My Thoughts: Where is the Sport of CrossFit Going
Be aware this is a slightly lengthy read, and one that jumps around a little. I’m just putting my thoughts down, I am not a journalist…in addition I typed this all up in one sitting this morning and proof-read it once. I’m not a grammar scholar, and this is just an extended blog post, so I’m sure this thing is littered with grammatical errors, take it for what it is.
A lot has happened since the CrossFit Games ended in August of 2018. The sport has been turned on its a head a little bit and no one knows what the future ultimately holds. While I don’t consider myself an OG in the CrossFit world, I still got into the sport, fitness trend, and business pretty early on and before it really exploded. From first starting in 2009, and then opening an affiliate in 2010, to now owning and running that largest CrossFit affiliate in the state I feel like I’ve seen a lot. In addition Champlain Valley CrossFit has had a pretty deep legacy in the competitive atmosphere having helped provide the avenue for some 20+ CrossFit Games qualifications. While I would never take credit for all of the hard work that has been put in by all these amazing athletes that have qualified for the Games while training at CVCF, I’ve certainly played a hand, whether it be encouraging and pushing athletes to pursue the competition side of CrossFit, giving athletes a home to train, providing coaching and programming, and making sure all of our athletes competitive or not have the best and proper equipment to train with…I’ve played a role in each one of their journey’s and from this, I’ve have been lucky enough to see and hear a lot of what has gone on in the sport since it really took off. Since Opening in the fall of 2010, CVCF has had at least one person represent our gym at the CrossFit Games every year since we’ve opened through 2018. I write this not to brag, or show-off our gym, but because this topic is something that has come up with numerous members, is an ongoing discussion in the CrossFit community as a whole, and something that I have more experience with than likely 99.9% of the people in the CrossFit Community. I also write this to just put my personal thoughts out there, and maybe even spark some ideas for those that are involved with the actual events and decisions of where the sport might go.
So, first and foremost, lets just get it out there…assuming things are done right I think these changes are going to be good for the CrossFit Community as a whole, and good for athletes as a whole. Now, what exactly do I think is going to happen…
CF HQ/Greg Glassman have made it pretty clear that competition is not the focus and goal of the company. The focus is health and wellness for the everyday athlete. I think that’s great, and is exactly the model our business functions under. While we’ve had a number of amazing athletes call CVCF home, it has just been a coincidence, luck even. We’ve never made competition the center of our business/gym. Our truly competitive athletes, the ones who eat, sleep, breathe CrossFit are probably only 3-5% of our athletes, the rest are people looking for everyday fitness and health. These athletes have and always will be the centerpiece of our gym and the ones who truly drive the direction of our gym. Why, well because they’re the ones that pay the bills and help keep the gym afloat. Without our competitive athletes our gym still functions as is, without our general pop fitness athletes we’re out of business. In addition every competitive athlete, at some point either leaves the sport completely behind because of burn-out, or they transition to just doing CrossFit for the enjoyment and for the physical and mental health benefits just like the main population of the gym.
I think the Open, Regionals, CrossFit Games, etc. have all been great for CrossFit the last 7-8 years. I look at them as an investment, and I think they’ve really helped drive the growth and expansion of the fitness program worldwide. Who isn’t intrigued by watching super fit people climbing ropes, riding bikes, swimming, pushing sleds, picking up super heavy barbells, walking on their hands, etc. etc. It’s not only pretty cool, but also quite inspiring. But I think, and possibly might be what Mr. Glassman is seeing, is that the return on investment is no longer there. CrossFit is well known now, sure there are people who still don’t know about it, but from advertising, references in TV shows, and live viewing on cable, along with probably a random friend that CrossFits, most people, in the developed world, at least have heard of or have an idea of what CrossFit is. It’s out there, most people know about it, so why keep dumping what I’m assuming is millions, maybe 10’s of millions of dollars over the course of a season for essentially what amounts to be advertising for CrossFit. From my viewpoint having attended and been “behind the scenes” at Regionals and the Games for the last 7 years, these events seem incredibly expensive, and my guess are these events lose money year after year, maybe even lots of money. I could be completely off here, but the only thing I see making money is the Open, and even years past, maybe minimal income has been made because of the time and money that has been involved with the Open announcements.
