A new season of NBC summer staple American Ninja Warrior kicks off June 12, and the show’s popularity can be measured in an untraditional, but still telling, manner. The number of gyms around the nation that are modeled after the series, featuring the Salmon Ladder, Cliffhanger and other obstacles designed to fell Ninja Warrior contestants, is substantial, and continues to grow.
The gyms include Brooklyn Zoo in New York; Kor Komplex in St. Charles, Mo.; 323 Ninja Training Grounds in Los Angeles, and many, many others. “There’s quite a number of them happening,” said gym consultant Bryan O’Rourke.
O’Rourke said Ninja Warrior-fashioned gyms typically get a higher rate per customer, and offer the guest quite a different workout than the usual barbells and treadmills. The gyms, along with competitions featuring athletes competing on Ninja Warrior-style courses, have taken off with NBC and American Ninja Warrior staying out of their business, NBC brass opting to let the grassroots movement flourish on its own.
Multiple sources said NBC has considered opening its own American Ninja Warrior gyms, though that plan has not yet begun. NBC did not comment about its gym plans. “They’d be silly not to [open them],” said one person on background. “There’s clearly an appetite out there.”
NBC shed a little light on its thinking on the American Ninja Warrior Experience website (see sidebar).
“Our mission is simple: to support and grow the American Ninja Warrior athletic community,” it said. “We do that by promoting and encouraging professional athletes, fans and amateurs across the country to participate in as many events, gyms and leagues as possible.”
New Season, New Obstacles
Spawned from the Japanese series Sasuke, American Ninja Warrior (ANW) aired for three seasons on former cable channel G4 before shifting to NBC in 2012. Last summer, ANW averaged a 2.1 rating in adults 18-49 and 7.2 million viewers overall, making 2016 its most-watched season.
Host cities for the new season include Los Angeles, San Antonio, Daytona and Denver, with the finals in Las Vegas.
Executive producer Arthur Smith noted how 75,000 athletes tried out for the new season, up from 60,000 the previous year. The 2017 season also features 24 new obstacles, he added. “We keep reinventing the course, we keep challenging them,” he said. “There’s no off-season for us.”
There’s no off-season for the many Ninja Warrior gyms around the country, either. At Brooklyn Zoo, the Ninja Warrior obstacles include the Salmon Ladder and Warped Wall (a half-pipe style wall a contestant must run up), and there are plans to add a Cliffhanger — a series of ledges that athletes progress past by holding on with their fingertips. Some members turn up for the gym’s parkour elements, but others “absolutely” come for the Ninja Warrior obstacles, manager Robin Stift said.
Brooklyn Zoo offers Ninja Warrior classes, with show veterans offering up tips. “Brooklyn Zoo teaches the beginner to the advanced student who wants to become the next ninja warrior,” read its website.
While the gym’s owners have not been in contact with NBC, they do communicate regularly with the National Ninja League, an independent series of Ninja Warrior-style competitions across the country. “We host some of their qualifiers,” Stift said.
National Ninja League was set up to promote Ninja Warrior-inspired competitions and formalize them as well, according to board member Justin Conway. He said the league operates outside of NBC’s purview. “They don’t look to establish formal relationships outside of the actual show itself,” he said.
Conway, who competed on American Ninja Warrior, describes himself as a “Ninja consultant,” helping open Ninja Warrior gyms. He said he helped open a half-dozen Ninja gyms on Long Island recently. Conway estimates there are 60 “full-scale” gyms nationwide, and another 200-250 offering Ninja Warrior training.
The obstacles at Kor Komplex include a pair of Warped Walls, Devil Steps (ascending and descending stairs that participants traverse with their hands) and a Rolling Log (a spinning pole that athletes straddle and shimmy across). Around three-quarters of the gym is set up for Ninja Warrior workouts, said staffer Alicia Kueker. “The Ninja Warrior obstacles are what get most of our attention,” she said.
Offering up such obstacles is one way for a gym to set itself apart. But with the show’s popularity, there’s always the risk of a new Ninja Warrior gym opening nearby.
“It’s huge, it’s exploding,” said Conway of the gyms. “And I think it’s gonna go on for a while.”
'NINJA WARRIOR' TAKES THE SALMON LADDER ON THE ROAD
American Ninja Warrior is going on the road this fall, with 10 cities hosting what NBC calls “an immersive live event experience.” Called “American Ninja Warrior Experience,” the road show will offer an array of obstacles, including the Warped Wall, Salmon Ladder, Quintuple Steps and other elements that fans of the show know well, for the public to try.
Patrick Koors, director of worldwide touring live entertainment at Universal Brand Development, said the touring show has been two years in the works. American Ninja Warrior Experience is all about “growing the community of American Ninja Warrior athletes of all ages,” he said.
Host cities include Charlotte, N.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, Indianapolis and Denver. Cities were picked based on Ninja Warrior viewership in the market, and their degree of athleticism (number of gyms, participation in marathons, etc.)
Dates have not yet been announced. There will be an adult open course, an adult pro course and a kid course at each location. Adults and kids alike can learn proper techniques from established Ninja Warrior athletes, such as using a wider grip on the bar while climbing the Salmon Ladder.
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.