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During a time when brand value is the key drawing card in wrestling, Ring of Honor finds itself still relying on the business model that has been discarded by the biggest wrestling companies in the world. In a world where WrestleMania sells tens of thousands of tickets before a single match or star is announced for the show, Ring of Honor is still heavily reliant about individual names and stars to draw their audiences.
ROH's latest PPV, Death Before Dishonor, drew the largest crowd the company has ever had in Las Vegas, which has turned into a regular hub for the Philadelphia-based company. Record-setting crowds have become something of a trend for ROH, 2018 has already been their biggest year in company history and that will only continue in 2019, with 14,000 tickets already sold for their joint show with New Japan Pro Wrestling at Madison Square Garden.
However, while the crowd was large it was obvious while watching the show that the crowd was not necessarily there to see a ROH show; they were there to see the Bullet Club and other stars from NJPW. Despite their size, the audience was pretty quiet for most of the undercard, before exploding for the semi-main event, which featured Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, Marty Scurll and Hangman Page against the team of Kazuchika Okada, Tomohiro Ishii, Chuck Taylor, Trent and Rocky Romero.
It's no surprise that ROH has experienced their biggest crowds as the Bullet Club and NJPW has gotten hotter in the United States. ROH deserves a lot of credit for promoting the talent involved and helping those guys get over, so it is not to say that it's merely good fortune that ROH has been able to use that talent to draw for their shows. However, it is clear that ROH is relying on that talent to draw the interest of fans, and without that talent the company would be far less popular.
This is particularly a problem if something were to happen to that talent. It is no secret that many of the key figures in the Bullet Club (Kenny Omega, Rhodes, Page and The Young Bucks) have expiring contracts and will become free agents in Jan. 2019. If they did go to WWE, it would be a critical blow to ROH, and there current growth period would almost certainly be over. Unlike WWE, who could lose any of their current full-time talent and still draw at the same level, ROH is very dependent on those stars, and it would be a problem for the company if they lost the Bullet Club cash-cow.
ROH, more than any other promotion, has had the misfortune of having their talent constantly raided by WWE. For most wrestlers, WWE offers a greater opportunity for success than ROH, not to mention WWE can offer a much higher salary. While ROH has expanded their operations in recent years by signing talent to full-time contracts, they are still light years away from being able to compete with WWE on a financial level.
For a company that relies on stars to draw crowds, it's actually amazing to see how much top talent WWE has taken away from Ring of Honor over the years, and see that the company is not only still around, but thriving. Look at any WWE show and you'll see a great collection of former ROH World Champions; Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Adam Cole, Samoa Joe, Kyle O'Reilly, Daniel Bryan, Roderick Strong; not to mention guys who never held the title but were still key draws, such as Bobby Fish, AJ Styles and Sami Zayn. Every time one of those guys left the company, ROH was forced to build new talent, only to see that new talent leave as well.
As WWE has become more aggressive with signing talent, it is no longer just top ROH talent that is going to WWE. Over the last year or so, ROH has pushed several names in their mid-card division, only to see that talent get signed away by WWE. In the case of Lio Rush, ROH signed the young star after he shined in the D.C. area indies and gave him a small push in the mid-card. Shortly after that, Rush left ROH and signed with WWE. Donovan Dijak experienced a similar career path; signed by ROH after working for a few years in the New England area, Dijak was given a moderate push and then signed by WWE.
Death Before Dishonor would begin the final weekend for Punishment Martinez, who like Rush and Dijak, has received a mid-card run with the ROH Television Championship and is now reportedly WWE bound. This poses a serious problem for ROH, because anyone with potential that they attempt to build as a future main event star has been snatched away by WWE before ROH was ever really able to utilize their potential at the main event level. If the Bullet Club guys were to leave ROH, anyone that ROH would be attempting to replace them with would likely also be headed to WWE once they gain any traction.
Companies outside of WWE have also hurt ROH's ability to manufacture stars. In the beginning of the company, the idea was to provide an assemblage of the best independent wrestling talent from around the country on one show. Since the wrestling landscape was so barren, ROH had their choice of the top talent, such as CM Punk, Samoa Joe and Daniel Bryan. Since then, other promotions have sprung up with similar ambitions, such as EVOLVE, which has cut into ROH's market for finding talent. Joey Janela, Matt Riddle, Zack Sabre Jr., and other names are talent that previously ROH would have had nearly a monopoly over, at least in the United States, and instead, have worked extensively for EVOLVE.
Over the next year or so, ROH should be focused on developing main event talent as quick as possible. The main event of Death Before Dishonor was between Jay Lethal, a talented veteran who has been with the company for years, and Will Ospreay, who was in as a one-time-only challenger, since he works full-time for NJPW. Other key stars not related to NJPW on the show included long-time ROH talents The Briscoes, Daniels and Kazarian, Kenny King and Chris Sabin. None of those names are bad talents, but they have all been wrestling in-and-out of the company for at least ten years. ROH needs to build new names and put them on the same level as the company's biggest stars.
To a degree they had succeeded with Dalton Castle, who slowly gained traction on the mid-card before capturing the world championship last December. Unfortunately, Castle suffered a collection of injuries during his title reign and was never able to cement himself as a top name in ROH. However, it does prove that ROH can successfully push a younger talent.
Death Before Dishonor also saw the ROH debut of Jeff Cobb, who has quickly been given a monster push, already collecting the ROH Television Championship from Martinez the next night during the TV tapings. Cobb is a great talent who has been known to independent fans for a number of years, and as worked for NJPW and Lucha Underground in the past. The nature of his push is notable; instead of slowly being built up he is getting a monster push and will be in the main event in no time. Due to the size of the promotion and WWE's aggression, ROH has to rely on guys maturing on the roster at an accelerated rate so they can impact their business.
Like any smaller company sharing the marketspace with a goliath, it will always be a struggle for ROH to stand out. The company has achieved great things, now in it's 16th year and seeing record attendance. While things could go downhill if some key talents leave, the company has shown remarkable resolve in continuing to develop young talent and attract fans.
Must Watch Matches:
Jay Lethal vs Will Ospreay: ****1/4 - ROH Death Before Dishonor
Marty Scurll vs Will Ospreay: ****3/4 - NJPW Strong Style Unleashed
The Young Bucks vs The Guerrillas of Destiny: **** - NJPW Strong Style Unleashed