How Glassman is Growing the CrossFit Brand

By Kayla Gomes

How do you know if someone does CrossFit?

Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.

CrossFit, the high intensity exercise program that combines power lifting, plyometrics, calisthenics, gymnastics, and a lot of yelling and high fives, has swept the nation. There are currently 7,361 official affiliate CrossFit gyms, known as boxes, in the U.S., with 121 boxes in the metro-Boston area alone. In spite of loud criticisms regarding safety, the popularity of CrossFit has continued to rise since its creation twenty years ago by Greg Glassman.

After dropping out of college, Glassman worked as a personal trainer who created workouts that quickly had him thrown out of gyms for safety concerns and noise disturbances. Not one to be told what to do, Glassman kept going to and being thrown out of more gyms until the Santa Cruz sheriff’s department gave him a job training their employees. He began to call his program “CrossFit” and further cultivated his brand to center around a “workout of the day,” or WOD. Glassman did his homework scouring the fairly new Internet for any information he could get on fitness. His early use of the World Wide Web secured CrossFit’s future when his small group of followers in Santa Cruz asked Glassman to put his WODs online.

“The more videos we put up [online] for free, the more money we make.” said Glassman in an interview with 60 Minutes. Twenty years after its creation, CrossFit is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and Glassman owns 100 percent of the company. His accidental focus on social-media based growth has made CrossFit into the biggest fitness phenomenon since Pilates and Boot Camp. Phenomenon breeds demand. This can be seen in CrossFit’s increasing revenue, the majority of which comes from a $3000 annual fee to open and maintain an official affiliate box. With an affiliation, Glassman allows the box’s owner to use CrossFit’s name, logo, and set their own rules for where and how the gym is run. Besides the annual fee, box owners do not owe anything else to CrossFit. Glassman does not want a franchise; he wants an autonomous empire.

CrossFit’s protection of its brand is nothing short of aggressive. A man who admittedly “loves [his] lawyers,” Glassman has twelve attorneys directly on CrossFit’s staff and has also hired over 80 outside law firms. Their team has won over fifty cases, ranging from cease and desist for unapproved merchandise to suing gyms performing classes without official affiliate status. For a man with a self-described “hands-off” approach to his company, Glassman is not afraid to brutally take down anyone who jeopardizes it in any way, even scientists and medical professionals.

Glassman is quick to state how transparent CrossFit’s risks are, even for the well-trained athlete. In The New York Times, Glassman said, “It can kill you. I’ve always been completely honest about that.” Various studies have looked into CrossFit’s risks, with one citing that “73% of participants polled had sustained an injury during CrossFit.” More concerning than the typical muscle strain or tear is rhabdomyolysis, the consequence of rapid, severe muscle breakdown that poisons the kidneys and can cause them to fail. Glassman may be transparent about the risks, but not completely honest or compassionate about them either. He continues later in the NYT article saying “If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don’t want you in our ranks.” Boxes and their trainers who push this mentality have been sued for extreme cases of self sustained injury and rhabdomyolysis. Fortunately for Mr. Glassman, his “hands off” policy towards affiliates and “risk transparency” make him guilt-free from any moral or financial burden.

Glassman’s social media team mostly focuses on taking down negative commentary online before it can be seen by the masses. They have also gone after big organizations such as The American College of Sports Medicine for reporting their data on CrossFit injuries and rhabdomyolysis. Research produced by Ohio State commended CrossFit for improving the aerobic fitness and body composition of their subjects. Unfortunately for the authors, they also included less than a paragraph discussing that 16% of their subjects had been injured. Glassman’s father, the chief scientist at CrossFit, wrote a formal rebuttal of the research in CrossFit’s self-published journal. Russell Berger, a major player in CrossFit’s social media operation, also interviewed one of the paper’s authors. The transcript posted on CrossFit’s website is clearly biased, but still cringe-worthy to read as the author stumbles through Berger’s questions. Berger even claimed to call (and probably bribe) the injured participants, saying they told him no injuries actually occurred.

Glassman has created a following that some call a cult. He denies any steps of “outwardly recruiting people like a cult does,” but you have to wonder why a fitness empire grown through social media that is supposedly “hands off” would be kept under such strict, almost vigilante-like scrutiny. CrossFit has some analogous characteristics to any other greedy corporation that doesn’t really care for its members’ well-being. In the end, Glassman welcomes any kind of attention. Good press grows his brand. Anything less will be squashed faster than the lifting he expects you to complete.

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2013). DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000318.

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