CrossFit at a Crossroads: The CrossFit Open 2015

The CrossFit Open 2015, which begins with the announcement of Workout 15.1 tonight, represents another measuring stick for the growth and development of the CrossFit brand.  The 2015 Open, the fifth iteration of the online global competition, represents the biggest changes in the format and execution of the event since its inception.  The 2015 Open really represents the brand and business of CrossFit at a crossroads.  How so?  Let’s take a look at the issues and prognostications involved in the 2015 Open.

 

The Atlas Ball in the Room

The biggest question over the last year is how the newly formed National Pro Grid League (NPGL, or “Grid League”) would affect CrossFit.  In all likelihood, both CrossFit and Grid League can peacefully co-exist.  Grid League has basically turned CrossFit into a competitive sport.  The CrossFit philosophy does not lend itself to either team-based, highly-specialized sport competitions or to managed professionalized leagues.  The Grid League conveniently fills a void left open by the libertarian CrossFit philosophy. In fact, being able to leverage alternative programming to television networks might actually benefit both Grid League and CrossFit.

Anyone who follows the business of sports knows that the money is in television contracts.  With CrossFit a growing brand whose short, highly active and highly competitive action is attractive to networks and the Grid League providing a longer, more prolonged season, both the Games and Grid League can play leverage each other with the networks.  So long as CrossFit and Grid League can amicably co-exist in a manner like professional clubs and national organizations in soccer, both should be able to continue to grow in their respective areas without harming the other for at least the next several years.

We will know whether the two entities, already very familiar with each other due to past working relationships, are willing to play ball by how Grid League schedules the league match-ups and its season for 2015 and 2016.  With Grid League having to sink a ton of start-up capital into its league, it would be unlikely to try and force a head-on competition with CrossFit so early.

And if numbers are any indication, this is holding to form for the Open this year.  As of today, here are the 2015 Open estimates compared with the 2014 Open participants, taken from the Open page on CrossFit’s website:

 

2014 2015
Total Sign-Ups Total Sign-Ups (est.) % Change from ‘14
Individual Men 127,703 123,600 – 3%
Individual Women 79,779 86,700 + 9%
Teens N/A 4,380 N/A
Masters Men 22,951 26,700 + 16.5%
Masters Women 14,684 18,660 + 27%
Total 245,117 260,040 + 6%

 

 

The Changes and What They Mean.

Clearly, CrossFit is still growing.  The numbers indicate that.  But the numbers also show us where CrossFit is headed, and the changes made for the 2015 Open support that vision as well.  Like any business, they are trying to grow the brand and the business.

The biggest change was adding a scaled workout to each Open workout.  This indicates that CrossFit is trying to attract – and retain – more of its beginner/basic and intermediate level base.  They are trying to make those that WOD regularly but still aren’t capable of 20 muscle-ups feel like they are invested in the Open.  Combined with the second most important change to 2015, reducing the number of Regional Competitions from alignment with the 17 regions down to eight by combining two or more regions, and you can expect the Open workouts to be much more discriminating than in the past.  There will likely be all of the most technically challenging movements (Muscle Ups, handstand walks, handstand push-ups, etc.) to ensure a well-rounded Regional field.  They can do this now that they have incorporated a scaled version of each workout without alienating or discouraging the vast majority daily Crossfitters.

Looking on the CrossFit affiliate map, anyone can plainly see that CrossFit is doing well with this demographic.  The scaling option is likely more about retention than attraction.  Like any business, however, they are looking to grow.  Adding the Teen Divisions to this year’s Open is an indication that they are aggressively courting the fringe demographics.  In this particular case, it’s the teenager and Masters divisions.  The Masters Divisions had 16.5 and 27 per cent growths.  That’s impressive for any business.  Programs like CrossFit for Kids and adding a 40-44 Masters Division last season are attempts to grow the brand by bringing in non-traditional demographics to the physical fitness business.

And, of course, CrossFit is trying to grow internationally as well.  The combining of regionals, discussed in-depth below, will result in a slightly higher percentage of international athletes at the CrossFit Games than in the past.  The addition of using the Open to identify the best in each nation (and state/province in the US and Canada) also speaks to CrossFit’s effort to better regionalize their brand.

So what about the elite athletes?  Are they being left behind by CrossFit?  Well, the answer is both yes and no.  First, by growing the business you make CrossFit more appealing to advertisers, sponsors and networks.  Which means that there is more money to be made, particularly by the elite athletes.  However, combining the 17 Regions into eight Regional Competitions severely curtails an elite athlete’s chances at making it to one of the best places to get noticed – the Regional Competition.  And, reducing the Games athletes from 43 to 40 obviously reduces the chances to qualify further.  So while it will probably be more lucrative to be an elite CrossFit athlete going forward, it will also be harder to get to that status.  Revisiting our atlas ball in the room topic, these changes might drive a good number of top-level CrossFit talent, particularly those with one or two areas of slight weakness, right into the Grid League.

So as over a quarter of a million people around the globe prepare to start the 2015 Open, it’s pretty clear what path CrossFit is taking at its first real crossroads of growth and success.  It will stick with its core tenets of its philosophy by focusing on the masses and generalization.  It will continue to grow the business of a broad range of physical fitness and preparation for life by those who live it every day.  It will be unrelenting in its principals and uncompromising in its philosophy.  We ought to expect nothing less.

 

Mike is an avid Crossfitter and calls CrossFit 285 in Atlanta his home box and started his CrossFit journey at CrossFit G23 in Leesville, Louisiana. 

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