ROH COO Joe Koff Speaks On Future Plans & Reboot
Yesterday, Ring of Honor Chief Operating Officer Joe Koff informed his staff and roster that Ring of Honor that ROH as it has existed under the last 11 years under Sinclair Broadcast Group will soon be no more. After the promotion's TV tapings (before a closed environment) and the now aply-titled December 11th Final Battle PPV in Baltimore, the promotion, which at times was the industry leader in evolution and change in professional wrestling's in-ring product, will go dormant. While the promotion has announced it expects to return with Supercard of Honor in April 2022, anything can happen over the next six months.
Minutes after he informed ROH talents and staff of these developments, Koff agreed to sit down with PWInsider.com to discuss what led to yesterday's announcement, what this means for the promotion's talents, TV product, fans and more.
Mike Johnson: Just a few minutes ago, Ring of Honor, announced that they're going to be pausing live events after the Final Battle pay-per-view on December 11th with the promotion then returning in April, 2022. Yes, April, 2022. We're sitting down with the Ring of Honor Chief Operating Officer, Joe Koff. There's a lot of questions for people who are just reading this news. I've got questions for Joe, so we're going to dive right into it. First of all, thanks for coming on so quickly and being so willing to talk to us. I know not even an hour ago, you just finished talking to Ring of Honor staff and wrestlers. There's going to be a lot of people who hear today's news and think, "Chicken little, the sky is falling. This is the end of Ring of Honor." Can you walk us through what led to today's decision and whether those fears can be kind of calmed and soothed as we head into Final Battle and whatever it is to come next for Ring of Honor.
Joe Koff: Sure. Thank you, Mike. By the way, we're all kind of digesting the news, Mike. I will tell you that I am so lucky to work with the roster, the talent and the staff that I work for and work with because the genuineness and the authenticity that I've spoken about so much over the course of our talking about which makes Ring of Honor so special came flying through today. I mean, it was an honest, real conversation based on real things that are happening. I'm going to answer your question, but I think I need to of kind of reflect back if I can, Mike...
Mike Johnson: Sure.
Joe Koff: ...Because I think it's important to really reflect on what we've done in this past decade to get it here. It really does go all the way back to when we bought it almost 11 years ago, which you were part of and you knew then, you told me that Ring of Honor was the best indie. It took us tremendous effort back then, for not only myself but Gary Juster and Jim Cornette to get this deal done with a model that we believed in, and we believed in it. We've always been a company that's had to pivot and had to almost be cigarette boat like maneuvering because we were still in very competitive waters and still a business unit, an operating unit of a large company. Challenges and opportunities are part of our DNA, but then Greg joined us and we had Mark Davis and then Hunter who took the lead creative role when we needed him the most.
These are people that just worked endlessly to make sure we were producing the best TV product we could with the resources that were given to us. Mike, I'm not surprised and your listeners know because do they follow you like I follow you, the early years were really difficult and up until recently, we had to constantly revise our plans because the original projected cash flow, this is business, [was] just not going to be there, but we pivoted and we've always pivoted. We pivoted into a very efficient, well oiled machine that was able to grow and grasp the attention of wrestling fans. We were a place that wrestlers wanted to work with and work.
We had speed bumps, who doesn't? But we continuously improved every year and built an amazing committed staff to do. Then 2015 and '16, the question became, what is it going to really take to compete against the likes of a WWE? I meant from a talent, not certainly. They are the business, they're the most respected in the business. We're seeing a new company come up that's gaining respect really, really quickly, but we felt we could compete with them on a talent and on a storyline in our creative basis and we took steps to do that. That big step to get that kind of commitment from our company, which has been unbelievably supportive, continues to be, required a lot of resources. We made the most of those resources, but it wasn't an open checkbook and we had to operate the way I always operate.
If there's going to be a laying blame, which there shouldn't be, because we're really celebrating what we achieved, it was probably to me because I've always operated on a cautious basis and perhaps I was a little too cautious in this, but we took the measures beginning to sign those exclusive agreements, making production improvements and we were bolstering our internal staff and processes. It's really incredible to see what we've done since then. If we had 20/20 hindsight, which isn't that fantastic, we all love that, we probably missed a huge opportunity in 2018, and I give all credit to Tony Khan and AEW, they captured it and they did it. We all know who they started with and I'm proud of those guys. I mean, obviously, I'm proud of all my guys, we've had so much talent that has gone to other organizations that have really been so critical to their successes. I take a small part of that success and I share in that, but it didn't happen for us happened for them.
In essence, I think we would all agree, they've done an amazing job and really deserve all the credit in the world. Again, we had a pivot with a different creative line, with missing some of our big stars that chose to go over to AEW and we had lost stars in the past. The business, Mike, is strewn with stars from Ring of Honor. We can go through the list and we've done it before, really proud of that legacy that Ring of Honor has, that this is where wrestling really is born. This is where wrestling really happens. This is like a desert that people are tested against, this is where they grow and they're fortitude and all. I love that about our company, but that's what we had to do. We've done it before and we will do it again.
