CrossFit made sweeping changes in 2020 following a public outcry around its former CEO’s actions. Out of the storm came new leadership and efforts to change the culture as affiliate owners grappled with the decision to remain affiliated with the brand.
BarBend spoke with affiliate owners about their previous struggles to connect with CrossFit HQ and CrossFit HQ’s recent efforts to create positive change in communication and community. Communication is especially salient in the middle of a pandemic when many need community — but are often physically isolated.
Direct Lines to the Top
In the past, some CrossFit affiliate owners’ experience was that they pay their $3,000 annual dues, sign some papers, and otherwise have little to no direct communication with headquarters. Case in point: Bekah Dilworth, co-owner of Violet Community Fitness, received just three emails from CrossFit HQ between October 2017 and June 2020. But that’s changed rapidly since CrossFit’s new ownership took over, with one affiliate owner we spoke with calling the difference “night and day.”
“We became an affiliate in October 2017, and the only emails we had gotten from Affiliate Support were those ‘you owe us money’ emails as dues were about to be due,” says Dilworth (Note: The author is associated with Violet Community Fitness). “The CrossFit Games email account would send ‘sign up for the Open’ emails or try to get you to take the Judges Course.”
On the one hand, the lack of overreach allowed affiliates to cultivate their own sub-brand and culture. But some owners, for whom this is a part-time job, felt like they’re on an island without a map. Add to this last year’s controversy with former CEO Greg Glassman, and many were left feeling uncertain, abandoned, and conflicted.
To help address the issue, CrossFit announced its Affiliate Representative Program in June 2020. As part of this new program, affiliate owners began receiving weekly Affiliate Update newsletters. These include stories from the community, best practices shared from owners worldwide, and CrossFit updates such as rules and movement standards.
This new effort has been enough to change the perspective of some affiliate owners, including Dilworth. According to Dilworth:
It’s been a night and day difference.
“There has been an owner survey for ways CFHQ could potentially help through the pandemic, and I really appreciate the thought that clearly went into the creation of the questions,” Dilworth continues to say about CrossFit’s new communication efforts. “There have been town halls with Eric [Roza, CrossFit’s CEO as of Summer 2020]. They released an official CF Statement on COVID. Even a Christmas card showed up in the mail.”
Affiliate owners like Mark Dankow, founder and owner of CrossFit Future, see potential in a more direct connection with Roza specifically. Dankow says that he’d like for there to be regional affiliate gatherings with the CEO, but he’s pleased with communications so far compared to previous leadership.
“Eric is more of a traditional CEO who has a vision he is developing. The communication reflects that,” Dankow says. ”The messages from [Roza] are more strategic on how to help the individual and the affiliate.”
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Alyssa Royse, the owner of Rocket Community Fitness (formerly Rocket CrossFit), was at the center of the CrossFit controversy in June after calling out Glassman and CrossFit HQ for their mishandling of racial injustice current events. She received an inflammatory response from Glassman, the fallout of which eventually contributed to his resignation.
While Royse has noted her hope for CrossFit to chart a new course, she says there’s still a lot of work to be done. After nine years, Royse ended Rocket’s affiliation with CrossFit in 2020 and currently sees no need to re-affiliate. While the CrossFit name — in Royse’s opinion — may have previously offered affiliates brand recognition to attract members, even that value may not be worth it to some affiliate owners, she says.
“The question of value to affiliate owners is at the crux of the issues I see with CrossFit right now,” Royse says. “There has to be value in being associated with the brand. Is there? I don’t know. I don’t see it right now, and I don’t see any signs that it’s improving.”
Affiliation with Representation
CrossFit’s announcement of the Affiliate Representative Program was a part of its administrative changes following Glassman’s departure. The purpose of the program is to “facilitate communication between affiliates and CrossFit Headquarters” and “to engage in community outreach, supporting grassroots initiatives that allow affiliates to effect positive change at the local level.”
Currently, 15 affiliate owners represent as many regions, nominated by CrossFitters and approved by HQ based on their merit and community impact within their region. So far, CrossFit has collected feedback from thousands of affiliate owners to identify the community’s needs, according to Danielle Hale, a community manager at CrossFit who runs the program.
