5 Ways That CrossFit May Never Get Fixed

It’s been over ten years since CrossFit shook up the fitness industry. Veterans of the affiliate business recently gathered to look to the future, celebrate the past, and party.

Image courtesy of Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas

Image courtesy of Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas

Full Disclosure: I am and will forever be appreciative for what CrossFit and Greg Glassman personally have done for my life: They instilled in me a lifelong commitment to fitness and helped me achieve the biggest athletic accomplishment of my life in 2014 when I qualified to the CrossFit Games. I was also fortunate to work for CrossFit Media for eight years. Greg Glassman hired me as a full-time writer personally, and I am thankful for all the experiences it provided me.

I was in Whistler, British Columbia recently for the 10+ Year CrossFit Affiliate Gathering, an invite-only event for those who have been affiliated for a decade or more. A friend asked me how it went, I said :

“Um, it felt a bit like attending a friend’s wedding vow renewal, where all the guests are thinking, ‘Why are we even here?’ Where there has been infidelity for the last 10 years, but nobody’s talking about it. But then they put out an amazing spread with endless crab claws, smoked salmon and prime rib, an excessive open bar and a chocolate fountain and everyone collectively shrugs, ’F**k it, let’s drink!’”

Glassman Rules the Roost

Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, owner, and operator delivered a lengthy speech at the event. He focused on CrossFit’s emphasis on general health over the past focus on elite athletes, and on how coaches and affiliate owners have a “unique possession of an elegant solution to the world’s greatest problem.”

He repeated the latter phrase multiple times during his address. He also spent a great deal of time talking about his opposition to, and fight, with the NSCA, the ACSM, the evils of Gatorade, hyponatremia and the nephrologists he loves.

What was not addressed were the very real problems CrossFit affiliate owners and coaches face today, problems which have led countless affiliates to move away from the CrossFit brand and de-affiliate, or close their doors entirely.

On the other hand, perhaps expecting Glassman to address these problems was a foolish expectation, to begin with. After all, nobody has been forced into affiliate ownership, nor have we been promised untold riches.

We have never even been promised marketing or business advice from CFHQ (if they did address the problems their gyms are facing, they might run into franchise questions that would open up a whole legal can of whoop-ass on them).

Still, I suppose myself and other attendees thought there might be a chance for a transparent conversation about the tarnished brand, especially if CFHQ wants us to keep our affiliation.

I suppose the question and answer session at the end of Glassman’s address might have been the time. But most asked trivial questions—why are we in Canada?—and others sucked up to the leader—I am so-and-so from such-and-such CrossFit in South Carolina and I have been loving my life every single day for the last 10 years..

A few brave souls, however, did try to get real with him.

This brings me to the count down of 5 reasons CrossFit may never get fixed:

5. Client retention

One coach asked Glassman how do we get clients back who maybe tried CrossFit back in the day and left? Talking to this coach after, he was alluding to two very big problems in the industry:

  • The vast majority of people (some of whom tried CrossFit for a while) have a negative opinion of the CrossFit brand, so even if coaching and programming has improved a ton in the last 10 years—and even if the emphasis has shifted from intensity to health and longevity at many affiliates—the world doesn’t know this so they’re staying away from joining a CrossFit gym.
  • Client retention: There is a serious client retention problem in the industry, and I challenge anyone to prove me otherwise. Why else are gyms who have been around for 10-plus years still in need of massive marketing campaigns to bring in an influx of new clients via a cheap 6-week challenge? I know there exist a few gyms out there who have a waiting list to join because they’re at capacity, but those gyms are few and far between.

Glassman’s response to this question – I’m paraphrasing here – was to shrug and say he personally never had a client retention problem, so he didn’t know how to fix this because it was never an issue for him.

4. How do we stop the get fit cheaply approach that is ruining the industry?

Another guy asked Glassman what to do if you’re having problems with other affiliates in your area. I would argue this is likely due to an oversaturation of CrossFit gyms, which led to a race-to-the-bottom approach to fitness, leading gyms to offer free weeks, free months, Groupons, cheap 6-week challenges, or even to poach each other’s clients. I have heard dozens of stories of all of the above in the last 8 years.

Glassman’s response to this guy: I don’t know why that would be the case. I don’t know why you wouldn’t get along.


3. Are we really professionals?

Glassman referred to the owners and coaches he spoke to in Whistler as professionals a handful of times on the weekend. Never once did he provide any insight as to what he meant by the word professional.

Currently, it’s nearly impossible to make a decent salary as a CrossFit coach. I speak with gym owners regularly, who have been paying themselves a barely living wage in the neighborhood of $40,000 a year for 7-plus years.

Also, professionals generally don’t have another full-time job. Yet on the weekend, I met many gym owners who have other full-time jobs outside of the gym and then work an additional 40-plus hours a week at their gym. Is this really what being a fitness professional means?

In short, most of us are not professionals (some of us might be, and if you are, good for you). But the vast majority of affiliate owners and coaches are not.

While I think everyone there on the weekend was on board with the CrossFit Health thing, it’s hard to offer an “elegant solution to the world’s greatest problem,” as Glassman kept suggesting, when you’re working on what I would argue is a broken business model.

2. Overworked without full-time coaches

I spoke with a handful of friends who have been affiliate owners for 10-plus years, but who couldn’t make it to the gathering in Whistler because they either couldn’t afford to get away or couldn’t take the time off because they didn’t have coaches to fill in for them.

Similarly, I met a handful of owners on the weekend who admitted they didn’t have a single full-time coach. One dude from Atlanta told me he had 18 part-time coaches, and it’s common for him to put in 12-hour days at the gym (after 10 years of being an affiliate).

This ties into the above point: Because coaches aren’t able to make a professional wage coaching group classes working for an hourly wage (aka broken business model), having full-time coaches is rarer than it should be at affiliates around the world, and coach retention is nearly as dire as client retention.

1. Where was the “What can we do for YOU?”

It felt really weird to me that Glassman stood up and talked for well over two hours about his and CFHQ’s priorities, yet never once asked the group what HQ could do for us—the loyal clients who have been paying him for 10-plus years.

To me, that seems like a logical question to ask: What do YOU need from US to continue with your affiliation?

Had this question been asked, perhaps more of the problems affiliates are facing would have been addressed. Maybe Russ Greene—who was planted on the stage directly behind Glassman with no apparent role—might have taken a stab.

Then again, maybe not. CrossFit HQ has never promised to help affiliates produce full-time coaches, retain clients and build profitable businesses (as far as I know), yet ironically these are the very things required for owners to keep their affiliation for another 10 years.

Still, 300-plus people showed up to Whistler. And had a great time. So yeah, there’s that. One thing I won’t accuse CrossFit HQ of is an inability to throw a great event.

Because that was one hell of a party…