In an increasingly technological world, Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena believes the antidote for the anxiety and alienation of hiding behind a computer screen is to get outside, get dirty and test your body’s limits. About a million people agree with him so far, including NBC, who are partnering with De Sena in developing the reality series, tentatively titled "Spartan Race," based on his obstacle course franchise.
Spartan Race, which De Sena started just five years ago, is a global brand of obstacle course races that gives everyone, from people sitting on the couch at home to seasoned athletes, the opportunity to test their physical limits against a series of obstacles that put competitors in the mud, in the water, and sometimes even over fire. Participants, competing in teams comprised of two men, two women and an elite Spartan athlete, get dirty, sweaty and tired in the gritty events, and that’s just how De Sena prefers it. Spartan Race has reached over 20 countries with over 130 events ranging from more accessible, first-time friendly races, to timed and ranked heats and more and more people are starting to take notice.
NBC and production company A. Smith and Co. Productions are developing a reality series based on Spartan Race, which is still in the early stages. The producing team is the same behind popular hit series “American Ninja Warrior,” another show whose competitors test the limits of their physical abilities. While “American Ninja Warrior” is a natural comparison for a "Spartan Race" TV series, De Sena hopes to replicate the success of “Ninja Warrior,” while staying true to his event’s own, unique brand.
Watch an introduction to Spartan Race from the company's Youtube page below:
De Sena spoke with International Business Times about his vision for the show. Read the full interview below:
International Business Times: How did you come to start Spartan Race five years ago?
Joe De Sena: Basically, back in the 1970s my mom was really into Yoga, meditation, fasting for days at a time. My sister and I saw her push extremes with health and wellness. She even took my sister and I to see a 3000-mile foot race in Queens where people ran around a one-mile loop. As a young kid you see all of that and you start to realize what the human body and mind are really capable of, really learn to test your limits physically. So I dabbled through the years in all kinds of adventure races and insane runs all over the world and in 2010, much like mother would convince people to fast or do 24 hours of meditating, I said could we create a platform with a really cool name that would get people motivated and get them out running, jumping, crawling and acting the way humans are supposed to act. I didn’t know how many people would be interested in this, but I thought maybe on a stretch we could get five or 10 thousand and we are at a million this year in 20 plus countries with over 130 events.
IBTimes: These events seem to be a growing trend right now, between Tough Mudders and Spartan Race and the popularity of parkour and “American Ninja Warrior.” Why do you think that has happened?
De Sena: I think it’s a confluence of a lot of things. I think social media, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. is big -- the ability to break down barriers of people communicating in real time and talk quickly and share photos. Also, people are kind of lost, right? They came out of that 2009 mess in the economy and people are living generally in front of computers and in cubicles and that’s very unnatural. The ability to get people outside and touch the earth, get muddy, breathe heavily, sweat and then share it instantly was the reason for its success. I mean events like this have been around for a long time, but others, like the New York marathon, took a long time to get to the size they are, compared to what we’ve been able to achieve in five years. We are 10 times the size of Iron Man and Iron Man has been around since the 1970s.
IBTimes: And how is Spartan Race unique?
De Sena: Well, if you look at Iron Man or even running the New York marathon, the barrier to entry is a lot higher for the human being. You have to train a lot more. Someone can come out and do a Spartan Race literally right off the couch. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, because it is physically grueling, but it’s not 26 miles and you don’t need to have a $5000 bike or have to swim two miles. Plus, whether you are a male or a female, I think you feel bad a-- when you finish a Spartan Race. I wear the shirt and people don’t know who I am, but people stop me everywhere and talk to me.
IBTimes: Was there a moment when you realized you had tapped into something special with people?
De Sena: It’s funny, at the first race my buddy, who did TV for the Discovery Channel for decades and decided what products and programs to being in and has a good eye and feel, was standing next to me. I knew the economics of the race and I knew it wasn’t going to make money and I said it wasn’t really a business that is going to work. He turned to me and said, “You see what’s going on here, right?” He talked about the narrative that was being told in the event and the people’s faces and what was happening to the personalities right in front of us. He saw it and then I saw it, but the problem is the financiers didn’t see it for a long time and we struggled heavily because the marketplace isn’t really ready to pay the right price for this type of event.
IBTimes: Is that narrative what you hope the NBC series will capture?
De Sena: I think it has to. I think everything we do has to remain very authentic. You don’t want to mess the Spartan brand up, right? It’s been around since 600 B.C., you don’t want Leonidas turning over in his grave. So, it’s really important that we stay true to the brand, it has to be bad a--. It can’t be too glitzy or Hollywood. It has to represent what we stand for and if it does, it becomes a platform that amplifies what we already have going on in the world.
IBTimes: What is your vision for the show?
De Sena: We don’t know yet. Even if you have a deal like we do, 90 percent of shows don’t even make it to the air, but the overriding theme is it has to be authentic. It has to be real people doing real events and I don’t know if that’s something people want to watch.
IBTimes: You’ve partnered with the same producing team behind “American Ninja Warrior.” Is that show a model for what you would like to achieve with a “Spartan Race” show?
De Sena: I like “American Ninja Warrior.” It’s obviously a highly rated show and it does well, but it’s a little too glitzy for us. There are too many bright lights and that’s not Spartan. I get calls everyday from sponsors and I turn most of them down because they don’t fit the brand and the show has to be the same way. I met [NBC producer] Arthur Smith and I think he is going to get it done, but I don’t know if that will be what people want to watch.
IBTimes: “American Ninja Warrior” strikes a unique balance between reality and sports. It also focuses on individual competitors and their backstories, while “Spartan Race” features teams. How will your show be different?
De Sena: We do have teams, which will make it different. I think you will see a lot more ruggedness. It’s a lot longer of an event. You will definitely see the backstories, but I don’t claim to be an expert on TV. I know our show on NBC Sports is doing very well, so we’ll see [what NBC does].
Watch footage from the 2014 Spartan Race World Championship, which was broadcast by NBC Sports, below:
IBTimes: “American Ninja Warrior” has cultivated a community of pseudo-celebrity athletes who train during the offseason and return and are successful every year. You have touted that anyone can do Spartan Race. How will your show preserve that?
De Sena: I think the reality is it will start to happen where there will be people and teams that train and drop their lives to compete and be on television. In the beginning we will get the couch potatoes, which stays true to the brand, but people will want to get on television and then they will want to win and that reflects what is happening with the events already. A lot of people on the show will come from the races.
IBTimes: You mentioned your NBC Sports Network series, which broadcasts major events such as the Spartan Race World Championship. If maintaining the purity of the brand is important, why move towards a reality series as opposed to pushing forward with the more objective, sports broadcast-like events you have done with NBC Sports?
De Sena: To survive as a company we need more participants. We need a bigger audience. Personally, my goal is to reach a billion people and get a billion people off the couch and you’re only going to do that with big sponsors and big audiences. We are not going to screw the brand to do that, but we want to amplify the message.
Fans interested in becoming a contestant on the "Spartan Race" NBC series can check out the casting info HERE.