Three Major Questions Surrounding NOBULL’s Title Sponsorship
The NOBULL era of the CrossFit Games is officially underway as the Boston-based apparel company, born within the CrossFit community itself, was announced as the title sponsor of the Games for the next three seasons.
The promise of the largest prize purse ever accompanied the announcement along with a constantly varied array of responses from the community on social media, but there is still plenty left to be revealed regarding the specifics of the deal and the projected impact it could have on the sport and community at-large.
With the official kick-off to the season less than 10 days away, below are the three big questions left to be answered following the title sponsorship announcement.
1. How will NOBULL meet the demands of the CrossFit community?
- The obstacle: Meeting the global demands of a community of more than 14,000 gyms is no small feat for a largely U.S. based apparel company that was founded in 2015. When Reebok signed on a decade ago, the community was smaller, the market for CrossFit-specific clothing and shoes was largely untapped, and Reebok had three decades worth of international infrastructure under their belt with supply chains that could handle the demand.
- The good: CrossFitters love stuff, and exposure will be at an all-time high. The dedicated following that NOBULL has built in such a short amount of time coupled with their lean, but prominent stable of athletes ensure that there will be some level of patience to afford them runway to develop while knowing that the demand will still be there. Tia-Clair Toomey, Katrin Davidsdottir, Brooke Wells, and Justin Medeiros were all top five athletes at the Games in 2020 and will play a vital role in the partnership moving forward.
- The bad: The timing and nature of the announcement does not leave much physical calendar time for the short-term. The Open starts in just over a week, and the ever evolving nature of the pandemic presents a variety of potential roadblocks for expansion and logistics that could change in a moment’s notice.
- The undecided: Reasonable expectations for NOBULL scaling in the first year of a deal announced so close to the season start are hard to solidify. Even harder to ascertain is what increased demand might look like in terms of actual numbers during a pandemic and beyond without a deeper understanding of the fine print. Meeting the demand would be a massive boon to the brand.
2. How will NOBULL meet the demands of CrossFit Games athletes?
- The obstacle: The CrossFit Games are a beast from both a product development, and volume standpoint. The nature of that beast demands a wide array of products to account for the unknown and unknowable that is on the horizon for the roughly 600-800 athletes that could earn their way onto the competition floor at the CrossFit Games. The Games athlete kit (and subsequent social media post) has become a quintessential token of the athlete experience at the highest level and a badge of honor for up-and-coming athletes the remaining calendar year. In years past, Reebok designed the complete athlete kit the entire season ahead to meet calendar deadlines for production.
- The good: The aforementioned cohort of elite Games athlete’s provides a rock-solid sounding board for product development at the highest level. In past years, athlete input was paramount in creating apparel and shoes that would stand up to the test Dave Castro and his team rolled out. Lifting the footwear exclusivity rule at the Games in 2019 — something that has not changed in 2021 — has given NOBULL two years of field testing for their products in advance of taking over the lead role at the Games, in addition to the time spent seeing their products in action at Sanctionals. More recent additions of products like the cycling shoe and trail runner, have expanded their core offerings enough to give them a better foundation to build on.
- The bad: Building the Games kit takes a tremendous amount of time. Developing new shoes, something that Reebok did each year for the Games, takes time. So much so that Reebok had a facility in Indianapolis specifically for building the Games kit. Reebok also had other departments of the company to pull from. The sheer magnitude of the effort meant that by this time each year — think close of the Open in March — the design, and most of the print work was completed absent athlete names and numbers. NOBULL’s first turn and building their own unique athlete kit will come under a relative time crunch, with less than five months until the proposed week of the Games in July.
- The undecided: How much time NOBULL had to prepare for this. The length and nature of the contract negotiations could have afforded them a few more months of preparation in anticipation of the eventual announcement. The Games kit has typically had upwards of 40-50 pieces and sometimes up to six unique shoe lines for various competition situations. It will be interesting to see if NOBULL has some new product launches up its sleeve between now and the Games.
3. How will the NOBULL brand as a whole evolve while being at the forefront?
- The obstacle: Up until this point, NOBULL has gained its footing in the community as a carefully distilled, boutique brand when compared to the competitors in the space. Everything from their athlete selection, overall design, and release schedule, has been carefully curated to fit nicely as a distinguishable option separate from the other brands with the claim of being born directly from the CrossFit ecosystem. That niche goes by the wayside to an extent when suddenly a brand forged in the fires of the “special release” or “drop,” economy suddenly jumps to the front of the line as the title sponsor. As the late Sean Connery said in Finding Forrester, “You’re the man now, dog!”
- The good: Not to sound like a broken record, but having some of the preeminent faces of the sport will once again provide a foundation in learning how to lead from the front. NOBULL has also developed in-house media efforts that have effectively leaned into their newfound strength on the athlete side of things and will be an important cog in the wheels of storytelling and presentation needed from title sponsor-sized brand. It has been a shade under 20 months since both Davidsdottir and Toomey joined Wells on the NOBULL team, and in the time since, there has been NOBULL’s signature slick marketing, and line of products designed around them through the “More Than Influencers Campaign.”
- The bad: What works for 1,000 isn’t always what works for 100,000, or 1,000,000. Because they have been the boutique brand comparatively, they’ve been able to take things slower on the innovation side, releasing new colorways and slight variations of their classic trainer without developing new iterations all together while remaining at a higher price point than Reebok or Nike for their base offerings. They have managed to roll out new products like the knit and mesh runners, or their trail runners, but to adequately capitalize on the partnership, they will have to evolve as a brand and fully own their new identity as the Games titles sponsor. Their predecessor and the feedback from the community so far has hinted that it could necessitate an expansion of their offerings, and more innovation at multiple price points to be more inclusive of the broader community around the world.
- The undecided: What will the CrossFit landscape, or the world for that matter, look like six months, one year, or two years from now? Innovation and product development for a worldwide release of a shoe can easily take 18 months, and with a three-year contract on the books there is a compressed window for action. There is so much give and take when operating at warp speed that it makes missteps likely and patience from the community a necessity. How do you gain the world without losing your soul? Asking for a friend.
The bottom line: These questions will not be answered immediately, nor should they. Look no further than companies like Rogue or Reebok who effectively capiliatized on partnerships with CrossFit to serve the community in a tremendous way and to great benefit A good portion of the community today was not around when the Reebok deal came through, but the initial feedback of the community was mixed at best. Ultimately the sport grew, the community grew, and the partnership with CrossFit allowed Reebok to develop an impressive portfolio of training apparel specifically for CrossFit.
The patience of the community was a catalyst in that process. NOBULL should be afforded that patience as well, as a company that is clearly dedicated and rooted in CrossFit. A company born from the community, now tasked with serving the community on a broader scale, while simultaneously committing a tremendous amount of money to the community for the next three years is a decent place to start given everything that has happened in the past year.