Ninja Warrior Beth Ann Senderak, lelf, is checking the course for coming competition by volunteer staff Willie Tibbetts at Magness Arena of University of Denver. Inspired by their turns on the TV competition series ÒAmerican Ninja Warrior,Ó members of the Wolfpack Ninja Warrior team will come to DUÕs Ritchie Center April 29-30 to kick off their national tour. April 28, 2017 in Denver.
When Brandi Lebsack and her 11-year-old son, Kaden, first dived into “American Ninja Warrior”-style training last year, they made the 120-mile round trip from their home in Castle Rock to a gym in Longmont twice a week so he could run an obstacle course inspired by the famously punishing TV series.
“He wasn’t a team-sports kid,” said Lebsack, 42. “And we knew other kids who weren’t football-, baseball- or basketball-type kids, so we said, ‘Let’s just open a gym here.’ It’s so fun, and you have no idea the workout you’re getting until you wake up the next day and every single muscle hurts.”
Testing the limits of both human endurance and entrepreneurial spirit, the “American Ninja Warrior” phenomenon has leapt off screens into gyms, arenas and backyards across the country since the show debuted in 2009.
A combination of novelty, savvy marketing and genuine health benefits has encouraged the do-it-yourself zeal, which led Northglenn dad Gavin MacCall to create a backyard course for his 5-year-old daughter, Lylah. The resulting video, posted to his Facebook page in October, has garnered 109 million views and national media attention.
NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” has also become a fitness gold rush for trainers, athletes and investors who see it as an evolution of the once-innovative, now-standard CrossFit and parkour workouts. And Colorado, a global epicenter for extreme-sports innovation, has played a central role every step of the way.
Along with a half-dozen “American Ninja Warrior”-inspired gyms such as Lebsack’s Castle Rock-based Ninja Intensity, the state is also hosting the kickoff of the first “Ninja Warrior”-inspired touring offshoot, the Wolfpack Ninja Tour.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver PostNinja Warrior Nick Johnson is checking the course for coming competition at Magness Arena of University of Denver. Inspired by their turns on the TV competition series ÒAmerican Ninja Warrior,Ó members of the Wolfpack Ninja Warrior team will come to DUÕs Ritchie Center April 29-30 to kick off their national tour. April 28, 2017 in Denver.
“We’re a tight-knit group of guys and gals from Boulder, Fort Collins and Brighton who have all done extremely well on the TV show,” said founder Noah Kaufman, 42, a Fort Collins-based emergency-room doctor. “The first person ever to do the whole thing and win a million dollars (climber Isaac Caldiero) is from Fort Collins, and the first person ever to finish the course (Maryland’s Geoff Britten) is a Wolfpack member, too.”
In fact, Caldiero and Britten still are the only two people to finish the daunting “American Ninja Warrior” championship course, although many have gained a level of fame with their heroic attempts, including Jessi Graff, Joe Moravsky, Flip Rodriguez and Jennifer Tavernier.
The fan enthusiasm for these competitors, encouraged by Kaufman’s popular Wolfpack Ninja podcast, led him to create the Wolfpack tour, which arrives at the University of Denver’s Magness Arena on Saturday and Sunday, with public tryouts, kid classes, college teams, a health fair and a professional competition dangling more than $30,000 in prizes.
All of the aforementioned athletes, as well as Wolfpack’s co-founders — Ian Dory, Meagan Martin and Brian Arnold — will be on hand for Sunday’s finals.
“We decided to make a social-entrepreneurial business of it, and, lo and behold, a big private equity firm was watching us,” said Kaufman, who invested $20,000 of his own money. New York’s GF Capital Management & Advisors seeded Wolfpack with $500,000 “because every year more than 75,000 people apply to compete on (the TV show) and they only let like 600 or 700 of us on, so there was a ready-made market.”
