American Ninja Warrior is closing in on an important milestone. With May 30’s premiere, the show kicks off its tenth season. That’s 10 years of thrilling fans through everyday athletes that defy the impossible. 10 years of motivating adults to look at their children’s playgrounds in a whole new light. 10 years of inspiring kids to become their own superheroes.
It also marks a decade of work creating the show. What was once a blip on the ratings radar on a little-known cable channel is now a national juggernaut broadcast into millions of homes on NBC.
To celebrate this achievement, we took a walk back through American Ninja Warrior’s history in this three-part series. Talking to the people behind the scenes who worked to make it all happen, we’ve traced the timeline of the show’s growth and transformation.
To help us understand American Ninja Warrior’s trajectory, we interviewed several key players you’ll hear from throughout this article. Two of those individuals are executive producers Arthur Smith, CEO of A. Smith and Co and Kent Weed, president of A. Smith and Co.
2009: Last Ninja Standing - Levi Meeuwenberg (farthest American in Sasuke)
Cable channel G4 caught on to the fascination Japanese obstacle show Sasuke held (and still holds) over its American fans. With that as their foundation, they challenged viewers to imagine themselves as Ninjas, creating the American Ninja Challenge in 2007.
What could be considered a small, segment of a show quickly gathered attention. In 2009, G4 expanded the format and debuted season one of American Ninja Warrior, with Blair Herter and Alison Haislip as the hosts.
The show looked MUCH different back then. It was on a much smaller budget, filmed during the daytime, and the end goal was to earn a shot at the Sasuke course.
Good ol season one memories . I love watching athletes from other sports and how they prepare, so I hope this new video series is entertaining if not helpful for everyone in any competition prep (link in the bio). What are your game changing moments that you have implemented into your pre-comp routines!? @ninjabrandparkourgym @wolfpackninjatour @wolfpackninjas
There are only four “original” Ninjas left who participated on the original season and every single season since. Those Ninjas are Ryan Stratis, David Campbell, Brian Kretsch, and Lorin Ball.
2010: Last Ninja standing - David Campbell (Farthest, fastest American in Sasuke)
The gears really started turning on American Ninja Warrior in season two. A. Smith and Co. stepped in as the production team, bringing their vast experiences in television to the show.
They immediately started making some adjustments, and one very important element was put into place. Matt Iseman was brought on as one of the show’s commentators and hosts. Nowadays, his growling incantation of the show’s name is almost impossible not to hear in your mind.
The show also introduced a boot camp for those that qualified from the Venice Beach, CA course. They formed teams and took part in challenges with the hope they would get a shot at the four stages of Sasuke in Japan.
Here’s Arthur Smith discussing how A. Smith and Co. found American Ninja Warrior:
A. Smith and Co took over the show in its second season. What drew you to ANW? Why did you want to work on this show?
AS: For me, I’ve spent a lot of time in sports. I was head of programming at Fox Sports before I started my company. I was the head of CBC Network Sports years ago. I’ve been in sports and entertainment my whole life. So anything that has an athletic component to it always interests me. The other thing is I always get excited when sporting events go beyond. There’s a story to be told beyond the actual event. I produced Olympic games. The Olympics were my favorite assignment because it wasn’t just about what they were doing, it was about who they are, how they’re doing it, their story.
Neal Tiles, who was running G4 at the time, had been a colleague of mine. He’d been a marketing guy at Fox Sports when I was there. Neal was the one who actually introduced me.
He called me. I had been watching the Japanese version and getting a kick out of that. He called me, said ‘take a look at this and tell me what you think.’ Right away, I remember there was this Japanese plumber. And I was so interested in the stories of everyday people doing extraordinary things. I love sports. Television is my first love. I always gravitate towards things where the personal part, the personal story, work in tandem with what they’re actually doing.
The course was visually interesting. The challenges were great. But it was the combination that always excited me. Neal and I got together and he said what do you think? What do you think we could do? We came up with a plan and off we went. We had to figure out how to do it on a budget first hand, but we did.
