By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
1:38 PM EST, January 20, 2012
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."
"Ring of Honor has carved out a niche in the wrestling market by focusing on the 'sport' rather than the 'entertainment' of 'sports entertainment,"' says Adam Testa, blogger and contributor to The Wrestling Press, an online magazine.
"ROH has been a company built on the principles of hard-hitting action between the ropes rather than drama outside of them," he adds. "And the Sinclair buyout in 2011 was a milestone for the company, raising its profile from a truly independent promotion to one with corporate backing."Arda Ocal, wrestling blogger and host of "Aftermath" on Canada's Score Television, says, "Ring of Honor has cemented itself as the No. 1 independent wrestling organization in North America."
Emphasizing the youth of ROH wrestlers, Ocal adds, "So many of their previous stars have gone on to successful careers in WWE and TNA, including current WWE champion CM Punk, current WWE World Heavyweight champion Daniel Bryan, known as Bryan Danielson on ROH. Many people look to ROH and their roster in terms of who the future of professional wrestling will be."
When the tag team match featuring Richards ended at Du Burns, he and the other three wrestlers met in the center of the ring, shook hands, and each got down on one knee.
Later, during a cigarette break in back of the arena alongside the humming 52-foot-long TV production truck, executive producer Cornette explained the ritual and what it means to Ring of Honor's core identity. The truck serves as the nerve center for the director, producers and crew members who guide the five cameras in the arena that capture the action on tape.
"Wrestling has gotten so show-biz, it's to the point where people scoff at it," Cornette says. "But wrestling used to be the same as boxing or mixed martial arts. It used to be about conflict, having a fight, who's going to win. And we try to emphasize that."
He says that ROH wrestlers operate under a "self-imposed code of honor."
"It's not mandatory, it's a locker room code where before and after the match, they shake hands with their opponents to show respect," he says. "And when they take a knee, they really had respect for what their opponents did as well as themselves. And then, of course, you've got the guys who don't shake hands and don't show honor — and people generally don't like them very much."
That would be a wrestler like Mike "The Prodigy" Bennett. In the Ring of Honor universe, the good guys wrestle and observe the code in an almost military manner, while the bad guys provide the story lines and theatrics. Or, to use blogger Testa's terminology, the good guys provide the sport, while the bad guys are mainly about attitude and entertainment.
And for a while there at Du Burns, it looked as if Bennett might just be the new Ring of Honor champ. Jay Lethal lay flat on the mat as the curly-haired pretty boy danced around the ring to the delight of his girlfriend, former WWE diva Maria Kanellis.
But then Kanellis, reaching out to her boyfriend, wound up accidentally pushing him so that he fell backward on top of the flattened Lethal, who suddenly came to life and instantly rolled Bennett up for a mat-pounding one-two-three pin.
It's Saturday night, and all is right in Du Burns Arena as the crowd chants: "Ring of Honor. Ring of Honor. This is wrestling."
If you go
Ring of Honor's next matches in Baltimore are set for Feb. 4 at the Du Burns Arena, 1301 S Ellwood Ave. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 877-725-8849 or go to ticketalternative.com.
"Ring of Honor" airs at 1 p.m. on Saturdays on WBFF, Channel 45 and at 10 p.m. Saturdays and 12:01 a.m. Sundays on WNUV, Channel 54.
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