Why the ECC Calling it Quits May Be Good for the Fitness Throwdown Market

Op-Ed, by Writer Emily Beers

Ben Bergeron’s prestigious ECC is done.

Surprised?

I’m not.

Yes, apart from the CrossFit Games, and possibly Wodapalooza, the East Coast Championships was the next distinguished fitness competition for CrossFit athletes, but there are major problems in the fitness throwdown market these days that contribute to my prediction: The trend will continue. More and more events will fall like dominos this year and next.

The podium at E.C.C 2016 

On a local level where I live in Vancouver, B.C., the trend has already taken hold. I can think of three organizers that decided to cancel their fitness events this season, most notably the West Coast Triple Crown Winter Challenge event, a competition that started in Victoria in 2009.

Athletes Demo a sneak-peek of an event for the 2015 Winter Challenge. The event has since discontinued. Photo credit. 

Three Reasons Throwdowns will slow

3. Too many throwdowns!

In 2010 and 2011, fitness throwdowns were few and far between. I remember traveling to Seattle a number of times as there were only two or three events all year in British Columbia.

By 2012, holding a throwdown became the cool thing to do and more and more affiliates hopped on board. The growing demand of athletes were stoked, and even small local events started selling out within hours of putting up their live registration.

By 2013, running a competition seemed like a prerequisite to owning a gym, so much so that by 2014, there seemed to be as many throwdowns as affiliates. By 2015, we reached full saturation.

The result: It has become harder and harder to field athletes, judges, sponsors and volunteers. Organizers started to have to work a lot harder to even fill their competition rosters, for very little in return.

It is getting harder and hard to find committed and reliable judges, and volunteers. 

Chris Schaalo, who has been involved in hosting the Winter Challenge since 2009 (as well as the Squamish Fall Challenge that also called it quits this fall) said this is why they decided to cancel these two events this year.

“There has developed a massive saturation on these types of competitions, and with so much competition it creates a situation where great sponsors and volunteers are hard to come by, and it’s extremely difficult for an organization to make all the time and effort worth it,” Schaalo said.

This brings me to point #2:

2. Time and Cost: You must love what you’re doing or it’s not worth it!

If you have ever run an event, you know how much work it is. And how hard it is to churn any kind of a financial profit. While all gym owners love fitness and are happy to offer a great event to the CrossFit community, it’s hard to justify adding 200 volunteer hours to your already big workload as a gym owner.

When Ben Bergeron released his reason for cancelling the ECC on social media, he said this: “After three fun, busy, successful years of hosting the @ecchampionships, my team and I have made the tough decision to cancel the show for 2017. We took an honest assessment of the opportunities before us, and after some long conversations and some soul-searching realized our passions were pointing us toward continuing to make CFNE better, to make our athletes better, and to helping affiliates run better businesses.”

I’m reading between the lines: The ECC hijacked all this time for very little (if any) profit, and took away from taking proper care of his own athletes at CrossFit New England.

Jordan Holland, the organizer of the Cascade Classic admitted running a competition is not only incredibly time consuming, but the financial risk for the organizer is high—especially if you’re attempting to run a larger event like he just did at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.

“And when you scale up and try to make a bigger event, the demands get even higher, and the costs too, and it feels like a full-time job, except you’re volunteering,” he laughed.

Jordan Holland, middle, thinks profits can come in other currencies, like inspiring people to try CrossFit for the first time, or creating a safe and environment for athletes to compete at. Photo: Cascade Classic Media 

No matter the time and cost he put in, though, Holland said he gets so much out of hosting his event each year.

“It’s a lot like having kids..I have two (kids) and it’s just horrible sometimes, but it’s also magical,” he said.

“Running an event is just a ton of magical moments. There was a guy who volunteered this year who had never done CrossFit before. He just saw a picture on Instagram and thought volunteering might be a good way to get close to the CrossFit community. And there was another girl in the scaled category, and she came up to me and told me the competition changed her life. It changed her outlook on life.”

Even Wodapalooza (arguable the most well-known and successful annual throwdown in its sixth year this year) co-founder and organizer Guido Trinidad admitted unless you absolutely love throwing events, like he does, the time and financial risk can be tough to justify.

While he has never lost money on Wodapalooza, in year one they barely broke even, he said, and he was “basically volunteering.”


Blonyx crew members love Wodapalooza and can't wait to head back for 2017 

Since then, profitability has increased each year, he said. Currently, his event makes enough money to pay other full-time and part-time contractors needed to pull off the massive event in Miami. Although timewise, Wodapalooza is a full-time job for Trinidad at different times of the year, he said it still doesn’t make him a comfortable living.

“The profitability is there, but not to the extent that it would make it worth it if we weren’t extremely passionate about it,” said Trinidad, who also owns an affiliate in Florida and recently got involved with a meal service business, as well.

