Inside CrossFit's Weird, Cultish, and Moneyed Up Rival: The Grid

The Grid is CrossFit in league form, but within the tight-lipped and close-knit world of fitness sports, its aspirations go beyond a workout program.

Jan 23 2015, 1:33pm

Photo courtesy L.A. Reign

Lindsey Valenzuela is an intimidating woman. The tattooed, 5'6", 27-year-old's official stats: She can deadlift 405 pounds, the equivalent of two refrigerators. She can clean and jerk 245 pounds over her head. She can lift a 65-pound barbell from her chest to over her head 21 times, then do 21 pull-ups, then do the whole thing over again in sets of 15, and then again in sets of nine; all in just two minutes and 26 seconds—most humans would give up before making it even a quarter of the way through the first set.

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When I arrive at The Deuce in Venice, Valenzuela's in the middle of one of her typically brutal workouts. However, inside the warehouse-style gym that opens onto a gated concrete lot, the 2013 CrossFit Games runner-up casually refers to her body-breaking circuit as a "quick workout." Valenzuela lifts barbells, runs up and down the street with a weighted sack over her shoulder, and outlasts every man in the gym through a series of muscle-ups—a kind of pull-up/dip on gymnastic rings; it's hard, trust me.

Here is one of CrossFit's biggest stars, a bonafide celebrity (in a very small world) with her own line of motivational t-shirts. And, now, she's signed on to be one of the faces of the new National Pro Grid League (NPGL)—a professional fitness organization, distinctly CrossFit in style, but deliberately and, for legal reasons, definitely not CrossFit.

Photo courtesy L.A. Reign

"I was one of the first to sign," she says, citing the team aspect of the league as what attracted her. Valenzuela, reportedly, signed a lucrative multi-year contract with the L.A. Reign, Los Angeles's Grid League team, in early 2014. But, in a tight-lipped community, no one will confirm for how much or for how long.

In the meantime, she doesn't plan to give up what made her famous in the first place, and it's unlikely her sponsors would let her even if she wanted to.

"CrossFit will never be replaced by The Grid," she says. "It's like the Olympics and the NBA. If athletes are lucky enough they get to go to the Olympics, but they play in the NBA to make a living."

In this analogy, the NPGL (called Grid by all its owners and athletes) is the NBA. The CrossFit Games are the Olympics.

And Valenzuela is not the only one hoping that Grid will become the NBA of fitness sports. When the first-ever match was held at Madison Square Garden in August, it attracted 4,000 fans. The finals, which aired on NBC in October, drew a .32-.36 rating—amounting to about one to two million people tuning in.

"For a new league to do that nine months after inception is unheard of in the history of sports," says Jim Kean, who took over as Grid's CEO when the newly-birthed league was forced to briefly shut down because of cash flow problems. Now, the company has an undisclosed amount of private investment, eight full-time staff members (with more help coming on during the season), and big plans.

Photo courtesy L.A. Reign

It's no accident that Grid was born out of CrossFit or that most of its stars, like Valenzuela, come from CrossFit. Grid's founder, Tony Budding, worked for the CrossFit brand for nine years, but harbored a plan to make a more commercial, spectator-friendly version. Something more compelling than a bunch of ridiculously ripped folk competing in what amounts to an open gym exhibition.

"It's completely different from the [CrossFit] Games," says Valenzuela—except that many of the exercises are the same.

However, in contrast to CrossFit's "constantly varied high-intensity functional fitness," the National Pro Grid League is not a training regime. It is solely a team sport. Grid is contested over a two-hour match made up of 11 races, in which two teams go head-to-head in a series of strength tests. In one race, three men and three women might mirror each other as they lift increasingly heavy weights, without letting the barbell touch the ground. In another, two women might race through a string of burpees, cleans, back squats, and pull-ups—and then, almost immediately, go through the same set again.

Teams are also required to carry a male and female Masters athlete (more than 40-years-old) and to use their female athletes equally—something Kean believes is attracting female fans.

"It's designed explicitly to be slightly female biased," says Kean. It's the first sport, he claims, that is completely co-ed. Along with points being awarded for winning any of the 11 races in a match, a number of points are also awarded for winning the women's half of the race. It's no accident that many of Grid's biggest stars (and the most intimidating-looking people in the gym) are women like Valenzuela.

Photo courtesy L.A. Reign

"We're very calculated about what our product is intended to do," he says. Yes, it might inspire women and further gender equality, but its main purpose is to attract female fans. Further, who's attracted to female fans with disposable incomes and a predilection for fitness products? Advertisers.

