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How Ring Of Honor Triumphed Over WWE To Run Madison Square Garden

By Chuck Carroll

What began as little more than a novelty idea has become the biggest show in the history of Ring of Honor. Next April, the promotion's G1 Supercard will go head-to-head against WWE's wildly popular NXT TakeOver show on the night before WrestleMania. The venues are just five miles apart, leaving the promotions to duke it out for the legions of fans in town for the largest wrestling event of the year. Some may view this as a David vs. Goliath scenario, but that's not truly the case. Although WWE has a far superior brand notoriety, ROH has plenty working in its favor, including running at the most famous arena in the world

It also doesn't hurt that the masses, some of whom will travel thousands of miles to attend the week-long festivities, are diehard wrestling fans. Most aren't just familiar with the ROH and New Japan Pro Wrestling brands, whom the promotion is partnering with for the show, they're devoted followers.

Earlier this year, the wrestling world was buzzing with excitement after an executive from ROH's parent company revealed plans to run Madison Square Garden during WrestleMania weekend. But shortly thereafter, MSG pulled the plug on the event just days before it was to be officially announced.

MORE: Ring Of Honor Show At Famed Madison Square Garden Called Off

Ring of Honor ring Photo Credit: Chuck Carroll

The sudden turn of events both blindsided and infuriated ROH officials.

"We had a deal, and The Garden said they were backing out after communications from the WWE," Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff said at the time. Koff also claimed the arena wouldn't discuss an alternative date.

In a preemptive strike, WWE representatives had allegedly flexed muscle gained over a decades-long working relationship with MSG to squander its rival promotion's grandiose plans. It was clear that the largest wrestling company in the world wasn't keen on the idea of having major competition in such close proximity, let alone for NXT's biggest show of the year.

It wasn't long before ROH attorneys were involved. Simultaneously, the promotion was scouting other venues. Contingency plans included moving the show to Philadelphia. But anything other than The Garden would be a big step down.

Under threat of legal action and following weeks of negotiations, MSG relented and agreed to honor the original deal. The terms weren't finalized until two days before the long-awaited G1 SuperCard was finally announced.

Madison Square Garden officials declined to comment beyond a complimentary statement from a company executive that was included in a press release announcing the show. The remarks did not address the controversy. A WWE representative did not respond to a request for comment when the allegations of interference first surfaced.

News that the show was back on was met with the same level of shock amongst wrestling fans as when it was originally called off. But this time excitement followed rather than disappointment.

Tickets moved briskly during a pre-sale for subscribers to the promotion's streaming service, known as HonorClub, this week. Within 40 minutes, the nearly 20,000-seat arena was already halfway to selling out. Remaining tickets will go on sale to the general public Friday morning.

The strong sales are a testimony to the skyrocketing popularity of the promotion over the last two years.

However, with one battle won, ROH now faces another challenge. It's one that is perhaps even greater and more critical to the promotion's short-term future.

There is a chance that the promotion's biggest attractions will be wrestling for NXT at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn rather than in Manhattan for ROH. Contracts for The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes and Kenny Omega expire months before the big show, and it's unclear whether they'll return. As the larger company, WWE will have the opportunity to provide greater financial security for the talents who now earn a living by globetrotting to work for multiple promotions.

Two years ago, Rhodes left WWE out of frustration stemming from what he perceived to be an underutilization of his character. Since breaking ties, he has become one of the most sought-after names on the independent circuit and claims to have increased his annual income.

Cody Rhodes Ring of Honor Cody Rhodes (Photo Credit: Harry Aaron)

ROH officials will make an aggressive attempt to re-sign the popular Bullet Club members, who have become the faces of the company. Omega works primarily for NJPW and typically limits his appearances in ROH to premiere events. Hedging their bets, the promotion has excluded the group from all promotional materials.

Still, it's a positive sign for the long-term futures of ROH and NJPW that tickets are moving swiftly despite the uncertainty.

