For most sports that thrive in the Olympic spotlight, the four year lag between the bright lights can be daunting. While there are world champions, the NCAA’s, and other elite meets, for sports in North America like track and field, swimming, figure skating, skiing and others, the window for opportunity is really centered around those moments when all are watching and triumph are tantamount.
Some sports have sought to use the Olympic window as a springboard to grow casual interest, sponsorship opportunities and additional exposure for their athletes. For several years, Pro Beach Volleyball, The X Games have done well in that vein, and for many years beach volleyball was the hallmark of such success, making athletes like, Karch Kiraly, Misty May-Treanor and Keri Walsh into household names. Others, like women’s soccer, fastpitch softball, even curling, have tried to create the series that could be a bridge between Olympiads, but have dealt with little to no success, outside of the occasional exhibition tours that pop up from time to time.
Now another sport that is an Olympic staple is seeking to find a way to leverage past, present and future Olympic success for its athletes. It’s professional gymnastics, and this weekend at Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, Pa. the Pro Gymnastics Challenge will look to not just showcase some elite stars as athletes, it will look to bring audience involvement and showmanship to a new level for the sport.
The PGC will feature some of the greatest current and future male and female gymnasts and will be held in a team format, but with a very unique twist, with the competitors doing a “skill vs. skill” challenge with men competing against women for points and prize money. Think HORSE in hoops.
In addition to the legendary coaches like Svetlana Boguinskaia, a five-time World Champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist, 2008 Olympic All-Around Champion, four time world champion Nastia Liukin and three time Olympian Blaine Wilson, athletes representing no less than 12 nations will be participating in the event. The U.S. team will also be led by 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, five time Olympic medalist (three gold medals) Catalina Ponor, 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.
Dominique Moceanu, the youngest member of the legendary “Magnificent Seven” who captured the first-ever U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, will serve as a judge for the event as well.
The Pro Gymnastics Challenge was created by Brent Klaus, CEO of International Gymnastics Camp, the world’s premier gymnastics facility. A former elite gymnast himself, Klaus saw the issues gymnasts were having post career and between Olympic years, and saw the PGC as an interesting alternative to extend their performance window. “The window for success for both male and female gymnasts is very small, and after that window sometimes they struggle to figure out what’s next despite being highly motivated and successful athletes,” Klaus said. “The PGC can help fill that void for athletes and for the sport and can put these athletes in front of a new audience of casual fans as well as thousands of core followers, who have never seen them compete in this way, in or out of the Olympics.”
Klaus’ vision for this will also call for fans to help choose the events that the athletes will go head to head in, using social media and mobile technology created by the California-based firm Phizzle. Fans will vote on what will be next in the competition, and will even have the chance for men and women to go against each other in select events. “It will be different than anything consumers have experienced in-arena with elite athletes,” he added. “And we think it won’t just change the way gymnastics are viewed, it will help usher in a new era of fan engagement for all sports.”
The concept has been welcomed by a host of athletes in the sport from around the world. Liukin for one thinks the concept is well overdue. “Between Olympics, sometimes gymnastics gets lost in the mix; the PGC will give the sport the chance to be relevant all the time, and create new opportunities for athletes, and if it works will bring more people to the sport, which is a big plus for everyone involved.” Some have said the risk of injury may slow the elite young stars to the competition, but Liukin feels that as the circuit catches on that fear will be allayed for many. “Injuries are part of the sport and they can happen at any time,” she added. “There is no more risk in this format than there would be in practice, and the reward for the long term health of the sport is very high, It will take some time but if it’s successful, it will definitely be groundbreaking for Olympic sports.”
In addition to the athleticism of the gymnasts, Klaus is a big proponent of exposing the personalities of all involved, and to do so he has brought on long time television executives Jay Rosenstein and Neil Pilson to manage the television and digital portions of the show. The two forged a partnership with ESPN for the broadcast of the event, which will air in primetime on three consecutive nights, May 20, 21 and 22. “The buy-in from television shows that we are on to something, and that this type of format can bring in brands and fans who will learn more about the athletes and engage with them not just during London or Rio, but every day,” Klaus added. “There is no reason that these talented performers shouldn’t become household names for casual fans, and that’s what we will aim to achieve.”
In addition to television and talent, the platform is actively pursuing brands who can use the PGC as a litmus test for new product activation, especially with a young diverse audience who follow athletics year-round around the globe. “The platform we have created is designed for brands to interact with those in arena and in the social space to be very promotion friendly,” Klaus said. “There is really nothing that is off-limits and we anticipate using the PGC as way to really take gymnastics to a new level.”
If it works for the gymnasts, maybe the world swimming tour is next?