Lessons in marketing from the CrossFit Games

The CrossFit Open is upon us. I didn’t get into this sport to compete. As with many things I could never have predicted this when I first walked in the door of Cape CrossFit or first heard LaaLaa talking about this crazy paleo thing on New Years Day of 2010. I actually seem to recall saying something along the lines of: ‘Well that method of training sounds cool. But I’m never going to stop eating bread and drinking beer!’ Never say never.

CrossFit is a cult. It is. It’s also a method of training, a series of branded gyms, and a competitive sport. Some day I may talk about the genius of Reebok marketing (big shout out to Chris Froio).
I was introduced to the notion of ‘braai marketing’ last week. A braai is a South Africanism that doesn’t really translate. So for the non-South Africans, imagine a Fourth of July cookout. That’ll work as a metaphor. The notion of braai marketing is that you want to have a brand that’s so well-loved and notable that people talk about it, and in a good way. Think TiVo. Not USAir or Comcast.
Now what the geniuses of marketing at CrossFit have done is to turn the competition season, that really is designed for the fittest people in the planet, into a massive marketing engine for the brand, and the sport.
How have they done this?
Well, consider golf, or tennis. I don’t know anything about these sports, but I bet even to enter a tournament you probably have to have a track record of some sort or pay a large fee. So the normal people of the world never do so, and we get to watch Tiger Woods and Roger Federer on TV, but we really can’t relate.
CrossFit did the opposite: they made it so every single person can compare themselves to all the elite athletes, and in such a way that the elite athletes become aspirational. It’s the same model that works inside a CrossFit gym.
If you’ve never been to a CrossFit gym, here’s how it works: it’s group training. There are a basic set of movements you are taught, then you are released into the wild of the normal gym where there is something called a workout of the day, or WOD (cuz every cult needs its own language). There is often a strength or technique portion then a metabolic conditioning portion which is normally either time-based (complete as many rounds of this circuit as possible in 8 minutes) or task-based (do this many reps of these exercises as fast as possible). I am definitely simplifying but the details aren’t  important to my point.
What is important is that a) there are recommended weights to be used and b) within that framework, everyone does the same workout. Can’t do pullups? Use a big rubber band to help you. Can’t clean 50kgs? Use 30.
The gyms have no mirrors, but they do have a whiteboard. So if the first part is 1 rep max back squat and the second part is 21-15-9 deadlifts and box jumps, or whatever it is, you write your scores up on the whiteboard after. It’s public, for everyone to see.
What does this mean? First, if you can’t do the workout at the recommended weights (‘as Rx’d’ in the lingo), you aspire to that. Second, everyone is suffering through the same thing but you’re also kind of competing with each other. The people to whom CrossFit appeals the most are those Type A personalities who want to be good at everything … and better than the guy or girl next to them.
There are benchmark workouts and the gym records for those are also on the board, although in many cases they are shockingly outdated in my experience. Be that as it may, you want your name up there. And you want to move up the list, and if you’re on the list you don’t want someone else knocking you out of your spot.
As much as it’s friendly and there is camaraderie, because these gyms are like families, everyone also knows who the better athletes are and how they stack up. You have someone better than you, or close to your own ability, you push yourself harder than if you’re on your own. This has been studied. It is true. So that’s part of the formula for success, and the reason that the sport experiences like 500% year on year growth or something stupid like that. Not to say there aren’t some severe problems with the model. But this post isn’t about that.
The way the CrossFit competition season works is this: there is a world championship, called the CrossFit Games, held in Los Angeles in July. There is an individual competition and a team competition. To get to the CrossFit Games, you have to finish in one of the top spots in your Region at a live competition called Regionals. Regions that have more CrossFit gyms get more slots: for example I think all the U.S. Regions get 3 slots for women, 3 for men, and 3 for teams, but Africa gets only one of each. Fair enough, we have far fewer participants.
In order to qualify for Regionals, you as an individual have to finish in the top 48 finishers for something called the CrossFit Open. The way that teams qualify is not important for the point I’m making. Enough of the intro already.
The CrossFit Open is pure marketing genius. So what is it? It’s five workouts, announced over five weeks. Everyone around the world does the same workouts. Even people who haven’t registered for the Open will probably do similar versions of the workouts.
The best part? The workouts are announced weekly, one a week, and then you have to complete the workout within a few days. The way the scoring works is that the top finisher gets 1 point, second gets 2 points, etc., so lowest point total across all five workouts is the highest placing finisher going into Regionals.
What does this mean? They’ve done some things very well, namely:
  • Anticipation: Everyone wants to know what the next workout is going to be. There is a countdown widget on the CrossFit Games web site.
  • Comparison: You can compare yourself against others in your Region, and the top athletes in the world. This makes those top athletes seem somewhat super-human (trust me, when you go all-out and then someone gets double your score and you wonder how on earth is that humanly possible???).
  • Competition: You can see how you compare to everyone else in your Region, by workout and overall. So everyone knows not only who are the top athletes in the gym, but in the entire Region, and worldwide.
  • Braai/water cooler marketing: In the Open season, it’s pretty much all anyone talks about. How did it go for you, what will the next workout be, check so-and-so from this gym, or check the scores from THAT gym, either they’re on drugs or they’re not very strict on the movement standards (yes, there is cheating, intentional and non-intentional. It’s a sport)
  • Ecosystem marketing: CrossFit coach celebs like Carl Paoli & Kelly Starrett put out pre-Open YouTube videos giving recommendations & strategy. Top athletes put out videos. The entire CrossFit world blogs and video blogs about the whole thing. Talk begets talk.
It’s navel-gazing at an obscene level. But the absolute tactical genius of it is that really, during the Open season, it does get to be the thing that everyone talks about. It literally turns the everyday ‘in gym’ competition into a worldwide competition. In other words, you might feel pretty cool being the top dog in your gym, until all of a sudden you’re ranked number 7,000 in the world. Or, you might feel a bit better about yourself that you’ve in the top 10% worldwide.
Now, it has a very bad side which is that if you’re a ‘bubble’ athlete you may need to repeat the workout multiple times to get a good score. That’s one of the things about CrossFit that makes it so fun: each workout has its tactics. It’s not just about athletic potential: it’s about the application of that potential. You could be sick, or injured, or something, and one bad score in a week can and will put you out of contention.
Oddly enough this is about as uninjured as I’ve been heading into an Open. Yes, I have this nagging hip issue and yes, my shoulder is acting wonky but last year I had a BADLY sprained ankle. I had it taped up obscenely before the 7 minutes of burpees workout, and I literally could only snatch without pain the day before the snatch ladder workout. The year before, I was officially the most pathetic qualifier for Regionals of anyone worldwide: after the second workout I got knee tendonitis and couldn’t squat, then I sprained my ankle. So I did one rep for each additional workout just to stay in the competition. Great claim to fame, that. I did a little better last year, finishing fourth out of about 180 (and one point out of third: the double-unders killed me in workout 4).
At the moment out of over 90,000 people registered for the Open, Africa has about 630 men, and about 280 women. That’s about 1%. That makes us a relatively un-competitive region just by the numbers. In my case, I’m going team for Regionals so if I finish in the top 48 is kind of irrelevant. Although unless I happen to sprain my ankle for the third year running, I should finish pretty decently.
Unless, of course, the first workout is 7 minutes of double-unders. Well, we all have our weaknesses. That is mine.

