When Sinclair Broadcasting’s Joe Koff approached his company about purchasing Ring of Honor - the small but highly influential Philadelphia-based pro wrestling promotion, he gave a presentation to the company’s senior management. It was a defining moment for pro wrestling and for the company.
“We bought the company in 2011 from Carey Silkin,” Koff said. “Beforehand, in one of the many presentations I made, I told them we were going to be Ring of Honor. We weren’t going to be anything else. It had a sustainable style, it had its own brand, and it was unique. The only thing lacking was a strategy.
“Shortly after I happened to be in Tampa, and saw 12 semi-trucks that were around for a WWE event. I took a photo and sent it back to corporate and said, ‘This will never be us. That’s their business. ROH is our own business, and our business is wrestling.”
Koff sees his business plan as growing one fan at a time, but it’s become larger than that. Besides World Wrestling Entertainment, it’s the only wrestling company in the U.S. to run regularly on PPV. One look at WWE, its two most popular wrestlers this decade were both longtime Ring of Honor alums - C.M. Punk and Daniel Bryan. The majority of its main event and the majority of stars on is streaming service NXT wrestling show are former Ring of Honor talent.
Ring of Honor grew further when it began partnering with New Japan Pro Wrestling - a partnership that has extended to Mexico’s leading promotion CMLL and UK promotion Revolution Pro. The companies exchange talent, with the sharing of titles and stables and stars, and it’s led to some of the best wrestling matches in history. Why Ring of Honor can humbly call its next pay-per-view “Best In The World”which June 23.
Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega (real name Tyson Smith) wrestle regularly for ROH as talent from New Japan. Omega worked ROH earlier in his career and has since become one of the biggest stars in the world after his two matches with Okada. The two matches were considered the two best in history. Pro wrestling journalist and historian Dave Meltzer rated their first encounter as 6 stars, breaking his movie-rating style scale of 5 stars. He rated their second encounter a week ago 6.25 stars, the two highest ratings in Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer history, a publication that dates back more than 30 years.
Best In The World features former WWE star Cody Rhodes against longtime ROH star Christopher Daniels, and a tag match between New Japan and ROH champs the Young Bucks and War Machine.
The Young Bucks, the most popular tag team in wrestling, created its own brand through social media and YouTube without stepping foot in WWE. The two are part of the Bullet Club stable with Omega and Rhodes, which sells more t-shirts and merchandise than almost all of the talent in WWE outside a few of its top stars. The three wrestle mainly for ROH, but appear regularly for New Japan as top stars. They’re innovative approach to wrestling and how to make it in a business without a major promotion have changed .
“What WWE has achieved is amazing, and we could never get there,” Koff said. “We are now just maturing as a company. But what’s most important to me, is maintaining the integrity of what we do week in and week out. We let our quality of wrestling speak for itself.
“They are more spectacle than in-ring product. Pomp and circumstance is their thing. This generation, they want to see John Cena or The Rock, guys who are stars in other media, and it’s more like a concert. We’d like to grow, but we don’t want to impugn the product, and I’ll never do that. We want preservation.”
ROH started in the early 2000s in the wake of World Championship Wrestling being sold from Turner Broadcasting to World Wrestling Entertainment, and Extreme Championship Wrestling going out of business. Original founders Rob Feinstein and Gabe Sapolsky saw a market for a company that focused on ring psychology and lengthy, athletic wrestling matches; something WWE and WCW had gone away from during the late 1990s, when Monday night wrestling was getting a bigger audience than Monday Night Football.
The company operated mainly through shows and selling DVDs. Their first test outside the Northeast was a show at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in 2003, which featured numerous local Dayton talent like B.J. Whitmer, who still works for ROH as a wrestler and in its office handling several administrative duties. The Fairgrounds had hosted wrestling events for years prior and had become a go-to for ROH through the years until the company outgrew the building. Dayton’s smart and exuberant fanbase matched perfect with ROH, and its weekly show airing three or four times a weekend in the market.
It’s weekly show aired its 300th consecutive episode on June 11. The success has come at a cost, with much of their talent being picked up by WWE during talent raids.
ROH has made efforts the last several years to maintain their most popular talent. It signed the Young Bucks to contracts that competed with WWE type deals, and has worked to maintain its top and best known and drawing talent like the Briscoe Brothers, Jay Lethal, Frankie Kazarian, Dalton Castle and current world champion Christopher Daniels.
Castle’s ring persona and style are symbolic of what works in ROH and what WWE would never try due to risk. Castle has two ring valets, “The Boys,” and dresses in a Gorgeous George, Freddie Mercury meets Ziggy Stardust manner. To call it flamboyant and risky would be an understatement. Along with sidekicks Brandon and Brent Tate, two other accomplished independent wrestlers, they often use their own backs as ring steps for Castle, whose androgynous gimmick has almost nothing in common with his in-ring style. Castle is one of the strongest wrestlers in the business pound-for-pound, and was a highly decorated amateur wrestler.
Castle’s contract is close to expiring, but Koff sees him as the kind of wrestler to build their company around.
“(The first time I saw him) I was blown away. It wasn’t just the way he came out, but the way he wrestles and the gimmick. He goes beyond just the gimmick and it’s very impressive.
“We’ve been in very healthy, positive negotiations with Dalton,” Koff said. “We’re excited to be working with him and see a large future with him.”
Sinclair recently purchased Tribune Broadcasting, which could put Ring of Honor on television in nearly major market in the country and on WGN America, a longstanding basic cable station that’s available in the prime tier of most cable systems. A type of reach and sphere similar to WWE’s longtime position on USA Network.
The deal hasn’t been approved yet by the Federal Communications Commission, and there’s the matter of dealing with company infrastructures before programming and other matters come into focus, but it hasn’t stopped fans from debating ROH’s future.
“Obviously it’s exciting to think about,” Koff said. “To try and have a presence in all those markets. And ROH has always been scheduled on all our stations, but I can’t be positive because the deal is months and months from that point.”
More stations, or basic cable, Koff won’t be changing the promotion’s mission - to serve the wrestling fan as purist.
“Our fans are their own community,” Koff said. “It’s the only place doctors, lawyers, misfits, good-fits, blue collar or anyone can share a common love, and love the same thing. Those fans are who carry the banner for us.”