Photographer: Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images
Fitness

There’s a CrossFit War Being Fought Over Your Feet

Who’s winning the fastest growing market in sportswear? We hit the gym to find out.

As a consumer, Steven Pokk shares some rarefied company. Like basketball legends Shaquille O’Neill, Dee Brown, and Allen Iverson, Pokk owns 15 pairs of Reebok sneakers.

But the Adidas AG-owned brand has fallen far since its heyday on NBA courts in the 1980s and 1990s. In a bid to rebound, it signed a 10-year deal in 2011 to be the official sportswear brand of CrossFit, then a budding workout regimen that mixes a range of fitness strategies, from weights and rowing machines to running and calisthenics. It was a savvy move for a company desperate to stay relevant.

At the time, Pokk, a 33 year-old personal trainer in New York, was just getting into the CrossFit craze. With purpose-built sneakers and a standing 15 percent discount, Reebok made him a brand evangelist, one of its first since all those basketball greats from the 1990s.

In late 2014, Pokk and a couple of buddies opened their own CrossFit gym (or “box,” as the vernacular goes): CrossFit Kingsboro in Brooklyn, N.Y. A month later, Adidas arch enemy Nike Inc. quietly began selling its first trainer for the CrossFit crowd, the Metcon. Pokk rushed out and bought a pair. He now owns eight iterations, wearing them to the gym, walking his dogs and, well, all the time. “I’m wearing them right now,” he said, as he left on a vacation to Australia.

crossfit_final (1)
Illustration by Dominic Kesterton

As Nike battles Adidas for a slice of the global soccer-cleat market and tries to fend off Under Armour Inc. on basketball courts, it’s quietly edging into a multibillion dollar category that could have far greater impact on the future of the sneaker market. Reebok, meanwhile, is trying to hang onto share in the one place where it presciently decided to plant its flag.

Nike declined to answer questions for this article, citing a quiet period in advance of its earnings report Dec. 20. And Reebok said there was no reliable way to gauge market-share in the CrossFit community, so we at Bloomberg decided to do a small survey of our own. We dropped in on classes at five gyms around the country to see what people were wearing to work out. In this admittedly unscientific survey, Nike had won over slightly half of the CrossFit crowd, Reebok had a bit more than a one-quarter share, and the remainder was split among such smaller running specialists as Asics Corp. and New Balance and cross-training startups like Nobull.

Make no mistake, the spoils of winning this workout battle will be huge. “It’s become the fastest-growing fitness property in the world,” said Reebok President Matt O’Toole.

How fast exactly? There are now about 8,000 CrossFit gyms in the U.S. and an additional 4,000 or so abroad. In them, sweaty masses run through one-hour sessions designed to build overall fitness with stretching, weights, and low-impact body movements. It’s a proprietary program, but it requires little in the way of gear or technical training. As such, thousands of gyms offer CrossFit-like training, but they don’t bother to pay the $3,000 or so a year to license the CrossFit name. 

Those who try a CrossFit class will quickly notice three things: a wide range of ages and body types, a bunch of people who appear to know one another, and a lot of lingo that will be foreign to a newcomer. This includes Turkish get-up, kipping, WOD, and burpee–lots and lots of “burpee.” These ingredients are, in part, what make this market attractive.

Virtually anyone can do a CrossFit-style workout, and do it for a long time. In that sense, CrossFit-style cross-training is similar to running, the largest category in the game of selling shirts, shorts, and most important, shoes. But it’s the camaraderie and the lingo that makes CrossFit sticky. There’s a social element to the gym that is hard to replicate while huffing and puffing on a 10-kilometer run or in a mirrored room full of beefy guys grunting through bicep curls.

 

Reebok’s O’Toole became a CrossFit junkie himself before approaching the company about sponsorship. “I remember thinking, ‘Hey, this is the future: community, fitness, and this very dynamic approach to working out,’” he said. “There is not a single gym or fitness provider in my view that is not somehow impacted by what CrossFit has done.”

