Ring of Honor is a promotion that, even if in name alone, I’ll always feel at least a little connected to. Growing up as a northeastern wrestling fan in New Jersey they were the first promotion I spent a lot of time and money following around (as can be confirmed on video on many of those peak era shows; look for the dork with dyed black hair and a Gundam Wing shirt I wish I still had). On top of this Ring of Honor—along with the old Mayfield Mayhem table at Jersey All Pro Wrestling shows—helped begin my lifelong interest in Japanese professional wrestling, and brought over a ton of the best talent of that era. I’ll never forget watching Kenta Kobashi in a crammed hotel ballroom, or Mitsuharu Misawa in the Manhattan Center less than two years before his tragic death, or road tripping with the guy who ran the only English Osaka Pro blog all the way up to Buffalo to see CIMA (and Shingo Takagi!) for the first time. These are memories I’ll treasure for the rest of my life, even after having been to Japan three times to see real shows there in person. So this is all a perhaps long-winded and personal way of saying that, despite the changes in ownership, I still have interest in ROH and how they’re doing.
And if you haven’t heard how they’re doing in 2019, the answer is not well. New seat maps featuring a plethora of blue “this seat available” dots are seemingly posted every day. Here’s what the ticket sales to their next PPV and TV taping in Las Vegas at the end of September currently look like:
The PPV is pictured on top and the TV taping on the bottom. Yeah, yikes.
These are so stunningly bad that when I posted them to my Twitter I received multiple responses asking me if the blue dots represented sold seats. ROH probably wishes they did, but sadly for them, they do not. Other upcoming shows do not look much better: a return to the UK is struggling to sell tickets, and this weekend’s show in Toronto looks likely to do a number well below the 1,000 fans the last show there drew (a War of the Worlds show featuring NJPW talent, although of lesser star quality than these tours in years past). Per Lavie Margolin (who does an excellent job tracking ROH attendance), ROH’s attendance in the first six months of 2019 was averaging about 835 per show (if you take out the MSG show, which you obviously should for the point of comparison). That already compares unfavorably to 2018, when they drew about 1,213 per show over the same timeframe (again taking out the Mania weekend one-time show that was largely drawn by the promoted-in-NJPW Omega-Cody match), but if anything their attendance problems now seem to be accelerating.
On the same weekend as these two events in Las Vegas that Ring of Honor is currently struggling to sell tickets for, their longtime partners New Japan Pro Wrestling are hosting three shows of their own on the other side of the country, in buildings ROH themselves have called home for many years. Unlike these ROH shows, NJPW’s Fighting Spirit Unleashed tour had no problem selling tickets: events at NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom (where ROH last did a claimed 1,000 fans in July, barely over half capacity) and the famous 2300 (ex-ECW) Arena in Philadelphia sold out pretty much immediately after tickets were put on sale. The third show in Lowell (near Boston) isn’t far behind with only a small fraction of seats remaining as I write this. In past years ROH received support from their international partners at New Japan for their major PPV events- 2018’s Death Before Dishonor PPV in the same city featured legend Jushin Thunger Liger, stars Beretta, Rocky Romero, Tomohiro Ishii and Kazuchika Okada, and was main evented by a well-received ROH World Title challenge from Will Ospreay. But this year Death Before Dishonor not only won’t feature any NJPW talent, but will in fact have to compete for wrestling fans’ attention with an entire NJPW tour of the northeastern US on the very same weekend.
A lot can change in a year!
Speaking of things changing, you’ve probably heard of this little All Elite Wrestling thing. Fans have been lining up to purchase tickets to their first shows, with a roster nucleus made up mainly of ex-ROH (and ex-NJPW) talent. The Young Bucks and Cody, and to a lesser extent Hangman Page, SCU, the Best Friends and others, once helped ROH draw record attendances. Now they’ve helped AEW draw even bigger crowds instead.
