Whether positive or negative, CrossFit elicits an emotional response from fitness professionals. It is personal, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The brand, which is generating significant buzz these days, has actually existed for more than a decade and has become both popular and profitable. Emotion aside, CrossFit offers lessons for its big box competitors, but it also has lessons to learn itself before its growth dilutes its brand.

CrossFit does the following exceptionally well:

  • Brand management. CrossFit is both a noun and a verb. Clients are CrossFitters who go to CrossFit to CrossFit. It even has its own language, calling its workouts WODs (workouts of the day), which participants champion, but critics abhor. It insinuates some elitism and exclusivity, but this fortifies the community.
  • Loyalty. Loyalty is to people, not to things or places. Trainers run CrossFit boxes, greeting clients when they arrive, pushing them to their limits and cleaning up after. The system is transparent and minimalist.
  • Internal continuing education. All CrossFit trainers must go through the same certification. CrossFit now offers 11 specialties, but trainers are taught just one way to execute each specialty.
  • Multiple finish lines. Every workout is measured and managed. All WODs lead to The Games, CrossFit's annual world competition with local and regional qualifiers.
  • Shift from where and with what to how and with whom. The CrossFit box can be a parking lot, a garage or a warehouse, and it can consist of only bars, bells, bands and boxes. Its focus is on the challenge, results and athletes. No bells and whistles. No mirrors. No complaints about televisions not working on ellipticals.

For its participants, CrossFit is a way of life. It is a community built around discomfort, challenge and competition that yield fierce camaraderie. No two boxes look the same, but a transplanted member from California to New York can quickly assimilate into the new group because each box has a shared experience. Although the physical integrity of the big industry boxes may be more uniform or even identical across the country, the expected experiences of the members are not. The camaraderie and training are not unique to CrossFit, but CrossFit is doing what its competitors in the fitness industry are not–creating an intense loyalty that, in business, translates to results, referrals and retention.

CrossFit reports having close to 6,000 affiliates worldwide. All CrossFit affiliates must have trainers who are at least Level 1 certified, paying $1,000 for the weekend seminar that is neither nationally accredited nor recognized at any other gym. CrossFit then has strict guidelines on using its brand for marketing on affiliate websites, requiring a $3,000 annual fee as of 2011 (that is nearly $18 million generated annually in brand management alone). Once the brand started growing, elite coaches saw an opportunity for them to work with CrossFit to grow their audiences (and grow their wallets) beyond their own niches. With 11 specialty certifications, CrossFit is competing with everyone without excelling in any one domain.

The exponential horizontal growth in affiliates dilutes the program design and increases the risk of physical injury.

Despite its flaws, CrossFit remains popular and profitable. Some of the big boxes in the industry are trying to create CrossFit-like programs. What their corporate offices fail to grasp, however, is that the success of CrossFit is not just about the program but rather the community.

As mid-size gyms continue to diminish, the choices will narrow between a big box that has everything you want and a small box, such as CrossFit, that has only what you need. In order for the big boxes to compete, they need to realize and communicate that CrossFit did not create a new fitness program; it built a fitness community that the big boxes are missing.