Ring Of Honor's Joe Koff on playing Madison Square Garden, The Jericho Cruise & Honor Club's future (Exclusive)
In the eyes of many wrestling fans, Ring Of Honor is the go-to company when it comes to the best performers within the wrestling industry. After all, its list of homegrown alumni includes the likes of Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Cesaro, The Young Bucks, and Chris Hero (NXT's Kassius Ohno).
ROH hit a big milestone earlier this year when it partnered with New Japan Pro-Wrestling for the G1 Supercard supershow event at New York City's Madison Square Garden. 60 percent of its tickets were sold during its pre-sale, while the remaining tickets available were gone within 16 minutes of its public on-sale. Ultimately the G1 Supercard was the first non-McMahon wrestling event at MSG in close to 60 years.
The Baltimore, Maryland-based company also maintains a close relationship with its fanbase with its Honor Club, which debuted last year in February 2018. An Honor Club subscription -- currently priced at $9.99 per month -- gets you access to live event-streaming, a substantial amount of ROH's extensive archives, and specials related to ROH tickets and merchandise. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ring Of Honor COO Joe Koff about this and more within our August 2019 interview by phone.
Information on upcoming events -- including September 27th in Las Vegas and its Final Battle pay-per-view on December 13th in Baltimore -- can be found online at www.rohwrestling.com. More on my chat with Koff, including when and where he was bar mitzvahed, will be posting later this month via the Jewish Journal.
For years Ring Of Honor has been playing around the block from MSG at Hammerstein Ballroom. ROH is in that weird spot where it can easily sell out theaters like the Hammerstein, a few thousand people, yet it's not usually big enough for an arena. Is the hope to move more into arenas? Or do you like that theater kind of set-up?
Joe Koff: It's a good question. The Hammerstein is really a special place for Ring Of Honor. The Manhattan Center is really our kind of location in New York City. There's just a certain intimacy in that building and a certain comfort level in that building. Our first show at the Hammerstein after Madison Square Garden was just sensational. It was so emotional, so energetic, so authentic, so real. But I think the intimacy of the venue creates that. We strive to go in places where our fans can feel a part of that show.
Madison Square Garden, maybe that was an anomaly from a venue standpoint for Ring Of Honor. The fact that were so many people there made it such a different experience, but you lack the intimacy of a smaller arena where people can feel part of that community. At Madison Square Garden you feel part of a happening and part of an event, and it was a hell of an event. But I think it misses that intimacy feel.
Is the goal to forever be in the theaters? Then again, when you did that show in the Garden you did have some of your performers -- Dalton Castle, for example -- did give an intimate yet Madison Square Garden-level entrance.
Joe Koff: Absolutely, and I think our intimacy is a connection with our fans. One of the things that I think is special about Ring Of Honor is our connection with our fans. It's always been a brand, we've always had wrestlers who've wrestled in Ring Of Honor who've gone on to incredible, amazing things as evidenced by what's going on in the business today. If you look at all of the rosters of all these other organizations today that are coming forth and are growing. They are just filled with Ring Of Honor performances, and that's that brand I'm talking about.
So that intimacy always exists because we play to that brand, and we play to that brand, that brand connects the wrestlers and the fans continuously through the show. That will never change, regardless of the size of the building. If the opportunity comes again for Ring Of Honor and it's the right business decision -- and everything we do is guided by correct business-thinking -- then we would certainly play in a building like that. But it doesn't come around that often. That was a special weekend and it was a special time for us, coming off of everything that was happening for us at the tail end of 2018 into 2019. All the stars were aligned properly for that. I'm forever grateful, forever humble, it was very surreal.
But when we go to Atlanta this weekend at Center Stage, I will feel that same intimacy, that same thrill, because to watch Ring Of Honor is to be thrilled by Ring Of Honor.
The last 12 months had another big event for Ring Of Honor in ROH being part of Chris Jericho's cruise. Ring Of Honor was a big part of the success of the cruise. Would you ever see Ring Of Honor doing its own cruise?
Joe Koff: No, again, we're the kind of promotion that looks at opportunities and if they're advantageous and they have a business benefit, we will look into it. At the time of the Jericho Cruise, which was set up six months to the cruise itself, the wrestling landscape was totally different. There was not other wrestling promotions on-board. Our talent was the talent. Things changed, and things always change. That is the evolution and revolution of our business. I think at this point, because it's Chris Jericho and who he's associated with, that cruise will belong to him and his organization.
That's interesting that you see things as having changed so much recently. Without talking about competitors, I assume this entails optimism about how wrestling has gone back into the mainstream?
Joe Koff: I think it's really good for the fan. I think it really makes us compete on a different level. It really raises the price of being in the business. I think what you're seeing is somewhat of a consolidation going on, like in other industries, with exclusive talent being tied up by one organization or another. Even I have exclusive talent agreements. It kind of puts a hurt on the big spot shows that have been done around the country previous to that. We've seen this before, wrestling is a very cyclical business. We saw it before, we're seeing it now, it's very exciting to be in it now. It's exciting to be in it as a performer now and I think it's exciting to be a fan now. We'll have to see how it goes, but historically, we always see it trending and now we're in an upswing, so that's a good thing.
Another thing that's been notable, to me at least, about ROH is that you're not chasing the mainstream celebrities or musicians. Is that by design that you want to keep it about the wrestling?
Joe Koff: We're always about the wrestling because one of the things we focus on is our wrestling. That's something that has been important to us, we are known to be an entertaining sport. Our wrestlers are athletes. What they do in the ring is what they do. We haven't gone after big stars because big stars are going to where big stars can play. We're developing the big stars and we continually the big stars because that is what we do. The stardom or the mic work -- the promo work -- comes after that. You still have to do your job in the ring, then you can finesse your skills at the next level.
To be clear, I wasn't talking about the "big stars" in terms of wrestling talent, more so that you're not trying to get Snoop Dogg to do a walk-on at a Ring Of Honor show...
Joe Koff: No, we don't do stuff like that. That doesn't say that it's not a good idea, it's just never been part of our DNA. We really present wrestling. When fans come to see us, they come to see our wrestling. They come to get emotionally involved in the story. I don't think they're looking for that other entertainment value.
Another thing that makes Ring Of Honor stand out is its Honor Club membership. Can you tell me more about what's ahead for Honor Club?
Joe Koff: When you're an Honor Club member, and we're regularly looking at that and trying to upgrade the experience, that's all experiential. What Honor Club does is bring that experience from the road into the home of the wrestling fan. Almost all of our shows now are streamed on Honor Club, so you're getting live shows every other week, sometimes two weeks in a row. We'll be in Europe, wherever we go, so that experience for the fan is exactly what we want to achieve.
We want to make sure we are providing an experience that has a value that they want to keep subscribing to and their friends will subscribe. But at the same token, there's nothing like going to a live Ring Of Honor event. I love the stream, it looks good, good sound, it does its job. But being in the arena is where you really feel the real spirit of who we are and what we do -- the essence.