Affiliate Opportunity in the Sport of CrossFit

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Given the recent excavation of deep-seated issues at CrossFit HQ and the rapid sale of the brand to Eric Roza, many Affiliate owners are questioning whether they should stick with CrossFit. 

While many have claimed that they will unaffiliate, a lot are left waiting to see what shakes out over the next few months and are happy to postpone their decision until the time that their Affiliate fees are due. 

For the purpose of this article, I’d like to set aside any of the hot button, culture war topics associated with remaining a CrossFit Affiliate. Instead, I’d like to focus on CrossFit HQ’s value proposition, which is deceptively simple: “By paying a few thousand dollars per year to put the name CrossFit on your sign, your website and any advertising you may do, you should make much more than that back in membership payments.” 

This has historically been an easy sell, although there have been some negatives of associating too closely with the name CrossFit — even before any of the recent issues

There are plenty of potential members who are terrified to come into a CrossFit gym because they think everyone there will be shirtless and screaming as they slam barbells from overhead. And, of course, they worry everyone pukes after every workout. 

Simultaneously, new members who have moved to town will sometimes be irritated after their first few weeks because they haven’t maxed out their Power Clean yet and, of course, because there aren’t enough Hero WODs and they haven’t puked after any workouts yet. 

This puts many gym owners in the precarious position of playing both offense and defense with regards to the brand name. “Yes, we do CrossFit, but it’s not crazy we swear” and “Yes, we do CrossFit, but we try to focus the programming on training more than testing.” 

Now, these dynamics are not the fault of CrossFit HQ.  A lot of the public perception of CrossFit comes from several bad actors: Machiavellian competing licensing organizations like the ACSM and the NSCA fear-mongering, click-hungry journalists realizing that hit pieces and controversy generate attention, and incompetent and dangerous Coaches indoctrinating their members with unfortunate ideas about training and intensity. 

So, under new ownership, what can CrossFit HQ do not just to undo the negative PR of the last several weeks, but to make it a no brainer to want to Affiliate with the brand? How can they make it an obvious financial win to pay for the name CrossFit? 

Taking a Closer Look at the CrossFit Games

I think there is tremendous opportunity in the CrossFit Games here. It has always been a blessing and a curse that CrossFit is both a sport and a training methodology.

  In other sports, people don’t have confusion about the fact that “catch in the backyard” and “the NFL” both fall under the umbrella of “football.”  No one expects to get sacked by Brian Urlacher while they’re throwing a football around with a friend.  No one expects that they need to be running a sub 14 minute 5k decked out in Vaporflys in order to sign up for their Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot.  

However, people are terrified to go into a CrossFit gym if they can’t do a pull-up. CrossFit HQ recognized some of these issues and has made moves to rebrand as a less intimidating training program.  

But, let me tell you, firing the entire CrossFit Games media department and instead pumping out videos of octogenarians lifting antifreeze jugs hasn’t exactly been a winning strategy. 

On a recent podcast with Talking Elite Fitness, Dave Castro outlined some ideas for a more participatory series of events throughout the year. 

I think this is a potentially huge opportunity for CrossFit, and a huge opportunity for Affiliates if these events can attract people to the sport who have never actually set foot into a CrossFit gym. 

I’ve long tried to separate the dynamics between the “CrossFit as a sport” and “CrossFit as a training methodology” in my gym, but that may actually be the wrong call. What if we instead leaned into making the sport of CrossFit as participatory and welcoming as running, rec softball or — as possibly the most applicable example — obstacle racing? 

Before COVID-19, people with minimal training background signed up for mud runs all the time.  

Every year, my gym receives dozens of inquiries from athletes who have signed up for some sort of running event or obstacle race

But, do people who don’t already do CrossFit ever sign up for CrossFit competitions? Hardly. And given how chaotic, disorganized and chronically behind-schedule most local events are, can you imagine what would happen if you added a bunch of total beginners to the mix? 

Is there an opportunity for CrossFit HQ to run events that allow people to “try CrossFit” in a fun and participatory way? Why do people who aren’t avid obstacle racers feel comfortable doing a mud run? 

There’s a few things that work well for these kinds of events. 

People Want Anonymity 

In most CrossFit-adjacent competitions, athletes are in a position where they can’t hide. 

The idea of having your own lane, with a judge, with dozens of people potentially staring at you as you’re the last one to finish is horrifying to most people.  

And don’t say that, “Everyone cheers loudest for the person finishing last.” To most folks, this is worse than people rolling their eyes and turning their backs on them. 

People Want to be Able to Hide in a Group

Mud runs allow people to complete the course together. This allows for some of the aforementioned anonymity, but it also creates a sense of accountability as people move through obstacles with their friends. 

People Want a Challenge with Little Structure 

The obstacles in a mud run balance this perfectly.  

There’s a very clearly defined goal that is challenging — i.e. climb this cargo net dangling over a lake of mud — but the structure is loose other than that. You can take as many attempts as you want. You can decide you’d rather just walk around this specific obstacle. You can help your friend if they’re stuck. 

While the structure of CrossFit is a huge strength, it’s a major limiting factor for people being interested in trying a competition since they worry they won’t be able to complete the events as intended. And, if they can’t complete the event, they will feel like a failure and everyone will stare at them. 

How Would this Work for CrossFit? 

I’m envisioning something that looks kind of like the 2008 CrossFit Games with multiple different “stations” running events throughout the day.  

This could allow for sufficient structure in the programming and layout of an event to make it logistically feasible while simultaneously giving participants the flexibility to move through the different events without the pressure of super specific heats, judges and leaderboards. 

Is this a viable option? Honestly, the only way to find out is to try it and see if people actually want to participate. 

If they do, CrossFit could potentially unlock a 10-times value generator for both HQ and Affiliates. 

Todd Nief is the owner of South Loop Strength & Conditioning, located in downtown Chicago. He also coaches athletes through Legion Strength & Conditioning, a coaching company focused on individualized coaching and programming.