This fall CrossFit HQ took the first steps in a new direction announcing there would be no more Regionals, but Sanctionals now, and that there would be a number of qualifying routes for athletes to get to the Games via the Open. In addition, there would be a huge expansion on the number of qualifying athletes to the Games, by adding in the National Champions of every country with a registered affiliate. Unfortunately I think this was a big mistake, and something that I think will change or even disappear within the next 5 years.
While the Open isn’t over yet, let’s look at things first here. First and foremost, the idea behind the CrossFit Games is that the best CrossFitter’s in the world will be competing against each other. This will and will not be the case. As CrossFit, Greg Glassman, and Dave Castro have always kind of pushed and stated, that regardless of programming, qualifying process, etc. etc. that the very best will always be at the Games. While I for the most part agree with this, do you want to see the absolute very best in the world compete against each other, or do you want 5-10 of the best competing against a wide range of athletes. I for one, and I think most agree they want to truly see the best athletes competing against each other. Whether the field is 10, 40, or 100 athletes, it should be filled with the highest caliber athletes possible. This has already been an issues in the past with just Regionals, because of sizing and dominance of some regions over others. I’m intimately knowledgeable of this because of my wife Dani Horan Jenny, who for instance got 6th place at Regionals in 2016, missed qualifying by just one spot…her scores would have placed her in a qualifying spot in every other region in the world, and would have put her as high as 1st place in at least one Region if my memory serves me correct. That is only going to escalate with the new format. While I’m all for being inclusive, I think being inclusive just for the sake of being inclusive is the wrong decision. The athletes going to the Games should deserve to be there, and should be the best in the world, given we are talking about a Global Event/Sport. As I type this, after 19.4 scores have been submitted, the lowest seeded National Champion for Men is 127,241st place and for Women it is 113,664th place. Whether these athletes will even make the trip to the Games is a completely different story, but these athletes have absolutely no business being there. In fact less than half of the national champions don’t even crack the top 1,000 worldwide, which as history has shown, if you’re not in the top 1,000 you’re probably not even making Regionals, let alone the Games.
In addition to these athletes being automatically qualified to the Games based of a video review or two, you also have the Open “Superstars” who are also getting in this way via the top 20 + backfilled athletes. I’m most intimately knowledgeable of the Women’s side because of my wife, and when I look at the Open Leaderboard I see more than a few athletes in current qualifying spots because of they’re high placing, who have always crushed the Open and then showed up to Regionals and never been able to hack it. These are athletes that have been high on the leaderboard in the Open and Qualified for Regionals 2, 3, 4, 5 times. I’m not discrediting them as athletes, but they clearly either ride the line in terms of standards when at home and then suffer at Regionals, or they just don’t have what it takes to perform in a competitive environment outside of their home gym. Should these athletes, given they’ve shown they don’t have what it takes to qualify at the Regional level, year after year, now all of a sudden be getting an invite to the Games straight from the Open? I don’t think they should be, but who knows, I hope they prove me wrong and go crush it at the Games.
On the other hand you have athletes who aren’t Open “superstars” and who are some of the best in the world. Again, my wife comes to mind again. While she’s has a few good Open’s before, finishing 10th and 22nd I believe, generally the Open has not been her thing, but she has always shown at Regionals, under the lights, crowd, and judges that she has what it takes and deserves to be at the Games. Let’s look at someone who is even more of a higher-up than Dani is. Brent Fikowski has never been an Open athlete, but since making it to the Games the first year, has shown he’s not only got what it takes to perform at Regionals, but also at the Games with now 3 top 5 finishes in a row. So Brent clearly will not directly qualify through the Open, and now will pursue the Sanctional route. Now what if Brent hits 3-4 sanctionals and ends up 2nd at every one, he doesn’t capture a qualifying spot, and doesn’t make the Games. Now you have an individual, truly one of the best in the world, not competing at the Games, because he got multiple 2nd place finishes at Sanctionals, still did great in the Open, just not good enough to qualify, while you have athletes that he has routinely crushed at the Regionals and Games who are competing.
So, something needs to change here, it just does not make sense, and we likely will not have the best athletes in the world at the Games. While sure maybe Mat will still dust everyone regardless of who’s there, having more higher level athletes pushes him to have to work harder, and makes the events as a whole more exciting. Should there really be males qualifying at to the Games, who can’t even Snatch what the ladies can, it’ll only make the sport look silly, and deter spectators, even if they do do a huge cut to the field in the first couple of days. It would be super cool to have 100 athletes in a division, who all have a legitimate chance of winning any given event that falls in line with their strengths.