“We’ve seen an overall increase in communication, conversations, trust, and support between CrossFit Home Office and affiliate owners and amongst the affiliate owners themselves,” Hale says. “Providing ‘boots on the ground’ has decreased the response time in inquiries and requests from affiliates and increased the health of the affiliate community as far as morale.”
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Dale King, the program representative for Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, emphasizes the capacity for rebuilding a network of affiliate communication channels. (Note: King’s remarks were provided through communications with CrossFit.)
“First and foremost, we are affiliate owners,” says King, speaking of the representatives. “We know the ups and downs of running an affiliate. Our job is to help the affiliate owner through trust and communication. We reach out and open up a line of communication informing them of best practices, providing advice, giving assistance, and lending a supportive ear when called upon. In reverse, we provide bottom-up communication to CrossFit, enabling CrossFit to be more responsive to the needs of their affiliates in the trenches.”
Many representatives have started holding regular meetings for affiliate owners — mostly virtually due to COVID-19. These calls are designed to give affiliate owners direct access to their representatives and other affiliate owners in their region. According to King, they provide a platform for peers to confide, commiserate, and collaborate in their unique corner of the CrossFit world.
“On any given day, you’ll have multiple affiliate owners connecting via Zoom to hear the latest and greatest updates from CrossFit,” King says. “Sharing best practices on how to navigate operating a gym during COVID, discussing pros and cons of using federal financial assistance, and sharing ideas for the upcoming Open.”
Reshaping the CrossFit Community
We typically think of the “faces of CrossFit” as the lean, sinewy CrossFit Games athletes who grace billboards and headline shoe campaigns. But the millions of athletes in affiliates are the true makeup — and original focus — of CrossFit. The Affiliate Reps program could help recalibrate the CrossFit’s community’s lens to focus on just that — community. There’s still work to be done.
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“The single most abundant thing I’ve invested in and have had people reach out for was help raising funds and awareness for causes affiliates are involved in,” says Larry Thomas, district representative for Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. (Note: Thomas’ remarks were provided through communications with CrossFit.)
“I am an amplifier of what would otherwise be a small community event. These events get blown up, get more eyes on them and more donations because of my position and my presence on social media and other platforms.”
Thomas recently helped launch the CrossFit Scholarship Program with the Atlanta Leadership Club to offer free Level 1 Certificate Courses for kids and young adults.
While CrossFit HQ may be working to amplify the good in the community, Royse points out, “the public perception of CrossFit is often hinged on its most outspoken members.”
CrossFit was in the news again in November 2020 after a New York affiliate owner refused to comply with COVID-19 regulations. The owner also came under media and public scrutiny for a racially charged email regarding an event his affiliate hosted months prior. CrossFit terminated the gym’s affiliation and decried the owner’s actions, but Royse feels lasting change will come when CrossFit becomes more proactive.
“HQ has tried to be reactive to that and have done the right things after the fact,” Royse says of the events in New York. “But it’s still after the fact. You can’t build a solid foundation on a shifting zeitgeist unless you’re willing to take a strong stand.”
Dilworth adds that seeing statements from CrossFit is in itself a notable change.
“I think [CrossFit] finally having official statements released is a big thing, so that there is a stand that has been taken,” she says. “You’re not going to appeal to everyone in the world, but by having a stand, at least you can find your like-minded folks instead of being confusing or standing for nothing.”
Of course, CrossFit’s original community builder, The Open, returns March 11, 2021. Affiliate owners are tasked with balancing an engaging and inclusive Open experience for athletes while also keeping everyone safe.
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“The reps are using their Zoom platforms to discuss strategies to increase Open participation among their membership and set up for running the Open in their gyms while following COVID mandates,” Hale says.
And clearer communication from CrossFit has made administrative work as an affiliate owner easier, Dilworth says, especially when trying to rally a community during a pandemic.
“Now that it’s easier to tell what causes CFHQ supports (such as working with legislation to keep gyms open) or where my dollars go, it’s an easier decision to know where and how I want to be involved, or how I want to involve the community I’m leading.”
If ever there was a year for creative strategies and community rebuilding, 2021 is it.
Featured image: @crossfit on Instagram