Former NHL Player Brooks Laich Outlines Ways to Grow CrossFit as a Professional Sport
Former NHL player and Open Gym co-founder Brooks Laich made a recent appearance on the “Talking Elite Fitness” podcast to discuss his love of CrossFit with hosts Sean Woodland and Tommy Marquez. He also spent a large portion of the interview discussing prominent issues that he sees and several steps to take that could simultaneously grow CrossFit and better benefit its athletes.
Remind me: Laich played in the NHL from 2003 until 2018, primarily with the Washington Capitals. He also spent eight years as an NHLPA representative and played a role in collective bargaining agreement discussions. Now he is shifting his focus to CrossFit’s Home Office, the athletes who make a living competing, and how they can improve the sport to benefit everyone involved.
An athletes union: Laich was heavily involved in the NHLPA during his career, serving on the executive board for eight years. He played a role in hiring and firing executive directors, as well as the creation of agreements between the league and its players. As someone that lost over $2 million due to lockouts, Laich knows what can happen when the league has all of the power while the athletes have none.
- Viewing CrossFit through that perspective, “I was absolutely shocked at what I saw,” Laich explained. “What an athlete’s life is like in CrossFit. Right now, what I see in CrossFit is that CrossFit yields all of the power. 100% of it, and the athletes have no say. They are at the mercy of everything CrossFit.”
- “It’s because there is no union. There is no pushback. There is no collective amongst the athletes. It’s an individual sport, but I believe the athletes need to find a way to collectively come together to get some leverage, to get some power back.”
Health insurance and travel: Among the issues that Laich mentioned was the lack of health insurance. He noted that an athlete can “blow out their shoulder” during a competition, forcing them to pay for the surgery in order to return in the future. CrossFit does not offset any of these costs. Additionally, he referenced Mat Fraser’s habit of shipping mattresses to hotels ahead of competitions in order to guarantee a solid night of sleep.
- “Currently, CrossFit athletes have no health insurance, they have no pension, they have no travel provisions, essentially,” Laich said. “CrossFit athletes ship beds to the hotel they are going to stay at because they never know what it’s going to be like, what their bed is going to be like at the CrossFit Games.”
- “In the NHL, it’s mandatory — we negotiate this — it’s mandatory that we fly first class. It’s mandatory we stay at five-star hotels. It’s mandatory we get like $120 a day for per diem so we can eat good food.”
A long tenure: Laich acknowledged during the episode that the NHL has a current advantage over CrossFit in that the league has been around since 1917. It has a long and storied history. Additionally, there is considerably more money at stake due to the league’s marketability and TV deals. That being said, Laich explained that he is a huge fan of these CrossFit athletes and that he wants them to succeed financially.
Championship paydays: As a result of the NHL having more money available, the athletes earn considerably bigger salaries early and often in their careers. Laich compared the minimum salaries of depth players to the amount of money the CrossFit Games champions earn after a grueling competition in Carson, Madison, or Aromas.
- “I’ve seen thousands of NHL players in my life, and I see these CrossFit athletes,” Laich said. “They are phenomenal athletes, they are committed, and it’s across the board. The sad thing is that if you win the CrossFit Games as the Fittest Man and Woman in the world, you’re going to get paid half of what the league minimum to play in the NHL is.
- “The league minimum in the NHL is $650,000. Some guys are going to make $650,000, and they are going to sit in the press box because they are spare players, they’re extra players, for 60 out of the 82 games.”
Season format: Woodland asked Laich how he would address some of his issues and “fix” CrossFit to make it better for the athletes and fans. The former NHL player responded by listing some top priorities. Chief among them was the season schedule and qualification requirements that change multiple times over the years.
- “Where I see big holes right now, as a fan of the sport, is that every year is different than the one before,” Laich said. “I don’t know how somebody is qualifying for the Games. I don’t know what the format is. Next year is different, this year it’s this, next year it’s this. As a fan, how am I supposed to follow this?”
- “All of the pro sports are not only sports, they are marketing. You are in both businesses of being a professional sport and you are in the marketing space. To be able to do that, there has to be some predictability.”
Merchandise: Paying the athletes more money and creating a fund to provide better accommodations on the road is not a simple task. CrossFit can’t just wish cash into existence. Laich is aware of this, and he posed multiple ideas to offset the costs. The first focused on the athletes and their fanbases.
- “Here’s one example: go to CrossFit.com/shop,” Laich said. “Go to that website right now. There is nothing on it. I can’t buy a jersey of my favorite CrossFit athlete. Go to NHL.com/shop. You can buy merchandise of everything. How about we license some of this to the athletes?
- “Like if I buy a (Katrin) Davidsdottir jersey, she gets a fraction of those sales and CrossFit gets a fraction of those sales. It will encourage the athletes to brand themselves on social media and be more of a personality so they grow. They are financially rewarded. The sport grows, it’s financially rewarded. Everybody wins.”
Premier events: Another one of Laich’s options to bring more money into CrossFit and benefit the athletes is to take a page from golf. He explained that there are four majors each year and that the biggest names take part. The Masters Tournament, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, and the Open Championship make up this quartet. Laich would like to see CrossFit do something similar with its fan-favorite events.
- “Imagine if you had Wodapalooza, Dubai, Rogue, and Granite Games — four major events a year where I knew that all the top 20 athletes would be there throwing down against each other,” Laich said. “Money is going to pour into that.”
- “Networks will want to pick this up because also it’s a storyline. Every six weeks, we’ve got a new competition. And maybe Rogue is very heavy barbells and Wodapalooza is going to have more swimming. Different athletes are going to rise at different competitions.”
Lending some expertise: Laich told Marquez and Woodland that he hasn’t had any specific conversations with the powers that be to discuss making these changes. However, he said that he is willing to sit down and lend his time and experience to any CrossFit athletes that want to have discussions about coming together to get some of the power, better accommodations, and pensions among other things.
- “Please, any CrossFit athletes that just want to pick my brain on any of this, I’m an open book for all of you,” Laich added. “I want so much for the athletes to succeed.”
- “Athletes have a shelf life. We have a small window, which are our prime earning years mainly in our lifetime, and I want the athletes to get everything they can in those shelf-life years and set themselves up for the pivot that they are going to make.”
The bottom line: These changes may not happen in the immediate future — or ever — but Laich said that he has high hopes for Eric Roza and the future of CrossFit. He explained that the new CEO listens to the community and is very receptive to ideas from athletes, fans, and sponsors. His hope is that the athletes come together and that the future leads to health insurance, pensions, better merchandise, and a variety of other improvements that will only further grow CrossFit as a professional sport.