We had to move forward, with a great roster and a strategy, and our strategy was to go weekly and everybody knew that. It was going to be part of that July, I think we're in 2020 now.
Mike Johnson: Right. The studio show.
[Note: there were plans for a weekly studio style ROH series that never actually launched due to COVID-19.]
Joe Koff: Right. Exactly. Again, we were relying on resources that we had to create. We didn't have the luxury of point of destination television viewing, but we used our own resources and our own creative abilities to try and deliver that weekly product to the fan. Then what hit after that? I don't have to tell everybody's aware of it, was COVID. I remember the time. We talked, I think Mike, when we canceled that show. You and I have talked a lot about COVID and I will tell you this, there are some crowning moments. If you hear my voice cracking, Mike, it's just because obviously it's very emotional day, but when I speak of the responsibility and the care that we have taken for our wrestlers and our staff, it's not a fan's necessarily crowning achievement, but it's a personal crowning achievement to what we accomplished.
We were able to keep everyone safe and contracted through the duration. We did well, and probably did the best with the hopes that we would prevail and get back to our pre COVID plan. Unfortunately, that's what really makes today really hard. We weren't able to do it. Again, we're an operating unit of a large company, held to the same standards as other operating units in our company, and we just had to make a decision that due to everything else that's going on, we had to make a pivot.
After Final Battle, which is on December 11th, we are going to take the first quarter off and we are going to reimagine a new Ring of Honor product. So Ring of Honor's not going away, it's just going to have a different look. We are going to use that first quarter. We have amazing archival footage. Our programs will all be original. They'll all be new. We have a couple of surprises that we can talk about later on that I think the fans will really like, but the fans have always been the most important part of our business, Mike, you know that, and we want to move to a much more fan engaged promotion. We value the fans. We are looking and we think it's important to all fans say, "We need to have this guy." You know what? I'm going to listen because they're the fan. Look to book creatively with Hunter and our team, the best talent that makes sense for a storyline, for an arc, for a show like Supercard and just bring wrestling, just great wrestling to our fans.
Mike Johnson: All right. I've got a lot of questions coming out of this. You sound...downtrodden...is the only way I can describe it at the moment. Someone's going to hear the tone in your voice and the fact that you're using the past tense and assume this all means no matter what is else is said here, Ring of Honor is dead and it's never coming back. So what can you say to alleviate those fears?
Joe Koff: Well, that's, yes, that's unfair. Look, if you're hearing a downtrodden voice it's because I just had a meeting with the staff and had to relay the same kind of information. It wasn't jumping for joy, but Ring of Honor has been down many, many times, even in the times I've been here and we're just at a place where we have to pivot again. We have to get back to our well oiled machine and find a way to make Ring of Honor something special for all wrestling fans. That's one of the reasons why we're taking this first quarter off, to rebuild and figure out what it is, but I can tell you, we have great people and a lot of great ideas putting this together. It's not going to feel like AEW or WWE, or maybe even ROH as we know it today, Mike, but our goal is to provide a unique and engaging experience for all wrestling fans.
I'm not going to share a lot of detail that's coming, and I know that sounds like a hedge, but people are going to believe what they want to believe. I can't stop that, but I am usually the cheerleader and I am usually that person and I feel that way about Ring of Honor 2.0 and what our capabilities are and what we're always able to do, but if you're hearing in my voice is because as you said at the opening, this was less than an hour ago. I had to have this conversation with the greatest assemblage of talent and people to share this news with them.
Mike Johnson: All right. Let's talk about the people. What does this mean for the Ring of Honor staff? And what does this mean for the contracted talents who are currently under deals? I know there are some whose deals expire towards the end of the year, because that's how Ring of Honor does business. There's some who obviously go on through 2022 and beyond. What does all of this mean for the people who have worked into side the ring and behind the scenes for Ring of Honor?
Joe Koff: Well, one thing, you know and you know this for a fact, we care very deeply about our people and our talent, but this is contractual and this is an individual conversation, and I'm not going to comment on it at this point.
[Note: While Koff declined to comment, numerous ROH talents have confirmed that if their deals with the promotion expired at the end of the year, they were informed they would not be renewed. Deals running into 2022 will either now expire in March/April 2022.]
Mike Johnson: Okay. Talent who are under contract during this time period where Ring of Honor is not going to be running events, will they be working on TV tapings that are in enclosed environments, I know you had mentioned archival footage, or will the programming going forward simply be similar to what we saw during the pandemic?
Joe Koff: Well, it could be similar to that, could have a different creative slant. I would tell you that we are taping next week for the rest of the year for our TV leading up to Final Battle. After that we have some creative ideas. Again, they're being fleshed out. We're talking about them now to continue to create and produce and distribute original content.
Mike Johnson: Okay. Will the talents who are under contract be allowed to work elsewhere during this time off?
Joe Koff: We had a conversation with them and we certainly are going to work with every talent for whatever needs they need to fulfill whatever they're looking for. Yes.