Written by Charles Moreland
Approx. read time = 16-20 minutes
Oh boy! It’s that time of the year again! The time of the year when some of America’s ninja-like people and ninja wannabes will be presented to America for their viewing pleasure the way it was always intended: under bright flashy lights, commentated by witty, comedic TV personalities, regular people and athletes alike bouncing along on top of soft, squishy, and brightly colored obstacles, and every failure is noted with a loud SPLASH! It’s American Ninja Warrior season!!!
I have a love/hate relationship with American Ninja Warrior.
Let me start off by saying that I genuinely love watching ANW. Everyone has a different reason why they may like it. Perhaps its because they love watching average Joes getting a spotlight for once in their life. Or perhaps it’s because unlike a sports game which is aired live, ANW breeches the gap between live action sports and YouTube – NBC edits hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of footage together to make an action-packed TV show from start to finish. Maybe you’re like me, someone who knows that this is a Reality TV show and find some of the fabricated drama they present to be equal parts heart-breaking, hilarious, or down-right frustrating – the emotion matters regardless of what it is. This process has become so ridiculous in the last couple seasons that SNL has even made an entire sketch out of it!
On the other hand, maybe you’re also like me and know what a tic-tac, cat-to-cat, kong-pre, or wall pass is and get frustrated that Matt and Akbar sometimes choose to make-up their own names for techniques while commentating instead of doing research and knowing that most of these techniques already have names that stem from either the Parkour or Climbing disciplines (I’ll be fair, though, they’re getting better!). And yet, while I can appreciate American Ninja Warrior as an entertaining show, as someone whose livelihood is in parkour/movement based fitness, I hate what NBC has done to the Sasuke/Ninja Warrior franchise.
The worst hit victims of this fake-sport are kids – the ones who do not, or cannot, process the separation behind what constitutes a sport like football and a reality tv show with fabricated drama, like ANW. It’s an ongoing inner battle I have as an instructor of kids and youth on an almost weekly basis as my kids watch me (and many other gym members who do not get featured on ANW) scale our 14’6″ warped wall 8 times within a minute, lache (swing from one bar to another) 10′ gaps, balance on bars 8ft off the ground, and teach the kids how they can begin their journey to do the same. What am I, as their instructor, supposed to say to them when they ask me why I haven’t been on the show or why I’ve chosen to stop submitting applications to NBC to be on the show? Why has it become my responsibility to choose between letting them down as their role model or ruining their delusion that ANW is a sport that operates just like any other sport? (Hint: it’s not).
Let it be clear, a contestant’s physical fitness or movement aptitude is not a golden ticket to get featured on the show. In America, prospective contestants must submit a casting call to a casting agency that NBC has chosen. While I’m sure physical abilities are taken somewhat into account, most of the casting call is filled with questions that delve into your personality. Questions like: “What is the hardest emotional thing you’ve ever had to overcome?” These questions, which have nothing to do with your ninja like abilities, become the micro-dramas that NBC will edit into the final cut of the show that grabs the audience’s attention and, more importantly, their heart strings.
The show is a Reality Television series first and foremost and NBC has done an incredible job boosting it and making it the hit show it has become. We live in a sad reality (pun intended) where reality tv remains one of the top money makers for television studios. Sasuke (the original Japanese show that American Ninja Warrior is based on) has done an incredible job in its 30+ competitions at staying entertaining while also continuing to showcase their competitor’s physical fitness and skill. While I couldn’t find much on the audition process of Sasuke, I was able to discern that they have in-person auditions which includes a physical fitness screen. However, despite how well the Japanese show has done, Google Trends shows just how effective Reality TV actually is:
The spikes are incredible! Every season when ANW hits the air, searches literally skyrocket! I’m using this graph to showcase exactly how good the marketers and PR agents at NBC are at their jobs. They seriously know how to shift public perception and maybe they’re even too good at it! I literally just finished reading this article on why ANW could be the future of sports television. Are they joking?! Do they really not realize that every person on the show had to audition for the part the same way an actor might for any other television show? However, unlike those actors, these people will not be paid for being put on tv! Do they not realize that America’s true top Ninja might never be allowed a shot at the course because their background story isn’t interesting enough?! Imagine if J.J. Watt, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady were never picked in the draft because they didn’t have a compelling enough story… And this brings me to the real point of this article: as much as I dislike the sport ANW claims to be, as an owner of a Parkour Gym, I have no choice but to care. Here’s why:
Every season of ANW brings a spike in search trends, but not only for the show. Every spike in ANW search since 2012 has coincidentally caused a spike in both “parkour gym” and “parkour classes” search queries. Interestingly, the rapid growth of “American Ninja Warrior” search has not yet caused any growth in “Ninja Warrior Classes”. Just so everyone is clear on the relationship between watching ANW and possibly deciding to partake in Ninja Warrior-styles of fitness, here’s the graph:
That red line is “ninja warrior gym”, the same search as the yellow line with all the crazy spikes portrayed in the previous graph. When you look at the big picture, not a lot of people are interested in pursuing ninja warrior training. To cover all my bases, here’s the graph with how ANW relates to “parkour” search (take note of the shapes, I’ll touch on that soon):
And here’s Parkour vs parkour gym side-by-side with American Ninja Warrior vs ninja warrior gym:
Even in the realm of parkour and parkour related media, consuming media of an athletic interest does not equate to willingness to participate in that athletic interest. I’m sure this isn’t new knowledge. Think of how many people watch and search for American Football or NFL yet have no interest what-so-ever in training like their favorite football players. Still, despite that truth, parkour is not the same as ninja warrior – not even close. See those spikes for ANW? Spikes like that are text-book identifiers for sports (which parkour is not), and I’ll discuss those in a moment.
