OPINION: Does CrossFit Need a Villain?
It’s tough not to want to compare the trajectory of CrossFit with that of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Although the UFC first started in 1993, it didn’t really get going until it was bought by two casino executives along with now president Dana White in 2001. The three pulled the company from the ashes, financially and culturally, building what is now a multi-billion dollar empire.
CrossFit first kicked off in 2000 in Greg Glassman’s personal training business, and while it might seem like apples and oranges to most, CrossFit and mixed martial arts are part of a new breed of sport that came around the time that both the internet and cable television rose to prominence.
Out of the technological dark ages, we now have everything at our fingertips, but for those who are old enough to remember, when cable TV went digital in the early 2000s, it kicked off a revolution and new era of content.
The UFC has obviously established itself as a legitimate sporting company, operating just outside of the mainstream, where it will most likely sit given its violent content is tough to get the average sports fan to buy into, and it’s not already woven into American culture like football is.
CrossFit has similarities here, fitness as a sport is nothing new, but there is only ever going to be a certain amount of people willing to sit down, watch it and most importantly, open their wallets for it.
The biggest thing to know about the UFC is its lineage and timeline can be broken down into two sections: pre-Conor McGregor and post-Conor McGregor. The 34-year-old Irish superstar, who has now entered the twilight of his career inside the Octagon, did what the UFC could not do, he took mixed martial arts into the mainstream.
McGregor’s statistics speak for themselves, he is the biggest pay-per-view draw the UFC has ever had, and has headlined the top five cards in terms of gate sales, revenue and exposure. But more importantly, he was known outside of the UFC, and outside of the sporting world. Ask anyone on the street and they will at least know who you are talking about.
As much as White and company may deny it, McGregor took the UFC to a place they couldn’t. Much of the appeal of McGregor was his personality coupled with the fact that he was also a really good fighter who held multiple belts at one point. He is what is known as a generational talent, and guys like him only come along once every few decades in any sport: think Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo. These are superstars who transcend the sports they play and get people to watch content about them that don’t actually follow the sport they play in.
However probably the most important thing about McGregor was how polarizing he was. You either loved him, hated him, or hated to love him. There was no middle ground with the fast-talking, trash talking king, if you mentioned his name by the water cooler at work, people would instantly want to give their opinions on him. This is what drives sports into new territories and turns millionaires into billionaires.
CrossFit has lots of stars, a few superstars, but no one like McGregor. To say McGregor was a villain is up for debate and in the minds of each fan, but he was most definitely an anti-hero on his best days, and straight up despicable on his worst.
Credit to White and the UFC for not only cultivating this talent, but also letting McGregor’s character shine and not trying to corral it with any real force, which of course had its ups and down and good days and bad, but it was always a net positive for the company and the cost benefit analysis remained.
Does CrossFit need a figure like McGregor to launch itself into the hearts and minds of regular sporting folk, or is this not the trajectory it wants, needs or could produce? Watching a competitor win the CrossFit Games while he trash talks his fellow athletes, spews one-liners in interviews and throws heat at headquarters every time he or she feels like it may not be what the doctor ordered for CrossFit: or is it?
We all love a good villain, and they are a key component of society. Love it or hate it, we all have a bit of McGregor in us, we all want to throw the middle finger up, swagger around and talk trash like there is no tomorrow. CrossFit’s elite so far have been squeaky clean, lovable, admirable and nothing short of professional, sans a few outliers. But is that really good for the sport, or do we need a new breed of athlete to swoop in to take this to the next level?
Agree or disagree, that is the whole point, these characters are discussionary lifelines, drive dollars and catch new fans because people can’t stop talking about them. If CrossFit wants to take the sport to the next level, they may want to rip a page from the UFC and find themselves a love/hate character everyone can’t stop talking about, positive or negative, and for better or worse.