The year was 1984 and the landscape of professional wrestling in the United States was rapidly changing.
The National Wrestling Alliance and its brand of pro wrestling was under siege by a formidable foe. The enemy: Vince McMahon’s brand of pro wrestling, or as he dubbed it, sports entertainment.
McMahon’s business sense and cache put a dent in the NWA, as he was mercilessly expanding his product across the country by purchasing territories, television time and talent. The money he made, he put into a slick presentation that old-school promoters of the NWA, which mostly comprised of former wrestlers, could not afford to keep up with.
Joe Koff was not one of these old-school promoters. He was a young employee of a television station in Tampa, Fla., which was home to one of the last vestiges of the NWA, Championship Wrestling from Florida.
Koff helped the promotion land a coup for that time period — a live televised wrestling show in primetime that was shown in 20 markets across the country. The event was known as the Battle of the Belts, and it took place three times between 1985-86.
But much like all of the other territories of the NWA, Championship Wrestling from Florida eventually succumbed to McMahon and his mighty federation. By the third and final Battle of the Belts in September of 1986, Hulkamania was at a fever pitch and WrestleMania was only months away from breaking a world indoor attendance record.
Fast-forward to 2010 and Koff is still in the television industry, but now working for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns a number of network television stations around the country.
Between 1986 and 2010, the WWE had grown into an even bigger juggernaut and stood firmly atop the world of professional wrestling with no challengers in sight.
However, with WWE moving Smackdown from network television to cable, Koff realized that a void was left open for another wrestling product to fill. In his eyes, the prime candidate to fill that void was Ring of Honor.
Ring of Honor was a prime candidate to Koff because of its loyal following and distinguished alumni. Names like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe and Seth Rollins were just a few of the people that became stars at the higher levels.
“I thought they were an amazing company,” Koff said of Ring of Honor during an interview with philly.com. “I thought that what they were able to achieve without any real broadcast was just phenomenal. Their social media presence was strong.”
But Ring of Honor was in need of what Sinclair Broadcast Group had: television time. With this being the case, Koff helped broker a deal where Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased Ring of Honor from its former owner Cary Silkin.
Upon the purchase, Koff became the promotion’s Chief Operating Officer, but had no intentions on challenging the WWE for the top spot in the industry. But he did want Ring of Honor to take incremental steps toward expanding its brand.
Ring of Honor will take another step in that direction on Sunday, March 1, when the promotion celebrates its 13th anniversary at the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The show is yet another milestone for the promotion not only because it is celebrating another year in existence, but because it is the company’s first-ever show in Sin City.
It is also the third time that Ring of Honor will present a show live on pay-per-view. It landed on traditional pay-per-view carriers in 2014.
That type of progress is what Koff fully set out to achieve when he brokered the sale of Ring of Honor for Sinclair Broadcast Group in 2011.
“Ring of Honor has been really doing what we set out to do when we bought the company,” he said. “We have our plan. We work our plan. We live our plan. I’m very pleased with what we’ve seen as the results. I think you can see it. We’re doing our job and that’s what we’re hired to do.”
In 2014, Ring of Honor is on as solid a footing as it has ever been. The company maintains a consistent touring schedule, which is quite a feat for any wrestling promotion not named WWE in 2015, and a deep roster of talented wrestlers that are hungry to make names for themselves on Ring of Honor’s television product, which is available in major markets all around the country, including Las Vegas, which played into Ring of Honor’s decision to have its anniversary show there.
“We have a very strong presence in the Las Vegas market, so we decided to put a show there and the Orleans was very receptive to having us there and welcomed us with open arms,” Koff said. We just couldn’t say no.”
But with all of the progress that has been made by the promotion recently, there are still hurdles it has yet to climb over. The most glaring hurdle is one that is visible to the untrained eye: Ring of Honor’s production values.
The promotion’s production has been a topic of conversation for a long time and has been publicly criticized by dignitaries such as Jim Ross.
Koff hears the constant critiques of the way the product is presented, but assures that the issues are being addressed.
“It’s a very fair comment by Jim Ross and somewhat of a fair criticism,” he said. “I don’t take umbrage to it nor am I defensive about it.”
“We are constantly trying to improve the product technically,” he added. “One of the things we do that other companies don’t do is that we tour our markets and a lot of the production challenges, and there are challenges, has to do with the type of buildings that we use. A lot of them are not capable of hanging a lighting truss from their ceiling so we rely on floor lights, but we’ve looked into production all of the time. It’s something we’re very, very conscious of and we’re very conscious of the criticism, but to tell you the truth, it’s far more important that we get our product right and then get the production after that. Wrestling is our product and our fans respect it. I think they would like to see a higher production value, but it’s something we keep working towards.”