While their talent contracts remain up in the air, the Baltimore-based promotion has struck a deal with Rhodes and Young Bucks to stream the trio's much-hyped All-In show in September. The event at the 10,000-seat Sears Centre in Chicago, which sold out in a matter of minutes, is expected to be among the largest independently run pro wrestling shows in history. ROH is hoping to capitalize on the buzz and grow HonorClub memberships by offering the pay-per-view event at a reduced price. It will also be available to premium members at no cost.

I recently had an opportunity to catch up with Greg Gilleland, General Manager of ROH, to discuss the MSG saga as well as the decision to air All-In and the forthcoming UK tour.

>>MORE: From the world of Pro Wrestling

When did the idea to run The Garden first come about? Is this something that you guys had been kicking around for a while?

It's not like it was something that we had in mind for years, but it's definitely something that we've always kind of joked about. The general notion was just that we couldn't even get in there. You know what I mean? Gary Juster, who used to promote for WCW, and I would always have these conversations. It's funny because he would say, "I guess I'll never run The Garden in my lifetime." It became one of those never say never things. In February, when we were looking for venues in New York, obviously we saw the Hammerstein, with pretty much any show that we bring there. So it almost doesn't make sense to go there for SuperCard weekend.

We began looking at bigger venues and one of them was the theater at Madison Square Garden. And, even that, seems ... was smaller than UNO [Lakefront Arena], which we ran last year in New Orleans, and we drew 6,200. So we could run the theater and draw a slightly smaller crowd, and be okay with that. Or we can try to go bigger.

It was an easy decision. It's New York, it's The Garden. All of the history of The Garden. The fact that another wrestling promotion hasn't been there in like 60 years. From that point forward, we reached out to New Japan and said let's do this thing together. And we hope to sell it out.

Was there any concern up front about an exclusivity deal? Whether it was a handshake agreement or anything on paper with another promotion? It had been heavily rumored that WWE had an exclusivity deal with the venue.

I haven't seen that reported, and I don't know that they do have, or have had one. I think The Garden is one of those venues that has always stayed away from those exclusivity deals because of their prowess. But I was never aware of them having anything like that. It was just one of those things where the business relationship always kept [other] promoters out.

They used to run The Garden a lot and bring major shows there. So, I think that's probably one of the bigger factors.

Did you guys see more of an opportunity then because they were running more over at the Barclays and other arenas in New York?

I knew they did everything at Barclays, and they have the outdoor show for WrestleMania. So... there's Prudential Center [in New Jersey], there's The Garden, and we had a couple other back-pocket ideas. So, obviously, The Garden's the best. The location is prime.

Now, the Garden comes with a cost, since it's probably the most expensive venue to run in the country. With that, we knew that, when you go into that, it has to be big. So that was the only factor. We felt pretty confident that presenting this show, and the ability to make history and the ability for the fans to be a part of history would overcome that factor.

And really it all comes back to the fans. This is something very special for them. All-In is something very special for them. Cody and the Young Bucks were able to really execute. The industry, right now, wants and needs things like this. It needs big shows that aren't WWE. They still need WWE, not to take away from that, but it's just having something different that is just as big.

With that being WrestleMania weekend, obviously, there's a lot of competition, including the NXT show that you guys are gonna be running up against. Is there any concern about competing? How do you look at that?

I definitely don't think there's a concern of there not being enough fans. They can hold 16,000 to 18,000, and we can hold 16,000 to 18,000. And there's an estimated 80,000 fans in the area that are gonna be looking for something to do on that Saturday night. So, I don't think there's a [a concern with] number of fans.

Is there a budget constraint? There might be a little bit of that. But still, we're talking about New York City. Which is one of the biggest markets. Second of all, it's a huge market for ROH. And third of all, especially running in Madison Square Garden, having the easy access. We're really not just talking about New York City fans, or people traveling to New York City for WrestleMania. You're looking at fans all over the East Coast.

For a major show, we really draw from that. There are people who are coming to New York that weekend just for our show. Maybe they didn't want to spend thousands of dollars on WrestleMania, and they weren't planning on that, and now they have this alternative.

