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The past, present and future of the company at the core of the American Ninja Warrior course

The ATS Team’s COO Travis McDaniel reflects on how they got here and where they’re going next.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

The ATS Team is currently at home in large warehouse in Pacoima, CA. Well, some of the team are home. When ATS isn’t busy designing the American Ninja Warrior courses, they’re criss-crossing the globe simultaneously working on other reality competition shows.

If you stop and think about it, how wild does it seem that The ATS Team can have this niche? They specialize in crafting rigging and obstacle challenges across the reality competition space. Who thinks of that as a career? And then how do you turn that into a successful business that over 40 people employed full time with offices in California, Georgia and London?

That’s where Travis McDaniel comes in. The COO of The ATS Team has worked in the film industry since he was 16 years old. Combine his business acumen with his adventure loving spirit, and you have the propulsion to move The ATS Team forward.

Travis McDaniel

“Darren Jeffrey started the company on his own in 1999. It was an outdoor adventure company. Not much happened with it for the first 3 years. He cold called the CEO of Sports Chalet and he answered. Darren said ‘Hey, I own this outdoor adventure training company in LA. I walked into one of your stores. I was talking to one of your employees and they don't know that the hell they're talking about. You should hire my company to come in and train your staff on the outdoor gear so they can talk more knowledgeably.’

The CEO said ‘That's a great idea and we should do that, but more importantly I want to launch a series of outdoors classes for the public.’

So Sport Chalet launched their Sport Chalet Adventure Program. They had full page ads in the LA Times, it was great. That really got our company name out there. They actually said ‘Sport Chalet presents Alpine Training Services.”

The team is ready to roll in Oklahoma City. Bring on the Ninjas... #ANW8. pc: @kyledeschamps

A photo posted by The ATS Team (@theatsteam) on

At the time, Travis was working on the show ‘NCIS’ and the Hollywood grind was quickly losing its luster for him.

“I grew up in the outdoors. Working in the outdoors was always important to me. I got a biology degree in college and I spent my college summers as a raft guide. Then I bought a VW bus and drove around for three years. I still did my summers raft guiding then. Then I came back to LA.

So I got that balance. When I got back into LA, I got into the film industry because I already knew that and was good at it. I burnt out on it really quick.

I worked on season 2 [of ‘NCIS’], but any moment I had away I realized I had to get back to the outdoors because I missed it so much. I discovered this company at Sports Chalet, called Alpine Training Services, that was offering programs in canyoneering, and I was a big fan of that sport and I didn't know much about it. I started doing that every single weekend and I really liked working with them.

It was the end of the season [at ‘NCIS’] and I said I was not coming back. I called up ATS and said ‘Hey I'd like to join the company and I will come to work every single day for free for one year. Every single day. And at the end of the year, if there's not a place for me in the company then I'll move on.’ Knowing full well that after a year there's going to be a place for me. I'll carve one.

I did that every single day for a year. Obviously made myself invaluable. I had a strong business background. The college background. All those skill sets. I was able to elevate the company. At the time it was a cash only company, a single page website, terrible thing. I was like, ‘No we have to redo everything.’ The rest is kind of history.”

Dueling warped walls can only mean one thing, Team Ninja Warrior Season 2 is around the corner. #theATSteam

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As Travis and Darren were working together to revamp Alpine Training Services the opportunity to expand their offerings gave them a call on the phone.

“Right about that time, a friend of a friend called and was working on a show called ‘The Biggest Loser,’ season two.

They needed someone to come help them with a rig and they knew we were savvy with ropes and creative guys. More importantly we had no idea what to charge so we were super cheap. We went and helped them on this rig and they really liked working with us, so they called us again. And again and again.

And then somebody from CBS called over and was like ‘Hey I'm on a show called 'Amazing Race.' Who do you guys use for your rigs? They're cool rigs.’ Oh we use this company called ATS, Alpine Training Services. So we started doing all that.

As this town goes, it was all word of mouth. We've never spent a nickel on advertising. Everything comes from people calling us saying they're heard good things.”

Thus, an incredibly niche business was born in the perfect place at the perfect time. While Darren began to focus more on ATS’ other offerings, such as military training, Travis honed in on their opportunity to explode in the rising industry of reality competition.

“We started in a bedroom of a house, then we went to a garage. Then a bigger garage. Then a bigger garage. Then with Ninja Warrior we actually went to a warehouse. Then two warehouses. Then we moved from there to a warehouse in Pacoima that was double that size. Then we moved to this one. The original bedroom was 100 square feet and now we're in 30,000 square feet. We've outgrown this space again.”

With the growth, came the next evolution of ATS.

“The company started as Alpine Training Services and then about 5 years ago, after the first Ninja Warrior that we did, we re-branded the company as The ATS Team. Most people called us ATS anyways at that point, but I realized that when people would call us to hire us, they weren't calling to hire a stick of truss, or a pad, they were calling to hire the people that came with that stuff.

Without those people, there was no company. Those personalities are what makes ATS unique, and that's why we rebranded as The ATS Team. When you're hiring us, you're hiring the team. The rest of the stuff is ancillary.”

That team mentality is key to every aspect of The ATS Team. The production shop is sprinkled with family photos and memories. The team frequently goes on retreats together. The employees eagerly talk about how much they genuinely love the people they work with.

Watching The ATS Team in action on the set of American Ninja Warrior is a sight to behold. The women and men have a vast array of skills. Engineering, construction, creativity, team work, and having the physical fitness of a Ninja.

