It's Saturday night at Canton's Du Burns Arena, and Mike "The Prodigy" Bennett flexes and preens as his opponent, Ring of Honor champion Jay Lethal, staggers across the mat.
As the bad-boy wrestler's scantily clad girlfriend-valet joins the gloating, fans erupt in an angry chant of "You suck, you suck." Those in the front row yell the loudest — pounding the metal dividers surrounding the ring in time with the chant.
Welcome to the new — and, at the same time, very old — world of TV wrestling, as the Sinclair Broadcast Group embraces the original programming business that comes with chokeholds and body slams.
Last June, the Hunt Valley broadcaster acquired Ring of Honor, a wrestling league with almost no TV presence. Now, Sinclair is using its distribution muscle and marketing savvy to beam the antics of fighters like Grizzly Redwood and the Briscoe Brothers to homes across the country.
"This is brand-new life," says wrestling veteran and executive producer Jim Cornette, a one-time Ring of Honor commissioner. "Ring of Honor has been around for 10 years, but not at this level. The exposure that all these TV stations are giving us every week is many times the number of people that had ever seen us before."
Ring of Honor's chief operating officer, Joe Koff, says Sinclair believes the old programming staple can be a winner on the new media landscape.
"The reason that running Ring of Honor is so attractive to our company is that we own the TV content — and when you own content, you're in control," Koff says, sitting on a folding chair borrowed from a wrestler in the locker room at Du Burns.
"We own the content and control the distribution of it through our stations," says Koff, who used to run Baltimore's WNUV (Channel 54).
And the content Sinclair owns with Ring of Honor is the kind that appeals to young men, the hardest TV demographic for advertisers to reach.
"This is a very elusive audience for TV marketers, and we have them," Koff says. "They buy our product, they buy our tickets, they watch our shows, they buy our merchandise online. Many of them are what we call 'ringside members,' where they are paying a premium to get additional exclusive content on our website."
The idea of getting TV programming content from a franchise you own, which has the potential to support itself through ticket and merchandise sales, seems like a media dream. And the fact that your TV stations and website are helping to drive viewers into those arenas is textbook synergy, according to analysts.
"It's perfect vertical integration, there's no question of that," says Douglas Gomery, scholar-in-residence at the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting.
"It's also a well-tested model in that it's an updated version of one of the oldest and most economical forms of TV programming," he adds, noting that TV wrestling and boxing date to 1946.
But it's not an automatic moneymaker, he warns.
"The test is, can they create a brand of wrestling that they can use on a Saturday night to get a large enough audience of young men to make it attractive to advertisers," Gomery says. "Ted Turner tried it in the '80s with his superstation, and he never could really make it work on that level."
With Sinclair only just launching the production, that remains to be seen. But it certainly seemed to be working for the young men among the 800 fans at Du Burns on Jan. 7, Sinclair's first night in Baltimore with Ring of Honor matches. Young men made up more than half the crowd, and many of them were wearing the Ring of Honor T-shirts and hoodies that sell for $20 and $40, respectively, online and at tables in the arena.
Four TV shows were taped that night, and they air in Baltimore on Sinclair's WBFF (Channel 45) and WNUV starting this weekend. The next Du Burns event will be Feb. 4, when four more telecasts will be taped. The show goes on the road in coming weeks and months to Norfolk, Va., Philadelphia, New York, Cincinnati and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Out in the arena, the crowd is banging on the dividers again and chanting: "This is awesome. This is wrestling." They are chanting and banging as the tag team of Davey Richards and Kyle O'Reilly takes on Caprice Coleman and Cedric Alexander.
Richards is Ring of Honor's world champion, and it is now the fighting, not theatrics, drawing the chants from the crowd. Tag-team members are flying through the ring and bouncing off the ropes, and Koff, a self-described fan, seems as excited as anyone in the audience.
"The whole thing about Ring of Honor is that it is an experience," he says. "This is 21st-century wrestling in a style that is very reminiscent of what the fans' parents and grandfathers grew up with. We do very little talk. Where WWE and TNA, our main competitors, are 20 minutes of talk and five minutes of action, we're five minutes of talk, if that much, and 20 minutes of action."