Like any trendy, new club, CrossFit presents its fans with a critical decision: what to wear. On the apparel side, the answers are easy. But footwear is trickier, because the regimen is so varied. Sure, there’s a little bit of running and a little bit of weightlifting. But there’s also a breadth of activities designed to get bodies in awkward positions. On any given day, a CrossFitter might be asked to crawl like a bear, jump rope, carry an empty beer keg, or walk up a wall into a handstand. Sure, running requires cushioning, and basketball demands ankle support. But what are the correct shoes for climbing a rope or swinging a kettle-bell?

“When we started in 2011, right away we saw there was not a proper shoe for this activity,” O’Toole said.

Billed as “the first official CrossFit shoe,” Reebok’s Nano was a strange bit of rubber alchemy—cushioned enough for a run but flat enough to make a sturdy weight-lifting platform. Meanwhile, the soles were flexible and the upper was tough.

Reebok Crossfit Nike retail

Reebok was making the fourth version of its Nano by the time Nike entered the market.

Source: Reebok

Reebok was already selling its fourth iteration of the Nano when Nike quietly released the Metcon. Where the Reebok was wrapped in a grid of thick, rubbery plastic, the Metcon was more spartan. With little marketing effort, they sold out quickly.

“They fit well, they moved better than the Nano, and they weren’t as boxy feeling,” said Pokk, the trainer. “And it looked more like just a shoe, where Reebok was basically posterizing its brand all over the Nano.”

Nike Crossfit retail Reebok

The Metcon, Nike's first CrossFit-style shoe, sold out quickly early last year.

Source: Nike

A little more than a year later, Nike showed off its sophomore effort, the Metcon 2. This time it made more of them and offered 16 different color patterns. Pokk said about two-thirds of the people in his CrossFit gym now wear shoes with swooshes, a number mirrored by our small sneaker survey.

Though Nike appears to be making great strides, the market is still relatively young and very much up for grabs. Matt Powell, a sportswear analyst at research firm NPD Group, said both Nike and Reebok have failed to capture the CrossFit crowd in the way Michael Jordan’s swoosh took over basketball courts. “It’s weird because there is, to some extent, a cult following here,” Powell said. “You would think they could tap into that.”

That’s exactly the strategy of Nobull, a brand launched in May 2015 by two former Reebok workers. The company sells, essentially, one shoe in a variety of color patterns. As the name suggests, there isn’t much to it. There’s a simple, minimalist sole, a tough upper, and that’s about it. There are no straps or plastic grids or toe-straps—just some text on the heel that reads: “Nobull.”

Co-founder Michael Schaeffer, former creative director of Reebok, said all the other sneakers aimed at the cross-training crowd are over-designed and overly complex.

“CrossFit is very bare bones–there are no mirrors, no complicated machines,” he said. “For us, the product design just kind of flowed out of that.”

His company’s first shoes sold out within weeks. Though Nobull declined to discuss revenue, co-founder Marcus Wilson said sales grew 10-fold this year. According to our tiny shoe audit, Nobull commanded about 3 percent of the market.

A photo posted by NOBULL (@nobullproject) on

 

“The market was ripe for this kind of company,” Wilson said. “CrossFit is very much word-of-mouth driven, they like to support small businesses, everyone is on social media, and they are very comfortable buying online … it’s kind of the perfect formula for us.”

Reebok, meanwhile, still believes its “official” partnership with CrossFit gives it “authenticity” (read: street cred), particularly in emerging markets. In China, for example, CrossFit rookies clamor for the brand with its name on the gym.

“We were definitely the trailblazers, and there’s plenty of folks following, but the pie keeps getting bigger,” O’Toole said. Nike, meanwhile, has been busy crowing about its new college football uniforms. But if its prior release schedule is any guide, the company is also putting the finishing touches on a Metcon 3.

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