Even when I look back at those early shows. They were amazing then. We really believed in it from the very beginning. But we never believed it would grow into what it’s now grown into. That’s how it started.
Season two was when Matt Iseman joined the cast. What made him the right fit for the show?
AS: I’m a huge Matt Iseman fan. I believed in him right from the very beginning. Having worked in sports and entertainment for all these years, there are very, very few people who can do play-by-play and have the composure and be eloquent and have all those skills. Matt has that, and he’s funny and he’s enthusiastic. So the combination of smarts and enthusiasm was the perfect combination of what we wanted Ninja to be. And Ninja does have a sense of humor. Especially those early years with people in wardrobes and costumes.
A skilled play-by-play guy knows how to make those moments. And Matt has that. He leads you, he guides you, he makes you laugh. One of the great things about working on a show as it grows is seeing somebody like Matt Iseman flourish. Matt was a very talented guy who needed a vehicle and Ninja has been a great vehicle for him and we have benefitted from him. He’s awesome.
2011: Last Ninja standing - David Campbell (Farthest, fastest American in Sasuke)
While the show was settling into its home and growing a fanbase on G4, the team behind its creation all knew it could go further. In this third season, the goal was still to qualify to be sent to Japan to compete on Sasuke after the boot camp. But the two-hour finale received an airing on NBC, bringing many more eyeballs to the format. It started a waterfall effect that would lead to NBC taking on the program premieres for season six.
In season three, the two-hour finale appeared on NBC. How did all that come about?
AS: The show was performing really well on G4. Extraordinarily well on G4. We knew it could be bigger. Still at that time, because it was on a smaller network like G4, the show was craving exposure. G4 could only basically promote it to their audience and word of mouth. So when Comcast and NBC came together, Comcast owned G4, Neal Tiles and I were sitting around talking about the future and saying how could we grow the sport. And it was like can we get an active synergy with NBC? So we approached NBC. It really was an experiment. The intent wasn’t about getting the show on NBC. It was really about throwing light on a show on a smaller network. That’s why it was done.
The show did really well in its initial debut, coming out of nowhere almost. Then NBC was smart enough to acknowledge that there really was something more here. And the conversations began. We started off with cable and network sharing the program until it was clear that this was a bonafide broadcast network primetime hit.
We’re happy that we’re on NBC because it’s the broadest network we could have. We loved our early years on G4 because it was kind of a lab to discover. It grew into becoming a big hit. Right from the very beginning, it did well. I think everyone realized that the show had tremendous potential.
Brian Richardson, who would come on as one of the showrunners in season six, looks back on this moment as part of the fuel the launched the popularity of the show.
He shared with us, “You could argue that the big moment was when the show first went from appearing on G4 to NBC. It made the show visible to millions of more viewers. G4 had a loyal but small audience, and not everyone even had it on their cable or satellite system. NBC was a network. Everyone got NBC. That exposure really changed the course of the show, and led to bigger budgets and allowed everything about the show to grow- traveling around the country, more production value, million dollar prizes, etc.”
2012: Last Ninja standing - Brent Steffensen
With season four, what is sometimes referred to as “the modern era” of Ninja Warrior began. The successful finale airing on NBC sparked an interest from the network. While the show still debuted on G4, repeat episodes were shown on NBC. Budgets changed. The producers got to work making this show into what we recognize as American Ninja Warrior today.
The ATS Team came on as the course manufacturers and managers, helping to up the ante on the challenges.
The show began traveling, taking the Qualifiers and Finals to locations around the country. The final four stages moved to Las Vegas and became the National Finals, where they still remain. And now, $500,000 waited at the top of the final climb.
In season four, there was a huge shift. The show started traveling, the National Finals were in the US and there was a cash prize. What brought that all about?
AS: Once everyone was signed up for it, it was something that had the potential to be big, we knew that there were certain things that felt like natural extensions. Originally, in the beginning, we sent 10 people to Japan. That was fine, but it wasn’t good enough because the enthusiasm for the show and the amount of participants, that didn’t seem right that it was our finale. We knew we wanted a bigger finale. The show was worthy of having our own finale on American soil.
