The last time I attended nationals was 10 years ago in 2007, coincidentally, the last time it was held in Las Vegas. I was barely competitive and only had a few contests under my belt, but got an invite by showing up to a last minute contest held by the NAS Arizona state chair in Phoenix. I remember waking up at 4am and leaving Southern California with 6 of my close friends, nervous at the thought of performing in front of a crowd and potentially earning a spot into 'the Big Show' to be held the following month. We made it to the venue with just a few minutes to spare, pulling up in a residential cul-de-sac where the promoters house was located. Mildly confused, I asked, “where's the event being held?”. “You're here, we're just getting started.”
When the average person thinks of an athlete, those who make up the team rosters of organizations such as the NFL or NBA usually come to mind. An athlete to a lay person is someone who has achieved some minimum standard in their chosen field, light years ahead of the rest of the population, and is compensated, by salary, sponsorship, or celebrity, for doing so. On the list of things that make one an athlete are suiting up for a college basketball game, getting paid for fighting in a sanctioned boxing match, and making it to the Crossfit Games. On the other hand, playing a pick up game of 2-on-2 with your buddies, going to Jiu-jitsu practice twice a week, and attending a wod at your local box, do not.
There's an implication with the title of 'athlete' that the preparation transcends recreational activity. There is purpose and direction, with the primary goal of being invited to, and ultimately winning, the highest levels of competition. And along with the tone of dedication and sacrifice, it is also implied that not everyone can do it.
Social media has created a big incentive for participation of 'athletes' in recreational sports. By the millions, Instagram users are filling up their feed with videos from their local training halls, first timers chronicalling their 'fit journey' as they prepare for amateur physique competitions and novice lifting meets. These contests are open to anyone, for a fee, and while the podium is not necessarily representative of the best of the best, the events are supposed to serve as a spring board for those aspiring to reach that title. And unlike the UFCs and NFLs of the world, in this arena, athletes and consumers are one and the same.
Sport organizations are lucrative for two reasons: they are spectator friendly and they have a dedicated base of fans or amateur participants. The NFL gets to charge millions of dollars for advertising during the super bowl because it attracts viewers and their athletes get paid millions of dollars because their role in generating fan-based revenue is essential. But for less spectator-friendly sports which don't attract much interest outside of the people who participate in the activities to begin with, revenue will never be driven by virtue of millions of fans. Niche activities like poker, surfing, and the Crossfit games.... all are propped up by the fact that there are enough people actively engaged in the field to provide a viable revenue base for higher forms of competition.
Crossfit represents the epitomy of this type of growth; it has grown to the level of starbucks, with a box on every corner and every young games contender studying for their level I cert in between shifts as a barrista. It's important to note the stark difference that exists between the recreational participant base of Crossfit, which is driven by pricey group classes that cater to all skill levels, and the competitive element ran by HQ, which caters to Games hopefuls. It isn't just a difference in intensity or the caliber of ability required to participate, but a difference in the actual training protocol themselves. Doing 3 Wods a week won't prepare you for regionals any more than tai-bo classes will get you ready for k-1 world championships.
Crossfit didn't grow because promoters were putting on a contest every other weekend. It didn't grow because grandmothers and twelve year olds were being convinced to compete side by side with seasoned vets. The day-to-day recreational component is what propelled Crossfits growth; who knew that combining varied fitness workouts with a social component would be a massive hit. Crossfit grew because it was a fun social activity that kept people invensted. And when it spread like wildfire, it provided a consumer base for the Games and all of the seminars, merchandise, and coaching packages that came to surround it.
Powerlifting has recently seen a similar surge in popularity, likely as a by product of crossfits success. In contrast to Crossfit, powerlifting doesn't distinguish between the caliber of participants in any meaningful way. Local meets are open to all, with state, national, and even world meets having a low minimum qualification standard. Promoters make money by guaranteeing that anyone with money to spend on gear and fees can, something that is easily accomplished by removing any and all barriers to entry. Those with a training lifespan that is measured in weeks and months compete at the same show and in the same flight as world record holders. What used to be a platform for the strongest around to showcase their talent is now a hub for teenagers with less than a year of actual training experience. Lifters are opening with an empty bar, in a contest of strength, and paying hundreds of dollars to do so. All a newbie needs to put the credential of 'powerlifter' on their IG header is a $100 entry fee and a singlet.
Before I get flamed for being an elitist asshole (which I definitely am), allow me to paint a picture of what unchecked participation does to a sport.
