Last week, Ring Of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling made history, selling out Madison Square Garden within just days for the G1 Super Card, which is scheduled for Wrestlemania weekend next April. The co-promoted event will not only be the largest ROH/NJPW show in the United States, but also the first non-WWE professional wrestling event held in the legendary venue in decades.
What that exactly translates to depends on how you approach the subject, but it’s undoubtedly a tremendous success story for Ring of Honor, an organization that started as a fledgling independent in 2002. All things considered, the story of ROH is quite remarkable, both for the path it took to the MSG sellout and it’s undeniable influence on the industry.
When you rewind to mid-2001, the Monday Night War was over and Vince McMahon claimed victory. The collapse of Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, a saga that still remains a topic of discussion today, allowed for McMahon to buy his competition for pennies on the dollar. Again, the reasons for WCW’s downfall vary and involve a number of factors. Some point to Vince Russo’s twilight zone writing, while others contend that the AOL/Time Warner merger ultimately doomed pro wrestling within the corporate structure. Regardless of the reasons behind it, the shutdown of WCW changed the direction of the business and that impact can still be seen today. Just a few months later, Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling, the renegade group that inspired much of the wild Attitude Era of the 90s, filed for bankruptcy. The then-WWF began the process to buy the assets of ECW, a legal preceding that actually took a few years because Heyman sold shares of the company in its latter years in an attempt to keep it afloat. The point being, as with the wrestling boom of the 80s, the wrestling war of the 90s had its share of causalities and thus a down slide in business. Vince McMahon secured his empire and had a monopoly over the industry, which prompted the demand for a new product.
In early 2002, Gabe Sapolsky and the late Doug Gentry, both of whom worked for the original ECW, filming house show matches when they weren’t involved with office work, knew that there was a demand for an alternative product in the industry. Much like Extreme Championship Wrestling itself, when Ring of Honor was founded in February of that year, it began as a small independent group that ran events from a dingy building in Philadelphia, the Murphy Rec Center. Also similar to ECW, the ROH concept of pure competition as opposed to the sports entertainment genre on main stream TV allowed for talented athletes to be discovered. Names like Low Ki, Bryan Danielson, Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe, and AJ Styles found notoriety in the promotion before they went on to become major stars on a national platform.
Through the ups and downs that any league will endure, ROH managed to survive, often running on a shoestring budget, and attempting different ventures, such as the HD Net television show to garner more exposure for the brand. From the time that Sapolsky cleverly booked the Combat Zone Wrestling feud in 2006 to the numerous occasions that ROH saw top talent depart for either WWE or TNA over the years, the group managed to stay above water, a credit to Cary Silkin, who bought the organization in 2004. In the mid-2000s, there was a legitimate argument to be made that Ring of Honor delivered the best in-ring product in the world, which is quite an accomplishment, considering that the promotion was still an independent group at the time. When the economics of the industry put Ring Of Honor on the brink of collapse, Jim Cornette, the legendary former manager that worked in a variety of roles for ROH, put together a plan for Silkin to sell to Sinclair Broadcasting, a network that looked to add original programming to its syndicated channels in 2011.
The first few years of the corporate-owned ROH were rocky, a sign that Sinclair bought the wrestling company for a source of original programming that was relatively cheap to produce, not necessarily to compete in the sports entertainment genre. Early attempts at iPPV were disastrous and for the first time in its history, some saw the once innovate organization as a stagnant product. After a few key figures in management were shuffled around, the brand began to generate some buzz again, mostly from a working agreement with the previously mentioned New Japan in 2014.
As with most successful scenarios in wrestling, the ROH/NJPW partnership was a matter of timing, as the Bullet Club, a spinoff of the New World Order that featured a stable of mostly foreign stars to challenge the native competitors, became extremely popular and shined a renewed spotlight on the Japanese product. At the same time the Bullet Club brought a new generation of fans to the New Japan radar, stars like Okada, Tanahashi, Suzuki, and others had some incredible matches that further solidified the status of the promotion. As a result, when Ring Of Honor brought those Japanese stars to the United States, American fans packed venues for a chance to see them perform live. With the exposure that the Japanese stars received in America on ROH events, it allowed New Japan to expand their product more directly into the United States. The most important aspect of this is that it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved, and it’s great to see to promotions work together to built their respective brands.
In recent years, a diversified roster allowed Ring of Honor to add more variety to events and progress the company. Solid talent like Jay Lethal, Shane Taylor, Punishment Martinez, and others each brought a different dynamic to the product. However, the wild popularity of Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, and Marty Scurll fueled much of the hype around the current ROH product.
But, what does this MSG sellout truly say about the state of the industry?
In my opinion, the most important piece of the puzzle is that there are undoubtedly opportunities for athletes to become legitimate, money-drawing stars outside of the WWE, which is something that benefits the entire business. In fact, that scenario hasn’t been a reality since the Monday Night Wars mentioned earlier. Does that mean ROH is going to compete with the WWE? No, but the fact that a promotion can draw that type of hype outside of Vince McMahon’s global product speaks well to the potential of the industry in the future. More specifically, the paradigm shifted for what determines success within the genre. Granted, anything is possible in the unique world of pro wrestling, but realistically the goal for a sport entertainment company should be to establish itself as a profitable business venture, not direct competition to the WWE. In many ways, an attempt to compete with a global brand would be too risky because of the investment it would require so finding a profitable niche could be a much more successful path for other organizations. Again, the bottom line is profitability so that’s ultimately the determining factor of success.
Clearly, this co-promoted MSG event has a winning formula, and it’s truly a remarkable accomplishment, something wouldn’t even be considered possible just a few years ago. At the same time, this is just one event and it certainly doesn’t indicate that either ROH or New Japan could duplicate these numbers on a regular basis. For example, running on Wrestlemania weekend is probably the best chance they had for a sellout because of the amount of fans that travel to the area. That being said, this sellout eight months in advance speaks to the value of the Ring Of Honor and New Japan brand, which proves that there’s definitely the possibility of further expansion. More than anything, it will be extremely interesting to see the direction of ROH in the future.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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