One of the “must see” sports every time the summer Olympics rolls around is women’s gymnastics. From Mary Lou Retton and Keri Strug to Gabrielle Douglas and Dominique Dawes, every four years produces a new darling of American sports marketing. However once the limelight fades and winter comes, many of those who compete in gymnastics go back to their training, or move on to coaching without a sustainable or viable opportunity to reach their fans and increase their professional value consistently. There are national and international championships, and for the best of the best, there is usually a tour, but for the most part, unlike sports like beach volleyball and even figure skating, gymnasts leave the sports scene until the Olympic rings come calling again.
There is a new entity that is looking to change that. Led by former gymnast and coach Brent Klaus, the new Pro Gymnastics Challenge will launch this coming May 10 and 11 at Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with the goal of creating a vibrant, fun and unique series of co-ed competitions for elite gymnasts worldwide. The hope is to showcase these elite athletes in a co-ed challenge competition that really highlights athleticism, fun and creativity for gymnastics like never before outside the Olympic Games.
“Gymnastics does do very well every four years at the Olympics. It is a premiere attraction in both ticket sales and in media coverage,” Klaus said. “However, interest slows, as it does in most Olympic sports, during the years in between. Gymnastics in its current format is a difficult sport for the spectator to fully understand because of the complexity of the rules as well as the scoring system. The Professional Gymnastics Challenge lets the audience understand what the gymnasts are doing - it simplifies the rules of the competition - and it makes the competition more intense. This new format brings an added level of excitement, originality and skill difficulty combined with team strategy which raises the level of competition. It also provides an ability to be a sport as well as an entertainment platform with the addition of music, lights, and, very importantly, fan interaction.”
The first event will feature a host of current champions and future Olympians from around the world in a series of events like “HORSE” in basketball. The competitors pick the next challenge, with the winning teams, one from the U.S. and one from the rest of the world, looking to best each other time and time again. Among those marquee names to sign on for the first event are two time Olympian and silver medalist Jonathan Horton, 2012 Olympian Jacob Dalton and six time NCAA champion, Stephen Legendre, with three time World Championship silver medalist Jana Bieger and NCAA Champion Kat Ding among those representing the women. The world team will be led by 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Sam Oldham of Great Britain, 2012 Olympic silver medalist Marcel Nguyen of Germany, six time Olympian and gold medalist Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan, Brazil 2016 hopefuls, Petrix and Jade Barbosa and Daniele and Diego Hypolito, and two time Olympian Anna Pavlova of Russia, among others.
The event will also be bolstered by some boldface names as coaches, including 2008 Olympic All Around Champion, five time Olympic medalist, four time World Champion Nastia Luikin, Svetlana Boguinskaia, a five-time World Champion, and three-time Olympic gold medalist, and three time Olympian Blaine Wilson.
Fans in the arena will also get a chance to participate in choosing the events via mobile and social media, giving the event a very unique look and feel and creating a template for interaction with the audience that is very unique in professional sports. The concept has also been embraced by ESPN, which will televise the event on ESPN2 on May 20, 21, and 22 as part of a very unique three part series.
Will such a concept catch on not just with fans, but with the media, and most importantly with elite gymnasts even more so going forward? Klaus thinks so. “The athletes are very enthusiastic about competing in this new format,” he said. “Professional Gymnastics Challenge can definitely be a benefit to the training program of elite athletes. Not only does it give them a new competition style in which to compete, but this competition will enhance their current level of gymnastics. This format is not routine based, therefore, it allows gymnasts to debut higher level skills than would usually be performed. Competing with these new skills in The Professional Gymnastics Challenge will help the athletes add skills into their more traditional routines.”
David Durante, a former Olympian now coaching and helping train circus performers (another unique career path for elite gymnasts when their careers end) agrees with Klaus. “This type of competition is what our sport has needed for a long time,” he said. “It will provide another career for some great athletes whose other alternatives have been things like coaching, and it can be a great revenue source for the sport and for athletes around the world. I am really intrigued to see how it goes and will be there to help and support it as well.”
While some in the gymnastics community may fret about potential injuries, Klaus says the benefits far outweigh the risks for the competitors, and the success of such an event can bring in new fans, sponsors, television revenue and career opportunities for many whose reward for years of training may be a few precious seconds on a world championship or Olympic programme. “The Olympics are still the pinnacle for sire, that’s what everyone aspires to,” Klaus added. “However the PGC will enhance and expand the career window and make the sport even more fun and exciting for those who come out, it is what I believe we have needed for a long time, and from the looks of the competition, many athletes feel the same way.”
Whether the PGC can cut through the clutter of professional sport and find a niche remains to be seen. Other professional sports tours that have rode the Olympic wave, beach volleyball being one, have seen some peaks but many valleys in their existence, especially in today’s challenging economy. However Klaus thinks this formula of sizzle and high level competition with men and women together can catch on, and if it does, will boost gymnastics to new heights in non-Olympic years. It is certainly a gold medal effort to launch, whether it can go from financial red to black will be seen. If it does catch on, we will be seeing more of Gaby and company well before Rio. Stay tuned.