Monday, September 15, 2014

American Ninja Warrior Should Be America's Fifth Major Professional Sport

Weatherman Joe Moravsky made it further than any other
athlete in this year's "American Ninja Warrior" season

American Ninja Warrior is wrapping its third full season with a “USA vs. The World” special tonight, but the season proper ended last Monday with yet another failure to conquer “Mount Midoriyama.”  Ninety men and women attacked the four-stage obstacle course and none even managed to make the finale, with only two even reaching the third stage.  It was a disappointing finish, especially considering that seven men made the third stage a year ago and one came within ten feet of beating it.  But watching the three-day Vegas extravaganza – watching the faces of the audience and other competitors as athlete after athlete failed the grueling course (72 in stage one, sixteen in stage two, and the final two in stage three) – I realized that American Ninja Warrior has all the trappings that make professional sports great, and that it deserves a spot in the pantheon as America’s fifth major pro sport.

The principal aspect that makes ANW great is that it is the most democratic of sports.  There are no divisions.  Man or woman, tall or short, fat or skinny – no matter who you are or where you’re from, you will face the same course and the same time constraints.  The ball is not smaller for women, they do not runner shorter distances, they are not barred from attempting certain obstacles.  Obviously, the course is harder for women.  The fourteen-foot Warped Wall is naturally more difficult for shorter competitors, as is the Jumping Spider.  Many women were also bested by the upper-body-intensive tasks, though some showed little difficulty.  For the first time in ANW history, three women completed the Warped Wall during the regional qualifying runs and Kacy Catanzaro captured the world’s attention by becoming one of only eight people to successfully complete the regional final course in Denver.

While Catanzaro was bested by the Jumping Spider*, Meagan Martin became the first woman to beat both that obstacle and the Half-Pipe Attack, though she would have run out of time even if she had been able to scale the Warped Wall, which she couldn’t.

* I knew the first stage would cause problems for Catanzaro because of her small stature (she is five-feet tall and the Jumping Spider’s walls are at least four feet apart), but I remain convinced that she would excel on Stage Three, which is entirely composed of obstacles that task an athlete’s grip and upper-body strength.

Gender differences aren’t the only obstacle ANW contestants are able to surmount.  Jon Stewart (no relation to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart) conquered the regional finals course at the age of 52, something not even established veterans two decades his junior like Brent Steffenson, Flip Rodriguez, and Drew Dreschel could do. 

The American Ninja Warrior course is a beast, but it is an equal opportunity beast, welcoming all comers, regardless of age, race, or gender.  It is just as harsh to the veterans as it is to the rookies.  But it offers the same insane challenge to all who face it.

The other feature that separates ANW from other sports is the camaraderie it engenders between competitors.  While there’s certainly a desire to be the best, and a number of smaller game-within-the-game quests to be the fastest or make it the farthest, the true opponent for all athletes is the course.  It is the course that everybody wants to beat and the course that everybody wants to see beaten.  And so it is that you see athletes sharing tips, cheering each other on, and even, in the case of Brian Arnold, carrying a competitor off the course on their shoulders after he made it farther than any other American in Ninja Warrior history. 

It may seem odd to celebrate competitors supporting each other compared to the cutthroat nature of sports we’re used to, but it brings much-needed levity to the proceedings and makes the show fun.  ANW can be an incredibly disheartening affair, especially watching athlete after athlete fail on the course.  But the elation of the crowd when somebody completes a stage or even a particularly difficult section of the course is incredibly uplifting for both the competitors and the television audience. 

American Ninja Warrior has become a steady, solid performer for NBC during the doldrums of the summer, but its ratings don’t come close to matching the NFL or the MLB or NBA playoffs.  But ANW deserves a bigger stage.  It gives an opportunity to some of the world’s greatest athletes to showcase their individual skills while following a democratic ethic that allows anybody to participate.  The present may include only football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, but maybe American Ninja Warrior can find its way to the pantheon of professional sports as well.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

No comments:

Post a Comment