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Chronic Mismanagement Spelled the Demise of Ring of Honor As We Know It

The pioneering wrestling company isn’t dead, but Sinclair’s mistakes prevented it from reaching its full potential.

AEW aired a fantastic live edition of Dynamite on Wednesday night in Boston, then taped this week’s Rampage. The stars involved in the show included Adam Cole, Hangman Page, Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks, all of whom were once key players in Ring of Honor. Had ROH correctly utilized its massive reservoir of talent over the past five years, it should have been able to put on shows like Dynamite and Rampage. Instead, the once-proud company is looking to reimagine its future.

ROH, which on multiple occasions redefined the wrestling space, announced Wednesday that it is effectively going to cease operations as a full-time company. ROH COO Joe Koff, who is an executive for Sinclair Broadcast Group (ROH’s parent company), held a Zoom call for talent to explain the specifics. That included everyone being released from their contract. Not everyone from the roster, however, was on the call, which left multiple people—including some top talent—unaware of the massive change. Sports Illustrated confirmed from multiple sources that contracts expiring on or before March 31, 2022, will be paid out for the duration of the deal. Contracts extending beyond March 31 will necessitate individual meetings between the talent and Sinclair management, most likely to come to terms on a buyout.

ROH’s first event, The Era of Honor Begins, took place in February 2002. The promotion was known among industry insiders as a welcome alternative from WWE, and featured emerging stars like CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson and Nigel McGuinness. Its financial situation changed significantly in ’11 when Sinclair purchased the promotion. Yet, despite all the benefits of being owned by a major force in broadcasting, ROH never took the steps necessary to become a top player in the industry. It always lacked a signature television show, one that would air on a consistent time and night, even though there were executives within the company, including Koff, who continued to spread the idea that one was coming.

Whoever thought Impact Wrestling would outlast ROH? This is a devastating development for the talent, who now have one less place to work. And while the pandemic will ultimately bear the brunt of blame, it is simply not fair to use that as the excuse. When speaking with multiple ROH talent and former office employees, they all shared the same sentiment—telling SI that the end of the company is the result of mismanagement from the top.

Ultimately, the company never recovered after allowing the Bucks and Rhodes to leave the company at the end of 2018. Though there was the success of the Madison Square Garden show in ’19, co-promoted with New Japan Pro-Wrestling, much of that night’s success was due to a combination of what the Bucks, Rhodes and Kenny Omega—as well as the stars of NJPW—built on ROH shows. And the considerable buzz and attention placed upon the company was never replicated after ROH management decided not to invest the money necessary to keep the Bucks and Rhodes. Had they been given a respectful offer, especially the Bucks, who were the faces of the company, it is very likely they never would have left, which forever alters what happened with the creation and success of AEW.

ROH’s Wednesday statement explained that the company will go on hiatus after its Final Battle pay-per-view in December.

“We anticipate returning to live events in April for the Super Card of Honor with a new fan-focused product and provide a unique experience for wrestling fans,” it continued.

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If ROH is sincere in its desire to run Super Card of Honor in April, it is odd that talent contracts were not extended to include that date.

For years, ROH offered a savings or zero net loss to Sinclair. The company will likely explain its new business model on an inability to recover from the pandemic (during which ROH was still paying talent contracts, even when not running shows), but the truth is that the product was stale and shows were unable to sell tickets. Impact and Major League Wrestling should benefit from the wealth of talent suddenly hitting the free-agent market, but the pool is diluted for the talent since the market is now flooded with free agents.

The ROH tape library is also available and will go to the highest bidder. ROH has been privately trying to move the library (the Sinclair-owned archive from 2012 on) for more than a year. That includes the All In pay-per-view in September ’18, which was the precursor to AEW. (While AEW owns the trademark, it is ROH that owns the footage.) SI learned that the company is asking for much more than the current market dictates. And while it once seemed like WWE would be a major factor in pursuit of that tape library, it makes slightly less sense now considering that so many former ROH stars have exited WWE.

Backed by Sinclair, ROH possessed every tool necessary to flourish in the pro wrestling space. Its demise is an avoidable and sad end to a pioneer of a wrestling company.

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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.