“American Ninja Warrior” on path to be a serious sport

Ian Wesselhoff, Multimedia Editor

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  It has been a decade since American Ninja Warrior, NBC’s hit “reality competition” series, first began, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the show had its burst into the mainstream. Once it did, though, it has stayed there, annually raking in NBC’s highest ratings over the summer alongside Bachelor in Paradise.  

  With no end in sight, “Ninja Warrior” looks set to stay as one of NBC’s summer staples. But eventually, something is going to have to change in the phrase “reality competition:” reality. 

  As of now, it’s equal parts sport and emotionally-driven game show. They often skip past some of the more impressive runs in order to make time to show the inspirational story of how the competitor overcame adversity, or their dog died, or something like that. And that’s not a huge problem; I love the show the way it is right now. It’s good to have some emotional investment in the person running, feeling like you’re right there in the crowd cheering them on. 

  But there must come a point at which the people who compete on the show are looked at as serious athletes. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of competitors that train year-round for the show, even quitting their jobs to do so, all for a shot at that million-dollar prize that only one person has ever won. 

  I understand the niche that Ninja Warrior fills presently, that being a show where seemingly average people attempt to complete incredible feats of strength and agility. That’s part of the appeal: just about anyone can try their hand at the course. Not in many other sports would you see amputees, 65-year-olds, and avid bug collectors all alongside one another, competing against the course rather than each other. 

  While that sense of equal opportunity and community define the show now, inevitably the athletes will continue to get better over the years, and the producers will have to make a choice: do they whittle the vast number of applicants down to the most skilled, or those with the better story? 

  Every season, rookies get better and better, and with the recent lowering of the minimum age to 19, it’s paved the road for breakout stars like Mathis Owhadi, the 20-year-old taking the Ninja world by storm. Owhadi had been training for Ninja Warrior since he was 14. There are already athletes on the show who grew up watching it, and now that it’s significantly more popular than it was then, there will be many more to come. 

  What I’m really trying to say is that eventually, American Ninja Warrior will need to take a step towards becoming a more serious sport. Undoubtedly there will be thousands more people trying to punch their ticket to the course as serious athletes, so if the producers continue to favor the emotional side, I could imagine why some would be upset. 

  Of course, removing the tragedies and inspirational stories wouldn’t make for good TV – so maybe NBC would no longer be the right place to broadcast it. A move to one of the lower ESPN channels would make sense. ESPN2 recently aired professional cornhole, so it would at least be less ridiculous than that. 

  American Ninja Warrior has tremendous potential to be a “real” sport. It will take time, maybe 5-10 years, maybe even more, but once the time is right, a switch is the obvious choice. 

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