Last summer, on a family vacation in a house with 10 very loud children, I attempted to watch a baseball game on the only available television set. It did not go well. My nieces and nephews acted like I was forcing them to watch a process hearing in the state legislature. They groaned and booed. They rolled their eyes. They dropped to the floor and pretended to sleep.
Frantic to please, I turned the channel, and happened upon a reality show I'd never seen before: a wacky obstacle-course event called "American Ninja Warrior." Situated on an outdoor stage bathed in red, white and blue lights, it featured sinewy men and women of all ages, jumping and scurrying from platforms to ropes to monkey bars, plunging into water traps when they missed.
The room erupted. It was as if Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber had just shown up with free pizza and iPhones. It turned out my loud, young in-laws all loved "American Ninja Warrior." They crammed around the TV, rapt.
The scene made me feel like an out-of-touch geezer—how had I missed this phenomenon?—and also made me think about sports, and their future. We live in an era in which televised sports have become the most precious entertainment commodity in America. Networks spend billions to buy sporting events because they are one of the last things that people reliably watch live, at the appointed hour. When all of us can watch our favorite TV shows whenever we want, wherever we want, skipping commercials as we please, sports are more valuable than ever. Sports fans, it seems, are the last captive audience in television.
At the same time, however, executives at every sports league sit in their climate-controlled offices and worry about what's next. The TV economy is volatile, audiences are fracturing, and it's crucial for every sport to cultivate a new generation of viewers. The attention of young people can't be taken for granted; it's foolish to assume a child will love a sport simply because his or her parents did. For a "legacy" game like baseball, in which the action on the diamond is virtually identical to the game our great-grandparents watched, this is an urgent concern.
Which brings me back to "American Ninja Warrior," launched in late 2009 and based on a Japanese obstacle-course show called "Sasuke." I want to be very clear: Baseball, basketball, hockey and football are in no imminent danger of being eclipsed by ninjas on an obstacle course. The show's television ratings are solid but still modest—NFL owners would shriek in horror if one of their games drew six million viewers, as last season's ANW finale did on NBC. But those ratings have been growing, and it's obvious that the show is connecting with a younger generation of viewers (and their parents, and even their grandparents). "American Ninja Warrior" has earned that 21st-century buzzy buzzword, relevance, and it made me wonder if there was something about this wacky obstacle-course show that could be applied to older games to make sure they thrive in the future. What if legacy sports just need some ninja lessons?
The king of obstacles wore a crown.
"I'm going to wear it to the start," the King said, looking up at his golden headpiece. "And take it off before I run."
It was a warm spring evening in Atlanta, where I had travelled to watch a regional tryout for "American Ninja Warrior," being held at, of all places, Turner Field, the home of baseball's Atlanta Braves. Not even 20 years old, Turner is about to become a baseball mausoleum. The Braves will flee the ballpark at the end of this season, moving to a new stadium outside of town, where they hope to reach a bigger audience.
Tonight, baseball had surrendered to the ninjas. Inside an entrance plaza, not far from a statue of Hank Aaron, the Ninja Warrior production crew had spent nine days assembling a brand-new course for the show's eighth season, which will be televised on both NBC and the Esquire cable network over the summer.
The course was visually staggering. It ran more than the length of a football field and was filled with a combination of ropes, bars, pools and Rube Goldberg-style contraptions. It resembled a steroidal combination of a kiddie playground and a hamster maze. It struck me as one of the most ridiculous and awesome things I'd ever seen.
Near the starting line, I encountered the King of Obstacles, who was tan and linebacker-fit. "I am 220 pounds, and I can move around like I am 140," he said.
"I was built for this." The King was up from Florida, one of more than 100 people invited to the regional for a shot at making the finals later on in Las Vegas. His real name is Mack Roesch, but it was more fun to call him the King of Obstacles, which is how he describes himself on his website.
The goal of "American Ninja Warrior" is simple: Finish the course. Maneuver through the obstacles without falling, push on from the regionals to the next stage and finally achieve what ninjas call Total Victory by summiting the last obstacle: Mount Midoriyama, a grueling, eight-story vertical ascent, in 30 seconds or less.
Total Victory is comically difficult. Nearly seven seasons passed before a competitor achieved it. This was a point of pride among the ANW crew.
"Seven years!" said Arthur Smith, an executive producer of "Ninja Warrior." "What American TV show doesn't produce a winner, when we're all about winning in the U.S.A.?"