Staring down the barrel of many sub-1k crowds to come, and maybe even sub-500 crowds, it shouldn’t be difficult for anyone in the Ring of Honor office to figure out what happened. ROH has spent the last five years setting up their own competition, letting them use their established platform to build new audience bases. Prior to NJPW’s first interactions with ROH in 2014 they were a promotion well known among the hardest of hardcore fans, but one without much appeal to anything even approaching the mainstream; indeed, NJPW’s quasi-America tour in 2011, the “Invasion” tour, was such a flop it basically bankrupted Jersey All Pro Wrestling, who funded the events. New Japan had for sure made strides with hardcore, Wrestling Observer Newsletter-reading types in the two years that followed (generally 2012 is a widely agreed upon start date of their current boom), but anyone who was paying attention can tell you that Western interest in NJPW really began to reach a new level with their first joint shows with ROH. It began in Toronto and NYC on May 10 and May 17 of 2014, the very first Global Wars and War of the Worlds events; a match where Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Kevin Steen drew particular attention and acclaim, and also just so happened to set the tone of the entire relationship.
Though Steen was soon to leave for WWE, he was still the top ROH star at the time. His loss to Shinsuke began a long-running trend of ROH top stars losing close to every single match against NJPW’s main eventers; the very occasional ROH wins, perhaps the highest-profile being Jay Lethal over Tetsuya Naito in September 2016, only ever involved talents who NJPW had future plans for anyway, often to set up direct rematches back on Japanese tours.
ROH was established very quickly as being very little other than NJPW’s junior US partner, with matches for the ROH World Title taking place laughably early on Wrestle Kingdom cards (and being treated as little more than a chance to head to the restroom or concession stands by the Japanese fans). There was one time when Tomohiro Ishii won the ROH World TV Title, the #2 belt in the promotion, and remarked that he had no idea what the title was or what it even represented. In many ways, some subtle and some not at all, it was made very clear to the fanbase who was on top in this relationship, and it made ROH look increasingly ridiculous whenever they would try to stand up for themselves. When they insisted on their ROH World Title match of Marty Scurll vs. Dalton Castle going on last at their Mania weekend 2018 event, even though the crowd had clearly come to see then-NJPW star Kenny Omega and Cody face off in a match built for weeks in New Japan (and on Being the Elite), they were “rewarded” with hordes of fans heading for the exits early at the end of a marathon show. With much of the wrestling media at large crediting New Japan in large part for ROH’s success, ROH COO Joe Koff gave increasingly delusional interviews like this one with AV Club in late 2017, where he delivered lines like this:
“You know, something I was thinking over the last set of days is that I’m asked about WWE, I’m asked about New Japan. I get it. But I wonder if the press is asking in Japan whether Ring of Honor is the reason why New Japan is so great.”
(Let me help you out with this one, Mr. Koff: The press in Japan was not, in fact, asking New Japan that. Just in case you were still wondering.)
Amazingly, ROH didn’t learn from that Supercard of Honor Scurll-Castle debacle; when their next Mania weekend show came around this year, this time a co-promoted show with NJPW called G1 Supercard at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, they apparently tried to put their ROH World Title three-way ladder match (involving Scurll, Jay Lethal and Matt Taven) on last once again, ahead of Kazuchika Okada challenging Jay White for the IWGP Heavyweight Title. You may recall that the finish of the G1 Supercard title match was longtime midcard heel Taven capturing the title, over Lethal and crowd favorite (and ex-Elite member) Scurll. So yes, ROH apparently thought that Madison Square Taven would be a better way to close the show than Okada regaining the IWGP belt. Thankfully they ended up relenting and letting Okada close the event instead, but it’s amazing to think about just how close we were to ending the show with Madison Square Taven.
If G1 Supercard is destined to go down as the final “big” show of the ROH/NJPW partnership it will be an oddly fitting end. ROH was allowed to take credit for a sold-out MSG (tickets went on sale the prior summer, when the Elite were still with both promotions, and it seems fair to say they at least had a great deal to do with the very quick sellout) while NJPW basically ignored their involvement with the show. Whether in written materials on their website or promos from their wrestlers, any references to MSG were simply “New Japan is running Madison Square Garden”; if you only watched NJPW you would be forgiven for not even knowing ROH was involved at all. The event began with a Royal Rumble-style match hilariously referred to as an Honor Rumble (the comedy being who was actually over in said match). NJPW and ROH wrestlers entered one at a time, with virtually every NJPW wrestler receiving a thunderous ovation no matter their placement on the card (the only exception really being poor YOSHI-HASHI), while ROH “stars” like the tag team Coast 2 Coast may as well have been anonymous fans from the crowd who had just jumped the rail. It was an omen for how the night would go, as in front of what was by far their largest audience ever, ROH proceeded to put on half of a card that was widely panned.
