By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Tampa Bay Bucs tight end and three-time Super Bowl champion Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski (formerly of the New England Patriots) is set to take on world tennis champ Venus Williams in competition.
You read that right. The two sports giants are captains of their respective celebrity teams in the new CBS sports-themed game show “Game On!,” premiering Wednesday, May 27, at 8 p.m.
Hosted by Emmy and Peabody Award-winning actor, writer and producer Keegan-Michael Key, the reality competition show celebrates the entertainment of sports, based on “A League of Their Own,” the BAFTA-winning U.K. series, produced and hosted by James Cordon who also hosts the British edition. Cordon also will appear on the American edition as a celebrity participant on an episode.
Each hour-long episode pits two teams of three, captained by tennis champion and entrepreneur Williams and pro football player Gronkowski, alongside comedians Bobby Lee and Ian Karmel and rotating sports stars, comedians and celebrities, against each other in over-the-top physical challenges, absurd trivia and epic field competitions. Think Ellen DeGeneres’ “Game of Games,” but with celebrities. Guests include Ronda Rousey, Coolio, Demi Lovato, Macy Gray and Mark McGrath, among others.
The two celebrated athletes as well as Key and Cordon recently held a virtual press conference in which they spoke from their homes about the upcoming series, which promises to deliver laughs along with daring feats of strength.
The British edition has been running in the UK for 15 seasons. Cordon said it seemed only logical to import the game show to the U.S.
“Sports and entertainment were born in America—it’s the notion of fusing those two things,” he said. “We thought if we could find the right trio of people—the show is born out of chemistry, fun and joy—then there is absolutely no reason why this show couldn’t work in the United States.
“As soon as we started speaking to Venus, Gronk and Keegan, it became clear to us that between these three, this is an incredible opportunity to take a show like this onto a network like CBS. If anything, their enthusiasm was so great, and they understood the show instantly, we thought we have a real opportunity to make a unique and original show in America that doesn’t exclude anybody. All generations of a family can watch this show together and enjoy it.”
Williams admits she felt a little nervous doing some of the stunts that were outside of her comfort zone.
“Even something as simple as walking without touching toes within spaces for the Guinness World Record, I got really nervous,” she said with a laugh. “But other than that, it was fun to get outside of your box, and you could laugh about it, because the show is about laughter. It’s about personalities. It’s about us getting outside of our comfort zones.”
“The show is unpredictable, it’s fun,” added Gronkowski, speaking from the basement of his Massachusetts home. “We never took ourselves too seriously. We love competition, but it wasn’t like an all-out competition. It was more of a fun and joyful atmosphere throughout the competitions. That’s why I signed up for it—I love competing, but at the same time, I love to have a laugh. That’s what this show brings: it brings the fun side, the comedian side, and the sports/competition side.”
Gronkowski, who won three Super Bowls as a player on the New England Patriots, said he never got frustrated on the show whenever he didn’t do well. Instead, he was determined to have fun and deliver a good show that will entertain viewers.
However, he notes that one of the stunts made him anxious and queasy. It was a competition between he and Williams doing sit ups while dangling upside down.
“Let me tell you, it was scary,” the football player recalled. “It made my stomach turn, literally, because I was upside down. It made me weak and that’s why (SPOILER ALERT) Venus won that competition.”
Cordon recalled something Williams said to a producer at the start of the competition that really stayed with him. She said, “The whole world knows who I am and nobody knows who I am, and I’m looking forward to having a great time.” He said that comment was insightful about the show.
Key said he was familiar with the British series and is a fan of Cordon, so it was a no-brainer to want to host the show.
“I’m an athletic person, I enjoy competition,” he said. “I enjoy the rush one gets from competing and playing sports. I’m a sports fan, in general, of all manner of sports. So, the format, and the theme of this show that would be wrapped around sports, was really exciting to me.”
He noted the show isn’t just about sports. It is infused with quizzes and banter between the players.
The players aren’t aware ahead of time what the challenges they are going to face and no one knows, until the competition is over, how each one will do, which adds to the excitement. Also, sometimes the regulars compete and sometimes the guests on the show compete. Key, himself, gets in on the action, such as when he some other players compete to kick a field goal.
“There’s this unknown quality every time we do it,” Key said, adding that the unpredictability of the show is what attracted him to want to host it.
Williams prepared for the series by watching episodes of the British version on YouTube. She anticipated the sit-ups competition would be coming up so she began training for it by doing sit-ups on a slant board and with a medicine ball at her Florida home. Nevertheless, during the actual square off with Gronkowski, she said she was secretly frightened and kept her eyes closed while suspended from a bungee.
Gronkowski said he needed to do the show because he had an “itch to compete.” He missed the atmosphere of working on a team.
“The show fit me well athletic-wise and comedy-wise, because I love a laugh,” he said. “It challenged my mind and it challenged my skills too—that’s how you take yourself to the next level.”
Cordon said during the episode in which he appears as a panelist, he got a chance to go to a Lakers game at Staples Center in Los Angeles with Gronkowski, Williams and comedian Ian Parnell and dance with the Lakers cheerleaders during half-time. He said he hoped to be able to do more on-location stunts with the athletes in the future.
Speaking of the future, Williams said she would like to see her sister, Serena Williams, join “Game On!” in a future episode while Gronkowski said he’s like to have former NBA player Shaquille O’Neal join the competition someday.