"American Ninja Warrior" is about to change, and I'm not sure if it's for the better. For the first eight seasons "ANW" has featured talented athletes taking on a course and only the best would continue forward. The top 30 contestants moved to city finals, and the top 15 moved on to the national finals in Las Vegas -- regardless of gender.
When the competition series returns for season 9 on June 12, the rules will have changed.
This season, a gendered component to advancement is being introduced. Now the top five women and top two women from each of the six city regions (Los Angeles, San Antonio, Daytona, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Denver) will advance to the city finals and Vegas finals respectively. It seems like a small shift, but it changes a lot.
This change codifies an uncomfortable dynamic already present on the show. Women have been competing in the Vegas finals since season 5 when several were invited as wild cards, which happens when Ninjas who did not advance to either city finals or national finals land a spot anyway. Those decisions are more or less made by "American Ninja Warrior" producers.
Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to qualify for Vegas through finishing in the top 15 in season 6. She was followed by Jessie Graff in season 7 and Meagan Martin and Jesse Labreck (along with Graff again) in season 8. Every other woman invited to run in Vegas has done so through a wild-card invitation.
This dynamic has been buried beneath the surface of an otherwise genderless athletic competition for the past four years, but until now, it was not explicit. If last season is any indication, multiple women will finish in the top 15 in respective city finals, "punching" (traditionally earning) their tickets to Vegas. Now, someone who might not have finished in the top ranking will join them without being a wild card.
The new system ensures that at least five women run in city finals courses in every region. Before this rule change, no region had ever seen five women run on the second night. Season 8 marked the first time that multiple women qualified for city finals, with two women running in Los Angeles and a record four in Philadelphia. There were also two regions in which no women qualified for finals: Atlanta and Oklahoma City. By changing the qualifying rules, there is a guarantee that there will be women present in every episode of this "ANW" season. I'm certainly not going to say that is a bad thing.
However, this change is happening because the women of "ANW" are intensely popular. Graff, Martin and Catanzaro are the three most recognizable faces in "ANW," regardless of gender. The video of Graff completing Stage 1 was viewed more than 100 million times on Facebook.
"The reason for the change is to address the growing importance and popularity of women in "ANW," and to address desires of fans to see more women compete in Vegas," executive producer Kent Weed said in an email. "There's now an extra layer of suspense as women compete against the course to get into the top five. "
The update might actually bring fewer women to Vegas this season. There will be no more wild cards granted, which makes it essentially impossible to match the record 18 women who competed in the Vegas finals in season 8. Having the top two women advance out of city finals guarantees that every region will be represented but puts only 12 women in Vegas. That could change if a region has more than two women finish in the top-15. That has not happened, but surely it will at some point.
"As the process of choosing wild cards was perceived as a somewhat random decision or choice, this new system replaces it by having every competitor earn their way to Vegas," Weed said.
I'm not sure how I feel about this decision. On one hand, I think it officially genders the show in a way that rubs me the wrong way (what about non-binary competitors?), but on the other, there will be more women overall. This means more stories about women and more opportunities for women to show off their incredible strength. It bears repeating that this is never a bad thing.
Time will tell how this rule change will affect the season. All I know is that season 9 is just around the corner, and I am ready.