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Rich Froning: Exercising CrossFit’s business side

Liz Engel Clark
Monday, Jul 8, 2013


Rich and Hillary Froning.

In a world dominated by deadlifts, power presses and pull-ups, one man stands out from the crowd.

Anyone who’s anyone these days in the world of fitness is following the career of Cookeville’s Rich Froning, who, in recent years, has hit his stride at the same time in which the sport he competes, CrossFit, has also peaked in the worldwide market. The Reebok CrossFit Games – the sport’s equivalent to the Super Bowl – grew nearly threefold in 2012 in terms of participation. National brands like Reebok and Oakley are jumping on board – which means endorsement opportunities for Froning in apparel, workout equipment and the like. And the term WOD – for work out of the day – has hit the mainstream – soccer moms and business leaders alike are logging more time at various gyms across the country.

While Froning is currently in competition for his third consecutive “fittest man” title – his back-to-back wins at the Games in 2011 and 2012 were firsts for the sport – there’s also a business side to the Putnam County resident, even though his day-to-day may not exactly include business suits, power lunches and spreadsheets. From opening and maintaining his own CrossFit gym, to negotiating endorsement deals, and navigating the ins and outs of his pending book release, just to mention a few.

For Froning, the story started back in college, when in 2009, he was first introduced to CrossFit while studying for his undergraduate degree in exercise science at Tennessee Tech. One day he wrote down a CrossFit workout, and, as he likes to say, the rest is history.

“It was completely different from anything I was doing – I worked out all the time, but I got bored because it was the same stuff all the time,” Froning said, sitting at home after one such session with wife Hillary by his side. “With CrossFit, there’s so many different things, so many new things to try, and that’s what was so intriguing.”

Eventually, that intrigue translated into the opening of CrossFit Mayhem, which in its infancy was located at Power Athletics, then later at Bases Loaded off Shag Rag Road. Froning, just last fall, reopened Mayhem on Cedar Avenue in downtown Cookeville, and the gym has since exploded from a core of 30-40 to more than 160 members today.

“It was kind of scary the first time through,” Froning said. “Taking out a loan, getting insurance and all that stuff. And it was tough, the first year or so that we had the gym.

“But (opening CrossFit Mayhem) was a little easier this time around,” he said. “And we’ve grown.”

That’s not too surprising considering there’s seemingly a CrossFit gym on every corner these days – there’s at least three in Cookeville, for example, and an estimated 5,000-plus in the U.S. While the sheer volume of gyms means there’s the risk the product could be watered down, CrossFit has still maintained its public accessibility. In fact, CrossFit’s growth is compared to that of one national coffee house chain.

“We went to a seminar (recently) and they compared the growth of CrossFit to the growth of Starbucks,” Hillary said. “There’s CrossFit gyms everywhere you go, which is crazy.”

Step inside a CrossFit gym and you’ll see people running, jumping, lifting. Want to try CrossFit? You’d be required to first attend an introductory course, which runs you through the basic movements and concepts in a matter of eight classes. Those prep sessions have helped with retention at Mayhem, Froning said, and leaves gym patrons feeling much more confident. It’s also a lead-in into explaining CrossFit’s cost. A membership here runs higher than a typical gym – but for good reason, Froning said.

“Other gyms make their money by people not showing up. At a CrossFit gym, we make our money when people do show up. Everybody is coached in every single class,” he said. “We’ve had several people lose large amounts of weight, people who thought they couldn’t even lift a bar, and down the road, they’re lifting 100 pounds over their head. Anybody can do CrossFit, and that’s the cool thing about it.”

One main reason for Mayhem’s second-time success can be attributed to one of Froning’s sponsors, Rouge Fitness, which has staged the gym with all its necessary equipment, meaning there’s been less overhead. Negotiating endorsement deals like that has been a learning curve for Froning, who now employs the services of a sports marketing director, or agent. He admits he never thought he’d be in such a position. But when Froning signed on with apparel maker Oakley, it was the first time – outside of Reebok, which had originally inked him for a two-year deal in 2010 – that a major company had jumped on board with the sport, a milestone referred to by some as a defining moment in CrossFit history. Froning will be the first CrossFitter outfitted in Oakley at the Games. In addition, he’s endorsed by BSN, a supplement company.

“There’s a lot of CrossFit-only companies out there that sponsor CrossFit athletes, but Oakley came in under the radar and changed everything. There hadn’t been a lot of interest before from bigger companies (other than) Reebok,” Froning said. “It’s stuff you don’t really think about, and I never thought about in the beginning, negotiating different deals. But it’s kind of cool to be the first (CrossFit athlete) to do this.”

Froning will also be one the first CrossFit athletes with a book. The new release, titled “First,” will tell the story of his journey and faith. It entailed two intense days of interviews with writer David Thomas and is being published by Tyndale House, the same company behind bios for the likes of the NFL’s Drew Brees and Tony Dungy. The book was set for sale July 1.

“It just talks about realigning what’s important in my life, putting my faith first and putting things into perspective,” Froning said. “Not putting CrossFit on a pedestal, where I’d had it the first year.”

Because there’s life outside of CrossFit, if you can believe it. Hillary, who works as a dental assistant for Dr. Scott Brown in Cookeville, says they’ve maintained a close-knit church family – they both attend Life Church on Washington Avenue and host Bible studies – and Rich tries to abide by the unspoken rule that there’s no talk of WOD’s on Sundays.

“We need at least one day off,” Hillary said.

That’s at least one of the major takebacks Froning has learned over the years. What are some of the other life lessons?

“Have good people around you,” he said. “I couldn’t do it without the people we’ve had around us. It’s not easy. But it’s fun. It’s more fun than it is work, coaching people and seeing them get fired up about stuff they never thought they could do. But the main thing is finding people you can trust. That is the key to any success.”

Rich Froning is the 2011 and 2012 Reebok CrossFit champion. For more information about CrossFit, visit www.crossfit.com. For more information about CrossFit Mayhem, visit www.crossfitmayhem.com or call (931) 674-1112.


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