Eric Roza on Building New Communities: An Interview with CrossFit’s Owner and CEO

Eric Roza chats inclusivity, affiliates, and the Games in an exclusive BarBend interview.

CrossFit CEO Eric Roza has had a busy few months. And that might be the fitness understatement of the year. 

In June, it was announced that Roza — a longtime CrossFitter and CrossFit Affiliate owner — would be purchasing the company from founder Greg Glassman. Roza was joined in the acquisition by Berkshire Partners, a Boston-based investment firm. Of course, Roza is no stranger to large-scale acquisitions; he was the founder and CEO of Datalogix, which sold to software behemoth Oracle in 2015. Multiple sources cite the Datalogix deal’s value at over $1 billion. 

Roza’s acquisition came just weeks after Glassman’s controversial Twitter posts ignited controversy throughout the fitness community. Shortly after Glassman’s tweets, former CrossFit employees and affiliate owners came forward with personal accounts of inflammatory statements and a hostile work environment under Glassman’s leadership. Boxes announced they were un-affiliating en masse, and many top athletes made public their intention to sit out this year’s Games. This came amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused unprecedented challenges for thousands of CrossFit Affiliates facing mandatory or partial shutdowns. 

And if the Glassman controversy and a global pandemic weren’t enough, CrossFit HQ was still wrestling with how to approach the 2020 CrossFit Games. The Games have grown to become one of the world’s largest annual fitness gatherings — and holding them isn’t exactly feasible during the era of COVID-19. 

Even before the acquisition was finalized, Roza addressed the community regarding rebuilding trust and forging a more inclusive culture within CrossFit. After the deal was approved, the new CEO and his team got to work engaging the community while building toward what Roza thinks is CrossFit’s ultimate potential: To become “the world’s leading platform for health, happiness, and performance.”

Since then, many boxes have reversed their decision to un-affiliate, and Stage 1 of this year’s CrossFit Games was held virtually. (All 60 qualified athletes participated.)

On Oct. 14, 2020, Roza sat down with BarBend CEO David Tao for a virtual chat to discuss his first 100 days as CrossFit’s new owner and CEO. (Note: The interview below has been lightly edited for readability.)

BarBend: What would you consider the biggest challenge in your first 100 days as CrossFit CEO?

Eric Roza: I think one of the biggest challenges has been knowing what to focus on. There are so many opportunities, so many different potential growth vectors with CrossFit. And also, you know, no shortage of challenge, primarily due to COVID. But also, it’s just a lot of change when a founder leaves a business for the first time. And so kind of onboarding myself, my team, seeing all these amazing opportunities, so many amazing people want to talk.

There’s only so much time in the day. I’d also say the other thing is my passion runs so hot around [CrossFit] that I need to create some boundaries for myself. I mean, I’ve always been someone who tried to work really hard and was really results-driven, but also able to, you know, take time to decompress.

And one of the main ways I decompress is with CrossFit. So it’s like, how do I draw that line now? The answer is I kind of don’t. So far, it’s just living it; I’m living it every minute. We hosted an offsite yesterday on the future of what we’re calling CrossFit Health. We had Julie Foucher and a couple of other great people. And at 6 a.m., we were on our backs in my living room being guided through a session of holotropic breathing. And then an hour and a half later, we were climbing Mount Sanitas, this mountain right outside my house.

Then we were in a full day of meetings and then incredible and healthy dinners. And then we did a WOD this morning, and then I just said goodbye to them. So like the whole, life is around this, and that’s awesome, but it’s also a challenge. I’ve got four kids, and I got other stuff going on, too.

BarBend: We’re recording this about a week before the finals of this year’s CrossFit Games [taking place on Oct. 23-25, 2020]. What role do you think the Games will play in your and your team’s general goals for CrossFit as a health and wellness platform?

Eric Roza: I think it’s really inspirational and aspirational to see folks who not only have the raw talent, but I think the part that’s even much more interesting frankly, is people who have this level of commitment have been through their own hardships.