Since powerlifting has grown, there are meets in California by USPA and USAPL virtually every week. Every meet takes place in a basketball gymnasium or barbell club, features 60-200 lifters, and routinely lasts 10 hours from weigh ins to awards. These organizations have grown by catering to complete newbies, offering endless divisions to ensure a minimum number of people place below 1st. Gold medals are given out by the hundreds. The awards ceremony takes hours to get through. The monotony of the meet paired with the inflated amount of unremarkable feats makes it unwatchable. In fact, it is such a failure as a spectator sport that some organizations have taken to hijacking the wallets of friends and family; $5 and $10 admission fees are enforced, knowing full well that the only spectators are loved ones of the lifters who can't justify not paying the entry fee.
The winners in this scenario are the meet promoters. 200 lifters at $100 a pop along with the tax on friends and family and merchandise sales equals a pretty nice takeaway for a weekend's work. Factor in membership fees to the sanctioning body for each lifter across hundreds of meets per year, and you can see the incentive for promoters to cater to every new lifter, regardless of accomplishment or dedication.
The losers are the real athletes, the people who are hungry for a legitimate competitive experience, who have trained diligently for years to become worthy of the platform, who paid out of pocket for travel, entry, and time off work only to find themselves at the end standing alone on the podium, gold medal around their neck, with no one to their left or right. All of this growth and revenue and there is no real opportunity for compensation or achievement, even for the most talented lifters . The best in the world still maintain a day job and have to pay for travel and expenses. 900Lb squatters spend their time attracting IG followers and writing ebooks because there is no purse to be won to pay for the next trip to Worlds. In short, by virtue of powerlifting being 'for everyone', it is for no one.
The problem that strongman faces is that all of the push for growth is directed towards participation in contests, which themselves are supposed to be spectator events and a funnel to higher levels of competition. In the pursuit of 'growing the sport of Strongman', a similar strategy to Powerlifting has taken root that advocates arbitrarily improving attendance at all cost by expanding weight classes and novice divisions with lower barriers to entry. Some have even gone as far to say that it is essential to the success of the sport, and is the only way that participation can reach the heights necessary for high caliber contests with plentiful prize money and sponsorships. This is, of course, complete nonsense.
Mathematically, it is impossible to launch Strongman to these heights solely off the number of first time novices competing each year, especially when considering the number of people who drift away after one or several meet entries. What the proliferation of the novice class does do, however, is water down the competitive experience by telling the crowd that nothing exceptional is happening. It would be like those hoping to experience an exciting MMA tourney instead being treated to a yellow belt ceremony. What should be an event that sparks awe and wonder into the hearts of spectators has now become an underwhelming, even boring, experience. Afterall, how hard can it be to pull that RV if so many underweight teenagers can do it??
When those who spent years reaching the minimum requirement of strength and skill required to compete are showcased side by side with complete amateurs on a scaled back course, the sense of awe that comes with witnessing something truly rare, superhuman even, fades into a menial experience. Meets now become an exercise in moral support, a chore where you are obligated to clap and cheer, regardles of whether or not the feat merits it. By being for everyone, strongman is for no one.
If a sport like strongman wishes to evolve into the next Crossfit like phenomenon and avoid mirroring the watered down, inflated disaster that powerlifting has become, there has to be a platform for week-to-week participation that can lead to a viable fan-base while still maintaining clear separation between weekend participants and dedicated athletes. There has to be some recreational and social entity that consistently promotes this style of training, while catering to those who do it for fun while also rewarding those who have taken the time to excel. There has to be something, similar to the MMA centers and Crossfit boxes of the world, that will capture and retain participants by the hundreds of thousands and feed interest into higher, spectator-worthy events. Currently, there is none.
Since I began competing in 2006, contests are much more common and implements are more easily accessible. The down side is that this surge in participation is mostly in the new divisions that have been created to lower the bar for new athletes. This increased turnout has tripled entry fees, with $100 being the norm where $30-40 was standard. For this increased fee, a competitive middle or heavyweight will be lucky to have 4 other participants in their class, while the novice division will have 15-20. 4 hour contests can now take up to 8 as the attention of friends, family, and spectators wanes while watching a dozen untrained participants stumble their way through their first death medley. The increased participation from lower barriers to entry leads to a type of competitive inflation, and the trend is not getting better.
It is paramount to the success of strongman that participation be indicative of some standard. Mock meets and novice centered training groups are fantastic and should consistently be encouraged; in fact, I believe it is these components that can truly build the sport. But the unchecked creation of new divisions to attract more entry fees is the same as making smaller and smaller ponds so that untrained guppies can look like big fish.
Taking something like access to an actual strongman competition, which should be a coveted prize in and of itself, and distributing it to everyone stinks of competitive socialism; not surprising in a lifting culture comprised primarily by millenials. To apply simple economics, scarcity breeds value. When meets are hard to get into, training and preparation become more important. Adequate coaching commands a higher price. Successful coaches are easier to identify and successful competitors command more respect. And when contests are promoted with proper barriers enforced, spectators will watch, in awe, as they witness feats that are truly rare.