What I’d like you to see now is that once you break the plane between a consumer of media and a prospective participant and zoom in to those who are actually interested in training in either parkour or ninja warrior, you see that regardless of the differences between them, they are linked in the public eye. ANW season begins – searches for both spike. Nothing will change this tomorrow, unless NBC decides that their ROI in growing American Ninja Warrior is no longer suitable for their stock holders and drops the show. Or, as long as ANW continues to allow “parkour” to be said on the show (remember, this show is not live and the producers can edit the raw footage however they wish to portray the things they want). As far as the data is concerned, the public has so far deemed that parkour and ninja warrior are linked. Linked, but not the same!
To be clear, I want you to understand, whether you be a fellow gym owner such as myself and Nicole from the Rochester Parkour Gym, a parkour athlete like Dylan Baker, a ninja warrior competitor like Elet Hall (he’s actually both a parkour athlete and ninja warrior competitor), or an enthusiast from either and just like watching the excitement, that while American Ninja Warrior is a fabulous and entertaining show, it is not a training discipline just like American Football is not a training discipline. But then again, ANW is also not a real sport – it’s an impostor of one… The graphs even match!
I get that they don’t EXACTLY match. But keep in mind, American Football has been around over a hundred years! If NBC keeps going with ANW, I’m positive the trend of seasonal spikes will continue. The thing is, interest in a sport (a performance of physical ability with rule sets and regulations) is identified by a spike in interest during a time when that sport is active or has media available to consume. Interest in a discipline, while it may have spikes in interest, is not identified by regular, seasonal, or planned spikes in interest. Here’s generic “parkour” as a search term again:
Spikes in interest for a training discipline follow no real schedule or plan. They may be linked to a viral video, an increase in physical presence in a person’s life (parkour gyms for instance), or some other public event like an interview with someone from parkour on a popular morning show or an article in a largely viewed printed publication. Parkour spiked in 2004 and 2005 because of YouTube and people making videos of their training and labeling them as “parkour”. This is something that cannot be planned. It just happened.
But do you want to know why I’m really pissed at ANW and NBC? It’s because of this:
In 2013, ANW didn’t even come close to matching searches for parkour, yet still caused a spike in “parkour gym”, “parkour classes”, and “ninja warrior gym” searches. In 2014, for the first time EVER, ANW surpassed searches for parkour. That is an incredible feat and I’m sure the marketing agency behind it was given some fantastic bonus checks that year. Again, in that year, and with that spike, searches for “ninja warrior gym” and “parkour gym” not only spiked, but they matched! That’s crazy cool. But then comes last year, 2015. This is the year that really made me want to write this article. Unlike their stellar 2014 year, ANW searches DID NOT surpass parkour, yet when you zoom in, search queries for “ninja warrior gym” almost doubled that of “parkour gym” searches which also UNDER PERFORMED its spike from 2014! Interest in parkour gyms literally lost ground and shrunk instead of growing as usual, in 2015.
“Sounds like you’re a little butt hurt, Charles” you might say. And yeah, I might just be a little butt hurt. I might just be pissed that my life’s work growing this discipline of movement (named parkour) is suddenly being phased out by a large corporation with an advertising budget of almost $100 million dollars. Or maybe I’m just livid that this televised obstacle course competition, which was once fueled by parkour athletes like Levi Meeuwenberg, was bought by NBC who has been actively working to phase out most, if not all mention of the term “parkour.” Yeah. Read that again. They have done a ton of background editing to stop the mention of the very discipline whose name means ‘obstacle course.’ How do I know this?
