Grid: Started From the Top, Now We’re Here

This article is a little longer than most of the articles I have written for Strong Figure but there is a lot of great information here that you won’t want to miss.

Here is what you will get:

  • A sit down interview with Jim Kean, the CEO of the National Pro Grid League, where Jim talks to us about Grid’s beginnings and how the NPGL plans to grow.
  • A brief compare-and-contrast look at CrossFit vs. Grid — their roots, popularity, and television impact.
  • An update on the future of Grid’s new amateur leagues.
  • An interview with Phillip Pitsky, the commissioner of the Mid-Atlantic Grid League, that you won’t want to miss. If you are an athlete, coach, or potential owner who loves the idea of competing on an actual NPGL Eleiko Grid, then you have to read to the end.
  • And an interview with two of the founders of the Capital Affiliate League, Nick Mann and Ateeb Ahmad, where they talk to us about Grid and an amazing opportunity for ANY ATHLETE to compete in a Grid style format. Yes any athlete! They have a team open division!!!

The Best Sport on Television

The sport known as Grid was made for TV — literally. The founders of the NPGL purposely invented the sport to be good for television. And it is. Seemingly, every match in the opening season depended on the last event for the win. Can you imagine if the National Football League figured out a way for every game to come down to a come-from-behind final two minute drive? That is the way the inaugural Grid season played out.

DC Brawlers after winning the first NPGL Championship
DC Brawlers and Coach Cotler, after winning the first NPGL Championship – it should be noted that the NPGL Championship, which aired on NBC Sports, had a similar TV rating to the NHL Finals.

Teamwork, strategy, athleticism, strength, power, agility, passion, blood, sweat, and tears…Grid and the National Pro Grid League (NPGL) have it all. It is quite simply a perfect product for the American television viewing audience.

So why is it not more popular?

The obvious audience for Grid is the CrossFit community. Grid is a sport centered around functional fitness. The sport admittedly came out of CrossFit — the sport of fitness.

So it is reasonable to suspect the initial viewing audience would be made up of mostly crossfitters. However, from my anecdotal experience talking with people, reading articles, and following chat forums, I believe a lot of crossfitters have automatically dismissed Grid without ever watching it.

Photo courtesy of the NPGL
Combine functional fitness and the good ol’ fashioned race-to-the-finish-line and you have Grid — or human performance racing if you prefer. Photo courtesy of the NPGL

Grid and the NPGL Cannot Deny Their CrossFit Roots

Recently I sat down with Jim Kean, the CEO of  the NPGL, and he not only talked about how Grid developed out of CrossFit, but that he himself is a crossfitter. I should point out Jim is a pretty good crossfitter too — he has a 5 minute Fran time and he consistently finishes in the top 100 in the CrossFit Open for his category; not bad for a former Silicon Valley guy in his mid 50s. 

Because the NPGL came out of the sport of CrossFit and because, in my opinion, it is a better spectator product than CrossFit, you might expect it would be extremely popular in the CrossFit community. However, as I mentioned earlier, many in the CrossFit community seemed to reject Grid from early on. Not being a crossfitter myself, I chalked this up to your typical talking points: CrossFit is a cult and cults don’t like new leaders; haters-gonna-hate; and if Rich Froning doesn’t do it, then it doesn’t matter.rich-froning-sunglasses

For some in the CrossFit world, these talking points are likely true. However, when I looked into this idea deeper, I began to suspect the disinterest in Grid had more to do with the roots of CrossFit versus the roots of Grid.

CrossFit started in a single underground gym in Santa Cruz, CA.

Long before we could watch Camille LeBlanc on ESPN, crossfitters were turning their garages into gyms, boxes were being transformed out of storage units, and people were changing their lives with a barbell and a pull-up bar.

CrossFit has embraced this grassroots beginning. Today, their boxes are still found in warehouses, their walls are often plain concrete, and they celebrate their rugged, primal culture.

CrossFit NapTown shares an image of their early days. Photo links to original source
CrossFit NapTown shares an image of its early days. Photo links to original source

 Grid Started Top Down

How many sports can you name that started as a professional sport with an NBC contract? No youth leagues, no amateurism, but a sport that said these are the professional teams, here are the rules, now watchAnd if you can name a few, how many were successful?

What was that sport where people jumped around on a giant bouncy course and tried to put balls in goals I think?