Kaufman said the Wolfpack course cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to assemble. Built for speed, it features familiar gymnastic elements from the TV series, including the “warp wall” and various hanging, jumping and climbing obstacles, all tweaked just enough to avoid copyright infringement. The Wolfpack and the “American Ninja Warrior” brand have no official business relationship, despite sharing their most popular competitors. (“American Ninja Warrior” contestants, Kaufman noted, are not paid for their TV appearances.)
Still, this fleet of extreme-fitness fanatics necessarily falls in line with their flagship, “American Ninja Warrior,” whose ninth season starts June 12. The show has also expanded into celebrity and all-star versions, as well as the sibling series, “Team Ninja Warrior,” now in its second season. All of them trace inspiration to Japan’s original “Sasuke” competition, which debuted in 1997.
“The secret to getting on ‘Ninja Warrior’ isn’t necessarily that you’re born the best athlete, it’s that you work and train really hard, and the outdoor lifestyle in Colorado is such a fundamental part of living there,” said Matt Iseman, who co-hosts “American Ninja Warrior” with former NFL player Akbar Gbaja-Biamila. “These are the kind of people who are drawn to Colorado.”
Iseman should know. The 46-year-old was raised in Denver, beginning his career as a doctor with residences at St. Luke’s, St. Joseph’s and the University of Colorado Hospital before decamping to Los Angeles to become a comedian. (He still headlines nationally, including at Denver’s Comedy Works.)
Parlaying his show-business career into his hosting gig on “American Ninja Warrior” and his now-broadening fame — including winning NBC’s “New Celebrity Apprentice” in February — has made Iseman more visible than ever, which only benefits the “Ninja Warrior” brand and the Rocky Mountain state that has nurtured it.
“I would love to say I knew this was going to explode, but I didn’t,” said Iseman, who visits his family in Denver a half-dozen times each year. “It was so much fun for me to get in during the initial (TV) run, because it came at a time when people were getting bored with treadmill workouts and starting to see the rise of Spartan and Tough Mudder races. What we’ve done is a great job of telling stories and getting to know these characters and care about them. It’s grown into much more than a show.”
The Wolfpack event organizers are hoping for up to 6,000 fans at Magness Arena over the weekend as competitors traverse their custom-built course. It features side-by-side tracks, bolstered by 70 other obstacle and fitness stations for people of all abilities, about half of them for children ages 4 and up.
Kaufman and his Wolfpack have also set serious health and community-building goals, even as the tour doubles as an excuse to legitimize the sport and build their brand.
On their website and in interviews, Kaufman cites alarming, and wholly accurate, statistics about America’s rising rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other maladies, particularly among children. A Wolfpack VIP meet-and-greet event this weekend with $200 tickets, which benefits Children’s Hospital of Colorado, has already sold out, and the Wolfpack is offering, thanks to a sponsorship from Spike TV, free tickets to military veterans.
Despite the ” ‘Ninja Warrior’ land grab,” as Kaufman called it, simply invoking the brand or concept is not an automatic path to success. Some “Ninja Warrior”-style gyms in Colorado have shuttered, consolidated and evolved as instructors and statewide competitions have reshuffled, such as Thornton’s Urban Acrobatics, which moved to Henderson and renamed itself Ninja Brand Parkour Gym.
But the success of operations such as Castle Rock’s Ninja Intensity continues to draw new competitors to the market.
“We’ve gone from eight classes on Dec. 1 to, now, 25 classes,” said co-owner Lebsack, who will run a booth at the Wolfpack event this weekend. “One of our students dropped 30 pounds, and parents also bring kids in who are autistic or have ADHD or balancing issues. The success they see is astonishing because it’s just like playing on a playground, but they’re building upper-body strength, grip and coordination.”
“The only way to really experience the nervous pressure you see on the (TV series) is by running it yourself,” said Ninja Intensity co-founder John Maul, who started Colorado’s first “American Ninja Warrior”-style competitions with Wolfpack member Brian Arnold. “And what I’ve found is that people want to feel that pressure.”