Ring of Honor holds its annual Best in the World event Friday night in Baltimore. The weekend is even more significant, because it’s the opening of a new ROH Dojo in the promotion’s home city.
Cageside Seats was able to catch up with ROH chief operations officer Joe Koff to discuss the big card, the dojo, All In, ROH’s issue with Madison Square Garden and WWE, broadcast deals and much more.
(This interview has been edited for brevity.)
Cageside Seats: You guys have a big card coming up this weekend and it’s like a home game for you. It’s in Baltimore. Is it nice being home for one of these?
Joe Koff: It really is and what’s special about this event this Friday night is it’s at UMBC — University of Maryland Baltimore County. Their basketball arena, their arena. It’s had lots of good look this year with March Madness. UMBC went pretty far in the tournament. We feel like it’s a lucky charm for us, so we’re excited about it.
CSS: The main event — a three-way title match between Dalton Castle, Cody and Marty Scurll — is a really big one. Do you feel this is one of the bigger main events of the year so far for ROH?
JK: I think it’s a big event. Every time we do a show, I always feel like the main event is the main event — that’s why it’s called that. We have two actually with the tag team titles, the Briscoes versus The Young Bucks. I think what’s interesting about this title defense this Friday night is both Cody and Marty have defeated Dalton Castle previously. And we’re not quite sure quite frankly about Dalton’s physical condition. He’s wrestling, he says he’s fine. Don’t want to doubt him. But I’ve watched him wrestle in Japan, I’ve watched him wrestle in England. I’ve seen title defenses here in America. He’s definitely laboring a little bit. I’m hoping he’s had enough rest, so he can be our champion and can compete like a champion.
So yeah, I think this is a big main event, because so many outcomes can come from it. Especially side stories with Marty an Cody. I think a good story will be told in that match.
CSS: Obviously, there have been injury issues with Dalton, but how do you feel he’s carried the ball so to speak as champion. You guys had put the title on him earlier this year. He’s been in ROH, he’s paid his dues. He’s been a very popular figure with fans. How do you feel he’s done as the young, as the champion?
JK: I think he’s carried himself as our champion the way that all of our champions have carried themselves — with dignity and respect and putting himself on the line for that title in every title defense. I think it’s unfortunate that the injuries coincided with him gaining that championship and I think only time will tell. He’s a real gamer. I respect everything he’s been doing to get ready for this, but I’m not sure we’ve seen him at full capacity, so it would be hard for me to say what a full-capacity Dalton Castle is. I’ve seen him prior, so we know he’s capable. He won the title. He won that match. I just think it’s been unfortunate circumstances for him.
CSS: Tell me about the new ROH Dojo. I know you guys had one, but now it’s moving to Baltimore and getting a revamping. What is the significance of this new dojo?
JK: I hate to use trite terms like state of the art, because I haven’t been in enough dojos myself to know if it really is state of the art. But it is a beautiful facility and it’s got beautiful equipment in it. We’re really changing our emphasis from just auditioning guys with a training camp attached to it, to identifying guys who can really carry ROH’s name and carry on ROH’s brand and be our future stars.
They’re under the guidance and aegis of our trainers, who understand our brand, who understand our product, who understand what it take to be successful in Ring of Honor. So I look at it more like graduate level, like a finishing school — no pun intended — to get them ready for big live events, big arena events.
There’s a pretty good amount of guys starting with us on a regular training basis.
CSS: I imagine there will also be potential Women of Honor potential stars at the dojo as well?
CSS: Flip Gordon has a really big match for him at Best in the World. Arguably the biggest match of his career coming up this weekend against Bully Ray. How good do you think Flip Gordon can be? He’s obviously still very new to pro wrestling, even newer when it comes to full time, because he’s now done with the military. And he’s shown incredible promise, he’s still in his mid-20s. How good can this guy be, you think?
JK: I’m not sure I can say it better than you just said it. I probably would have said the same things. I think there is no cap on how good this guy can be. He is a natural. He’s a naturally gifted talent and very, very tough. And very, very eager to learn and better himself and I think his military background is very helpful, because I think they learn discipline and I think they learn structure and I think all of those things are important to anyone’s success. So, I really have high hopes and I think we all do.
I think the fans, they acknowledge it already. This is a tough, tough wrestler. And very, very skilled and very, very fast. I think he’s got a very big match on his hands this Friday and I’m interested to see how that plays out.
CSS: Is he someone you can see being the lead guy in a few years?
JK: Absolutely. I definitely do. We have so many people who can fill that role in a couple of years. I think that’s why our organization is so robust in depth and so rich in talent like it is. I think he’s someone that can certainly be a future player, he’s a current player and I hope he’ll be a championship player.
CSS: All In is coming up. It’s almost two months out now. How involved will ROH be with that whole setup?
JK: Obviously, we get asked that a lot. This show is really, really Young Bucks and Cody’s show. They came up with it, they marketed it, they were responsible for that sell out. We’re really just assisting them in some production elements.
CSS: Does that also include a stream? Cody mentioned a couple weeks back that it will indeed be streaming somewhere.