The point is, Trinidad certainly doesn’t run Wodapalooza for the cash. If he did, he would have stopped long ago, he said. He does is because he loves it. And his love and passion is likely the reason he has been incredibly successful in building his brand, and a competition the CrossFit world loves.

1. Games Athlete Predicament

While someone new to the sport is generally excited to compete any chance they get, the more experienced CrossFit Games athletes are starting to train a lot smarter. And a lot smarter means competing less in the off-season to focus on what they really care about: The CrossFit Games season.

The always-wise Lucas Parker learned this long ago. His focus has always been on the CrossFit Games. He has always said that to properly train and peak for Regionals and the Games, he rarely competes in other fitness competitions throughout the year that aren’t sanctioned by CrossFit.

Joe Scali and Emily Abbott training at Semiamhoo Athletic club. Abbott is scaling back her competition schedule this year but still travelling to stay involved with the community. 

Other athletes are following suit. Blonyx athlete Emily Abbott spent all of last year competing her face off—from the Cascade Classic in Seattle, to Wodapalooza in Florida, to the ECC in Boston, to the Ultimate WOD in Mexico—only to realize it was detrimental to her ultimate goal of performing her best at Regionals and the Games, she explained. Other than CrossFit-sanctioned events, she is limiting her competing to just one other competition this year.

“Maybe Wodapalooza,” she said, “but we’ll see.”

Two-time Games athlete Carleen Matthews is in a similar boat. Though she did compete with a team in the one-day competition at the Cascade Classic in September, she told Blonyx she won’t be competing again until the CrossFit Games Open.

Opex Fitness founder James FitzGerald thinks this trend among Games athletes will continue. He predicts more and more top-level CrossFit athletes will limit their non-CrossFit sanctioned events to maybe just one per year, making it difficult for local throwdowns to compete with.

What does this mean for the future?

The potential slowing down is a good thing for the throwdowns that are planning on continuing. It will mean those that remain are more likely to be more successful. To maximize chances of success, here’s what I think throwdown organizers need to focus on: The athletes, the fans and the sponsors.

Athletes:

Since less and less Games athletes are looking to add additional competitions to their season, local throwdown organizers should focus their attention on up-and-coming Regionals athletes, who are fresh and eager to compete, and who will benefit from gaining competition experience. Or on recreational and lifestyle athletes to provide them an opportunity to enter a competition.

Interestingly enough, Trinidad said his goal of Wodapalooza was never to see how many Games athletes he could attract.

“We have always prided ourselves on being inclusive. We never intended this to be a showcase of the fittest on earth. That’s what the CrossFit Games are for and that’s great,” he said. “But ours is more of a community event—a celebration of fitness. We’re celebrating fitness, community and life.”

“I know it’s tempting to want to be like other events and pride yourself on how many elite athletes you can get, but we never did that,” he added.

What he did instead was create an unforgettable event in Miami each year—one that everyone wants to compete in. Including Games athletes—lots of them. Last year, Wodapalooza saw athletes from 22 different countries around the world.

Fans:

Organizers need to make events more spectator-friendly!

I have watched one too many 20-minute AMRAPs in competitions, where I have no clue which athlete or team is winning. The worst is when you have to watch five heats in a row.

20-minute AMRAPs are like watching a basketball game without a scoreboard: Confusing, irritating and bore the hell out of you!


Regionals events are entertaining for fans, in part because there is proper signage and presentation of who is in the lead. 

Look at CrossFit Regionals and Games events in last four or five years: The fans are always engaged and entertained—not just because the level of fitness is so high—but because the event is always designed so the fans know who is leading the event at any given moment. That’s generally how sports work…

Trinidad said one of his main goals of his programming are to ensure the fans are entertained.

“People want to see a race,” he said.

Sponsors:

I have heard this complaint from many businesses who sponsor events:

“So-and-so contacted me and asked me if I could sponsor or donate prizes for his event. He never asked me what he can do for me.”

It seems many athletes and event organizers think sponsors are looking for ways to give away their products or services for free. What they don’t realize is these companies are businesses, not charities, who care about their bottom line.

This goes for any athlete or even looking to be sponsored: Ask them what you can do for them.

The final piece of the puzzle comes down to organizer success.

And This comes down to your bottom line. For an event to survive more than a couple years, unless it’s designed to be a fundraiser or charity event, I think the organizer needs to start seeing a financial benefit for his efforts. And I think this will take care of itself if he focuses on excellence in the latter three areas: Athletes, fans, sponsors. He must:

  • Cater to the right athletes for his event
  • Cater to the fans by making the event spectator friendly
  • Cater to the sponsors by offering something in return
And, of course, the final factor is the market saturation problem. But that seems to be taking care of itself.

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