Thomas Plummer

The business of fitness

Why Crossfit Matters .. And What it has to do to Stay Relevant in the Coming Years

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crossfitCrossFit changed the rules of the modern fitness business. Love them or rage against them, the training gym game changed when Greg Glassman and his team of fitness insurgents reinvented the rules.

Greg Glassman created CrossFit in 2000, although it seems it has been around for decades longer. It would be hard to calculate just how many traditional training gurus railed against the concept of CrossFit when his idea was introduced back in the day. The sad part of the story is that Glassman was lost in the debate. His contribution to the industry as a creative genius and marketer, as well as a wild free thinker about training methodology, were often overshadowed by the negativity thrown at him by those challenged by his approach and take no prisoners demeanor.

There aren’t as many impact players in the history of fitness as you might imagine. Joe Gold created not only Gold’s, but World’s Gym as well. His legacy literally reinvented everything we did for 20 years as a business. Jack LaLanne made fitness popular and something everyone could do through his television show. Arthur Jones invented Nautilus and the commercial gym never looked the same again. Neal Spruce was a pioneer in nutrition and created not only the most successful commercial nutrition applications in the industry but NASM as well. Mike Grondahl almost went broke and in an act of desperation, and brilliant marketing, he created Planet Fitness and the low-priced business concept. And even Arnold turned the need to be big into a commercial proposition that drove people to the gyms in big waves.

Some of these people aren’t well known in the industry, but all of them have changed the way we do business, think about training, and relate to the public we serve.  The common denominator in this group is that everyone on this list was viewed as extremely controversial at the time and was debated by his peers as either the answer to everyone’s problem or thought to be the anti-Christ who would bring down humanity due to his idea of what fitness should be.

Greg Glassman belongs on this list. His genius is that he created a marketing company that reinvented modern fitness as we know it. Group training existed prior to CrossFit, but he made it the centerpiece in about 9000 gyms. No one had built a community in fitness prior to his arrival and no one debunked the idea of traditional circuit training like he did. He created a cult-like player in the industry, and as those on the list above, he was admired and hated at the same time for his work.

The hardest issue for a company such as CrossFit, and Glassman, is how do you stay relevant in an industry that eats micro gyms like a CrossFitter throwing down turkey legs at a Paleo buffet?

Most trends in the fitness industry, which we call micro trends, last for about 12-15 years. These trends have a long, slow build, followed by a quick rise to the top, a hot period, and then a fast fade. Aerobics, tanning, Curves and a number of other fitness phenomenons all lived and died by the trend line. Evolution is the constant and you either let your creation evolve or you watch it die because of failure to adapt and change to meet the current needs of the market.

Aerobics had a long slow build in the 1980s, followed by a quick rise and hot period in the late 80s and early 90s, and then it was gone around 1993 only to be reborn in about 1999 as group exercise driven by kickboxing and next generation group fitness. Even now group exercise has faded again and is slowly being replaced by group training in most gyms. The star can shine brightly, but eventually it does have to burnout.

Most evolution in the fitness industry is driven from the bottom up these days. This means that the gym owners, the trainers and the people in direct contact with the buying public modify their products as the market dictates. If your life and everything in it is put into your own training business, then you are forced to adapt and modify the model or the bills simply can’t be paid. Corporate people are often left out of this direct consumer contact making it difficult to feel and react to what the consumer is feeling today and what his needs will be tomorrow.

The exception to this rule is Starbucks. Howard Shultz came back into the company he created, went out into the stores and talked to the customers and returned the company into the profit zone. He didn’t do it by living in the past and trying to recreate or hang on to the glory days; he did it by reinventing the business around the original product, which is a strong cup of good coffee. He allowed the business to move forward in time and Starbucks now even has units that serve beer and wine.

On the other hand, in my opinion, Curves failed to evolve their original circuit product and the consumer simply moved on to newer and shinier toys. Many corporate people stumble because they know their product no longer works, but they have no idea where to go next. This seems to be the case with Gold’s and 24-Hour Fitness these days. How do you let those giant companies evolve and where should they be positioned to take advantage of the future? Evolution is constant and only the strongest and the ones willing to adapt become sustainable over time.

