The CrossFit PR mayhem — the destruction of a global brand

“One tweet from the CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman, and the brand’s now breaking down.”

Well… that’s not exactly true. The demise of CrossFit has been a long time coming. Glassman’s tweet did stir up a perfect PR storm, for sure, but the brand CrossFit was already in serious trouble.

Glassman tweeted the insensitive remark about the George Floyd murder, a tweet that caused sponsors like Reebok and Rogue to withdraw their support. Anyone familiar with CrossFit will know just how deeply tied these two brands are with the sport, so these decisions aren’t to be taken lightly. They’d be devastating even if there were no Covid-19 pandemic.

Glassman has since issued a non-apology stating that the tweet was worded badly in haste, but he also stressed the the tweet wasn’t racist. This doesn’t seem to be helping as big names in the CrossFit world are taking a stand against him — and affiliate gyms all across the world are abandoning ship.

It’s likely that PR professionals will be using this as a case study to demonstrate how one tweet took down not just a beloved worldwide brand, but also an entire sport. However, that’s not exactly the case.

CrossFit has been in trouble for a while now.

The CrossFit sport is now facing a difficult choice

CrossFit is a peculiar phenomenon. It could be classified as a sport, but CrossFit is first and foremost a brand property.

The annual CrossFit Games is mostly a marketing event where central figures are staging themselves as icons — even more iconic than the athletes who must blindly obey their whims. In fact, the storytelling around disclosing new events is often more a spotlight on the founders than anything else. The nostalgia of CrossFit’s humble beginnings are constantly brought into focus and the founders fascination with the military and first responders are always apparent.

The CrossFit founders are setting not just the tone, but the whole culture of the community.

A few years ago, I experienced the leadership culture first-hand when I working with a health- and fitness brand affiliated with the sport. CrossFit HQ decided to award winning athletes with a Glock, a standard handgun for many carrying men and women in uniform. This decision was, for apparent reasons, very difficult for affiliated brands to accept; US gun laws are exceptionally liberal. But the CrossFit HQ refused to acknowledge any such concerns from the global community.

When Rich Froning, the biggest star of CrossFit and by all accounts an amazing atlethe, recently condemned Glassman’s statement, he wrote at length about ‘loyalty’. He goes out of his way to state that he’s still loyal, maybe not to the CrossFit HQ for speaking out against them, but towards the CrossFit community. Brand loyalty is a prerequisite for high-level competitors in CrossFit.

And, with such a tight-leashed leadership comes problems.

The CrossFit star Tia-Clair Toomey spoke out against Glassman and another star, Noah Ohlsen, declared that he won’t be participating in the next championship. More are likely to follow.

A while back, CrossFit HQ did remove their social media accounts due to privacy concerns, but when they did reopen their accounts, they came out with snarky remarks implying that the Covid-19 pandemic was blown out of proportion. This, too, caused a backlash, especially from Asian affiliates.

It’s not excusable, but it’s consequential that a leadership so infatuated with uniformed personnel should find it difficult to deal with the criticism now being aimed at the American police force. And affiliates who raise concerns are being, quite literally, told to cease and desist. Symptomatically for such a narcissistic HQ culture, they rather let affiliates loose than to have them dilute the personal viewpoints of the leadership.

It’s an age-old story: Just because you suddenly find yourself at the helm of a global movement that started in someone’s garage, the position itself doesn’t automatically qualify you for it. Deserving or not deserving; some people do get lucky above their fitness for business.

Someone might argue that I’m being too hard on the brand’s leadership, that they should just replace their CEO and move on. I think that for CrossFit to progress, the community needs to come up with a new name for their sport, because it’s their sport now, and whatever name they choose, it must be free to grow organically.

If indeed the CrossFit HQ can muster another annual CrossFit Games Championship, the leadership will probably put on quite a show in a final desperate attempt at regaining control of their brand. The question is: Will the community allow them to stay in charge of the sport?

Photo by Ryan De Hamer on Unsplash.