Watching how Ring of Honor’s “Global Wars” PPV ended Sunday night, it was clear that ROH needs a booking change, as the current regime spearheaded by Delirious is burnt-out.
The NWO-style invasion from the Bullet Club to avoid a finish to Jay Lethal vs. Colt Cabana ROH Title main event was not what ROH’s product is built on.
But, the issues run deeper than just the finish to one PPV main event. It’s the lack of buzz for the TV shows leading up to the PPVs, it’s the undercard full of seemingly randomly-thrown together match-ups mixing some tag teams here and a few singles stars there, it’s not creating strong heels and faces for the audience to deeply invest in. When a Chicago ROH crowd is sitting quietly through the majority of a live ROH PPV, it’s a warning sign.
Yet, ROH management, specifically COO Joe Koff continues to see thinks differently, focusing on ROH drawing 1,000+ fans on their “War of the Worlds” tour. “We created something people are willing to pay for. I’m proud of what we did,” Koff told Poughkeepsie Journal reporter Phil Strum in a new interview.
Koff added to Strum that he sent a positive note to Delirious about the Creative direction of the product.
“This tour is just fantastic,” Koff said of the current ROH-NJPW tour. “If Terminal 5 (in New York City) on Saturday night is anything like that, the fans are just in for such a tremendous treat … our wrestling is just so good – the level of professionalism and the level they bring to the ring each night.
“We really have changed our own narrative. We’re part of the narrative with the conversation with WWE and I’m proud of that. WWE, for all intents and purposes, is the pinnacle of the business. They epitomize everything that is good about wrestling and they drive the business to a great degree.”
The quotes capture ROH losing its identity as Koff and Delirious hand-in-hand steer the ship. The tour is drawing well because of New Japan’s strong product and big stars traveling to the U.S. mixing with ROH’s established stars. However, the matches have become more exhibition-style, creating the question of whether interest in the cross-promoted shows has peaked.
There’s also Koff’s desire to create “that mass produced product” to reach a similar audience level as WWE.
A decade ago, TNA found themselves in the same position wanting to grow an audience and be at the level of WWE. So, they turned into WWE-lite with chaotic booking and no true identity, moving away from their bread-and-butter X Division, Tag Division, homegrown stars, and Knockouts division.
ROH’s first sign of trying something different was the Lethal-Cabana ROH Title main event finish. Again, though, the issues bubbling to the surface are how the undercard stars are being presented or thrown together in multi-man individual or tag matches that feel like an exhibition of wrestlers “doing cool stuff” instead of building toward something.
Interestingly, WWE International president Gerrit Meier captured the law of diminishing returns in an interview with Arabian Business promoting WWE’s expanded reach into the Middle East territory.
“So the business rationale is that the storyline really drives the engagement. So if you see the difference between the WWE match, which is built into a storyline that you see on television, versus a match that does not have a storyline, the reactions from the audience are very different,” Meier said.
“If I just say it’s the two of you against each other but there is no real context because I haven’t built up a story, the reaction is still there but it is not as strong as the reaction you get from a storyline we’ve been building for weeks, [such as], are you really now for me or are you now against me. And that is really what the fans react to.”
It works for WWE’s audience trying to get casual viewers to invest in a match-up that’s brand-new to them like Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens. One terrifically-produced hype video re-engaged long-time fans smiling at the sight of the independent scene’s longest-running friendship/feud making it to Broadway and casual fans instantly have an understanding of 15 years of history.
ROH used to be able to present cold matches featuring exciting stars doing their thing in the ring. But, the ROH audience, like Chicago on Sunday night, has seen just about everything, similar to ECW’s audience around 2000.
For ROH to advance to the next level, the booking needs to advance. It’s not taking a right-hand turn toward screwy PPV endings. It’s creating stronger stories in the underbelly of the promotion that rise to the surface to create a deeper investment from ROH’s fanbase. That will spread and then engage a larger audience, not trying to copy WWE’s mass-appealing booking trying to “to be in the conversation with WWE.”
ROH needs to borrow from WWE’s storytelling elements, but in the right way. Global Wars was a sign that ROH needs to change their booking approach. But, Koff is intent on keeping the ship sailing in the same direction.
“Ring of Honor develops the best wrestling talent in the country,” Koff said. “They wrestle a brand and develop personalities. It’s a brand unsurpassed and unseen in any promotion in the country. It’s persistence and passion. We have high strivers, but we also have natural talent. We have people who work really hard and are really good. Top talent and top achievers. Gritty guys who rise to the top. We’ve always been able develop talent to wrestle to a brand.”
Yet, if the brand loses its identity chasing a dream to be at WWE’s level, what does Ring of Honor stand for anymore? Fortunately, ROH is owned by a publicly-traded company Sinclair Broadcasting to have time to find its footing. But, it’s apparent after Global Wars that a change in approach now would benefit the company in the future.