And that’s only one aspect of the team. Pre-visualization, renders, design. All the work that needs to happen to bring a course to life. How in the world do you list all that in a job description?

“We don't really look for people. We kind of discover them.

One of the things I tell people is you don't need to know how to build truss. You don't have to have any knowledge of that. A lot of people are like ‘Oh I don't know how to do that so I can't work here.’

You have to have the capacity to learn and you have to be willing to do every job. I will take out the trash some days here. You have to be able to do that. You get somebody who's like ‘I don't cut wood,’ or ‘I don't deal with rope,’ or ‘I don't take out the trash.’ They're not going to be a good fit. It's not a hierarchy thing. It's not a pride thing. It's a willingness to contribute, to make the end goal.”

Behind the scenes in Sweden with #theATSteam

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The rapid expansion in both the work load and team size of The ATS Team keeps Travis on his toes as COO. He needs to keep his uniquely talented team invested in the projects at hand, and the future of the company, while navigating the work/life balance that has always been a core value of ATS.

“I spend a lot of time talking with the guys, working with them, and having them understand. One of the fascinating things about our company that I realized about a year and a half ago is that 90% of our company is millennials. That's insane.

That's crazy to have a company like that. We more get compared to an internet start up than a production company, because of how we operate. There's catered lunches every day. There's always perks. We have car washes once a week. That kind of stuff.

But then, it's like we're laser tagging one day, they're playing hockey downstairs. There's always just this fun, energetic, active environment with these people. I lost half my staff to Burning Man. That kind of mentality. It's just a wonderful place to work.

We run really lean and mean here too. That's an important thing. I don't like being staff heavy. I want every one to be function oriented and operating at 100% every single day. Being the best possible version of themselves every day.”

Once ATS has designed the American Ninja Warrior course, they’re responsible for setting it up in every city for the season. It’s a tough job that sees them working long days outside in all kinds of weather, then staying up all night to supervise the course during filming.

But don’t worry, the team manages to maintain it’s personality even under duress.

“Actually seasons four, five, and six, the team rented an RV and we drove around the country city to city, in an RV, building Ninja Warrior. It was great.

Season 4, I was on the road, and they gave us a camera. There was so much debauchery we couldn't film any of it. I handed in the tape and they were like ‘There's only 5 minutes of footage,’ and I was like ‘That's all we got.’ The five minutes, which was the only tame footage, was one of the guys in his underwear walking through the Jack In The Box drive through to buy 50 egg rolls. That was the most tame thing.

Season 6, they were in St. Louis. They went to a museum and came out and the RV had been broken into and all their stuff was stolen so they were like, ‘Yeah we don't want to do an RV anymore.”

After a snow storm in Denver, the team created a new member.

The ATS Team does not work in a vacuum on the creation of the show. The production team at A. Smith and Co, and NBC are huge hands in the creation of American Ninja Warrior. But the most interesting voice in the mix is that of the fans.

The ATS Team is acutely aware of the fan feedback on American Ninja Warrior. The success of the show depends on the viewers. The viewers who are very passionate about the Ninjas and the obstacles they face.

With the end of season eight having no clear ‘winner,’ many fans expressed concern that the producers, NBC, and ATS were making the courses too difficult. We took the opportunity to ask Travis about their strategy.

“Almost all the obstacles are adjustable. That's one of our specialties. We can build these obstacles where you can make them as easy as you want or as hard as you want. We have internal testers. They give feedback and then they put general testers on them and get more feedback. Ultimately, it's the producers who are the ones making the final call on course difficulty.

It's a really tough thing. You don't want too many [successes]. You don't want too few. You try your hardest to make it competitive.

It's not great when you have a city's course where no one makes it through, but you're certainly making an effort to have it be competitive. But no where do we ever say we want this course impossible.

It just means [the Ninjas] are going to get better at it. There's minor tweaks we can do to make stuff more difficult. But we're never trying to mess with the Ninjas. We are in the sense that we're trying to make a difficult course. We're trying to make them work for it.

But I would not ever stand to be accused of making something impossible, or trying to do something to make it harder than it is. Obviously we are incredibly passionate about this show.”

The ATS Team is now also involved with Ninja Warrior shows all over the world, as well as many other domestic and international reality competition shows. With no end to their growth in sight, Travis is preparing for their next evolution.

“If you look at a graph, American Ninja Warrior jumped us [ATS] up to the next level. Going internationally jumped us to the next level. It's all been this progressive line.

But for the last 2 years we started development. We have co-developed a number of productions. Have ownership in them and that kind of stuff. That's our growth pattern. We like participating from that level onward. We're doing those domestically and internationally as well for development.”

For Travis, following a clear passion has developed not only his career, but the careers of everyone at ATS. From joining the team simply because he loved the outdoors, to developing a company that disrupted and elevated the reality competition space, a focused vision has driven momentum.

The ATS Team has created an environment that feeds their love of exploring the unknown and creatively capturing that excitement for the TV audience.

“It's that every single day brings something new. Every single day is different. We get some new phone call. PewDiePie wants to do something with us. Netflix wants to do a new show with us. A new country wants to do Ninja.

It's always random and exciting. I love the constant flow of information of random stuff and keeping these guys excited about the new adventure, about what's over the next hill.”

The entry way to The ATS Team’s Pacoima office.

More on how American Ninja Warrior is made