From Paying Athletes to Poaching Them: Should CrossFit Adopt Rules For How Training Camps Approach Athletes?

‘Tapping up’ is informally defined as “the illicit practice of attempting to recruit a player while they are still bound by contract to another team.”

FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, states in their rules that a player may only be contacted about a transfer once written consent from the player’s current team has been given. However, it is rare that the practice of ‘tapping up’ doesn’t, in some shape or form, preclude a player’s transfer. It can be something as subtle as praising a player in a press conference, or, as is now common place, secret video calls between agents, players and prospective managers talking about payment and opportunities should a transfer happen.

As the sport of CrossFit grows, so too does the earning potential. The phrase ‘earning potential’ has two meanings when talking about athletes. First, what can they earn as athletes and ambassadors in and around the sport and, second, what can be earned back through investment in an athlete. One of the ways this investment can be made, or earnings can be made depending on your perspective, is through financial rewards for joining a training camp or program. Up until recently, I was not aware this was something that was done; maybe I was naïve or maybe it just wasn’t talked about.

So I decided to reach out to some coaches and athletes in the sport and was surprised by the amount of responses that dubbed the practice of tapping up a ‘controversial topic.’ Some even chose to be identified as an unnamed source when giving a quote for this story.

The Coach’s Perspective

Matt Torres, of Brute Strength, told me “I know there are teams that have that ability to pay their athletes. I think it’s fair to pay if you can. Brute does not currently pay/incentivize athletes to move down”. His sentiments were echoed by Justin Cotler, founder of Underdogs Athletics, who said, “We don’t pay athletes. Truth is, at this point, only the major machines generate the revenue to do so. I’m certainly not against it. We just don’t have the means”.

Max El-Hag from Training Think Tank explains that he understands why athletes being paid is happening, “These high level athletes drive visibility and social proof. I don’t believe it is always in the best interest of the athlete, but the brands will likely grow from the association. I see it causing cultural issues in the future”.

On the other end of the spectrum is Misfit Athletics. Drew Crandall, owner of Misfit Athletics, explained, “We do have a sponsorship team. It’s been really important to us since the beginning to help with the financial burden.”

Crandall went on to explain how they choose who to pay and who not to pay. “They all choose to work with us prior to being sponsored, each athlete is different – time with Misfit, prior success, community involvement, plans for the season are all considered.” But when I mentioned the word ‘poaching’ when it comes to attracting athletes to a camp, Crandall offered an alternative term, recruitment. “Poaching insinuates ill intent,” commented Crandall. “If we start to recruit more as time goes on, hopefully we can keep things on the right side of that line,” he explained.

Matt O’Keefe, CEO of HWPO, believes in making it worth the athletes while with coaching rather than financial incentives. “I truly believe if you do a great job being all in as a coach and team around the athletes that the value is there to balance the relationship. I think if you are paying athletes for them to be coached by you that you are likely compensating for value you aren’t providing.”

The Athlete’s Perspective

But what about all of this from an athlete’s perspective?

Brent Fikowski is a multi-year Games veteran and a household name in the world of CrossFit. Surely he’s been approached by training camps looking to associate his name with theirs in order to drive business? “I personally haven’t been approached to join with a financial incentive, maybe because I’m feared like the plague,” he joked. “As for approaching people who already have a coach, I think it’s inevitable…people who have jobs are head-hunted all the time.”

Someone with a similar view to Fikowski is his fellow Canuck, Pat Vellner. “People paying athletes is a business strategy, I guess, for the coaches. Having big names will bring more sign ups. I’m happy for athletes to be earning…every athlete needs to do what they think is right for them to be successful. It’s not for everyone but works great for others.”

There must, then, be a goldilocks zone for approaching an athlete. If you approach one who is already very successful and has maybe stood atop the podium, perhaps they are less willing to change and, as such, would be a waste of time to make an offer to. Someone who has yet to taste any success or show any of their potential won’t garner the attention needed to reward that initial investment, so, are also not worth pursuing.

Emma McQuaid, who trains under James Jowsey, and Lucy Campbell, a Redpill athlete, were approached at a similar time in their careers. Campbell, a Games rookie in 2022, was approached leading up to the 2021 Semifinals and, again, by another training house shortly after her first appearance at the Games a few months ago. McQuaid was also approached when she was on the verge of making it to the Games as a rookie and was offered free coaching. She declined with a “straight up no, every time.” Campbell was offered a monthly wage with support in covering competition costs added in, not an easy offer for any aspiring athlete to turn down.

Recruiting Athletes

How do coaches feel about their athletes being approached by other coaches or training programs? John Singleton, founder of The Progrm, does not incentivize its athletes. He explained, “We have had training programs reach out to our athletes. Obviously it’s not the nicest thing or something you want to happen, but we have come to accept that it will happen. Our approach is that we’re confident in our abilities and that we need to have open communication with the athlete. We’re not forcing anyone to stay and we have been lucky that athletes have chosen to stay with us despite these offers”.

Support of a financial nature seems to be either out of reach for most training camps or not the route chosen. So, what supports are made available to entice athletes to join and help them when they are part of a training camp? O’Keefe and HWPO do a lot for their athletes but they don’t pay them. Instead, “we tell their story with content, support them around competition, care for them when they are in town, we feel comfortable that we provide a massive value to them with our coaching and support,” explained O’Keefe.

Nobody wants to stifle the earning potential of the athletes of the sport we love. Everybody shares the goal of professionalizing the sport and increasing the opportunities available through the sport. Smaller training houses will always struggle to offer the same supports to athletes as their larger counterparts.

Seth Page, founder of Jump Ship Training, explains, “Money talks. If one of my athletes was offered a deal to be coached AND paid, I would expect them to consider it. I hope the value I can bring would be enough for them to consider staying. I don’t think it’s unfair for other coaches to make offers, but I’m sure some cross the line in the way they do it.”

Formalizing Recruitment Boundaries?

As the sport aims to move further into professionalization, is it time for CrossFit to professionalize the coach/athlete relationship and set boundaries on what is and is not acceptable?

Would contracts help to avoid unwelcome approaches or would it simply lead to more subtle methods, like in soccer? Is paying athletes and, as a result, tapping up something that we can expect to see more of in the sport as it grows?

Morally, is it something that is deemed acceptable or is it murky waters to wade through? Max El-Hag recognizes that not everyone can have it their way. “Sports aren’t always fair. These tactics may help brands grow or win, but they don’t align with my morals. However, I don’t see that as an indication that their morals are questionable, just that they differ from my own.”

Underdogs’ head coach Cotler added, “I’m expecting it to happen more and more. I’m not a fan of poaching athletes and I believe if another camp knows an athlete is coached by someone they should speak first with that camp or coach, out of respect”.

All of the major team sport organizations have rules around how athletes can be approached to change teams when under contract. From timing to how those discussions can occur, players unions have negotiated the policies that teams are supposed to follow. Of course there will always be teams that try to skirt the rules or “tap up”, but the framework itself is meant to protect both the teams and the athletes.

The question is…should CrossFit look to professionalize the sport in terms of training camps and athletes and adopt a set of rules and guidelines that are to be followed when attempting to attract athletes to their team?

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