Is the reason we love sports because we grew up playing them? I grew up playing most of the major American sports and I love to watch all of them. I never played cricket and even though we are in the midst of the Cricket World Cup, I could care less.

Can a sport be successful starting top down?

Jim Kean uses soccer in America as an analogy.

Soccer broke onto the American scene in the 1970s with the New York Cosmos and an aging superstar known as Pele – you may have heard of him. But at the time, no one was playing soccer. Kean pointed out that when he was growing up as a teenager in California and Nevada, soccer was not even a high school sport. Soccer received a little notoriety from Pele and the Cosmos, but the acculturation we see today didn’t exist until soccer began to be played at amateur levels.

Eventually soccer trickled down to be played and viewed at all levels and eventually this led to soccer’s success in America.

Like soccer in the United States, Grid started much the same way. Kean admits Grid did “top down it” by design. They wanted to produce a sport that at the professional level would fit within the American model of sports television success – first, it had to fit within a time frame of 1.5-3 hours. The rules were created so that teams could easily come from behind, which is critical for a viewing audience. And Grid is easy to follow. Can you imagine watching football if you didn’t know the rules? Grid is much easier for the casual fan to figure out and understand quickly. Sure there are nuances and strategies that only the most astute spectators will catch on to but a person unfamiliar with Grid can watch 20 minutes and have a pretty solid understanding of what they are seeing.

I didn’t want us to be some artificially designed sport where you had to have some really bizarre rig with a bunch of door knobs that you swung on … basically American Ninja Warrior; that’s not a sport, that’s more entertainment …I wanted it to be something that someone could instinctively understand, read the rules, and then people being inventive could say, ‘well we don’t have a pro level rig, but we could do it this way’. — Jim Kean, CEO of the NPGL.

The intention was to set up the sport so that it could be repeated and then migrate down.

The NPGL never intended to isolate the sport as a professional sport only. Kean believes Grid should be everywhere and he envisions seeing different types of Grid. The NPGL office is even looking into developing a whole line of body weight Grid so that the sport can be repeatable at multiple levels.

We believe grid should be everywhere. — Jim Kean, CEO of the NPGL

Jim talked to us about a 6th grade PE teacher who produced 45 minute long body weight Grid matches for his classes and the kids loved it. My 6th grade PE teacher made us square dance.

Clearly the beginnings of CrossFit and the beginnings of Grid are VERY different

Is CrossFit successful because people are seeing what they do every day on television at a more elite level?

I remember Steph’s excitement the first time we watched the CrossFit Games on ESPN. I made the mistake of fast-forwarding through one of the commercials and I was immediately reprimanded — whoa whoa whoa what are you doing? I want to see that. This was her Superbowl.

But Grid is clearly not CrossFit. One of the major mantras of CrossFit is it is constantly varied, you have to be good at it all. Whereas in Grid, athletes who are weak in a particular area can be picked up by their teammates who have different strengths. Editors Note: Today, Steph gets much more excited about the NPGL than the Games.

Personally, I think the teamwork part of Grid makes it more watchable. Everyone is phenomenal at the skill he or she is doing. Watching an athlete like San Francisco Fire’s Courtney Walker sprint the entire length of all four Grid quadrants on her hands is awe inspiring. New York Rhino’s Irving Hernandez completing 50 pull-ups in under a minute is something a person just has to witness. Sam Dancer’s hang cleans, Christian Harris’s burpees-to-10’rings, and Taylar Stallings on the deadlift ladder are all must-see-television. Is it any wonder why NBC jumped at the chance to sign Grid to a TV contract?

As impressive as the CrossFit Games are, to me a non-crossfitter, they can sometimes be a little boring. And considering the Games are post-production viewings, this means they probably cut out most of the boring stuff. I have a tremendous amount of respect for CrossFit and the Games athletes, but when it comes to being AMAZED, CrossFit cannot compete with Grid. Imagine if the NFL required that Peyton Manning block linemen or if they made Ndamukong Suh throw passes — would the NFL be as successful? Clearly not because (for you non football fans), Manning would be way too small to block linemen, and Suh likely hasn’t thrown a pass since little league. Americans like watching the best do the best. And since Grid is broken into shorter periods of time, the weights are heavier, the moves are more difficult, and everything is just a little more superhuman. All of this appeals to the American television viewing public.

