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Strength In Numbers: A Critical Look At Age Group Participation In The Open

May 6, 2020 by

It’s been nearly a week since the CrossFit Games team announced the end of the 2020 season for the age group divisions, and the response from athletes competing in those divisions have been mixed. A growing sentiment amongst the community has been that the age group divisions are being increasingly treated like a trivial sideshow. The lack of live media coverage at the 2019 Games, along with minimal communication in the leadup to their season being cut entirely, has further fanned the flames of discontent amongst the age group athletes.

Less Money, Mo’ Problems: There are obvious financial reasons why the CrossFit Games had to cut back, and in triaging accordingly that always meant the age groups were first on the chopping block.

  • Truth be told, the masters and teenagers in the sport have always been vocal, but the recent developments have caused the clamoring to grow louder, and rightfully so. Still, the understanding that what has happened was necessary, and the belief that the age groups are deserving of more are not mutually exclusive.

One big thing: In the 2020 CrossFit Open, age group athlete participation basically equaled that of individual athletes, with 49.8% competing in age group divisions and 50.2% as individuals. This is the first time in Open history that the numbers are essentially the same and the result of a growing trend over the last several years as the Open draws in more and more teens and masters, making the age group’s case for inclusion even stronger.

2018 CrossFit Games Season

Things to note: The 2018 season represents a peak of the sport as far as participation goes. Open registration was at its highest all-time with 416,371 registered athletes across all divisions and genders.

Age group athletes accounted for 45.6% of all athletes registered in the Open that year for a gross number of 189,303 athletes worldwide.

  • The 35-39 division had the largest participatory numbers, accounting for the highest percentage of registration (18.9%) when compared against all athletes

Quick take: The addition of the 35-39 division a year prior significantly boosted the age group numbers as a whole, but even with the boost, 45% of 400,000+ plus athletes is nothing to sneeze at considering there was wall-to-wall live coverage of the sport, and CrossFit messaging was on the most-watched television network in the world.

Moving on….

The 2019 CrossFit Games Season

Things to note: While 2019 was the first year of the new system, remember the Open hadn’t moved to its new home in October, and there was still much confusion over the flow the season, and the directions of the sport following mass firings, a rulebook that came out after the season started, and very little communicative direction from HQ.

Overall registration declined for the first time in history, dropping by 13.9% and the total number of registered athletes stood at 358,647. A significant portion of registrations came during the final weeks leading up to the first Open announcement, continuing a trend from past seasons.

  • Age Group registrations followed suit by declining in numbers, but with 172,389 registered athletes, they did so at a much slower rate (8.9%) than the individual division (18%), and occupied a greater piece of the whole pie (47.8%) in terms of participatory numbers.
  • The women 60+ division actually had more registered athletes, and every other category at least stayed flat or grew percentage-wise relative to the whole.

Quick take: The drop in gross numbers is not surprising, however the fact that the inclusion of Sanctionals really doesn’t affect Age Groups, who still have to go through the Open, could explain why their numbers declined at a slower rate. Also, it wasn’t known yet that there would be no live coverage of the Age Groups, which would have likely affected registration.

2020 CrossFit Games Season

Things to note: The Open was finally in its home for the foreseeable future in the month of October, but the turnover for the new season started just two months after the 2019 Games wrapped having left plenty of controversy on the table about the media coverage for Age Groups, and reduced qualifying spots at the Games.

Registration plummeted once again, this time by 32.9% hitting a five-year low in terms of gross numbers, and the 240,773 registered athletes were the lowest total since the 2014 season when Rich Froning was still competing as an individual.

  • Age group numbers dropped as well, sinking to 119,870 total athletes for a whopping 30.5% decrease, but they still declined at a slower rate than the individuals (35.1%).
  • Age group participatory percentages increased, with a now record 49.8% of all registered athletes in the Open coming from one of the age group divisions.
  • Age group males outnumbered individual males in the 2020 Open, and accounted for 51.3% of all male athletes in the Open.

Quick take: There was obvious fatigue from the previous season, and growing discontent within the community on the direction and efforts from HQ was clearly reflected within the registration numbers in the Open. The age group divisions were not exempt from this trend but for the second year in a row, they snatched up more real-estate from the individual divisions with respect to participation.

The elephant in the room is the fact that currently the age group divisions are effectively equal in terms of participation in the CrossFit Games season as far as CrossFit Inc. which means financially they carry as much weight as the individuals when it comes to registration fees.

  • Since 2018, age group athletes have contributed $9.63 million dollars in registration fees for the Open that goes towards the CrossFit Games operating budget.
  • If the current trend continues, then the age groups will have a larger financial impact through registration fees than the individuals by next season. This also assumes that the nixing of the 2020 season doesn’t change the trend dramatically.

It’s also worth noting that the demographics represented by the age groups typically have more expendable income than that of the average individual athlete in their twenties. That means more money to keep the CrossFit ecosystem afloat through affiliate memberships, apparel, equipment, and gear.

  • The sport is also in its second decade, meaning the core groups of athletes and fans that built the foundation that the community stands on are now either currently in, or preparing to enter the age group categories.
  • Case in point: Jason Khalipa was in the prime of his career at 27 years-old in 2013. He’ll be a masters athlete starting next year, and there’s a lot to be said about not tearing down the vehicle that brought you here.

The bottom line: The age groups will never be the main event. Anyone with an understanding of how sports work knows that the spotlight will always be on the individuals. That doesn’t mean that the age groups should be cast aside. The world is reeling from an unprecedented pandemic, and life as we know it has changed, most likely forever in some capacity, making what happened to the age groups this year inevitable. However, the continued vote of confidence given to CrossFit Inc. by the age group divisions in the form of higher relative participatory numbers worldwide deserves reward at some point. There’s no disputing that the age groups now stand as one of the CrossFit Games largest investors, and they can only get away with underfeeding such a large demographic for so long.

CrossFit Open

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