How CrossFit Embraced Fans And Became The Next Great Spectator Sport

The fitness world is used to new trends exploding almost overnight, with fad workouts and diets making a big slash only to crash back to earth once the next hot thing rolls around. Just a few years ago, CrossFit was the newest, hottest thing in training, and many industry watchdogs expected it to follow a similar trajectory.

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 13:  French CrossFit ath...PARIS, FRANCE – MARCH 13: French CrossFit athletes help to launch Reebok’s The Sport Of Fitness campaign on March 12, 2012 in Paris, France. (Image credit: Getty Images for Reebok via @daylife)

Today CrossFit boasts over 6,000 affiliated gyms worldwide, and its cultivation in regions like Europe, Asia, and the Middle East has helped established a truly global fitness brand. But that remarkable growth isn’t stopping at new converts and facilities for the loyal. The brand is focusing efforts not only on promoting its methodology as the best for creating elite fitness, but as a sport in and of itself.

Enter the CrossFit Games, a grueling annual test designed to identify the world’s fittest man, woman, and team. Started in 2007, the Games has grown from a backyard brawl on a ranch in Aromas, California, to a high-caliber championship sponsored by Reebok and broadcast to the world via ESPN2. Since 2010 the July event has been held at LA’s Home Depot HD -2.71% Center, where competitors test their merit running, biking, jumping, and lifting their way to $250,000 grand prizes. In order to make the main event, athletes must first complete two rounds of qualification starting in March: The Internet submission-based Open — where in 2013 nearly 140,000 athletes submitted scores for five standardized workouts — and the Regionals, where the best Open performers from each of 17 worldwide regions compete for just a handful of invitations to the Games.

Though its growth as a sport has been astronomical, CrossFit competitions today still have a much more intimate atmosphere than those seen in most other sports. Spectators can snap pictures with competitors in between events, often asking a favorite athlete for tips on the competition workouts many fans will then attempt back in their own gyms.

It’s that sense of shared suffering that facilitates a unique connection among all CrossFit athletes, from the seasoned elite to the newbie just trying to get in better shape. Though their skill levels vary wildly, each is working on turning their weaknesses into strengths in a sport where no one is the best ateverything.

“The difference between the CrossFit Games athlete and every other athlete is humility,” says Web Smith, a longtime CrossFitter, entrepreneur, and athlete manager. “You can only be a great CrossFit athlete if you’re humble, if you’re willing to admit you’re not the best in something and you go about improving yourself because of that.”

Smith has been involved in the sport since 2008, when he and his wifeLindsey — herself a four-time Games competitor — discovered CrossFit as a fun way to stay in shape. Since then, Smith has worked in a variety of roles in and around the community, most recently signing on to manage two-time defending Games Champion Rich Froning. With Smith’s guidance, Froning has inked endorsement deals with big-name sponsors including Reebok and Oakley.

Froning has dominated the CrossFit circuit for nearly three years, and he’s earned the top spot at every major competition since placing second at the 2010 Games. That success has helped catapult Froning — whoseautobiography “First” is set for a July 1st release through publisher Tyndale House — into the mainstream. Froning’s not a household name just yet, but in a sport where fans and athletes create mutual respect by facing down the same physical challenges, he’s inspiring thousands who want to make their own run at the podium.

Most importantly, says Smith, Froning’s role as a sponsorship dealmaker is paving the way for other athletes who want to make competing a full-time endeavor.

“CrossFit athletes need to start treating themselves like they’re professional athletes. The more athletes treat themselves as businesses, the more the sport’s going to grow, and the more those athletes are going to grow individually… We want to show that you can have sponsorships that sustain a training lifestyle.”

That lifestyle — which can include 6+ hours of daily training sessions, carefully planned diets, and a whole lot of sleep — is especially important for athletes who want to stay on top. More and more contenders emerge each year, and the sport’s elite know that with the right mix of skill, drive, and coaching, a wide-eyed fan could someday become competition for coveted Games spots. Respect in CrossFit is a two-way street: Success often requires the practitioner lay it all on the line, and that nurtures an intensity of mind and body shared across all levels.

“CrossFit is so difficult from a skill perspective and so horrible from a pain perspective, you can’t help but respect the athlete,” says Smith, referring to both the sport’s full-time best and its weekend warriors.

So while the vast majority of us will never know what it’s like to dunk on Lebron James or hit a homer off CC Sabathia, CrossFit gives devotees the tools to pit themselves against the world’s best. For the 2013 CrossFit Open, for example, I can see my scores on the same virtual leaderboard as Rich Froning’s — though they’re separated by about 30,000 spots.

The growth of CrossFit as a sport has sponsors rushing to snap up athletes they think can be the next big star. And as events get bigger to accommodate growing audiences, the grassroots feel of competitions may inevitably begin to fade. But no matter what its championship looks like down the road, CrossFit is poised to maintain a unique competitive environment that has marketers and purists alike excited to see more.

That’s because CrossFit has accomplished what even our most beloved sports spectacles have failed to do: Blur the line between spectator and athlete.