The NPGL's strongest woman doing ring muscle ups.
Yes, Grid also has “generalists” and it is important to be good at everything–to an extent. Seen here, NPGL’s strongest woman, Taylar Stallings, easily completes ring muscle-ups.

This will be the year that Grid is accepted by CrossFit

Though Grid may not be accepted by CrossFit Inc. or Headquarters right now, I believe Grid will start to break serious ground within this community soon.

Grid is going grassroots

Sure, the sport of Grid started from the top, but now the league is opening up its doors to amateur teams. And I believe amateurism will be the binds that connect Grid with CrossFit.

According to Kean, there are now six amateur Grid leagues in the US and even a few beginning to form overseas.

Stephanie and I recently sat down with the commissioner of the Mid-Atlantic Grid League (MAGL), Phillip Pitsky, and two of the founders of the Capital Affiliate League, Nick Mann and Ateeb Ahmad.

From the initial conception of the NPGL, it was pretty apparent, pretty fast, that while the pro league was very very popular to watch, the grassroots thing is what’s missing. — Phillip Pitsky, Commissioner of the Mid-Atlantic Grid League

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Will someone from your box make the semi-pro Mid-Atlantic Grid League?

The MAGL and other amateur leagues throughout the country are exactly what Grid needs. Right now in your box there is a man or woman kicking serious ass. He or she likely has what it takes to compete at a very high level. Not every box can have a Games athlete or an NPGL athlete but many boxes probably have someone who deserves to compete at a higher level. How cool would it be to watch an athlete from your box compete against the best Grid athletes in the surrounding states?

I attended the Richmond Superfit East Coast Championships a couple of weeks ago and more people were talking about Grid than they were the CrossFit Open. Why? Because they knew people who would be at the Brawlers-Anthem Pro day, they knew someone talking to one of the potential MAGL owners, and because they knew Superfit legend Alicia McKenzie and they saw how amazing she performed for the LA Reign last season.

That folks, is how you grow — grassroots.

That is why this is the year Grid will be accepted by the CrossFit community.

The up and coming amateur leagues will connect the viewer to the sport. “No one has ever trained on an Eleiko Rig before,” says Pitsky, “No one has ever [competed in] a grid style event before.”

IMG_9072Many watching Grid may have had trouble connecting to the sport itself. As Jim Kean points out, soccer’s popularity doesn’t really grow in America until people who grew up playing soccer in little league started connecting to the pros on their television screens.

Nick Mann, of the Capital Affiliate League, points out that people will be more connected to the sport when they know the participants and when they have participated in the sport as well. Mann should know. The Capital Affiliate League (CAL) has been offering competitions in the DC area since 2012. According to Mann, CAL “is built on that grassroots feel, it’s built for everyone to compete.”

According to the CAL website, their league is open to people of “all athletic backgrounds to compete and have fun.” They offer an Upper, Open, and Experienced division to give the best competitive opportunity to any athlete wants to show their stuff. And they actually structured their last season like a Grid style format. How cool is that?!

So when they do watch the Games or a Grid match, they are like, ‘Hey, I’m going to try that.’ And we will put that same event, scaled down, into one of our competitions. — Nick Mann, Capital Affiliate League

MAGL

The MAGL is a semi-professional Grid league serving Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C., Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. And probably West Virginia; although, I didn’t see the Mountain State on the MAGL website.

Teams

Teams will be coed and each team will have 14 athletes on its active roster. There are already 10 teams currently going through the MAGL acceptance process and the league office will consider up to 20 teams. The team owners who have applied are mostly CrossFit Box owners, but there will be one or two teams that have the intended purpose of being developmental teams for the DC Brawlers. The Brawlers are a 50% owner of the MAGL and they have already committed to putting one semi-pro team in the opening season.

Acceptance Process

The MAGL is still accepting applications for new teams. Applicants will be chosen based on team ownership, financial backing, and geographic distribution. The MAGL wants to make sure that the team owners are in a market that is set for success. To ensure success, they are looking for owners with a solid plan for growth — how they plan to develop the athletes, market the team, and demonstrate their business plan.

