Ring of Honor Boss on How to Compete With WWE: Maybe You Don’t

Joe Koff breaks down differences between the two pro wrestling organizations — and tells TheWrap why many choose his

Joe Koff
Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff

Joe Koff’s pro wrestling promotion is no WWE, and that’s just the way he likes it.

The Ring of Honor (ROH) chief operating officer prefers his product to the popular “Raw” and “SmackDown” stuff, as do many serious fans of the professional sport. While Koff’s version is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting — so, not exactly a mom-and-pop shop — it’s nowhere near the size of the former World Wrestling Federation. No one is, actually — and Koff will take his wrestling over Vince McMahon’s revenue, anyway.

Though he certainly respects WWE, Koff doesn’t really approach those other guys as an actual rival, the longtime TV executive told TheWrap in a recent interview.

“We’re in the same space, because they do wrestling and I do wrestling. They have a televised product and I do. They do live shows and I do live shows — I guess we’re competitors,” he said. “But, you know what? I never looked at Ring of Honor as that.”

He went on: “We were never going to be the WWE — that’s their business. [ROH] is just a part of a greater business. I could never get to their scale or their size… [WWE] is not a new company. This is a very mature, well-developed [brand] — in its now-third generation. We could call them a 40-year-old overnight success, I guess.”

Ironically, Koff is only in the pro wrestling business these days because of a decision WWE made in 2010. When McMahon moved his programming from free, over-the-air television to cable, Koff saw a golden opportunity, and he convinced Sinclair CEO David Smith to buy Ring of Honor.

Juxtaposing ROH with the publicly traded corporation headquartered in Stamford, Conn., Koff explained that his company focuses exclusively on the in-ring action. In other words, Koff’s product isn’t three hours long, and they won’t fill a viewer’s time with lengthy promos or pre-recorded video packages. That one-track mind results in what he calls “unbelievable wrestling,” which keeps his very loyal fanbase coming back for more.

“We do our talking in the ring,” Koff explained. “They consider themselves sports entertainment, we consider ourselves an entertaining sport.”

That wordplay may sound like a slight distinction, but the different cultures creates a feeling of ownership for everyone involved in his org — including the actual grapplers. Yes, Ring of Honor executives like Koff pre-determine who wins and who loses, of course, but the story-telling is more much in the hands of the wrestlers than in WWE. That’s much more satisfying for talent, and it helps explain how Koff keeps his locker rooms packed with top-notch athletes.

Koff also believes his league has “a more sensitive approach” to the grueling nature of the pro wrestling business. For starters, Ring of Honor picks up all of travel costs for their independent contractor performers — not every league does that.

And while his pockets aren’t as deep as McMahon’s, ROH wrestlers can make as much per show as WWE talent, Koff said. That’s partly because his promotion boasts a lighter schedule — which may hurt a participant’s yearly take, but it also gives his men and women time to heal their bodies. Plus, Koff allows his guys to wrestle elsewhere on their time off, with many booking themselves just as heavily in New Japan Pro Wrestling’s opposing schedule.

“When they meld the two schedules together — and the two income opportunities — it’s probably competitive,” he said of the compensation, adding: “And without the grind.”

That’s all very attractive to the new breed of pro wrestler — the kind who Koff says does yoga and obsessively hydrates in his hallways. The business has no room these days for steroid abusers or backstage beer swillers, he adds — it’s simply an industry of professionals who practice, perform, and go to bed.

“We have a lot of young guys, and they have young families,” Koff said. “Maybe not working 200 nights (per year) is OK in this day and age.”

The next night that readers can catch Koff’s guys working a pay-per-view is Friday, May 12’s “War of the Worlds” at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. ROH wrestling also airs every Monday night at 7 p.m. ET on FITE TV, and each weekend on your local Sinclair station.