Joe Koff is no stranger to competition.
The 65-year-old Ring of Honor COO’s expectations were high for the Field of Honor show in Coney Island, New York this past August. Ring of Honor had partnered with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and the show highlighted some of the best wrestling in the world. Yet the crowd was thinner than originally planned – the WWE flexed some muscle and scheduled NXT Takeover: Brooklyn on the very same night, even including Japanese legend Jushin Thunder Liger on the card. Koff, however, did not panic. Unlike so many former wrestling promoters, he refused to go on camera and make himself the story. Koff is too smart a businessman to fall into the trap of making disparaging remarks about the wrestling conglomerate known as the WWE, so he never waged war. But he also never changed his goals and objectives for Ring of Honor.
“WWE is an unbelievable business, and they operate the way they need to for their business,” said Koff, who spoke backstage last week at Sam’s Town Live in Las Vegas during Ring of Honor’s pay per view and television taping. “The WWE is in the wrestling business. This is their business, and they are superb at it. Ring of Honor is a part of our business, but it’s an organization which is now in the same conversation, which I’m very proud of, because that’s the respect Ring of Honor has gained.”
Koff also serves as the vice president of training and development with the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is Ring of Honor’s parent company. He has run Ring of Honor as the COO since 2011, replacing Cary Silkin–who was a co-founder and creator of the company in 2004.
“Cary Silkin is the reason why Ring of Honor is successful from a foundational standpoint,” explained Koff. “Nothing has really changed other than the business support from when Cary supported and ran this company. The talent is the same, the spirit is the same, the authenticity is the same, but we have a more stable platform. I’m not part of the story line, and I’ll never become part of the story. It’s Cary’s story, and he is our ambassador now. He is synonymous with Ring of Honor the product, and I never want to lose that.”
Koff is synonymous with Ring of Honor as a business, and he does not want his company to be defined as one of the many independent wrestling promotions.
“We were always known as the best indie out there,” said Koff. “We’ve always had that cache as the place where the wrestlers worked to the fullest and gave every ounce of ability and blood to the fans. But we’re not an indie–we’re a real business with real sentiments and intellect and belief.”
Ring of Honor is backed by Sinclair, which is an advantage held by no other wrestling company. The media giant delivers 164 television stations and 422 channels across 79 markets in the United States. Yet Sinclair is renowned for its news coverage and not its pro wrestling, and Ring of Honor remains without a home television station across the country.
“We need to have an app and more TV,” revealed Koff, whose group enjoyed a brief stint on national cable by airing on Destination America from June to November in 2015. “We’re seen pretty much everywhere [syndicated], but I would like to have an in-pattern time that is seen everywhere at the same time across the nation. We’re not consistent in the way we were on Destination America. We’re consistent on Comet, if you can find it, which is getting more visible–we’re on every Wednesday at the same time.
“My goal is to get to a more nationally distributed show again like we had on Destination America. That was a good show and a good time, and I liked having that consistency.”
The American Sports Network is Sinclair-owned and would make a good home for Ring of Honor, especially considering that ROH thrives in its late night ratings and could air after a full day of college football and basketball games are complete.
“Our weekend ratings are terrific, and weekend late nights are ideal for us,” said Koff. “Our largest ratings are late night from 10pm-2am.”
Koff graduated from the University of Miami in 1972, but is a lifelong learner who earned his MBA at the age of fifty from the University of Baltimore. He is not a second or third generation wrestling promoter, but instead a calm, intelligent and considerate executive steadfast on his vision of success.
“I was made a general manager when I was 25 years old,” said Koff, who was named the youngest GM of a radio station of all the major markets in the country at KRUX in Phoenix. “When I got that job, I asked the owner, ‘What do I know about being a general manager?’ He said, ‘You know how to listen, you are very compassionate, and you’ll never make the wrong decision.’ I thought that was pretty lofty, but he believed in me. Because of that, I thought it was my turn to pay it forward and believe in other people.”
Koff believes in Hunter “Delirious” Johnston, who is Ring of Honor’s senior producer. And he is not afraid to ask Johnston for help.
“Hunter is a brilliant mind, and we share ideas,” explained Koff. “I will never, ever use the power of my position to get what I want. Hunter is invested and embedded in this business.”
Koff credits Johnston for the working relationship between Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling.
“Hunter’s relationship did that,” confirmed Koff. “New Japan represents a lot of the same qualities in Japan as Ring of Honor does in America. We are very similar businesses, from the presentation to the expectation of the work to the expectation of the fan, and the accessibility of the talent to the fan.”
Any discussion in wrestling inevitably circles back to the WWE. The biggest difference between Ring of Honor and WWE, Koff explained, is freedom.
“This is an organization that is so authentic in what we present,” said Koff. “But the difference between us is that WWE is much more command and control. That pushes down. We’re much more spontaneous in how we operate.”
Koff employs some of wrestling’s top performers. Jay Lethal, the Young Bucks, reDRagon’s Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish, Moose and Adam Cole are just a sample of an extraordinary roster overflowing with talent.
“I want to give the fans what they want, but I also need to give us what we need,” explained Koff. “The Young Bucks are with us because they wrestle in our style and our brand, and, quite frankly, I think they do an unbelievable job in helping us promote our brand. They’re great brand extensive ambassadors for us.
“Our fans want a brand of wrestling. They want a style of wrestling, an artistic integrity in the matches. We give them that, and that is what our brand will always give them. We’re not centered around one personality. Yes, the Young Bucks are top stars, but reDRagon is every bit at that level. I’m very cautious at naming talents, because it’s the fans who are the ones who vote. I can see the streamers coming in, I can see the merch sales.”
There are continued plans for growth in 2016, but ever the businessman, Koff is keeping the information close to the vest.
“We’re very methodical in our growth,’ said Koff. “I have an amazing business team. My general manager, Greg Gilleland, is instrumental in our business growth. I’m also proud that no one knew we were buying Ring of Honor until it was announced, and that’s, again, because we’re not in the wrestling business–we’re in business that happens to be wrestling. We have very, very concrete strategies that we will deploy and employ. They won’t be [publicly] spoken–they’ll happen and it will be felt.
“But we’ll always be in free television. We’re the only place that will always be available on a free consumption basis. There is no other promotion that can reach as many homes as we do on a weekly basis for free.”
Koff will never be confused with Vince McMahon, but that is exactly what allows him to succeed. He is a fresh voice in an old business, and a new breed of wrestling executive. Never confuse his kindness for weakness–Koff is embracing the opportunity to help elevate Ring of Honor to the next level.
“My goal has been to win every fan, one at a time, but also to be the promotion of choice,” said Koff. “We want to be the promotion of choice for the guys who wrestle for us, as well as for the fans–and you can only do that by being authentic.
“I’m fortunate to be working in an industry I love and understand. We’re doing what we set out to do, and Sinclair has offered a foundation to let us do it. I’ve getting to live a dream of mine from my own boyhood–I was sitting in Madison Square Garden watching Bruno Sammartino battle Gorilla Monsoon in a two-out-of-three falls match, and I get to live this dream now with the greatest athletes in this business.”
The WWE’s flagship show is Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, and every wrestling fan knows how to access their content. Koff, however, raved about the Ring of Honor fans, who continue to find a way to watch the product even without a signature show each week.
“More than anything, I’m grateful for our fans,” said Koff. “We’re talking about connecting with each fan on a level that other promotions don’t. Our guys appreciate every fan that come to our shows, and so do I. I wish I could write a note to everyone watching and say, ‘Thank you.’”
As for a goal for the remainder of 2016, Koff had only his talent and fans in mind.
“I want every Ring of Honor show to be better than the last.”