While niche sports and activities may not have the biggest followings compared to the “core four” of US professional sports, they often have an audience of devout and engaged fans. CrossFit presents a great case study for an engaged following that is truly a community with an international presence. The sport has grown over the past couple of decades to include a layered structure with amateur and professional athletes competing on a global scale. Over the weekend of the 2020 CrossFit Games, viewership was over 11.5 million viewers as the sport’s top competition was televised on CBS after a two-year hiatus.
With the sport delivering solid engagement relative to their following, it presents an inviting opportunity for brand partnerships that can deliver on several different levels. On the property side, two recent deals in the past year alone have revitalized the CrossFit brand. On March 1st, 2021, CrossFit announced its official partnership with Boston-based athletic company NOBULL for a minimum of 3 years after Reebok ended their partnership. The partnership established NOBULL as the new title sponsor for the CrossFit Games and the official footwear and apparel sponsor of CrossFit. This came after years of competing with Reebok and Nike for sponsoring the sport’s top athletes, with Reebok dominating with the most CrossFit Games champions and largest social media reach. Not long after this partnership was announced, WHOOP joined NOBULL as an official sponsor as they became the official wearable of CrossFit after agreeing to a multi-year partnership on March 4th, 2021. WHOOP has seen growth throughout 2021 and tapped into another highly engaged audience in NASCAR earlier this year.
NOBULL and WHOOP are examples of the rising challengers that recognized the potential payoff at the premier level of partnerships within the CrossFit space. Yet, athlete partnerships are valuable moves that can reach hyper-engaged followers with high loyalty measures. In CrossFit, several brands have taken this avenue to reach potential consumers. ESC Sounds, a wireless headphones manufacturer, currently has partnerships with athletes like Thuridur Helgadottir, Danielle Brandon, and Beam, a CBD wellness brand, supports a wide range of CrossFit athletes including Tia-Clair Toomey, Matthew Fraser, and Athelo Group’s own Dani Speegle. The variety of sponsorships outside of the standard apparel and training equipment brands is beneficial for creating opportunities for the generation of authentic partnerships. However, CrossFit has significant challenges that must be addressed before progress is made to continue to help the sport grow.
The financial structure around competitions creates a serious void for athlete growth. There are only 4 major CrossFit events – 2 of which are invite-only – where the sport’s top athletes can prove themselves and have a chance at earning the most prize money available. An athlete that can achieve the top 3 at each event has the chance to earn a decent yearly salary, but that the chances of that happening are low and fails to match the amount other professional athletes can make by simply being on a professional team’s roster. Not to mention, all 4 events are so close to each other that not all athletes can physically compete in each one. Without any support from CrossFit itself, the onus falls completely on the athletes to seek out their own partnerships that can ease the burden of being a part of the best in a sport without much structure. The physical demands take up enough time and energy, creating another challenge for athletes as effectively building a strong personal brand is crucial for athletes looking for partnerships. With the cards stacked against them to achieve this, CrossFit athletes who compete in the highest tiers are not paid salaries during the year. There are opportunities to earn prize money from winning specific events and placing in the top 3 spots during competitions. Partnerships provide chances to fill this gap as CrossFit athletes climb the rank. Many athletes are forced to spend their extra time working part-time or even full-time jobs to support travel and other costs associated with joining the upper echelon of athletes. Because of this dynamic, CrossFit partnerships can reach a level of authenticity that is rooted in genuine human relationships. To support a CrossFit athlete means a brand understands the entire package and wants to partner with the person, not just the athlete. CrossFit Games Athlete Dani Speegle understands that brands and athletes must be willing to “grow together” and not view them as simply another athlete in a collection of other ambassadors. Although interactions carry some weight, the success of a partnership stems from the shared values that drive the loyalty and engagement characteristic of the CrossFit following. 64% of brand relationships come from shared values rather than frequent interactions (Gerhardt, Drift). Brands with similar values will gain leverage on awareness with the community that CrossFit has created.
The values, traditions, and norms that have developed over the past two decades since CrossFit was born have formed a hyper-loyal group of consumers across the world. Brands can leverage this community of potential consumers if they are willing to commit to the humans taking risks to chase their goals. The shared values between the partner and the athlete can reach more people than before with the development of new social media platforms and streaming services. The sport is still young enough where structural developments to promote growth will only create more unique opportunities for athletes who are serious about competing to make it. CrossFit can continue being a breeding ground for up-and-coming brands who may not have the largest budgets so long as they form genuine connections with the athletes they work with. Authenticity moves the needle with CrossFit -- always has been, and always will be.