. It seems to be a little more under the microscope when it’s Ring of Honor, or any wrestling promotion for that matter, and I think there’s a tendency sometimes to read more into it. I don’t think there is any more to it.”
How he feels about WWE meddling with Indie Talents, telling them to go to EVOLVE instead:
“It flatters me, actually, and it’s very complimentary to my organization, that they would view us in that way, that they would rather keep (Matt Riddle) in their fold, than have him in my fold. I actually look at it as flattering. Any time my guys go up to WWE, and quite a few have, and they succeed there, it speaks to what Ring of Honor really represents. And what it represents to the fan, is a brand. It’s a brand that’s a style of wrestling and it’s a style of excellence, and we’re really beginning to show that it doesn’t matter necessarily who wrestles that brand and that style, but that’s what the fans are coming to see. It’s embodied in people like Adam Cole and The Young Bucks and War Machine and Jay Lethal and The Briscoes--I could go through my whole roster and I always like to, because I don’t want them to think that I favor anyone more than the other—but no matter what level you are at Ring of Honor, when you step into that ring in front of a crowd, they’re wrestling the Ring of Honor style and the Ring of Honor brand, and I know that for a fact because when I’m at an event, and the expectations are met, and they’re met from different levels and they’re met at different times, but it’s an expectation of the fan to see unbelievable athleticism, unbelievable integrity to their craft, unbelievable experience, and I think the guys also feel that, and there’s a moment, there’s a moment in time when this happens, and all of a sudden there’s a spontaneous chanting and a spontaneous eruption that’s totally organic and totally dynamic. And when I feel that, and I feel that whenever I go to a Ring of Honor show, what I’m really feeling is the authenticity of our brand. Ring of Honor brand is the most authentic brand in wrestling. And it’s exhibited and it’s felt and it’s validated all by what I said—it’s that total immersion experience for wrestler and for fan.”
Have there been any talks about changing the production value or style of presentation of the product?
“I think (the perception that ROH has low production quality) is a little overplayed. I think it’s the wrestling that people are tuning in to see, as evidenced by the number of people who watch grainy internet wrestling matches or watch on their iPhones, or watch on whatever method they can get it, and somehow or another, it doesn’t matter what the production looks like, because once you realize that you’re watching a gritty kind of show, where the lighting isn’t great, if the matches and the action in the ring is better than that, then that becomes the focus.
“Are we happy with what we present, and is that enough? I think the answer really lies in this way, when we purchased Ring of Honor from Cary Silkin in 2011, we bought a promotion that I felt had an incredible core value, a core value to the wrestler who’s wrestling, a core value to the fan. And I think any good businessman, or any good business, identifies what that core strength is and does everything in the world to preserve that core. What I think we’ve done in the last set of years is I think we’ve stimulated the progress of our brand, and I think we’ve brought up production values and I think we’ve brought up venue values, and I think we’ve invested in talent the way we need to as a business, and give that back to the fan. So I don’t think there’s anything that I would say to you that I don’t want to change anything. I don’t want to change the essence of Ring of Honor, I want to increase and enhance the essence of Ring of Honor.”
What has changed recently that has allowed wrestlers to work in multiple promotions? That didn’t used to be done so extensively.
“I don’t think it’s really been that changed. In the world of wrestling right now, there’s three promotions that basically work exclusively with guys, of course the WWE being the biggest of that, but TNA also has some exclusive wrestlers and we have our own stable of exclusive wrestlers. But there are other wrestlers out there that deserve to be seen, that we want our fans to see, that we feel we could work a shorter arc if they’re not looking for a long term commitment. It can’t be everybody, because you can’t have a promotion like that. It’s all about the fan experience, and if bringing in Cody (Rhodes)—and Cody wanted to wrestle in Ring of Honor, I think there’s a lot of stars and performers in Ring of Honor that Cody wouldn’t get to wrestle unless he was wrestling in Ring of Honor, and I’m okay with that, because it exposes Cody to our fanbase, who may not see him live or may not see him on Ring of Honor television, and we know exactly what that relationship is. I’m thrilled about it, he’s a fantastic performer, he’s a very very nice man, and I’m thrilled to have him as part of our roster. Now, if at the end of all these auditions or tests or whatever you want to call them, he chooses to be exclusive to Ring of Honor, I would love that.