JK: I will say this, it’s probably safe to say. We’re working on what kind of distribution options we have. And all in conjunction with them. They’re going to be making those choices. Because we have some relationships in the broadcast world, we’re kind of fielding those for them now. But it’ll ultimately be there decision on how this is transmitted beyond the arena.
CSS: Is that something that could be on Honor Club down the line?
JK: That would really be up to them. That would really be something if they would like it on Honor Club night of and it works with all the other distribution channels, it very well could be. As Ring of Honor, I would love to have that option. Again, that’s really a call they will make. Hopefully, they’ll involve us in that conversation. But it’s really their show.
CSS: You guys announced a few weeks ago that you’d be at Madison Square Garden next year. It was a very big deal. Obviously, MSG is the Mecca — for pro wrestling, for many different sports. Last week, you said that is no longer going to happen because WWE intervened. Can you explain exactly what happened with that situation?
JK: I really can’t. I can’t go beyond my original statement, because that statement is indeed where we still are.
(Editor’s note: Joe Koff’s original statement to PWInsider was as follows: We had a deal with [Madison Square] Garden and they then told us they were backing out after communications from the WWE. We are not able to get any other dates in any kind of discussion. I’m expecting that our lawyers will be contacting all the parties involved and the best we can hope is that we can find a resolution, so we can bring the kind of energy and excitement that ROH and our partner New Japan to a bigger audience and to bigger arenas and to the fans of New York City.)
CSS: Is it a situation that is fluid where you guys are still trying to get that date back?
JK: I would love to answer you, but I’m not gonna be able to.
CSS: OK. One more thing on that. Was that going to be the big WrestleMania week show? Was that the date that was planned?
JK: Again, I’m not gonna comment on that at this time. There’s lots of speculation. A lot of people are speculating. It’s just what I said in my release.
CSS: If MSG does not work, are there other things in place for a big show next year for ROH? Maybe not at that level, but a similar type of venue?
JK: We have every intention of being there that weekend. I’m not sure where. There are options and we’re exploring them.
CSS: Being in the New York/New Jersey area that weekend?
JK: I mean, if tradition holds true, we’ve been at every WrestleMania city in some fashion. We’ve been as far as 90 miles, 90 minutes or two hours away. And we had no problem selling out that building. There’s a lot of geographical space available for us to do our show. I think we’re just kind of weighing those options and seeing what’s best for the organization.
CSS: Got it. It’s been a very interesting year for pro wrestling and ticket sales and live gates and bigger attendance figures. We had spoken about the New Orleans show and how big that was for you guys. Highest attendance ever in ROH history. New Japan is doing a show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco soon and I’ll use that as an example. They did very well in Long Beach, they sold out quickly. Ticket sales have not been moving as quickly for this Cow Palace show. Is there any to be learned about picking your spots about where you want to go, the market, the names on the card, the frequency of shows, that kind of thing?
JK: I think that’s a good business question. I can’t speak for New Japan. They’ve had tremendous success. We were at some of their shows in the winter and they were well attended, fully attended. You know, things are funny. Who knows? If everyone could be that clear and clairvoyant bout that, I think we’d have a much more perfect industry. I think that you do whatever is best for your business, bringing your product wherever you might at the time that you bring it. I know that sounds like gobbledygook, but it really isn’t.
First off, you plan out well in advance and you don’t know. What if there’s a weather situation? There’s just too many variables. It’s an inexact science, because you’re dealing with so many other variables. I don’t know what the attendance is at the Cow Palace. I know it didn’t sell out the way the Long Beach show did, but my guess is that it’ll be a pretty well-sold show with really, really good stories in it. New Japan, that’s why we work so well with them. I think they tell a great story, they have great competitors. Their wrestlers, like our wrestlers, are very serious about what they do. I think it’ll be fine.
CSS: This year has been a special year and last year was good too. It’s been building. Is there a ceiling to what non-WWE pro wrestling can do? And maybe there’s a ceiling for them as well as far as ticket sales and attendance. All In has sold out a 10,000-seat arena. Like you said, it’s always a case-by-case basis, but is there a certain cap or ceiling? Or is it still growing?
JK: I still think we’re still growing and I think the reason why we’re growing — and possibly other promotions are growing, but I can only speak to ours — is that we continue to improve the product. We continue to expand the product for consumption by the public. I think our product is consistently good and really strong.
I just think wrestling is in a very good spot right now. It’s almost ergonomic in nature that we’re all pushing each other and the harder we all work. I think you’re seeing a really good level of competition. I think you’re really seeing good wrestling at all levels.
CSS: Last thing, Joe, and kind of in that same vein. Broadcast deals. WWE just signed a massive deal — actually two with Fox and NBC Universal. The UFC signed that big contract with ESPN. There are streaming services, there are cable providers throwing big money at live content, which you guys also provide. Is there a space for ROH in that market? Obviously, you guys are owned by Sinclair, so you already have that company behind you, but is there a space for ROH to get maybe a bigger TV deal, maybe a high-profile streaming service?
JK: Yes, of course there is. That’s something we would welcome and we strive for. Marketplace conditions dictate a lot. Content is king right now. There’s a lot of competition for content. The WWE deal made absolute sense from a business perspective. I would think that’s very possible. There are seven nights of the week. There’s five other opportunities out there — actually there’s even if you believe in your product enough. I think that’s feasible.