In Atlanta was Geoff Britten, a pro rock climber turned TV cameraman from Maryland who last season had become the first ninja to achieve Total Victory—only to be beaten out minutes later by another rock climber, Isaac Caldiero, who finished the course just three seconds faster, and claimed the $1 million prize. Britten's bittersweet accomplishment had made him something of a sympathetic figure, and one of ANW's stars, which the 36-year-old married father of one was slowly coming to terms with.
"I'd like to say it's back to reality, but it's definitely been a little different," Britten said. "As a cameraman, I get asked every day, 'Can you put me on TV?' Now it's, 'Hey, can we take a picture together?' It's kind of weird."
Not far away, Kent Weed, Arthur Smith's partner and co-executive producer, watched as a handful of test athletes tried out the course before the official competition began. He paid close attention to how they handled the opening obstacle, which had changed for the first time in years.
"It used to be the quintuple steps," Weed said. "Now it's floating steps with a Tarzan dismount."
Weed nodded at an athlete. "He's going to get wet," he said. A moment later, the guy fell into the pool.
I asked Weed how ANW came up with its obstacles.
"They come from everywhere, really," he said. "There have been ideas that have come from dreams. There have been ideas that have come from playgrounds. One of us will be at a playground with our kids and see something and go, 'If we did this…'"
Because it tapes its competitions for later airing, ANW tries to maintain an air of mystery about its course. Still, information leaks. "We can't put a cloak over the whole thing," Weed said. "People will take a picture from across the street, and then they'll post it [on the Internet] and start building it in their backyard the next day."
Smith and Weed's production company, A. Smith & Co., has vast experience in reality TV; its project list ranges from choleric chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurant show "Hell's Kitchen" to "The World According to Paris," which chronicled the goings-on of Paris Hilton. Weed, who got his early big break directing a Smothers Brothers special on CBS, CBS.A 0.09 % spoke of ANW like a prized child. "Out of the hundreds and hundreds of shows that I have done, this is my favorite," he said.
Smith was the sports guy. He'd been named head of programming and production of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s sports division when he was just 28, later moving on to help launch Fox's first sports cable outlet in 1996. He'd directed CBC's coverage during several Olympics, and he believed in the recognizable customs of Olympic TV: Tell an athlete's story, build an emotional connection with the audience, then show the actual event.
That was how he wanted "American Ninja Warrior" to do it.
"I remember our first meeting," Smith said. "I said, 'Guys, you know how people care about luge and bobsled and freakin' curling or whatever? We're going to make them care about this obstacle course.'"
A focus on the ninjas became part of the formula. No one attempts the course without giving the TV audience a bit of personal history. There are background segments in which ninjas describe setbacks and aspirations, and when the race starts, the cameras often cut away to anxious family members sitting in the stands. Ninjas come from every walk of life: There are ex-jocks, students, veterans, cops, lawyers, artists, EMTs. There have been autistic ninjas and legally blind ninjas. Ninjas break down 75% male to 25% female. You have to be 21 to enter, and the oldest ninja, Chuck Mammay, is a sprightly 73.
This is a long way of saying that Ninja Warrior's lineup looks a lot like America's. This is by design. In the same way that producers of reality shows try to assemble the optimal blend of personalities to drop on a deserted island, the makers of ANW want a range of backgrounds and stories to tell.
This, of course, is not how it works in traditional sports. In building a sports team, attention may be paid to personality and chemistry, but collecting the best athletes is the driving idea. You cannot cast an NBA team the way you cast "Survivor." (Unless you're the New York Knicks.) Nobody signs a shortstop because he's got a good story. The goal is to win.
On ANW, however, winning isn't the central drama. It might not even make the top five. Matt Iseman, a comedian who serves as the show's host, said that just making it to the starting line was an accomplishment for many ninjas. "The majority of people who come out aren't looking for Total Victory," Iseman said. "They're looking for victory on their own terms."
When I asked Arthur Smith what traditional sports might learn from "American Ninja Warrior," he emphasized that his show had a massive advantage in being constructed specifically for TV. ANW, obviously, can be taped, edited, packaged, tweaked. One competitor tugs at your emotions, another makes you laugh.
"It's like candy," Smith said. "Guy steps up to the line, we tell his story, you care about him, you watch him on this visually candy-like thing, and then you eat another one, like a chocolate. Gimme another. You can join it at any time. You can watch half an episode. Also, it's viral, so things go viral. It's got the right ingredients for today."