So maybe you’ve noticed, I’ve name-dropped Elet Hall more than once so far in this article, and it’s only partially because he’s spent the night on my couch before. It’s mainly because Elet feels the way I feel but has actually been on the show and became one of their recurring characters before publicly announcing this year that he was not going to submit anymore. Elet’s story is fascinating. Maybe he should write a book. I only asked him for a few short comments that I could use for this article and he sent me over 5 pages of writing of his experiences and thoughts on ANW.
Most importantly of those 5 pages, Elet made clear that he quit because he realized he was no longer being presented as himself. Elet was turned into a made-for-tv version of himself and, if you were to know Elet, you’d know that he hates that. According to Elet, during every interview was assigned to him a producer who would coach him into saying the things they wanted him to say. He was once asked, “Why do they call you ‘The Natural’?” To which he replied, “Who calls me ‘The Natural’?!” He had never heard the nickname before. It was made up by the producers of the show and the producer standing next to him proceeded to explain to him that that was to be his new personality and how he should go about answering the question.
With regards to direct censorship of the word “parkour”, Elet had a lot to say. I’ll admit that nothing can be labeled as direct evidence, but I will convey that Elet was adamant in explaining that he was nothing more than a ‘traceur’ (a practitioner of parkour) and had been since the age of 14, whenever possible on the show set. He only tried out for Ninja Warrior because some parkour friends of his (who also participated in the early seasons) encouraged him to do so. “I’ve never trained a day in my life for ninja warrior,” Elet said. “That’s not an egotistical claim, ” he continued, “that’s a testament to what years of proper parkour training can do for you.” And you know what’s amazing about that? Elet didn’t just do well on ANW. He obliterated it! Part of his last submission tape was him explaining how in the previous year he beat everyone else’s scores by almost 30 seconds, and oh yeah, turned out he had Lyme’s disease during all of it! Check out this run from 2015!
“I made it my personal mission on ANW to display parkour.” Elet did all of that and more. Except, what does an uneducated public know of this super athlete’s training discipline if they don’t know what it’s called? Nothing. At best, they tie it to the closest thing they can, “ninja warrior training.” And guess what? I have a graph for that too!
This pisses me off and again, I wouldn’t be so pissed if ANW did any sort of due diligence and allowed Elet to be who he wanted to be and portray himself for the man he is. Elet said he made it his personal mission to make sure parkour was known. He told me that he mentioned it in EVERY interview! And of those interviews, guess how many times mentions of his “parkour training” came through? Not a one. Nothing. Edited out as if they didn’t exist. He wasn’t even labeled as the parkour athlete or coach that he is (it’s how he makes most of his living). On ANW, Elet was labeled as “a ski lift operator, a survivalist, a mover, but never as a parkour coach, or a traceur,” he said. That video up there of his 2015 run? How many opportunities would you say there were for Matt and Akbar to mention Elet’s preferred method of training? And yet, how many times was it mentioned? Almost a decade of Elet’s hard work in parkour training was stolen from him and instead branded as his own ‘natural ability.’
To add on more fuel to this passion driven fire I’ve begun, ANW’s season 4 casting call form had a new addition: “If you are a freerunner or Parkour athlete, what else do you do for work?” So exclaims Elet, “Here
On top of all of this, as my last comment in this mini-rant I have going, as a gym owner I’m torn between giving my members what they want and providing it in a safe way. But you know, there’s one unique thing in the Rochester Parkour Gym that remains the least utilized piece of equipment and yet has caused the most injuries – the warped wall.
This awkward slide-shaped wall has caused the most number of people to get injured because 1) ANW tells them and shows them every year that regular people can do it (or at least try it), 2) the very warped nature of it allows anyone who wants to try the ability to get as high as 7-8ft off the ground before they even realize it, and 3) most importantly, regular people with no prior training or joint prep haven’t any reason to be sprinting up hard, warped surfaces. Their Achilles could literally snap! But you, as an audience member of ANW would never know because they will never willfully edit into the show someone getting hurt – that is, unless it furthers along their story of courageousness and heroics like that one dude last year who they allowed to jump onto a trampoline with a tibial plateau fracture he sustained from the course.
Imagine if the NFL edited out of history all of that concussion research on Chronic Encephalopathy? (Oh wait, did they try that?! Hmm, lets use acute impact injuries then…) Imagine if every NFL game were pre-taped and the NFL edited out any time a player had to be walked/carted off the field. This ninja stuff can be dangerous, but regular people don’t know it yet because they haven’t had enough real experience for that to set in.
