The CrossFit Community

This article was written for my application to IDEO. I didn’t get the job, but the process of writing this piece was pretty amazing.

CrossFit Inc. was founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman as a fitness regimen incorporating Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, plyometrics and other programs into high intensity workouts. It has now more than 13.000 thousands affiliate gyms around the world.

Branded fitness programs are nothing new. Brands like LesMills, Zumba Fitness, TRX are all privately founded and protected trademarks that make money from subscriptions of certified trainers, equipment, seminars etc. But CrossFit is by far the most successful of them all, with Forbes estimating the brand’s value at around 4 billion dollars. Nevertheless, Glassman had chosen to dismiss the usual tactics of trying to expand his business to other domains in search of growth and rather focus on education and licensing fees.

A major disruptive change that CrossFit brought to the fitness market was that:

“CrossFit is not a franchise and never will be. Our affiliates constitute a confederation of legitimate fitness practitioners united around constantly varied, intense, functional exercise and pooling reliable resources under the CrossFit name.[…] CrossFit affiliation is an Internet-based, grassroots movement started by CrossFitters who wanted their own local CrossFit-equipped gyms, trainers, and communities.”

As well as an effort to quantify and define fitness:

“Glassman, CrossFit’s Founder and CEO, was the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way: increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. He then created a program specifically designed to improve fitness and health.”

Much of the Brand’s early success was based on those two factors, with the first being the reason that the CrossFit brand could expand rapidly without having to fund new gyms. Growth happened by people paying the fee to obtain a CrossFit certificate and start their own CrossFit gym, and by gym goers joining CrossFit while opting out from the much dreaded big-box fitness clubs, where only bodybuilders seem to be having fun. Many aspects of the CrossFit brand have been disruptive and have created a cult-like loyalty to the program.

But CrossFit brought a major disruptive change to the fitness market, which business analysts who have reviewed the CrossFit phenomenon often miss, simply because they only focus on the business aspects of the Brand, while ignoring the impact of CrossFit on individuals and the communities that they constitute. The single, most major disruption in the fitness world introduced by CrossFit is possibly the empowering community.

The Take-off

I am still not sure whether the success of the CrossFit community as a self-advertising invaluable asset was actually a well thought-out plan from the beginning or it just unfolded itself as the brand grew, along with social media and the revolution of mobile technology. With a closer look it seems that the Brand took off right after the introduction of the CrossFit Games in 2007, and again later when the Games went mainstream and The Open was introduced in 2011. The Open, a series of five weekly workouts, is the first qualification round of the CrossFit Games which funnels the most elite athletes to the Regionals. The beauty of it? Everyone can join The Open. On a course of the three years which followed, CrossFit gyms increased three-fold and 273,257 athletes registered in The 2015 Open.

During the Open athletes are encouraged to prove their fitness by attempting the most demanding exercises and workouts, such as the ring or bar muscle up, an exercise that — until recently — only well-seasoned athletes could practice.

If you type #firstmuscleup in Instagram search, you can witness amateur athletes taking on the challenge of their first muscle up, many of which have happened during their shot at the Open workouts. And that is only an example from the many videos that are being uploaded every day by athletes doing extraordinary things. Things they previously thought were impossible.

CrossFit has basically turned each member of those communities into a Brand ambassador. They are empowered by the community, and they convey the empowerment to others, within or outside the CrossFit community, to hundreds of thousands of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook feeds. These are not sponsored professional athletes, these are extremely proud regular CrossFiters.

The CrossFit corporation has also a strong content game. It maintains a big production of badass content on a daily basis, keeping the lifeblood of the ecosystem motivated and inspired. But the community-first trend is currently affecting more and more Brands of the fitness industry from apparel brands to gyms and the way they use advertising and PR.

More brands are now joining the ‘empowerment through community’ race. Another example of how Brands are trying to make more of the communities is Nike.

Nike has recently changed the name of its running app from Nike Running+ to Nike Run Club, rebranding it as a community instead of just an app which counts your miles as you go. Nike is also now encouraging the users of the Nike run club app to take on the Just Do It Sunday Challenge and join some other 500.000 people in the 5km run-off every Sunday.

“Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

- Marty Neumeier

In the era of traditional advertising decline, communities and the word of mouth matter the most. CrossFit’s alternative growth model allowed the business to create an ecosystem which resonated empowerment in much greater wavelengths than traditional advertisement could ever hope to achieve. It simply focused on individuals, and the sense of athletic achievement cultivated in the garage-like CrossFit boxes across the world. And so, the focus is now shifting more on human behavior and human needs to truly make an impact on people’s lives.