Team Talk: CrossFit CEO Eric Roza on Global Diversity in The Sport of Fitness

·8-min read

The story of CrossFit's meltdown during the final weeks of former owner and CEO Greg Glassman's tenure does not have to be told again. We told it. You don't need to hear the the story of how new owner and CEO Eric Roza and CrossFit Inc OG Dave Castro were going to make broad strokes reclaim the company and training method as a force for good. Because we've told that one, too.

Instead, when we the MH SQUAD team spoke to Eric during his tour of Europe, we wanted to find out what actions he and his team were actually taking; how exactly he was going to not only repair the damage but to grow the influence of health and fitness in all corners and communities.

As you will gather from this interview, exclusively for MH Squad members, Eric Roza does not rely on stock responses, or gloss over even the most jagged of issues.

Men’s Health: You took over CrossFit during a very tumultuous period, with racial insensitivity and accusations of sexism during the previous owners tenure. What were the first things on your to-do list.

Eric Roza: We had to deal with the questions of whether CrossFit was really racist. Is CrossFit really sexist? And we has to make sure we felt really good about answering those questions and showing people that we’re not.

Then it was a case of working out how we were going to get CrossFit growing – expanding to much bigger than it is now and have even more impact around the world in terms of transforming lives.

Because we do and always will measure our success in terms of how many lives we’re transforming. More than any other metric. That’s more important to us than the turnover of the business or the profitability of the business, or anything else.

Finally, after COVID, the question really was how can we come out strong and continue to grow the business? I’m talking to you from Spain right now and we have significantly more gyms here than before COVID. It’s at an all-time high and we’re seeing that in some markets already. In other markets, we’re still recovering.

MH: When it comes to the inflammatory issue of diversity, how much was that an opportunity to develop a more inclusive company?

It 100% was. We knew, and I knew from owning an affiliate for almost nine years now, as well as visiting countless other affiliates, that CrossFit at its best is one of the most inclusive environments I’ve ever seen. All the barriers break down when you’re in there sweating with people. So we needed to work out how we can mirror that in our actions as the business of CrossFit, as CrossFit Inc. How could we look the same?

We’ve really tried to lead the business in that way and one example is that we set up a diversity, inclusions and equity council; one of our executives spends 100% of her time on diversity, equity and inclusion. Not just at the company level, but in the community as well. We have an email box where we hear from gym owners and members about diversity issues and we help address them.

Another example is the people we’re bringing in: people of different skin colours, different genders and gender preferences. Just recently we hired three new senior execs. A president, a chief financial officer and a chief marketing officer, and two of those three are women. So we’re really trying to show that were committed to this in every aspect of the organisation.

MH: How much of a focus has there been in supporting, investing in and empowering CrossFit affiliates, rather than just taking their money to use the brand name?

We asked affiliates what tools they needed to succeed. They all said very clearly, that they didn’t need more rules from us, we needed tools from us. So everything we have tried to provide has been totally up to the affiliates to take up and use. If everything is going great for a gym, don’t mess with the success. If you’re running your business as a hobby, then maybe you don’t want to invest any more time into it, and that’s fine, too.

But if this you job and you’re trying to make your affiliate your primary source of income, here are a number of tools that you can take that will make you more successful and also do more good in the world. So we’ve invested millions of dollars already and have hired a lot more people into the affiliate group, and will continue to do so.

MH: A lot of people feel that there is a financial barrier to entry in CrossFit and that makes it impossible for less privileged communities to engage. Is that something you wish to redress?

Absolutely. We have close to 1500 gyms for which we wave the fees, so they can provide services to their members. Those gyms might be in school, churches, hospitals, military stations and so on. Where I am in Spain right now, there is a hospital around the corner where they provide CrossFit to cancer patients before their surgery. It’s actually prescribed by the lead oncologist.

In the US, we’ve now partnered with an organisation called The Phoenix, who help people in addiction recovery. They’ve set up two CrossFit community centres, one in Boston and one in Denver. These have become magnets, not only for people with substance use disorders, but also a number of other CrossFit non-profits who can use these gyms at no cost and provide their services to their communities for free.

A last example. In the state of Colorado we have a four prisons who are offering CrossFit to inmates and we’re leaning very heavily into this partnership. In the next month or so - and people thinks this is really unbelievable when I say this – we’re going to be training 60 inmates to become Level 1 CrossFit coaches, so we can spread this more broadly.

We’ve now agreed with the prison system in Colorado that all 19 of their prisons will ultimately have CrossFit gyms. Will still have the hard problem of getting them equipment at a reasonable price, as they don’t have huge budgets.

But we’re giving people hope who don’t have a lot of it every day. They have an identity other than being a convict, which is so important. And we’re seeing from a public health standpoint, much less violence and gang violence inside the prisons when they install CrossFit gyms. It’s been fully documented, which is why the prison system is willing to roll it out so widely. We’re seeing fewer people coming back into the prison system, as now they have an identity and a way to earn an income. And more than anything, they feel some empowerment.

These are just a few examples. We talk about our long-term goal being ‘100 million lives transformed by CrossFit’. I’d like to see half of those occur in underserved communities, who aren’t traditionally in a position to join a gym.

MH: We read recently that you envisage Europe having more affiliates than the US at some point soon.

If you look back a few years ago, Europe had half as many affiliates as the US. Now it’s 75-80%. I don’t know whether it will take three years or five years, but although there is growth in the US, Europe is growing much faster. The population in Europe is twice that of the US, so I think we’ll see more gyms, ultimately.

MH: What other regions around the world do you see as having the next CrossFit boom?

Australia and New Zealand is a very good market for us. I’d call that a maturing market, really. If you look at Latin America, Brazil has always been one of our biggest markets but the rest of Latin America is still early, frankly. So we have a lot of opportunity there outside of Brazil to grow. There have been devastating issues there with COVID. And markets like Argentina have had their own economic challenges independent of the pandemic, which has made it a very difficult period for them.

Asia and the Middle East are areas with tremendous opportunities. We’re still quite small in Asia. We have initial footholds in most Asian countries but I can tell you that even in the big markets like China, India, Japan and South Korea – we’re still in very early days. We’re probably where we were in Europe ten years ago, to give you an idea.

Each market has its own unique challenges. What works in the UK, won’t work in Japan. So we have a lot of work to do there and we look at that as a ten year project. But if Europe does become our biggest market in five years, say, in fifteen years Asia will be our biggest market, due to the population trends and the growth of the middle class.

How we get there, I have no idea right now!

MH: Is the reinvestment in the CrossFit Games since you took ownership a part of reaching more people around the world?

It is, yes. We know that five-to-ten times more people watch the Games as do CrossFit right now. So it helps us reach a bigger audience. But it’s not enough, as we then have to make CrossFit accessible to that audience. The Game is vehicle to intrigue people but then we have to come in with these transformational stories that show ordinary people, often with greater challenges than the viewer.

The Games athletes provide aspiration. It is our hope that the stories we tell about the members of our community bring the inspiration.

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