“What I’m most proud of, though, and it’s something I alluded to earlier, I’m really most proud of the fact that we’re part of that narrative. I think it’s important to be part of that narrative. And I think of anything we’ve done in the last five years, we’ve gone from being like the top independent promotion, to being part of the wrestling narrative. I like that.”
Are you in the market for free agents? Are you actively looking?
“I think we’re a big player, but again, that’s not what I get involved in; I have a creative team and a business unit that works closely together to make sense of those kinds of people. If it makes sense for Ring of Honor. They’ve been wrestling a different brand and a different style. If it doesn’t work for us, it’s not going to work for them, so I think that has to be evaluated on a person by person basis. … They might have different ideas creatively than we have, and it all has to work together. The ultimate result and the ultimate outcome I’m looking for is the fan, and making sure we deliver a product that’s our product, and we’re true to our brand, true to our core, and if it stimulates the progress of our brand by bringing those kinds of talents, then we’re always open to that.”
Christopher Daniels could be more popular than ever at 46. What is it like working with him?
“I’m honored to work with a Christopher Daniels, because when we purchased Ring of Honor, Chris had left to go to TNA, and I never really had the opportunity, except the few times he wrestled for Ring Honor while he was still under contract before he left, to really know him the way I know him now, and to really appreciate the talent that he truly is. And when I say ‘Talent,’ I’m going to grant him almost legendary status. This man, not only is he a brilliant, brilliant tactician and worker, he’s an incredible human being, and what he brings to Ring of Honor is just so much more than his in-ring action. He’s a good thinker, he’s a great leader, and I’m honored to know him.”
It’s been a year since the Destination America project ended. How do you look back on that?:
“Oh my god it was terrific. The people at Destination America couldn’t have been a more supportive partner in bringing us to a spot for all of Ring of Honor to watch, as opposed to our local markets, which do incredibly well, but were on at different times. So I think it was really great for our brand expansion, and I’m forever grateful for that.”
I’ve always wondered how Sinclair approaches that. They are their own syndication. They have their own channels. But owning Ring of Honor they want to maximize what they can get out of ROH. Do you think it causes any conflict?
“It’s a very good question. When we ran on Destination America as we gladly run on the Fight Network, and on our Clearance in Portugal and on Comet, which is a joint project on Sinclair broadcast group and MGM Studios, which came to being, almost at the same time that we stopped on Destination America. Comet was launched and available in almost 80 million homes. Local market television alway comes first. So the first place you can see Ring of Fire if you are a die hard fan and we have lots of them you well know, will be in the local markets Friday, Saturday, or Sunday depending on when they air. Even on Destination America, they had the airings in that same week, but after the weekend. So we didn’t see it anything more than a way to expand our reach. Because again we are an over the air broadcaster, which is fantastic because we present our product for free and nobody has to pay to get to it if they don’t choose to. We are limited by regulation to x amount of coverage. In this case it’s 39% that our company itself can own. We have an additional 10% in syndicated properties on cable, and other tv stations. Plus we are able to use Comet as an additional source. So having a National Cable or a National Distribution Point, where everybody can see it at the same time, is always going to be important in our goal to expand the brand. But we don’t see the conflict, because Sinclair stations always get the first airing.”
You all have this New Japan partnership going. You run about 6 Pay Per Views a year. There is so much talent exchange here. How’s that partnership going?
“Oh my gosh it’s been a terrific, terrific partnership. They are great partners and they are great people to work with. You know I have heard the same thing about Ring of Honor getting the short end, and I’m not really sure what that means. Because what we get to see when Ring of Honor wrestles with New Japan are the best in the world. And to watch those two cultures meet in the ring, you find that there’s only one language inside of the squared circle. And that’s professional wrestling, and that style is so similar, and that core strategy is so similar, I think that’s why we work so well together. And by the way you can drop that square circle, I don’t know where that came from. It seems so trite to say ‘squared circle’.”
So Kevin Kelly is still doing work with them. Is that awkward at all before you all reached a deal?