Likewise, people may still go to NXT or may not go to our show because of NXT. Those are all likely situations on an individual basis. But, in total, this is just great for wrestling. And this is good for WWE too, because it brings more wrestling fans to the area. Whether they buy another WrestleMania ticket or maybe they buy merchandise. Maybe they're just there or decide to go to the Hall of Fame. Obviously we'll have our things as well. It's really great for everyone. That's the best way to put it.

Is there any concern that your top guys, Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, won't be available for that show, given the fact that their deals reportedly expire at the end of the year or shortly thereafter?

They're our top guys, right? Of course, we're going to do everything that we can to keep them. And we have fair offers and fair plans to retain them. With that said, I don't think we ever operate in fear. We always operate with solid backup plans. And we have to always think about what if this, and what if that. If they go to the WWE, and they very much deserve that opportunity, we'll continue to offer the best wrestling that we can. There's other talent out there. And we will continue as our brand has for the past however many years. We've lost top guys before.

Think about Kevin Owens and even going back to Bryan Danielson and CM Punk and all of them. They all went to the WWE, and the brand has continued to grow and prosper.

Everything we do is geared toward the fans and toward, even these arena decisions, that experience. We pride ourselves on the ROH experience, and it goes back to the question of losing a top guys. Do I wanna lose the Young Bucks, and Cody? No. Of course not. Why would I wanna lose them?

Am I gonna make an aggressive attempt to retain them and sign longer-term agreements? Of course we are. But, at the end of the day, the ROH brand is about the ROH experience, and that's how we continue to grow.

How is the pre-sale going for the show?

We're over half sold (ed. half of the arena) in the first 40 minutes. We'll see at the end of the day. I've had mixed expectations and adjusting expectations as I've seen the demand. It's kind of hard to say what's exceeding and what's not. But we feel pretty good about the event and its overall performance.

Speaking of Cody and the Bucks, talk to me about the decision to run All-In for HonorClub.

Obviously, those guys are ROH-contracted performers, and they did this whole thing with our blessing. So the decision was kind of natural. At the end of the day, it's a pay-per-view. And the name of the distributions, like [Fite TV], and the WGN America thing came together for the pre-show. So HonorClub is a natural fit, and we're grateful to have it. We're grateful to help promote it, we're grateful to distribute it, and, more importantly, I'm grateful to be able to offer it to our members.

You just mentioned Fite and traditional pay-per-view. Given the fact there is such a price difference between HonorClub and the other outlets, you guys have to be hoping to attract new subscribers.

We are. Again, this is a pay-per-view offered through our platform in addition to our members. So, with the HonorClub ... if you're just a monthly subscriber, you get the pay-per-views 50 percent off, so this would be a $19.99 venture. Still a cost savings. But, if you're a VIP member, which is essentially the $9.99 extrapolated over 12 months, then you get it for free.

For new members to get it for free, they would have to spend for the entire year. But, also with that they would get all of our other major events like Death Before Dishonor, Final Battle, Anniversary Show. It's yet to be determined how we're gonna distribute the G1 SuperCard. So there's a great value proposition there to sign up for the year.

You guys have been running in the UK a lot. How are the metrics of the ROH fanbase over there?

They're very passionate fans. In terms of metrics, Canada used to be the second biggest ROH fan base, in terms of countries, but in the past couple years the UK has superseded them. That's just based on web traffic, video viewership, and stuff like that. Not by a ton, but they have superseded them. so we are expanding our presence in the UK. At least trying to.

The idea to run two tours came off of just how hot that last one was. We had a placeholder for it, and when we saw how passionate, and appreciative the fans were we decided we were gonna come back in August. And now we're doing this International Cup, which is something we hope is the first of many. And the reason why it's International Cup is because it's not just gonna be in the UK, it could be anywhere. It could be UK, Canada, or countries that we haven't been to yet.

Chuck Carroll is a former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality who now interviews the biggest names in wrestling. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.

Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.

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