The “People’s Gym:” CrossFit Cooperatives, Explained

October 15, 2020 by
Courtesy of Portage CrossFit Cooperative

From the outside, you’d never know that Cream City CrossFit Co-op is owned by its members. It seems to operate like any other gym; members come in, pay their dues, and workout.

But Cream City is one of Wisconsin’s two CrossFit cooperatives, the other, Portage CrossFit Cooperative, is  located about 100 miles away. Both are run by their members, for their members. They are the people’s gym.

The big picture: Both Cream City and Portage are 100% owned by their community. Decisions are made by a board that acts as a governing body on policy and decision-making, but every person has a say in the future of the gym.

  • “I am the president,” says Angela Michalski, who heads the board of directors at Cream City CrossFit, “but it’s not my gym. We’re a team and want to make decisions that favor the people of the gym.”

At both gyms, terms on the board rotate. Portage holds annual member meetings with elections to determine replacements. Currently, the board at Cream City is made up of nine members, while Portage’s bylaws mandate a board between five and seven people.

  • Michalski says Cream City tries to keep their board diverse, filling positions based on need. Everyone has a role, from paying the bills to handling marketing.

Membership at Cream City works similarly to the typical box. Every member has a monthly fee, $105 for unlimited classes. New members pay an increased rate of $140 for one year, before dropping down to the lower number. During that year-long period, $25 from each payment goes towards ownership, and after the 12 months — a $300 investment — new members are considered vested owners.

Portage operates “like a non-profit” and all members share ownership. A month-to-month unlimited pass runs for $95, the contract rate dropping it to $85 per month. It’s a highly affordable rate, which the Portage team attributes to their hard-working members, “who invest time where they can.”

One big thing: The co-op model allows Cream City to run a lean, “more sustainable,” business. They don’t have to pay the salary of an owner, which in normal times, keeps the box from having to seek out new members and allows them to reinvest their profits in the gym.

This, paired with having a community of owners, was a big advantage for Cream City when COVID hit in March.

  • “We had to shut down for a few months, as many gyms had to,” says Michalski. “It bothered some people — I’m on the CrossFit Affiliate page and the CrossFit Masters page — and some people in the community, it bothered them to keep paying their gym and not be able to go to their gym.”
  • “Our gym was different,” she continues. “It was like, okay, this is your gym. If you want this gym to keep going, we would appreciate it if you pay your membership and help us stay open.”
Courtesy of Portage CrossFit Cooperative

Portage put memberships on pause during the state-mandated lockdown but says their sense of shared responsibility was still present, prompting some members to request continued membership, even while the gym was closed.

The bottom line: Neither of these boxes started as co-ops, but used the model as a way to keep communities together when the owners of their boxes decided to close. For Portage – which first opened as Portage Fitness Cooperative – this happened in 2014, and in 2015 for Cream City.  

  • And even though the cooperative model was successful at these boxes, both are quick to say it’s not easy. “You have to have all of the pieces fall into place,” Michalski explains, “and we were lucky.”

She expands, pointing out that no one member had to sign to be the personal guarantor on Cream City’s lease in 2015; no single investor was responsible if the gym failed. Their former owner sold them equipment with a three-year window to pay it off.

Portage’s success is partly due to financial support from a core group of founding members, who invested in the facility, equipment, and fund a scholarship program that allows coaches to maintain their certifications.

Even if finances line up, the community has to be willing to work.

  • “I love being part of a co-op and I know people love it, but it’s not just magical. You have to volunteer your time  – a lot of time – and when you have things like COVID, and you have to get together and figure out how you’re going to sustain and maintain,” Michalski says.

Michalski continues to say she receives a handful of co-op inquiries every month, generally from gyms who are in a similar situation to what Cream City faced in 2015. She has yet to hear back if any have been successful.

  • “When I get a phone call with somebody who is interested [in starting a co-op],” Michalski says, “the first thing I say is, ‘You really have to decide. Do you want to have a gym? Or do you want to have a gym to workout at?’”
  • “If you want to just go to the gym to workout, blow off some steam, then probably, you should let it go,” she continues, “But if you want to work together with a community to keep the gym going, it’s a different ballgame.”