“No not at all, he’s still doing work for us. What I think happened was he gladly welcomed Kevin into our Sinclair family as part of Ring of Honor, but the New Japan opportunity international was creating, not a conflict any more than the number of days he needed to be there versus the number of days we would have him. So we just felt it was in everyone’s best interest to allow him to have the flexibility to do both. So Kevin is going to be in Las Vegas. I mean, he hasn’t left Ring of Honor in the way people think he has left Ring of Honor. Kevin has a lot of history with Ring of Honor, and by the way Ian Riccaboni, is a terrific young man is really one of Kevin’s protégés. And Kevin’s his mentor, and I think if you listen to Ian, and you listen to the way he calls a match, it’s very very deep and it has a lot of depth to it, and a lot of passion, which is what makes good Ring announcers so popular and so believable. But Ian is doing his second set of matches and as he matures and as the fans understand Ian’s point of view, because that is what we are really talking about is point of view, I think everyone will grow to love him the way we do in terms internally.
You introduced 6 tag team champions last year. What kind of benefits and challenges has that presented to you as a company.
“I’m not sure there’s been any challenges. I probably should let creative answer that more than Joe Koff. I will tell you what the benefit of it is, is that it innovates, it’s a brand innovation. But I think the best use of it so far—and by the way, you know we had tournament to determine the winner, and the winners are three young terrific artists athletes and performers--but most recently in Columbus, we did a show called The Experience. I’m looking forward to more of these because I think the fan experience is so important. We actually had the fans who came to that Columbus show, choose The Kingdom’s competitors that night. The three people on the team. I found that to be interesting how the fans in the arena voted and they voted through text. We set up a text shortcode for them. But that’s what a six man allows us to do, because you’re calling on three people. And I will tell you there was a battle up until the time we shut off the voting. Between the 3rd and 4th choice. Which I found really really interesting. From my perspective, but also knowing what was going on with the fans, because they were just texting in names, names, names, not really knowing who it was. And we saw that there was a lot of interest, and it tells us, from an analytical standpoint, which is really really important who is appealing to the fans, and how to better use them in the future perhaps. And that was a by-product of our 6 man tag and like I said, it allows us to have a real championship match with our true tag team champions, with the team of the fans choice. It was fabulous, by the way if you were there it was fabulous. … There were so many things that night for the fans. We had a raffle for a guest ring announcer. We had a raffle for a guest commentator who sat next to Ian Riccaboni on the mic for a match. We had stipulations that we did on Facebook and on social media our Twitter page, to figure out what kind of falls or how a match would be conducted. I like that, I like that engagement. It’s important to me. I’m hoping that we see more of that and I don’t know why we wouldn’t, it was very well accepted.”
I like how you put the ROH TV show online. Is that so everyone can get a taste of Ring of Honor?
“We put it online because we don’t have 100% of the country covered. And because we are free over the air broadcasters, we also feel that the television show should be available to everyone, no matter where they are, if they have an internet connection, to see the show. That’s how we keep the brand going. We have options where someone can see it earlier, we have a ringside access that allows people BOD’s earlier and get tickets earlier. But again, being a free over the air broadcaster, and being someone who believes that everyone should be getting that content for free. It was just natural that we do that.”
For those that have not checked out Ring of Honor what would you say to them to make them want to check out ROH 15th Anniversary?
“Ring of Honor fans know our product. And there are wrestling fans that come to our shows, I’m going to tell this anecdotally, because it happens to every show we go to. They come up to me and seem to know me or recognize who I am, and they always tell me, ‘Thank you for bring this show to our town,’ but then they tell me they are first time fans that come to a first Ring of Honor show, and their comment is always ‘I can’t believe I waited this long to see this kind of wrestling.’ And what I am going to say to your readers, and I am sure you have lots of readers, Thank you. If you want to experience professional wrestling the way it was intended to be presented, with incredible artistry, and incredible athleticism, with a great story, with great energy, then I think Ring of Honor is a show if you haven’t seen it already, this is a show that you should be seeing. I would like it to be this specific show. All of our Anniversary shows have been really special, with lots of surprises in it and lots of surprise outcomes. And that’s what makes us unique. I think that Ring of Honor has been very very successful and you, being a wrestling follower, can probably attest to this. Very little gets out about what’s going to happen in our matches and I’m proud of that. It says a lot about our organization and how important it is to us, to always remember that it’s the fan that pays our bills. When you come to a show, that’s when you are going to see what you are going to see. Nobody’s Tweeting about it beforehand, nobody has an idea of what, I give all of those kudos to Christopher Daniels, that you mentioned, in the back, as well as the performer, our creative team, I think everyone in Ring of Honor knows who and what they are, and because of that, I think the shows we present, and the surprises we are able to put forth, without anyone knowing, is a big difference.”