Just before Thanksgiving last year, the co-director and executive producer of the CrossFit Games left CrossFit. Tony Budding had worked for the company for 10 years, first as a coach, then as the first affiliate director, then as media director. He left, he says, because “all of the competitions that we were doing in CrossFit were limited by the need to prove fitness.” Budding believes the best way to grow and monetize the sport lies in creating a more sponsor and spectator-friendly competition
As CrossFit defines it, fitness is increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. In other words, an athlete proves his fitness by doing the more reps of a certain exercise than anybody else in a certain amount of time, or outlasting his competitors in a particular exercise. Therefore, “if you want to test fitness, you have to do a wide variety of things,” Budding says. “Unfortunately, a number of those things you need to do to test fitness don’t end up playing very well for spectators and for TV.”
Enter the National Pro Fitness League. Billed as “the world’s first professional spectator sport with co-ed teams competing in human performance races,” the league hopes to make the sport of functional fitness more accessible to a broader audience.
Budding is modeling the NPFL after other national leagues including the NBA and NFL, complete with regional teams (think: New York plays Phoenix), a team revenue sharing model, and professional athletes.
That’s what has CrossFitters abuzz about the NPFL, rather than bemoaning Budding as a sell out: the league is attempting to professionalize functional fitness. Just as in other professional sports, team members will get paid to play. Right now, athletes who make one of eight regional teams stand to earn a minimum of $2,500 per match. That means an athlete who competes in all of this year’s six matches will pocket at least $15,000, regardless of their results.
“It gives us an opportunity to do what we love at a higher level,” CrossFit Games athlete, Katrin Davidsdottir, told the new league. In the CrossFit Games, only the top 10 individuals and top three teams in the final standings earn prize money. (Click here for more on how NPFL team selection works.)
As for the actual competition, the idea goes something like this: Two teams of 10 (five women and five men on each team) will go head to head on the “Grid,” a playing field the size of a basketball court that, Budding says, never changes and is easy to follow. Matches will consist of 11 races in which teams of five must perform a certain number of functional fitness exercises, such as deadlifts, rope climbs, and handstand pushups. One match will easily fit into a two-hour time slot, including 10 commercial breaks and personal interest stories, Budding says. And unlike, say, pro tennis matches, an NPFL match will never run long—guaranteed.
If this sounds like a grab at sponsorship money, ad dollars, and ticket sales, that’s because it is. “We are a spectator sport which means we exist for the fans,” Budding says. Like America’s most famous national leagues, the NPFL is extremely sponsor-friendly, and that’s something CrossFit, perhaps, is not.
“Huge companies like Nike and Under Armour approached CrossFit when it was starting to get big, saying, ‘Hey, we want to be involved,’” says William Imbo, Associate Editor at BoxLife Magazine, a CrossFit lifestyle publication. CrossFit founder Greg Glassman said no. Those companies “wanted to have a say in how CrossFit is advertised and marketed and he shot them down,” Imbo says. “It’s really important for CrossFit that the community has a huge say in how it’s run.”
While some would argue that the CrossFit Games have been a huge success, selling out tickets, drawing a half-million viewers on ESPN, and winning title sponsorship from Reebok, Budding believes he can do better.
“CrossFit is a fitness program,” Budding says. It’s a participatory sport whose Games attract fellow CrossFitters. “Our goal is to make our teams and our athletes so compelling, so exciting, so speaking for the metropolitan area that they’re from, that people want to just be fans of the team”—even people that have no intention of ever performing a snatch. Like hockey fans who can’t ice skate.
Because the NPFL’s matches begin in August, while the CrossFit Games end in July, Imbo says the two aren’t directly competing—for now. Budding says he sees the Games and the NPFL not as adversaries, but as entirely different entities.
“They’re in the gym business. They’ve given people the opportunity to make a living doing what they love, and that’s very cool,” Budding says. “But that’s not a spectator sport. That’s not a sponsorship business. That’s not a TV business.” He hopes the NPFL will be all of those things and more.
“My goal,” Budding says, “is to be bigger in the U.S. than the NHL.”
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Clarification: The original headline of this story stated that the CrossFit Games have not been a success on TV. That is not correct. As the body of the article correctly notes, the CrossFit Games have drawn over a half-million viewers on ESPN, routinely averaging more viewers per show than coverage of the X Games and Major League Soccer.