One way to seemingly rectify the production issues would be to hold events in bigger, more technically advanced buildings. But for Ring of Honor, that’s easier said than done.
Ring of Honor wouldn’t attract enough fans to warrant holding an event in a major arena with 10,000-plus seats, so it would ideally use a venue with between roughly 2,5000 and 3,000 seats. The only problem is that finding buildings with that type of seating capacity is not easy, according to Koff.
“Sometimes, in all fairness, and in some unfairness, sometimes you get type-casted to a certain thing about our production values” he said. “I don’t think they’re as bad as are made out to be at times. They may not be as bright or as prolific as WWE, but you get to see the action pretty good. The arenas may not be lit as well, and we certainly don’t have any pyrotechnics, but you know what? When your eyes are on the mat, and that is where I want the eyes to be, you don’t miss a thing on our program.”
An issue that is not visible to the untrained eye is Ring of Honor’s constant talks to bring its television product into new markets, including Philadelphia, which is where the promotion started in 2002. Nearby Bristol is still home to the promotion’s wrestling academy.
“We are talking to television stations all of the time, even local, cable, regional operators, to expand our brand into the different marketplaces,” Koff said. “We have just started that recently. That is something we’ve started in the last three-to-four months because it’s still important as a company-owned product […] our first goal is to take care of our own markets where we air weekly.”
A hurdle that could get in the promotion’s way in the future is its ability to produce shows near the site of WrestleMania in the days leading up to the event.
Beginning in 2004, and continuing every year since 2006, Ring of Honor runs an annual show near the site of WrestleMania in an effort to capitalize on the number of wrestling fans attending the festivities.
The shows have been a success and have added to the fan experience of attending WrestleMania weekend. It is now an industry-wide trend for promotions to piggyback off WrestleMania’s drawing power.
However, the WWE is looking to put an end to all of this and is partnering with the host cities to place embargoes on nearby venues.
Although this presents a potential problem for Ring of Honor, Koff said that it has not stopped its show, Supercard of Honor IX, from selling out in Redwood City, Calif., which is 30 minutes from Santa Clara, Calif. where WrestleMania 31 is taking place.
“It’s not as close as where they [WWE] are, but it’s close enough for the fans to find it and get to it,” Koff said. “It has not inhibited us at all.”
“We’ll be fine,” he added. “We’ll be in Fort Worth or Dallas [in 2016]. That’s not going to become a problem, and if it becomes a problem then we’ll deal with it.
“Everything they do I respect. They’re in business just like I’m in business and they’re there to protect their franchise like I’m there to protect my franchise. I have no fault with that. They can’t put everything out of business. They made it a little less convenient for the fans that are going into WrestleMania weekend, but like I said, it hasn’t stopped us from selling out that show.
“Look, I’m purposely there when they are there because they bring in a ton of fans and they bring in a lot of international fans. “WrestleMania is our Super Bowl and if I can be near it, I’m going to be near it.”
That’s about as much competing Koff intends on doing with the WWE. Other than that, Koff is content with the WWE doing its thing and Ring of Honor doing its thing.
It’s an approach he believed the old-time promoters should have used during the 1980s, when McMahon was taking over the wrestling world one territory at a time.
In his mind, because they kept paying too much attention on McMahon’s business, and not enough on their own business, they eventually went out of business.
“One of the things I learned when I was working with the promotions is that they were very fearful of Vince McMahon and what he was doing and I think it took their eye of the ball and I think they didn’t know how to compete,” Koff said.
“The economics scared the local promoters,” he added. “They just got scared of it and they didn’t know how to fight it because they didn’t have some kind of national distribution to deal with.
“The one thing about professional wrestling and the one thing we have is we’ve got distribution. We’re in 40 percent of the country. We’re in 40 million homes. We have the capability to be reached 40 million homes through TV. That’s something that most other promotions don’t have. Because we have that, I’m not that concerned about what everyone else is doing. I’m only concerned in bettering my product, keeping my eye on my ball and not worrying about the rest of the business.”
And what Koff is keeping his eye on is presenting Ring of Honor’s action-packed product to the masses, growing its pockets of fans into legions and putting Ring of Honor on a higher overall level.
“The Ring of Honor brand is really what Ring of Honor is all about,” he said. “It’s a style of wrestling. It’s an expectation of the fan. It’s an expectation of the wrestlers that when it all meets, it all converges, the Ring of Honor brand kind of glows. It glows. It resonates. There’s a palpable feeling in the arena. Everyone knows that they’re watching Ring of Honor.”