If you’ve read this far, sorry for all the words, I like to type, I also get a little misguided at times so apologies if the flow of this isn’t the best. What’s going to happen going forward, who knows, but this is what I think.
Within the next 5 years, I think you’re going to see the Open completely disappear, and maybe even the Games. It’s clear the CF HQ is moving away from the competition side of the sport. They’ve already found that they can license events and make money on and event instead of losing it, so why wouldn’t they do that with everything competition based, or help guide and create a format that doesn’t even need certain events. With sanctionals popping up all over, and companies such as Loud and Live owning multiple events, why wouldn’t CF HQ just step back and license everything out, allowing them to make more money, reduce their risk, but also hopefully put these events in the hands of true event planning companies. If this happens, I think we’re going to see that there is no real reason to host the Open, and we might see the Games disappear or become a bi-yearly event. I personally think CF HQ should move to becoming a governing body and licensing company for competitive events. This is what I see in 5 years.
No more Open. The Open while cool for a little, I think for many people has run its course. Total participation worldwide was down significantly this year, and I have a feeling that’s going to continue. We personally “cancelled” the Open in that we didn’t formally take part in it, but still signed-up so those athletes who were interested in it still had the option to submit their scores and have them validated at our gym. While we had a couple of disgruntled members about our decision to do this, the overwhelming majority were happy, and many even thankful we weren’t “running” the Open. Many were happy to not have their classes disappear on Friday night, and we personally heard from many athletes how thankful they were we weren’t formally doing it so that they didn’t have to feel the pressure of participating in the Open because some of their friends were. I think for most of our long-time members, the majority of them were happy to see the importance/priority of the Open start to dissolve. Speaking with other affiliate owners this seems to be a theme starting through the CF Community. Why give your money and time for a competition to an organization that is making it clear they aren’t interested in competition anymore, or at least in the events side of running competitions. I’m not saying CrossFit HQ doesn’t support competition, because the very nature of being CrossFit means they are supporting all CrossFit competitions, by helping grow and expand the fitness program that is CrossFit. However they’ve stepped away because I believe their resources can be used more wisely, and there are others out there who can likely run the competitions that much better. Why not put your money and time to a qualifier for an event where the people running it are solely focusing on just that, making the event the absolute best they can. This also gives recreational athletes the opportunity to even go compete at a Sanctional in the proper division for themselves.
Next I think CrossFit becomes a licensing body for competitions and athletes competing in competitions. This isn’t anything new, and something I’m familiar with coming from a cycling background and building up from starting in the Beginner/Cat 4 division and eventually working my way to a UCI Pro License. From my first couple of years in CrossFit I felt like this was something that needed to happen. CrossFit could make a ton of money to help support affiliates, new endeavors, whatever they want to be involved in, by requiring any person who wants to compete in a CrossFit sanctioned event hold a “CrossFit Competition License.” This has gone really well in some sports, and also really poorly, hopefully it can be done right if the right intentions are there. This would be a yearly licensing fee, say $50, that you would pay to be able to participate in any online qualifier, and then participate at Sanctional Events. Going along with this, CF HQ could put into place a number of licensing categories as they do in other sports. Say Scaled, Intermediate, Rx’d, and Elite, or use systems that have already been developed, for instance when I was a competitive cyclist it was Cat 4,3,2,1 and Pro. By doing this, you can then set worldwide standards of movements inclusive to the division. For instance Scaled, Intermediate, Rx’d, Elite, might look something like Push-up, Ring Push-up, Bar Dip, Ring Dip as standards for each division (they could even further put requirements/standards on what each event has, for instance every event might have to have a Met-con each in the sub 5 minute domain, 8-12 minute domain, 30 minute+ domain, 1 max lift, one barbell battery style workout, one gymnastics/skill intensive workout, etc. etc. so that we know all time domains/efforts are hit at every event and there aren’t bias’s to one event or another). This way you know that if you are in “X” division you need to be able to do “X” movement, move “X” weight in a given movement, etc. etc. Doesn’t mean the movements will be at the competition, but it means you should expect to have to do anything listed in your respective category. Building on this with a large database of licenses and events, you can then make sure athletes aren’t repeat sandbaggers, another thing that was common in cycling, athletes who just care about “winning” and would sit in a lower category so they can always be at the top instead of moving up a division and shifting to the middle of the pack. These athletes would always be forced to move-up a division, for instance if you were in the top 3 at 3 events in a year time frame than you would be automatically forced to move to the harder division. This also allows people to move-up at their own pace if they’re not always at the top, and then, at least as I did in cycling, to become a pro you would have to apply for the license. I had to fill out a document with my results, and explain why I felt that I was good enough/deserved a Pro License. In addition to the application, holding a Pro License also was more expensive, I want to say my Pro License in cycling was $200/year. I think this would provide a great framework for people who want to compete whether at the Pro Level or a Recreational Level, and they could also expect that whether the competition is in Brazil, Florida, Dubia, or China that the expected movements/standards will always be the same.