At the same time, having the qualifying on Venice Beach, or having the qualifying in one location didn’t allow the show to be accessible to the people who wanted to be on it. It all came together in that year. It seemed like a natural extension and the growth and demand were there. Applications were growing at an exponential rate. We knew that the show would benefit by attracting people. It was difficult for people who wanted to be on the show to make it to LA every time.
The thing about the show is, at its core, at its roots, it’s about all people. Everyday people. Men and women of all ages. We wanted to give that opportunity to as many people as possible. Also, by traveling around the country we knew that, in a way, there would be a grassroots marketing push for the show. We’re this traveling roadshow that rolls into town. We knew it would have a positive effect on the awareness of the show. It’s worked out great. Now it’s always a question of where we’re going to go each year. But we knew we had to bring it to as many regions of the country as we could.
Executive producer Kent Weed also weighed in on this monumental shift.
In 2012, a lot changed all at once. Qualifiers started traveling, National Finals came to Las Vegas. There was a cash prize on the line. How did all of that happen at once?
KW: What happened is the show had done well on NBC. So the desire for more content was very much present from NBC. So we basically decided to come up with a format that would enable us to create more content. The other thing that was new for us was that we decided that we didn’t need to go to Japan for Mount Midoriyama anymore. That we could build our own.
The Americans had dominated Sasuke in Japan and we felt like we had enough really good talented competitors that we could do our own. So a combination of more episodes, needing more content, drove us to create the format which was multiple cities with a qualifying and finals episode in each city and culminating in our own version of Mt. Midoriyama in Las Vegas.
Was it difficult to get the networks on board with all those changes, or was it a natural transition that everyone supported?
KW: They came to Arthur and I and said: “What can you guys do?” We came back with the format and they loved it from the get-go. The loved the idea of being in multiple cities and getting out in America and having a cross-representation of America and they loved the idea of having our own Mt. Midoriyama. They loved every part of it actually. The other thing we did as part of this whole thing, is we had to keep everything fresh. So you didn’t watch the same thing week after week. So we created the different courses for each city.
We basically had the four main obstacles that we had in every city. Which would be the steps, the Wall, the Salmon Ladder and the final climb, and everything else was different in every city. That was done on purpose to create diversity and to create lack of boredom.
We also had to protect it from the athletes learning the obstacles too quickly. You can imagine that if the obstacles that appeared in LA also seen three weeks later in another city. That gives those athletes time to learn those obstacles. Which is one thing that makes us very unique, no one gets to practice these things before they get out there on the course.
Was there a learning curve going on the road for the first time? Or did it come naturally to the team?
KW: There was a huge learning curve. Absolutely a huge learning curve. With the events, the advent of all the new obstacles and the course designs, it was incredibly challenging to dial in the course design. Dialing in the course to create the correct amount of success and failure. Which today is still a challenge.
It’s probably the biggest thing that we undertake in a design of a course which is how do you design the course and the obstacles within the course to guarantee a certain amount of success. Not too much success and not too much failure. Just the right amount. Only a couple of us are adept at doing that right now. That was the first challenge of that season. I think because it was so new, I think people will find a disparity. Some cities only had nine finishers. Some cities had 35 finishers. So we were figuring it out. The idea of a happy medium.
A happy medium is we’d like to get 20-25 finishers. 25% of the people who try the course finish it. Of course, we can never exactly predict it. It’s up to the competitors. Anyone can fall on any given day. Anyone can surprise us on any given day. You’re seeing both sides of the coin.
Another aspect of all this change was that American Ninja Warrior was drawing a clear differentiation from its Japanese roots. For some long-term competitors, like Ryan Stratis, it was a bit of a bittersweet season.
Ryan Stratis: I believe the moment ANW decided to start building the finals here in America instead of sending competitors over to Japan to compete on the original is a pretty significant moment in its history...
It’s understandable that kids may not know the complete 20-year history of the show but the fact that competitors today know nothing of the original is saddening... The format seems to be working well enough to have the show coming back each year which is nice but I do miss the glory days.
Read about seasons five through seven here.
Read about seasons eight through 10 here.