One further comment. It is exciting, yes, even though it’s a qualifier and even though we’re in a non-competitive region so where we finish in the rankings doesn’t really matter. But even still, it’s a competition; it’s a ranking; you compete. Last year, this was very exciting to me. I would check the web site multiple times a day, I would download and watch the movement standards videos even though I know bloody well the movement standards for a thruster or a wall ball. 

Not even kidding, before going to bed before the first workout was announced last year I felt like a little kid the night before Christmas. In a way I literally haven’t felt since I was six.

When I woke up and found out the first workout was 7 minutes of burpees, it definitely felt like Christmas. Yeah, I’m weird.

This year, I’m not so into it. Maybe it’s because I have other things going on. Or I’m more mature. Or that the hype gets old. But man I can see it in the people who didn’t do the Open last year. They are excited. That’s good marketing. Excellent. Props to CrossFit.

We find out the first workout tonight, sometime while we sleep here in South Africa. There are a few days a year when the first thing I check upon waking isn’t my email, and this Thursday will be one of them. 
I learned my lesson last year not to check in the middle of the night when you wake up. It can cause insomnia. Then again, with Vodacom’s network in the pathetic state it’s in, there is a 50-50 chance that I wouldn’t even be able to check in the middle of the night.
That’s something else that worked better in Joburg. It’s amazing how much more mobile data you consume when it works.

  • “It’s terrible when your whole life is sport.” – Rebecca
  • “I do have trust issues, come to think of it.” – Ellie
  • “It’s a balance between not hyper-extending your neck and not being able to see.” – Richie
  • “But that takes confidence because you sometimes do fall quite hard.” – Richie 

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