Kean is a startup business guy. He built the consumer-facing side of WebMD back in the 1990s and sold his latest company, WellnessFX, last year. He was brought in not because he's a huge functional fitness junkie—though, yes, he does CrossFit—but because he knows how to build a company and make it profitable. "There's a bazillion elements you have to hit," is how he sums it up.

But, if they can hit all those elements, they may be in on the ground floor of something big. Maybe.

Grid, Valenzuela hopes, is how she's going to turn her impressive ability to lift heavy things quickly into a correspondingly large income. First, though, the L.A. Reign will have to start winning matches. The team went 0-4 this year, but it was a learning curve, said Jon White, one of the team's co-owners. "There's a lot of things we could have done better."

White went to every match and training camp. He drove the athletes around, got them food, found physical therapists, and even bought athletic tape before matches. It's not the usual role of a team owner, but it's not a usual league yet either.

The league technically owns all the teams and pays for common expenses, but league-wide revenue is split—not that there's any profit yet. What White and friends bought with their $100,000 franchise fee was the operating rights within a given geographic area. That price tag, though, is going up. The two new expansion teams coming in 2015 paid $500,000 for their operating agreements. Any future teams, of which there are expected to be a few, will pay $1 million.

Early last year, Grid held pro combines in Vegas. In June, there was a draft. By August, the first match was on TV. When things move that quickly, there are bound to be mistakes. Most team budgets this first year were around $1 million, with the league spending $20 million in total, but the prices they paid tended to be higher when making last-minute purchases and rescheduling travel plans. Those costs will go down, Kean hopes, as Grid gets more organized.

"We're basically making it up as we go," says the San Francisco Fire's general manager Paul Southern.

Photo courtesy L.A. Reign

Perhaps the most telling example of the league's thrown together nature is its pay structure. For someone like Valenzuela, being a fitness athlete is a full-time job—one she's rumored to be paid quite handsomely to pursue. But others have to make being an athlete fit in between their actual jobs. Tania Osborne, 44, is the Reign's reserve Masters athlete. Because she's a reserve and didn't compete in matches, she didn't get paid. At all. "It's more like I volunteer my time," she sys. She makes her real living as a full-time program manager for Panasonic Avionics. Next year, the league will move to a salary model, so that reserve athletes get paid regularly. Still, some are more than happy with the setup as is.

"The thought of being able to be a professional athlete at the age of 41 was just the farthest thing from my mind," says Fire athlete Chad Augustin said. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime."

Augustin should know. He's not Valenzuela. He's not a big name or well-sponsored athlete. He is a 41-year-old firefighter in Sacramento.

To become a Grid athlete, he took a leave from firefighting. He moved into a condo the team rented for him and one of the assistant coaches. Monday through Friday, with Wednesdays off, he trained with the team—getting physical therapy, working out, watching tape. Wednesdays he worked a 24-hour shift on a medical helicopter and on the weekends he drove home to Sacramento to see his wife. He says it was worth it.

After the championship finals match, Augustin flew home and headed straight to his helicopter job. As he and his crew sat around waiting for a call, he turned on the TV to watch the match he had just competed in. He saw himself on NBC racing through the events and heard the commentators introduce him as a professional Grid athlete. How many 41-year-old firefighters can say that?

"I would have done this for free," he says.

Changes to Grid are already in the works. The venues are going to be smaller and some matches will be aired specifically out of TV studios. Substitution and team size rules are being revised. TV deals are getting renegotiated and sponsors courted. The sport is bound to change, to get even more commercialized and corporate—after all, the Grid was conceived as a business, and the goal is still to get as popular and profitable as possible.

To do that, it will have to break out of CrossFit's shadow. Though everyone is quick to say there's room for both, there are also rumors about bad blood. Some sponsors are only involved with CrossFit, says White, and don't want their athletes competing in Grid. Not that anyone will talk much about that either. CrossFit is known for being somewhat secretive, and many of the Grid athletes and owners have appropriated that style. (CrossFit did not respond to requests for comment.)

But none of that matters anywhere near as much as this: Grid is fun to watch. It's almost as if one of the games you and your friends invented as kids became a real sport, complete with comically large weights and cartoonish grunting. It's fast and, yes, it's a little silly, but like any sport in its infancy, it's easy to dream about it becoming something more. And isn't that what it takes for a sport to catch on? A business plan and advertisers and sponsors will get you far, but you need to sell people on a dream grander than a bottom-line. Otherwise, Grid will end up, at best, in the same place as CrossFit: profitable and boring.

No one dreams about being boring.