CrossFit had the long slow build. They had the quick rise. And now they are in the middle of the hot stage. The goal of any business owner is to stay there for as long as they can without succumbing to the quick plunge into fitness history. How can CrossFit stay relevant for another 14 years?

There are three things CrossFit could do to maintain their image as a dynamic force in worldwide fitness over the next decade:

1.     Support the training methodology with a business platform. CrossFit is a marketing company that sells licenses. Eventually, many of the people so passionate about CrossFit, and who want to make a living out of their box, will fail without business direction. Why let them fail? Why not embrace the fact that the coach who operates this box has evolved and wants to make a decent living out of owning and operating his own gym? The community may have all the answers to training questions, but most don’t have the answer when it comes to building a financially successful box that is sustainable over time. There are thousands of master trainers in the CrossFit system, and their next generation coaches are often some of the best in the world, but there aren’t many master level business people in the organization yet, but that will come ultimately and the more experienced box owners will figure out how to get the education and support they need to live their dream on their own terms.

There are a small number of CrossFits that make really good money, but most don’t. A typical 6,000 square foot training box can do over a million dollars a year these days, a number that isn’t really part of the CrossFit culture yet, but easily could be. Remember, Glassman was right in the first place. Group training is a good tool, but the coaches need other ways to charge and serve their clientele over time and if corporate doesn’t lead, it will happen anyway. Evolution occurs with or without leadership and do you want to be the person creating it or the person reacting to it?

2.     Help the younger, more inexperienced trainers keep their clients safer over time. There is probably no one more passionate about fitness and training than a coach with three months of fitness experience who just came home from his first CrossFit certification. This person is on fire and wants to share the newly acquired knowledge with everyone. The problem is that new coaches who just learned complex movement patterns might need some more seasoning themselves before he or she can supervise a room full of people doing a complex exercise, such as a power clean, whenever that group is tired and getting a little sloppy.

I would not change the community approach to posting workouts. It is fun and keeps the community banded together. It would be nice to see a recommend list of workouts for newer coaches focused on the skills they have today, not the ones they will have in the future. Injuries hurt everyone in the brand, even minor ones, and it is the perception of injuries that can ruin any good training gym, whether they are true or not. Control the perception. I don’t think CrossFit is any place as dangerous as the press sometimes fixates on, but it would help to control the perception instead of letting someone else control the conversation.

3.     Offer marketing support, such as a stronger national ad campaign, for a fee, to control the national image more. In marketing, you either control your own image, or the marketplace fills in the void and makes up its own stories.  Once you become a national brand, the marketplace can take over your image if you don’t work hard to control it. You can survive being the anti-gym, but in a small marketplace, such as the world of fitness where only 17% of the people in this country belong to gyms, your image, over time, dictates your place in this market. If you don’t play, the consumer makes up his own story about you and often that is bad. Greg Glassman has a compelling story to tell. Some of his first generation writings on the concept of CrossFit are some of the best marketing and most solid ideas of fitness I have ever seen in the industry, but why not let the story evolve and keep leading from the front?

What do all of these things mean taken together? Glassman created one of the most innovative fitness companies in the history of the industry. His distractors fight over the training methodology neglecting the fact that he changed the fitness world more than most of them combined ever will.

But this brilliant idea needs finished. It is important to all of us in the business that CrossFit grows and evolves to its true potential. No matter what success CrossFit corporate has had during their first 14 years, and it has been significant, they could even be more wildly successful if the boxes ever live up to their revenue potential. Owners that make money will stay in the organization longer and pay longer. These owners will spend a lot more money on education and even more on continued certification over time. Owners that make money stay loyal to the brand. Those that struggle look for other solutions and are willing to leave the brand for any solution that keeps them in business and living that dream of doing fitness for a living.

CrossFit matters to us all. Glassman was right and should be given so much more credit for his creation than he has been recognized for in the industry. It will be interesting to see how he lets it evolve into next generation of CrossFit and how the story will end.



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