This is the last entry in a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.
2016: Last Ninja standing - Drew Drechsel
The show’s tremendous popularity showed no signs of slowing the year after a champion was crowned. Esquire still shared the reruns of the show, while NBC had a genuine summer hit on its hands.
While the season generated amazing run after run, there was one name that caught on fire: Jessie Graff.
This wasn’t a new name. Jessie’s first year was actually back in season five. She ran the Venice Beach course in a chicken costume and became the first woman to qualify for the City Finals. She took a break for season six to nurse a knee injury. During that time, she focused on her upper body strength and returned to season seven stronger than ever, making it to the National Finals.
But season eight was Jessie’s year. She completed the Los Angeles Qualifying course. She placed second overall in the City Finals, moving on the National Finals. There, she became the first woman to finish Stage One, skyrocketing her notoriety among fans and the general public. Later, she would become the first woman to complete Stage Two during that season’s USA vs the World competition.
This was another turning point in the journey of women on the course. Arthur Smith discussed that progression.
Arthur Smith: Kacy was a pioneer and so is Jessie. Jessie has taken it even farther. Along with Jessie there’s Meagan and others. Jesse Labreck and Allyssa Beird. There’s this new group. Great women athletes are coming from all over the country. It’s just reaffirmed that this course is gender neutral. Success breeds success. Kacy started it. Jessie continued it and now it’s growing even bigger. It’s all about positive momentum and that’s a lot of what Ninja is. People believe in themselves when they watch others. They believe that it’s possible when they see others that can accomplish it. And sometimes even take it further.
2017: Last Ninja standing - Joe Moravsky
The 2017 season of American Ninja Warrior brought a big change to the format. For the first time ever, a new rule altered how women advanced on the show. Now the top five women in Qualifying would advance to the next round. The top two women in the City Finals would move on to National Finals. This did away with the previous format of providing a few wildcard slots in the National Finals. You earned one of those slots, or you didn’t advance.
It was an adjustment for the fan base. Some thought a new rule that only applied to female competitors flew in the face of the gender-neutral concept of the show. Others realized this would allow more strong females to take their shot at the National Finals.
Once fans saw the rule in action, they saw what it could do. In season nine, Allyssa Beird was the first woman of the year to complete a Qualifying course, doing so in Cleveland. Besides a strong showing in the City Finals, she did not make the top 30. However, she was behind Jesse Labreck as the second highest ranked woman.
The new rule moved Allyssa to the National Finals. Here, she blew fans away with her performance, making her the second woman ever to finish Stage One.
The executive producers reflected on the process of introducing this change.
Kent Weed: Any time you tweak the format it’s to create a better show. We try to do it with the least amount of impact on the competition. I don’t think we affected the competition. I think we were able to provide more entertainment for the audience and more chances to see females compete. It was done with the purpose of creating a better program.
There’s always going to be people who disagree with the decisions you make. That’s fine, that’s part of the nature of things. People have different opinions on everything. We’re going to make format changes this year (season 10) which the fans are going to like or not like and that’s okay. I don’t think it affects the viewership at all. If anything I think most of the response was positive. I think there was a little bit of grumbling. But I didn’t feel that it was a huge debate.
Arthur Smith: We’re always very very careful. Fairness is important to our audience. We’re very careful of any rules or any challenges that don’t seem fair. The course is the ultimate arbitrator. It’s objective and it doesn’t have any feelings. That’s really the decider. We put the challenges out there and wait for the athletes to be successful. We want to continue to challenge them because that’s the fun of the show.
We appreciate the enthusiasm, we appreciate that the fans are vested. We have to be very careful. Everything that we do out of our own internal debate.
Set to premiere on May 30, 2018, American Ninja Warrior enters into its tenth season. After a decade of wowing fans, things are showing no signs of slowing down. The show has already introduced three new elements to the show before the first episode has even begun.
Age limit: Down to 19 from 21, fans who’ve been training since they were 10 are now able to compete alongside the pioneering veterans.
Mega Wall: The Warped Wall, the most iconic obstacle on the show had already slowly risen to 14 and a half feet over the year. Now, right next to it is a dizzying 18-foot wall that’s worth $10,000 if Ninjas can get it in one shot.
