The CrossFit Games is an annual test of fitness designed to find the Fittest Man and Woman on Earth. The first ever CrossFit Games was in 2007: it was a two-day event, held on the dirt of a ranch in California, and was more of BBQ and beer-fest than a fitness competition. Fast forward to today, and the CrossFit Games involves over 300,000 athletes, is aired on ESPN, and had a 2017 prize pool of $2.8 million, with the winning man and woman taking home $285,000 each.
How did this happen? Yup, you guessed it – social media and digital business!
For those that don’t know, CrossFit is a fitness program and brand that is based on constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. A representative, but nowhere near exhaustive, list of movements found in CrossFit include: running, rowing, jumping rope, pull-ups, burpees, squats, weightlifting, Olympic weightlifting, dumbbells, barbells, rope climbs, and the list goes on and on. Movements are mixed and mashed together in various rep schemes, weights, and time domains to create unlimited workout possibilities. CrossFit affiliate gyms run group classes where all participants complete that gym’s workout-of-the-day together, but individuals scale the movements as needed based on ability level. (If I haven’t convinced you yet, check out the video below…)
What started in 1996 as a single guy, Greg Glassman, training clients out of his gym in Santa Cruz has grown to become a global fitness phenomenon with over 13,000 affiliate gyms worldwide (for reference, there are about 27,000 Starbucks in the world).
There are many factors that contributed to the explosive growth of CrossFit during the late 2000’s to today. Some will point to the 2010 partnership with Reebok that helped CrossFit gain exposure and reach the mainstream market. Others will say the fitness industry was ripe for disruption as people grew tired of the typical gym routine and were looking for something new. And others, including myself, believe the biggest contributing factor was the creative use of social media and digital platforms that connected and grew the community in new and meaningful ways.
In 2001, Greg Glassman created CrossFit.com (what we call “main-site”) where he started posting one workout per day along with video movement demonstrations and news articles. Anyone with basic gym equipment was able to complete the workout and then post their results in the comments on the main-site post. Main-site developed a cult-like following among first-responders, soldiers on military bases, as well as average Joe’s working out in their garages. Over time, gyms started popping up and following the CrossFit regimen – all that is required to use the CrossFit name is an annual affiliate fee.
In 2007, CrossFit hosted its first ever CrossFit Games to find the Fittest Man and Woman on Earth. The competition was open to anyone that could make it. A few dozen (mostly local) athletes showed up on a ranch in Aromas, California to complete three workouts in a battle for the title. The 2008 and 2009 CrossFit Games were of similar style on the ranch, but as CrossFit’s popularity was starting to grow, an in-person qualifying event was added in several areas around the USA. Again, anyone that lived closed enough could compete at a qualifier and the top athletes at each were sent to the Games in Aromas.
In 2010, CrossFit changed the format of the CrossFit Games and created an online, digital platform that made the event more inclusive, built up the community, and helped expand CrossFit – this is called The Open.
The Open, an online qualifier available to anyone, was the first piece in a three-part format that still is used today. During The Open, CrossFit uses live streaming via Facebook and its own platform to announce one workout per week for five weeks. All participants have until the end of each week to complete the workout and post their results to the platform. The platform includes a leaderboard that ranks athletes based on their five-week performance. The top performers move on to an in-person, weekend-long event, called Regionals. And the top performers at Regionals go on to an in-person, week-long event, called The Games.
The platform allows athletes to sign up for The Open and share with friends via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that they are #InTheOpen. Athletes create a profile with their stats, such as max pull-ups, heaviest back squat and deadlift, and fastest times on some popular CrossFit workouts. This reminds me of our class discussion on how social media solves the social failure regarding bragging. I would never walk around telling people I can do 50 pull-ups in a row, but sharing this information in my online profile makes it acceptable and it’s celebrated. Also, similar to almost all other social media platforms, the CrossFit Games platform allows athletes to “stalk” each other…aka “leaderboard surfing”. As scores are posted for each workout, athletes are able to “surf” the leaderboard and see how they stack up against friends, family, gym-mates, and the top CrossFit athletes.
In addition to creating a digital platform, CrossFit has stepped up its activity on Facebook and Instagram since releasing the Open format in 2010. CrossFit uses social media to connect with and celebrate not only its top athletes, but also the every-day athlete. CrossFit’s social media activity is a constant feed of success stories from a CrossFit Games winner setting a new personal record lift, to someone losing 100+ lbs through diet and exercise, to an 80-year-old grandmother learning to squat for the first time in her life.
The use of social media and its digital platform has allowed CrossFit to expand its reach and become more inclusive. This has removed some of the intimidation and hesitation people have when learning about CrossFit. I believe this is the main contributor to CrossFit’s explosive growth and community development over the last decade.
On a side note: Go Eagles!