Lastly where do the Games and Sanctionals fall into this. As stated above I think it’s really important that the best athletes are truly competing against each other at the top stage. I think we could see the Games disappear altogether or become a bi-yearly event. I also think this would provide those who are considered “professionals” a much wider net to actually make a living since they aren’t putting all their eggs in one basket, i.e. the Games. I think this could look something like this.
Move to a tour style competition, with tiered events. So instead of focusing on just qualifying for the Games, athletes might be working towards a tour Championship/Points leader, or use a tour style points accumulation to dictate the qualifier for the Games.
So you would start with having Sanctionals tiered. For instance…
- Wodapalooza, Dubia, Rogue Invitational – Tier 1
- Granite Games, California Sanctional, French Throwdown – Tier 2
- Brazil, China, etc. new events to the tour – Tier 3
For the most part these Tiers are dictated by prize money. The events with the most money, generally draw the largest crowds and best athletes. This is something again CF HQ could help govern, say a Tier 1 event needs to offer a minimum prize purse for Elite athletes placing 1-10, or something like that, and that would change for each tier. From there you could use a basic points system, for instance 1st place at a Tier 1 event is worth 1 point, a Tier 2 Event could be 5 points for first place, and Tier 3 could be 10 points.
You would then amass points on the “tour” with the goal of having the least points possible. If the Games were to stay yearly, you could qualify as is now, by winning a sanctional, and then backfill based on tour points, or it could be entirely done based off of tour points. For instance you get a score based off of your 4 best performing events in a 12 month period. If the Games/Tour Championship went bi-yearly, it could be the same thing, maybe athletes have to compete 8 times over the 24 month period. Athletes could compete more than the 8 times, and would be able to use say if they did 12 events over 24 months, their 8 best scores. There could be a points tour champion which is given a prize, and maybe even pay-out the top 25-50 on the tour, and then there would be a final event to the season with a larger prize. Maybe the money pushed to the Games both from a prize purse perspective as well as total event cost could be redirected to those athletes placing top 20, 30,40, or 50 in the overall tour points. I think my thought process behind all of this is allowing athletes as many opportunities to actually make a living off the sport, because right now it’s happening for only a handful, and only those handful are the ones who truly have the option to travel from Sanctional to Sanctional in pursuit of a qualifying spot.
Again as is done in many other sports where there are lots of recreational competitors, all of these events could have all 4-5 divisions/categories competing, which from my experience is one of the big drivers to help pay for the event, prize money, etc. This creates a great dynamic where people all over the world can go to a competition, have fun and compete themselves, all while seeing some of the best athletes in the world also compete, and if the events are in great locations also get a little vacation out of the trip. Win-Win in my eyes.
I think following some sort of sport “design” like this would allow CF HQ to make more money which they can the use to push the development of the CrossFit Fitness program in places where it hasn’t yet exploded, which coupled with a larger CrossFit competition season gives the Fitness minded athletes more events to watch, be interested in, maybe even take a stab at competing, all of which will help CrossFit grow both as a Fitness business and a Sport, while providing more opportunities for all levels of athletes.
These are just some thoughts that have been brewing in my head for a while. As I mentioned I frequently discuss the sport of CrossFit with people at our gym all the time so I felt more than anything it is my duty to put my thoughts out there (and also get them out of my head), and hopefully help create a discussion and create ideas for the further improvement of both our fitness program and sport that so many of us love to watch.