Whether debuting an accused rapist no one on earth wanted to see (without telling NJPW, despite New Japan wrestlers being involved in the match he ran in on), putting together a reunion of a TNA women’s act that first debuted in 2007, or having a nerdcore rapper put on a performance that anyone with a brain could have guessed would be booed out of the building just so he could get interrupted by mega-heel Bully Ray (getting him cheered in the process), it was quite the night for ROH. Meanwhile, NJPW just did what they’ve done for the entire five years of this partnership: they put on a bunch of well-received, high-quality wrestling matches that made their American partner’s half of the card look second rate by comparison. It was one night that summed up an entire relationship.
This is not to say ROH got nothing out of the deal, of course.
Just the fact that they were in MSG at all they could largely thank that partnership for. But while ROH drew their biggest crowds in history, they simultaneously failed to plan for a future after NJPW and after the Elite, and they in fact helped set up the futures of both without them. They established that NJPW was a higher quality brand than they were, and they pushed the Bullet Club and later the Elite as a constant focal point of the promotion. On one PPV event in New York in 2017, they went so far as to let New Japan officials present their new IWGP US Heavyweight Title belt to the world for the first time, promoting NJPW’s first standalone US shows since 2011 where the first champion would be crowned. Even at the time, this was questioned by some, but it looks positively insane in hindsight to let someone promote their own competing shows in your own home US market on your events. Of course, everyone reading this probably knows the story of All In by now as well, with ROH allegedly helping them put on the show in large part to “prove” to them it would never work. Spoiler alert: it worked, and provided the launchpad for All Elite Wrestling to take off the following year.
The last solo ROH event I attended was Final Battle 2018 at Hammerstein Ballroom, where I sat in the lower balcony. Throughout the evening, I listened to loud fans behind me shout references to Being the Elite quite literally all night long (whether Elite wrestlers were involved in the matches or not). I also overheard two other fans quietly discuss what they had been watching on New Japan World of late; one talked in great detail of how he had gotten his dad to start watching wrestling again for the first time in years through the service. This memory stands out to me because, on the precipice of what would turn out to be a big fall for ROH in 2019, it quite neatly encapsulates who the ROH audience was at that time: a large, loud group of fans who loved all things related to the Elite, and a smaller, quieter group of fans who loved NJPW. You’ll notice I didn’t mention anyone extolling the virtues of Matt Taven, Jay Lethal, or even the Briscoe Brothers. It does not take a detective to determine where these two groups of fans have gone in 2019.
No promotion has ever virtually handed over their own market share to other companies in such a manner quite like ROH has. Last year at this time, ROH was the number two promotion in the United States. Now, AEW is number two, and New Japan is number three. AEW has drawn gigantic crowds since their very first show, and NJPW just drew a nearly 5000 fan house in Dallas that may have looked a little silly on TV in an NBA-sized arena, but was still many times larger than anything ROH has been able to draw on their own this year. That means ROH is, at best, the number four promotion in the US, and fans of Major League Wrestling may even argue with you about that one.
So where does that leave ROH?
Their Summer Supercard event this weekend in Toronto has a card that honestly looks pretty solid (and frankly, probably looks better than SummerSlam’s) but is struggling to sell tickets. With the NJPW relationship becoming less and less of a factor, ROH is turning more toward their relationship with Mexico’s CMLL; their traditional fall Global Wars tour with New Japan stars will instead feature CMLL talent for the first time ever. So far ticket sales in Chicago, Michigan and Milwaukee have shown virtually no response to this announcement, but perhaps they could follow in MLW’s footsteps and attempt to market directly to the Latinx community in the US (one wonders if their parent company will make that difficult, though). This will likely have to fill an increasingly large void left by the NJPW relationship, as New Japan continues to run US events head to head with ROH shows; in addition to the late September Fighting Spirit Unleashed events, their Super J Cup at the end of August is the same weekend as ROH shows in Atlanta and Nashville. If this relationship isn’t dead, it would at least look to be on thin ice.
Either way, it’s become increasingly clear that if ROH wants any hope at being truly considered a top promotion in the US again, it is going to need to change their approach going forward. Can they do it? Fans of TNA or Impact Wrestling can tell you that sometimes once you’re going down there’s really no way to climb back up. Whatever remaining fanbase ROH still has left will be hoping that isn’t the case for them as well.