Athletes enter your Grid score at the MAGL Athlete Portal
Athletes enter your Grid score at the MAGL Athlete Portal

Athletes

The athletes in the MAGL will be selected by the MAGL team owners. An owner may choose to select athletes from the DC Brawler-Baltimore Anthem Pro Day or perhaps he or she may only select athletes from the owner’s CrossFit box; it is completely up to the owner who he or she chooses to be on the team. To help owners choose the best possible Grid athletes, there will be a combine on May 30th at the DC Brawler training facility known as the Pit.

The Pit

The Pit, located in Ashburn, Virginia, will be the home training facility of the DC Brawlers. The Pit will feature the actual west coast match Eleiko rig that was used in the NPGL last season. In addition to being an elite training facility, the Pit will also serve as the location for all MAGL matches. Currently the MAGL teams in the acceptance process are mostly from Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia; but for the first MAGL season, all of the teams will compete at the DC Brawler training facility. The Pit will open May 1.

MAGL serving the NPGL

We are structuring the league to mirror what the NPGL is doing. — Phillip Pitsky

Our goal is to have the same competitive structure as the NPGL. — Nick Man

One of the goals of the MAGL is to serve the teams in the NPGL. If an NPGL team wants to use the MAGL to develop their athletes then they need the amateur league to simulate what is being done in the professional league. The only major difference is, as of right now, there is no 40+ athlete requirement for the MAGL teams.

Athlete Portal

If you are a Mid-Atlantic athlete and you think you might have what it takes to join an MAGL team, then you need to check out the MAGL Athlete Portal. The portal will store the athlete information, his or her grid scores, and a personal profile. Team owners can then access the portal to select the best athletes to fit the team’s needs.

For athletes wanting to join the MAGL

The first step would be to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and various social media outlets. And then get an account on our website. Enter your grid score, and various max lifts…and create your profile, and then wait for the next announcements. — Ateeb Ahmad, Capital Affiliate League

And from there you will be able to combine to show what you got and hopefully be discovered. — Phillip Pitsky

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As a sports fan and fitness enthusiast, I am SUPER excited about Grid and the future direction that the sport is moving. With the rise in leagues, such as the MAGL, Grid will continue to build popularity.  Grid is a sport people should be getting excited about. Like Jim Kean says, “Name one sport that is coed where the outcome is dependent on equal efforts of the men and women?”

If you are excited about Grid, we have more coming from these interviews that you will not want to miss! Make sure you sign up for a subscription to Strong Figure.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Erik, you are so intelligent in so many areas! And quite the eloquent writer, I’ve never heard of the GRID until now, but feel as if it seems “better” than Crossfit int he sense to watch/have teams since it can play on others strengths, we can’t all be good at everything!

  2. Erik WalkerErik Walker says

    Thanks Amber! You are the best.

    And yes Grid is a very cool sport. And since you are a New Yorker, you have to check out the NY Rhinos. It is hard for me to root for a NY team but the Rhinos have quite an impressive roster. Including Iceland Annie — who might be one of the coolest human beings around.

  3. joe says

    The unlimited substitutions make grid a bit of a yawn. To build on your Irving hernandez example, in the playoffs the team that new york was playing had their second person start on pullups before the first person finished. This meant that the second persons reps started counting as soon as the first person came off the bar. Thus, the team created a “synthetic” Irving hernandez and took away any benefit that the rhinos had from having Irving on the team. I’ve watched about 5 or 6 grid matches (1 in person) and have tried to force myself to like it. I just can’t with the current rules.

    • Erik WalkerErik Walker says

      Thanks for the comment Joe. And like any thing, some sports will appeal to some fans more than others. Personally, I have always preferred team sports — I love the coaching and strategy of sports in game. I know a lot of “purists” prefer individual sports like track, golf, and tennis but these have never appealed to me. Other than the fighting sports (MMA, boxing, etc) I have never really been a fan of individual sports. Perhaps it is because I have coached team sports for over a decade but I love when a team is able to overcome a physical disadvantage with a smart strategy. So Grid is just a better form of fitness sports in my eyes. To me, Crossfit is crazy impressive and awe inspiring but it’s a little like watching the NFL combine, where the players sprint their 40 yard dashes, do the vertical leap and broad jump, and bench press 225lb for reps. It is cool and impressive but I don’t exactly set my DVR to record it. Whereas, the NFL game is where it all comes together — teamwork, strategy, momentum swings…to me, Grid is like the NFL game.