You have Mat Fraser who is open about the fact that he’s in recovery and he’s X number of years sober, and people who have overcome their own hardships in life, and have risen to just this level of excellence through yes, talent, but also just grit and hard work and setbacks. And it’s just freaking amazing. I think it inspires us all. These people devote their lives to what Mat calls “train, eat, sleep,” right? Train, eat, sleep; train, eat, sleep; train, eat, sleep, and that’s not going to be who I am.

I’m going to use CrossFit personally, and I’m going to do it four or five hours a week typically. It just makes my whole life better. Plus, I enjoy the process so much. But I think seeing people do this and put this much effort into this and the bar keeps, no pun intended, the bar keeps rising every year. (I’m sure you never heard that one.) And you say, wow, what people are doing now relative to what humans could do three or five years ago just keeps going up.

And I think one of the things that’s fun about CrossFit right now is if you look at more mature sports, it’s harder to move the needle on records and performance, right? If you look at Olympic weightlifting or anything that’s been done for a long time, but with CrossFit, we’re still in that part of the curve with the limits of human potential; we still have a tremendous amount of way to go.

And it’s fun.

BarBend: The sport is still experiencing those “beginner gains” that we all wish we could still take advantage of.

Eric Roza: You know, it’s been a long time since I saw those.

BarBend: This question takes a slightly different direction, but I know it’s been a priority for you and your team. Which communities are CrossFit maybe not currently reaching, either domestically or abroad, and what are the priorities for you and your team over the next couple of years?

Eric Roza: I would say one is non-fluent English speakers. We haven’t done enough yet. We do with our level one training for coaches. Still, in other areas of the business, we haven’t done enough to make our content and everything that we do accessible to people who aren’t comfortable with English as a language. And that, of course, is the vast majority of the world. So in spite of the fact that over half of the CrossFit boxes and CrossFitters are outside the U.S., we’ve spoken to everybody in English. So if I had to pick one thing, that would be a big one.

I think there are a lot of underserved communities where we have a tremendous amount of work to do, making everyone feel comfortable in CrossFit boxes.

And I think we clearly have a lot of work to do also around people who look different than we do in any number of ways. That’s an area where we’re going to continue to work very heavily on, and we spend a ton of time around diversity, equity, and inclusion. And this is really [about] being proactive, right? Not being reactive about, “these are problems people have,” but how can we kind of lead in these areas and make sure it builds in the very fabric of CrossFit as we’re reaching everybody.

And again, in the way that you talked about every type of community, it might be an age-related thing. It could be body shape, like all kinds of things.

BarBend: I know we have limited time today, but I have one final question: What’s your favorite workout? And what’s your least favorite? But you can’t say “Friendly Fran.”

Eric Roza: I like Cindy. I did a weighted Cindy a few years ago. Dwight Upshaw, our head coach at CrossFit Sanitas, can beat me at every physical competition, I think, on the planet — maybe not strict handstand pushups, but I think everything else. And he went before I did, and I took him by, I think, one rep on weighted Cindy with a 20-pound weight vest

I wouldn’t say it’s my least favorite, but I’d say my worst-performing would be when you put a lot of rowing or Assault Bike into something; it just destroys everything else for me, too, even if you put in something I’m really good at afterward. 

BarBend: Never trust anyone who says they enjoy the assault bike. That’s a personal mantra of mine.

Eric Roza: I’ll give you an amazing stat. This never has been made public before. And I’m sure he would love this, but our new Chief Analytics and Research Officer Robin Opie can do 50 calories on an Assault Bike in under 25 seconds.

BarBend: That’s a dangerous thing to admit on the record because now we’re going to have to ask for video proof.

Eric Roza: He didn’t admit it, but I did. You have to multiply that by a pretty big number to get to where it takes me. It’s not just by two, just to be clear. (laughs)

Featured image: CrossFit Games on YouTube