When I first started really following independent wrestling in 2004, the first promotion I started watching was Ring of Honor. Seeing my first show live in the front row (okay, next to the aisle), it was a night-and-day change from the WWE product that I’d been watching for over a decade by that point.
At the time, ROH had only been around for two years, and was entering the weekend of WrestleMania 20 under a cloud, thanks in part to a scandal involving then-owner Rob Feinstein. Although ROH did put on a blow-way show that evening in March, things were forced to change – no longer were ROH able to use TNA-contracted talent, with then-ROH Pure champion AJ Styles forced to vacate the title.
Under the stewardship of Gabe Sapolsky, ROH retained its touring schedule of around three/four shows a month, relying on a combination of ticket sales and DVD sales, opting to turn around releases as quickly as possible. As someone who used to be a regular orderer of ROH DVDs, it was a good model at the time, considering that digital distribution didn’t really exist, and the company was nowhere near any television deal.
Jump forward to 2007, and this was around the time where I jumped off of the ROH bandwagon, with the addition of pay-per-views. Whilst this was a good move for the promotion in terms of making it easier to access, it also was a bad thing for the regular DVD buyers, who quickly figured out that some of the regular shows were nothing but filler. In the near-three months between ROH’s first two pay-per-views – July 2007’s “Respect Is Earned” and late-September’s “Driven”, the company held ten events: including two shows in Japan, and a two-day tournament to crown a World title contender. A new contender in Nigel McGuinness, who got his shot two weeks later, and lost in fifteen minutes, before the DVDs of his tournament win could even be pressed!
As ROH grew, they would expand on pay-per-view, and abort an experiment with internet pay-per-views, but by this point they had made the so-called holy grail: television.
In March 2009, ROH debuted a weekly show on HD Net (now AXS TV) in the States, lasting for one hundred episodes as the company added television tapings to their touring schedule. The takeover of the promotion by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group in 2011 meant the end of the HD Net show, and the creation of a new ROH show that was syndicated across America on Sinclair-owned stations, as well as via their website for fans who had signed up for an account on the promotion’s website.
By then, the company’s status was clear – they had made the jump from being a touring company that just did house shows (and DVD releases thereof), to a promotion that still toured, but were increasing their output. Can’t make it to a show? Chances are if it’s not a live pay-per-view, some of it’ll have been taped for television. Or video-on-demand. Or YouTube. Or failing that, it’ll eventually appear on DVD.
But with an increase in output, comes an increased strain on the people behind the product. Gabe Sapolsky’s long run with ROH ended in somewhat turbulent fashion, as he prepared to make the product more television-friendly, with storylines beyond the traditional sports-oriented “I want your title/I want to beat you” storylines that had characterised ROH’s early years. In his place, Hunter Johnston – better known as Delirious – was given the booking job, and charged with reinvigorating the product – to some success.
That being said, in recent months, the Ring of Honor product has come in for increased criticism. Their relationship with New Japan has given extra exposure to the company, but it’s gone from being an occasional treat to what is now an apparent crutch, as the New Japan roster has gone from being present for occasional tours and main events, to becoming the main focus of the show, as was evident as a storyline with the Bullet Club ruined the main event and effectively took over the show.
Think about that: ROH booked a storyline main event where their champion – Jay Lethal – would wrestle Colt Cabana, who was making his first major ROH appearance in almost five years, but have the match gatecrashed by New Japan’s main heel faction. Granted, ROH have Adam Page, the Young Bucks and Adam Cole as regulars to carry the Bullet Club across, but it still comes across as borrowed idea. Could you ever imagine WWE’s partnership’s result in (say) EVOLVE’s Catch Point or PROGRESS’s Origin appearing in the main event of any NXT card?
And therein lies the problem. Co-promotion and talent exchanges aren’t a bad thing, when they’re done sparingly; but when you have it consuming your own promotion, to the level where your rank and file fans choose to skip shows in their town “because it’s just ROH, and the New Japan guys aren’t going to be there”, then the writing is on the wall.
ROH is not the same promotion it once was, nor should we expect it to be. With different owners and different bookers, it’d be wrong to expect the same ethos to have continued without any changes. If a promotion is to have television and pay-per-view longevity, they need characters, they need storylines; but crucially, they need to be their own. Yes, WWE has borrowed the long-term Kevin Steen/Owens vs. El Generico/Sami Zayn storyline, but both of those guys are contracted exclusively to the company: you can’t see Owens/Zayn anywhere else at the moment… whereas the Bullet Club, you can. On pretty much any New Japan show. So, how exactly is that a special attraction?
In recent weeks, there have been rumblings of creative burn-out and disgruntled talent within ROH – with perhaps the departure of Mike Bennett and Maria to TNA not being the last exits from the promotion. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but – in my mind – the deeper the ties between ROH and New Japan lie, the bigger a threat the agreement becomes.
The more time ROH spends pushing New Japan talent over their own, means that there’s less time to develop their own stars; and when the time comes when New Japan decide to withdraw from this agreement, ROH could be left with a roster that’s been worn down and under-pushed for so long that it’s beyond rescue. Remember what happened in WCW after the original nWo ran roughshod? Someone had better let the Sinclair executives know before it’s too late…