Few wrestling personalities are as gifted in the art of spinning a negative into a positive as Ring of Honor owner Cary Silkin.
WWE just signed away my two top stars? That only allows us the opportunity to create new and more exciting top stars! Can’t afford to keep such veteran talent as Austin Aries on the payroll? We’ll just give him a break to freshen up his act and come back sometime in the future hotter than ever!
Indeed, no matter how many signs of trouble have arisen for ROH over the last several years, Silkin has always found a way to focus fans’ attention on the silver lining.
But this time, that’s especially tough to do.
Earlier this month, ROH announced that its two-year run on HDNet was coming to an end, and that the Mark Cuban-owned cable network had decided not to renew the company’s weekly TV show.
True to form, Silkin has tried to see the cup as half full, remarking in interviews that the development was just another part of the ongoing evolution of ROH, and that the company was actively looking for another television home.
Now, I should emphasize that I don’t believe for a moment that Silkin is trying to deceive anyone. On the contrary, I think Cary is a terrific guy who fully believes everything he says, and fully believes in Ring of Honor. But that doesn’t mean he’s telling the truth.
Regardless of how officials may want to spin it, the loss of ROH’s TV deal is a devastating blow to a wrestling company that, by many indications, was already struggling to stay afloat.
It’s important to note that this isn’t just a matter of ROH losing its TV audience and exposure. In fact, although solid viewership figures were always elusive even to ROH officials, there were no indications that the TV show ever drew big numbers. The company still struggled to fill small venues in some markets and to unload its massive inventory of DVDs. Yes, in some areas business did move up a tick, including its new Internet pay-per-view offerings and in live attendance in some major markets, such as New York. But it didn’t appear that whatever increases there were in some revenue streams were enough to make up for the company’s losses. Former ROH booker Adam Pearce shed some light on the situation in an exclusive interview with me (the full transcript of which is available here) where he said that Silkin was dipping into his own funds to keep the company running.
And so while HDNet may have not made a huge difference in increasing the size of ROH’s audience, it played an invaluable role in a different way toward ROH’s growth: It made ROH look major league.
For years, one of the biggest criticisms leveled at ROH has been of its poor production values. DVDs looked like they were shot by your little brother using the family camcorder, and the audio sounded like it came from the same little brother’s My First Sony Tape Recorder.
HDNet—one of the pioneers in high-definition television—gave ROH a significant shot in the arm by not only producing its weekly television show, but also subsidizing it. The result was a sleek, big-budget presentation of a wrestling product that deserved it.
While ROH may be able to find another cable network interested in airing its product, it’s unlikely it will find one that will use all of its financial and technical resources, as HDNet, to make it look that good.
So does this mean that ROH is going out of business anytime soon? Not necessarily. But, while ROH may stick around indefinitely, its part in the national wrestling landscape could take a significant hit in 2011.
The fact is that there are hundreds of independent wrestling promotions in the U.S. that have operated for years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. They run regular shows out of a couple of tiny venues in their geographic territory, sell enough tickets, DVDs, and shirts to cover the cost of renting the building, and don’t pay many of its wrestlers a single penny. In fact, many of the wrestlers pay the promoter for their training.
Under that business model, those promotions could last indefinitely, and even turn a tiny profit for the promoter. But calling them “successful” may be a stretch.
And under that model, ROH could also survive as long as Silkin feels like it. But it would be a vastly different ROH than the one that we have come to know—one that has carved out a reputation as a national wrestling promotion featuring the very best talent in the U.S. not signed by WWE and TNA. ROH may continue to exist, but in name only.
What can ROH do to reverse its fortunes? I wish I had an exact solution. The truth is that ROH is already doing many things right, and to some extent is at the mercy of a weak economy and a tepid era overall for wrestling. If WWE is struggling to get just 100,000 people to purchase one of its monthly pay-per-views, what chance does ROH have?
But blaming all of ROH’s shortcoming on outside factors would be a copout. The fact is that there are things that ROH could and should be doing that they have not done. The biggest problem may be that ROH management has historically been reluctant to make the kind of risky moves that will lead to significant growth. Instead, they have insisted on keeping an antiquated small business model of selling enough DVDs and tickets to keep the lights on and keep the company in the family.
The way I see it, in many categories, ROH is a far superior product to TNA. Its wrestling is generally better. Its storylines are far more compelling and logical. And many of its characters are better developed. And yet, TNA has a significantly bigger audience and is bringing in far more revenue than ROH could ever dream of.
And the reason for that is simple: For all its flaws, TNA has made the right business connections at the right times. Jeff and Jerry Jarrett could have stubbornly refused to hand over their control and interest in TNA in its formative days, but instead they wisely got in bed with a multibillion-dollar energy company that bankrolled their small business. That connection led to other connections—Fox Sports, Spike TV, Jakks toys, Midway video games.
Along the way, the Jarretts lost most of their power, control, and influence over TNA. But TNA is still in business, drawing more than a million viewers each week for its weekly TV show airing on primetime on a major cable network.
As daunting as such a move might be, ROH’s management has to be similarly willing to hand over the keys to the company to a major investor who is willing and able to prop up the company. By some indications, HDNet may have been just such an investor, but ROH’s management was reluctant to hand over too much control to an outside entity. Now, how did that work out for them?
If the opportunity is still there for ROH to restore its relationship with HDNet by giving the cable network more control and interest in the promotion than ever before, Silkin should jump at it. If that window has closed, Silkin should make it a priority to find another investor willing to take an interest in ROH. And if they bite, Silkin should be willing to step back and let them take the lead.
The end result may not be exactly the product that ROH officials and fans want, but at least it will still be around.
PWI Senior Writer