Can athletes really make a living doing CrossFit? My experience says, yes. (OPINION)
I started my CrossFit Games journey back in 2009. In 2011, after qualifying for my third CrossFit Games, I received my first product-only sponsorship opportunity. It wasn’t until 2014 that I was able to take my portfolio from free products and minimal fees to a six-figure income. Not only did I earn a decent living from that point on but I also opened a lot of doors for myself and my family.
So maybe you’re a legit athlete and you have a real opportunity to make a splash in the functional fitness space. What can you do to pull it all together? How can you get a fair shake in the sponsorship space, so you can get paid to train your ass off and pay some bills in the process? Let me tell you what I know and what I’ve learned along the way.
1. If you’re an athlete trying to chase down sponsorships via being a “brand ambassador,” you’re doing it wrong.
Know the difference between growing a lucrative brand and a time-consuming hobby like being a brand ambassador. If you’re expected to perform well you better have your butt in the gym training and not hanging out at local competitions every weekend. In-person promotions and traveling are fun, but let’s be honest, it is a total disruption to your life as an athlete. Time is valuable and so is your recovery. Take your athlete responsibilities seriously (i.e. social media posts, videos, appearances, competitions, etc.), just make sure you know the difference between being a legitimate athlete and what I like to call… a “Vendor Village All-Star.”
2. Think of yourself as a business.
If you’re making small amounts of money but still spending your own funds on things like travel and training gear at least be smart enough to think of yourself in terms of a business. Talk to a tax adviser. You might be able to at least write off expenses like training gear, gym membership fees, mileage to and from the gym, travel expenses, and any other necessities costing you money to train and compete. And, just like a business, know when to say no. You have to say no sometimes, and it’s a lot easier for somebody else to say no on your behalf than it is for you to say it. Having people reach out to Dustin first freed up my time and helped me tackle some of the hard decisions that I didn’t want to make or stress over. Have someone in your corner acting as your shield.
3. Be picky.
At its peak, my portfolio was built mainly of products that I used regularly. I always felt that my best partnerships were with companies whose products I could benefit from directly because they were reliable, dependable and had proven results. Not only was I more drawn to the company and the partnership when I used the products, but I was able to tell a more honest story when I promoted them or talked about them on social media. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to pay your bills is important, but so is protecting your brand and identity throughout the course of your athletic career. You want to work with companies (big or small) who have your best interests in mind and are going to treat you with respect and value your time. I always preferred real contracts with real terms versus royalty-only and paid-per-post relationships.
4. Contracts are all negotiable.
If you don’t like what you’re being offered or some of the demands being made, ask for changes. Otherwise, if they really want you there, ask for an appearance fee, in addition to your travel expense reimbursements. Athlete agreement “must-haves” are monthly compensation, product allowances, covered travel expenses, and podium incentives and/or podium-prize matches. Things to be mindful of are the number of required social media posts, appearances, booth sittings, and other demands being made to you as the sponsored athlete. Always consider an appearance fee, in addition to your travel expense reimbursements, when it comes to camps, speaking engagements, and other special appearances. Make sure you know your value and your worth before negotiating any contracts. Don’t be afraid to ask what your peers are receiving. Review each agreement carefully and be prepared to have a lawyer look over any finalized agreements before signing off on anything.
5. If you want to make it a reality, you can’t be afraid to take some risks along the way.
None of this would have ever happened if I hadn’t quit my job in 2013 and Dustin didn’t quit his job a year later. My family thought we were crazy, but we didn’t care. We were all in. The money we would eventually make and save over the next several years is what allowed us to invest in the businesses we own today.
6. Understanding that at some point the show must go on is essential.
Whether it’s injury, age, or lack of development, your window of opportunity won’t be around forever. We knew I couldn’t compete forever and didn’t want to look back and regret not going for it when we did.
Okay, okay, so maybe only a few of you can relate to this article but my goal was never really to become a sponsored athlete. I was more focused on being the best athlete that I could be, and in the end, I only wanted to compete and run with the big dogs. I know there are CrossFit athletes out there doing it better and I think that’s great!
I apologize if I ever denied anyone my time at any point. I wish I could have said ‘yes’ to everything or made more time to see more of you, but the minutes were always so precious when I was expected to perform at such a high level. Throw in marriage and all the other adulting and there was just never enough time. Even today when I get requests, almost daily, I must weigh out the return on investment. I hope you understand; it’s just business. Good luck and happy training!