At yet again, this thing is the LEAST used object in the gym, because it’s actually boring! It was designed with an intended solution. There’s only really one way to use it! Here’s another fun quote from Elet about why he became so disenfranchised with the ANW courses, “They’ve removed the problem solving aspect, and reduced the range of creative solution by restricting your options.” The double-edged sword of ANW is that the average Joe with a great backstory will complete the course the exact same way as an elite climber or elite traceur. And so it goes that competitor after competitor does their run and performs the same run, “on the same obstacles in the same way along with several other competitors, the defining factor being where they failed, because up until last year, we ALL failed,” says a disgruntled Elet. In the gym, students work and work and work until they get up the warped wall their first. Cheers are had and primal screams echo along the walls, but the chances that person will do it again next time they’re in the gym is next to nothing. They’ve done it! Check marked. Move along.
This is why ninja warrior is not a training discipline. ANW’s course is a display of athletic prowess. You don’t need to train on a salmon ladder to do the salmon ladder. If you can perform clapping pullups, muscle ups, or dynos you can do the salmon ladder – and you can train those skills all without the dangers that come with training on a salmon ladder. All of our intermediate and advanced students who could wall pass over our 10′ flat wall got up our 14’6″ warped wall within their first 3 tries and had all the levels of preparedness needed to not have their ankles explode on contact. I applaud everyone who is beginning to build stuff from the show and I’m genuinely excited that the show is getting new people interested in physical fitness and exercise. I just hope enough word gets out to the surge of beginners that this stuff can, in fact, wreck you and destroy you before you’ve even really started.
To wrap this long winded article up, sometimes I wish I didn’t have to care about ANW. Sometimes I wish that ANW were called Parkour Warrior. But also, sometimes I like what ANW is and I find myself actually connecting with the show more given the spotlighted backgrounds of some of the competitors. I enjoy and appreciate that ANW has brought attention to some notable friends and acquaintances that absolutely deserve to be known for just how awesome they are as human beings. People like Rochester local Carl Fantauzzo Jr. or my buddy Elet Hall. Yet at the same time, I cannot help but be upset at how many others there are that deserve to be showcased and given national attention for being unbelievable beasts! In the realm of parkour, there exists some truly heroic people that do mind boggling things. They are incredibly quick, astonishingly nimble, and can do things with such relative ease that it demands slow motion replays because regular people wouldn’t believe what they just witnessed. Most of these athletes will never apply to be on Ninja Warrior because their so-called “World’s Toughest Obstacle Course” doesn’t appropriately challenge their abilities. They’d rather continue to be secret super heroes and super athletes that no one knows about yet.
Say what you want about Parkour competitions, but if a NON-Parkour, NON-Sport, Reality TV show like ANW is causing more people to flock and seek out Parkour Gyms and Parkour training, imagine what a home-grown Parkour Competition could do to further the development of Parkour worldwide! Maybe now, more than ever, something like the Sport Parkour League could grow to fill that niche and finally show everyone that out in the world there exists these secret super hero athletes that can scale flat (as opposed to warped) 14′ tall walls, jump and land on thin metal bars 8ft or more off the ground, stick the landing and balance on it, and literally fly over chest high walls and land on another wall 8ft or more away. They may not have battled cancer, or wear capes, or dye their hair funky colors, but they do exist, and they’re amazing, and they get no real credit for their deeds and relatively no money to support them as athletes. Check out some of these runs from the North American Parkour Competition – it’s seriously nuts!
Or maybe, just maybe, now that Ninja Warrior is starting to grab its stake, now that most cities in the USA have their own Parkour Training Facility, now that there is a growing interest in watching other people combat a rigorous obstacle course, NBC could pivot ANW – ditch the stupid “casting call” submission process or maybe instead of shunning “parkour”, embrace it and the athletes that aspire to be Parkour Athletes and do what no other broadcasting network has done and start their own genuine Sports League with qualifiers and semi-finals and major broadcast national championships (instead of the fake-sport it is currently)! Parkour Gyms and Ninja Fitness gyms could join the league and host their own regional/sectional semi-qualifying competitions to figure out who ACTUALLY is America’s top Ninja Warrior/Parkour athlete…
Or perhaps not because, let’s face it, they don’t give a shit. They have already invested so much money creating ANW into what it has become and they finally have something that works and is finally starting to provide some sort of return on their investment. And that matters more than anything else to them. Still, despite all these criticisms, I look forward to watching Season 8. I’m excited for this love/hate relationship to continue and maybe over time it can develop into a love/sometimes-irked relationship. Bring on the ninjas!
What do you think? What are your thoughts on this topic – good or bad? Leave a reply in the comments.