I'm not often prophetic, but must pat myself on the back for calling this one.
After last year's CrossFit Games, I posted a piece entitled The CrossFit Games: An Action Sport Investment Opportunity in the Making.
A year later, and we are roughly one week away from the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games.
Call me Nostradamus.
And call this sport one of the fastest growing sports in America which only looks to build upon the financial and popular successes it has achieved in just one short year.
Reebok Joins the Fray and Raises the Stakes
The financial prosperity and enhanced visibility that CrossFit has enjoyed in the last 12 months have been tremendous, thanks in large part to their relatively new partnership with sports giant Reebok who has signed a 10-year deal with CrossFit.
"We have seen large gains in commercial success with bringing on Reebok as a partner to the CrossFit Games", according to Dave Castro, Director of the CrossFit Games as well as Director of Training. "Reebok is helping us take the event to the next level in terms of exposure and what they can do for the athletes."
One major difference and motivator for this year's competitors is the Herculean jump in prize money. Said Mr. Castro, "Our cash prize for the Games has jumped from $25,000 in 2010 to a total purse of $1 million for 2011, with $250,000 going to the top male and female athlete. All thanks to Reebok."
And Reebok has gone so far as to embrace and incorporate the CrossFit training regime into their corporate philosophy as well as their day-to-day operations. "Reebok is really going full-bore, having opened up a CrossFit gym at Reebok HQ and hiring two elite CrossFit athletes as coaches for their staff", according to Kareem Mayan. Mr. Mayan is the co-founder of SocialWOD.com, a "WOD" tracking site for CrossFit affiliates. WOD stands for 'Workout of the Day', and it's these daily workouts that craft and sculpt some of the fittest athletes in the world.
Reebok has obviously bought in without muscling in. The feedback I've received from several CrossFit athletes is that Reebok has embraced their feedback on product design, which strategically will only build a stronger brand with the CrossFit demographic going forward and ultimately help the company produce the best-quality possible in both footwear and athletic wear for the elite athlete.
Financial Transformation Consistent with Personal Transformations
What continues to amaze me beyond the short-term financial transformation of CrossFit is how the sport/activity encourages and promotes personal transformation.
"Aside from putting me in the best shape of my life, it's the first fitness program I've been able to stick to over the long term without burning out", said Leah Polaski. Ms. Polaski, Vice President with Renaissance Property Group, recently took 1st place in the Southeast Regionals and will be representing her CrossFit Atlanta affiliate in the women's individual competition during the 2011 Games.
"CrossFit is also the only program that has and continues to provide tangible results for me. Whether in my body composition, my work capacity, or my strength. They've all continued to improve over my first 2 years using CrossFit", said Ms. Polaski.
A former Division I soccer player at the University of Cincinnati, she certainly was no stranger to athleticism. But in her post-college athletic training, she found traditional training methods both boring and uninspiring. The same could be said for one of her training partner at CrossFit Atlanta, Dr. Ken Gall, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. Ms. Polaski and Dr. Gall comprised half of a foursome from CrossFit Atlanta that placed 8th in the team competition at the 2010 Games.
"I was a college athlete, and after about 15 years off I am finally back to a competitive environment which is keeping me is good shape. It feels like being an athlete again", said Dr. Gall.
Understanding the Diet of CrossFit
Dining out with a group of CrossFit athletes, you will most definitely hear the word 'Paleo' at least multiple times. Reach for a piece of bread and they'll look at you like you have 3 eyes.
So what is the Paleo diet? Ms. Polaski summed it up. "You eat lean meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Nothing processed. The focus is on fresh high quality foods, and preferably seasonal foods. If you could hunt or gather it, you can eat it."
And the reasoning behind the diet according to Dr. Gall, "The basic idea is that processed food is great for storage, transportation, and shelf life...but not so good for your body. By avoiding processed foods like pasta, bread, and cereal, you can remain leaner and lighter...faster and stronger. Oh, and you look better too."
Discipline and Intensity are Staples of the CrossFit Athlete and Attractive Brand Characteristics for Reebok
It's my sense that the reason Reebok embraced the sport is because it's athletes embody 2 characteristics that have considerable marketing panache and resonance.
Discipline and intensity.
When you watch these athletes compete, it fires up spectators and makes them consider alternate forms of training in their own personal fitness regimens.
"The beauty of the programming is that it is universally scalable", said Ms. Polaski. "Meaning the movements can be modified to anyone's abilities and to overcome limitations. The only thing someone must have is the willingness and desire to work hard and to push themselves. The reason this program is so much more effective than others is its intensity, but intensity is not comfortable. It's very individual, but if you stick to it you will see results."
Enhanced Buzz for the 2011 Games
Aside from the afore-mentioned financial enhancements, Mr. Castro expressed a heightened sense of exposure and buzz leading up to the 2011 Games largely thanks to Reebok's involvement. "We have top CrossFit athletes on national commercials for Reebok. Charles Barkely talking about his CrossFit workouts during the halftime shows of NBA playoff games, Chad Ochocinco twittering about his CrossFit workouts while various other NFL players talk about their CrossFit experiences. And The Games were also featured in ESPN the Magazine."
The growth in the sport itself, according to Mr. Castro, is reflected in how the qualification process has evolved in a few short years. "2007 was the first year of the event and we did not even have a qualification process. 70 total athletes registered. Our numbers tripled in 2008, causing us to depart from open registration and move towards a qualification system. We had Regionals in 2009 and then added another layer of qualifications in 2010. 30 sectionals and 15 regionals across the world."
And just from 2010 and 2011, the growth was astounding. Mr. Castro said, "In 2011 we took the first round of qualifications online to help streamline the process. The demand has been unreal. We had 4,500 people compete in the process in 2010. In 2011 we had 29,000 people enter the Open, including people from all continents and over 100 countries including China and India."
With this level of growth, both financially and in terms of participation and exposure, expect CrossFit's exponential rise to continue in the near future. With a brand name like Reebok backing them both in spirit and in finances, the sky is truly the limit.
Last year less than a week after the 2010 Games, I wrote that CrossFit was an investment opportunity in the making...and Reebok made it happen just a few short months later.
The next step is television. Though streaming this year on ESPN3, I would not be surprised in the least to see ESPN, Fox, or Comcast-NBC add the Reebok CrossFit Games as part of their primary summer sports inventory by the 2012 Games.
On its own merits, the sport has the speed, strength, intensity and sex appeal to drive solid TV ratings, especially against soft competition during the summer sports calendar that really only features baseball.
But with Reebok aboard, it gives the sport that added level of commercial acceptance and legitimacy that networks are comforted by when analyzing what will drive ratings.
Dr. Patrick Rishe is an Associate Professor of Economics at the Walker School of Business at Webster University in St Louis, as well as Director of Sportsimpacts.
Follow Patrick on Twitter @SportsDocRock or visit www.patrickrishe.net