That isn't the case with every sport we grew up with.
"Sports that have been around for years…they weren't made for TV, but they can't change the sport," Smith said. "They kind of have to evolve."
The king of obstacles believed he was ready. Though the Atlanta regional would be his first time on "American Ninja Warrior"—"I'm psyched I got the call"—he'd been winning smaller obstacle-course races in his area for some time. Like a lot of ninjas, he'd taken the step of installing obstacles in his own backyard.
"The basics," the King said. "Monkey bars, salmon ladder, a couple of ropes."
I asked the King what he did for a day job.
"My day job is obstacles," he said. "That is how I make a living."
How does that work?
"You get first place and you get paid."
Is there a buck in that?
The King fixed me with a serious look. "I am living the American Dream."
The King's enthusiasm wasn't the least bit unusual. Throughout the night, I met participants with similar tales about backyard obstacle courses and lives turned happily upside down by ninja mania. To get here, they'd made video applications in which they told their stories and showed off their skills. I met an athlete named Faris Patterson Khan; on YouTube, I watched Faris climb up an auto garage, walk down a staircase on his hands and jump over a parked Honda Civic.
Ninja fever almost always begins at home, in front of the TV.
"I just loved the show," said Dan Bellingham, a family-practice physician from Troutman, N.C. "I loved the competition, I loved the competitors, I loved the older people doing it."
Bellingham was 57. He had eight children, ages 11 to 28, and a couple months back had welcomed his first grandchild. He'd been fit most of his life—he was an avid water skier and maintained a calisthenics routine that included push-ups, crunches and chair dips. Every year, he made a goal to do his age in pull-ups.
Bellingham had the ideal ninja body type, too: light, compact, not especially muscled. The best ninjas are not the behemoths you find crushing the bench press at the gym. They tended to be wiry, agile, with excellent grip strength. It's not a coincidence the two competitors who have finished the course were experienced rock climbers, and the first woman to reach the final, Kacy Catanzaro, was a gymnast. At the same time, ANW's rise has dovetailed with (and no doubt assisted) the spectacular growth of obstacle-course competitions around the country with names like Tough Mudder, Spartan and, forebodingly, Steve Austin's Broken Skull Challenge.
Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, a former NFL player who is Iseman's co-host in the ANW booth, has trained with ninja competitors and been blown away by their skills. "I played with Jerry Rice, LaDainian Tomlinson, Tim Brown," he said. "These guys are equally impressive."
As the competition began, I introduced myself to a woman in a T-shirt that read "Ninja Therapist." Her name was Jen Liam, and she was a psychotherapist and clinical social worker from Atlanta. She was competing in her second ANW.
"Last year my goal was to not pee or puke on myself, honestly," she said. "And not to fall on the first obstacle."
She didn't fall on the first obstacle, but later, on a "respectable" one, and this spring, Liam was back for more. She saw numerous parallels between "Ninja Warrior" and her job. "I spend my life helping people overcome obstacles—internally, emotionally, externally," she said.
In her practice, Liam spent a lot of her time counseling kids and teenagers—an opportunity to experience the cultural reach of "American Ninja Warrior." Had any of her young patients recognized her?
"They do," she said, smiling. "I had one kid, who was like, 10, and when I opened the door to get him in the waiting room, he goes, 'Why! Why didn't you tell me you were on "American Ninja Warrior"!'"
I came to think of "American Ninja Warrior" as a strange but brilliant 21st-century Frankenstein of sports entertainment. It is indeed built for TV—but also for phones and devices. (Lately, the producers have been experimenting with virtual reality.) It has the enormous benefit of editing itself down to its most exciting parts—something no baseball game or any other live sport can do, and shouldn't ever. But it's worth noting that ANW considers the viewing audience its No. 1 priority. The last quality may be difficult for staid, traditional sports to replicate, but they surely can be doing more.
There's also this: "Ninja Warrior" believes that despite all of its athleticism, what may matter most is accessibility. The people on the show appear to be like people you know. They fail. They fail again. Maybe one day they succeed, maybe they don't. But they try.
To quote the King of Obstacles, it was the American Dream.
It also looks fun as hell.
"I'll be honest—I think the name goes a long way," said Matt Iseman. "It's like if a 7-year-old me named something. Americans, ninjas, warriors. Three things we all love."
Write to Jason Gay at [email protected]