Last Ninja Standing prize: Before, the only major payout was the $1 million awarded for completing Mt. Midoriyama. Now, the Ninja who goes the farthest each season, regardless of if they take on stage four, will be awarded $100,000.
To close things out, we asked Arthur Smith and Kent Weed to tell us what they see in the future for American Ninja Warrior, both for season 10 and beyond.
“There are some really new unique things that are going to spice it up if you will. We’re going into our tenth season so we want to do some stuff that’s really going to amp it up without changing the core aspect of the competition. I can say that we’re going to have a completely new look. They've redesigned a whole look that’s going to be different than any other season of American Ninja Warrior. When this show goes on the air, you’ll know you’re watching season 10 and not a repeat of season 7, 8 or 9. That I can guarantee you.
There’s also some really fun integration stuff that we’re going to be doing.”
What are your thoughts on the mixing of athletic generations? Fans watching since day one now competing with people who’ve been there since day one.
“Last year I called it the year of the kid. More so it’s this year, especially since we dropped the age to 19. I think we’re going to see a real, real strong group of young people. They’ve grown up with the show. It creates a couple things. It creates very interesting viewing because you have the dynamic which is the veterans and the rookies. Which we’ve never had before and you see in other sports. And how the rookies shine and how they deal with the veterans. I think that’s a great competitiveness. That’s a great camaraderie that you get. The other thing is that we’re bringing in a lot of new fans and new viewers growing up with the show. We’re kind of creating our own new audience as well which is great. I don’t know many other programs where you have a chance to that just by the nature of the format.”
What went into the decision to lower the age limit to 19?
“It all plays into wanting to freshen up the format a little bit. We’ve seen a lot of kids training since they were 10 or 11 years old. We see all these videos. Now at this point, the show is so mature that we actually had people at that age who were competitive enough. We saw it from our testers, we saw it from Ninja vs Ninja. We thought that there was a big enough group of really talented individuals who could compete. So that was one reason. Opening it up to more competition. Do something a little bit new for the format.”
“There are some phenomenal obstacles in the works. Really stepping it up this year. When we first started a long, long time ago, there was the blueprint that we used that was based on the Japanese show. We’ve evolved it since then. A lot of new obstacles. But this year there are some things that are coming out of the lab that are crazy.
In Vegas, the Ninjas will face something they’ve never faced before. I can’t tell you what it is. But they will face something they’ve never faced before.
We are not a complacent group here at Ninja headquarters. As with every year, we try to continue to evolve. We try to continue to challenge. And this year is going to be pretty amazing.
I believe someone is going to do it this year. I don’t know why, but I just do. I just think the athletes are unbelievable. The elite group is unbelievable. The other thing is every year we always get surprised by the young guys of the sport and how they’ve been training. The access to Ninja facilities and home courses and people who are training for the show and people who are fans of the show at 14 or 15 years old and are now 21 and 22. Who’ve made it their goal, has resulted in better athletes.”
If you could pick the ONE most transformative moment on the show, what would it be?
“It’s so hard. Kacy’s moment is probably the biggest transformative moment in our history. But what Isaac and Geoff did on the same night was magical. But, truthfully, I still think the heart of the show is the stories of everyday people doing extraordinary things. Stories like Michael Stanger, his emotional story. It’s so much a part of what the fabric of American Ninja Warrior is. To go with that, there’s the Kevin Bull story. He was a walk-on. Many people forget that one of the stars of our sport was a walk on. That night, after everyone struggling on Cannonball Alley and doing it one way, he went upside down and did it another way. Not only was the moment amazing, but I love the reaction of the Ninjas on the sideline cheering him on and looking on in amazement.
Another one of the wonderful things about the show is the fact that the athletes root for each other. I love the positive messages that sends out to young people across the country. It’s not only about what you do, it’s about being supportive of others. I love that. There are not too many other sports where the athletes root for each other. It’s wonderful.
If I had to pick ONE, I would pick Kacy but it just edges out a few others. The others are so huge. And it is the combination of all those things that make the show what it is. The Kacy moment is a moment that’s been tacked on to other moments. The truth is every episode, every time we’ve been on, within one qualifying show, one City Finals show, there are great moments.”
Read about seasons one through four here.
Read about seasons five through seven here.