Alyssa Royse, with everything you need to know about the newest professional sports league National Pro Grid League. The sport? Functional fitness.
“That Ray Rice thing would never happen in Grid,” said Jim Kean, CEO of the National Pro Grid League, “think about it.” And then there was a long silence while I thought about it. He’s right. It wouldn’t, it couldn’t. “They’d never play again, ever,” he summarized. And he’s right.
That may seem an odd point to pull out of a long conversation, and an even stranger one to use as I try to explain this new sport to you (he’s adamant that it’s not just a new professional league, it’s a new sport,) but it really is central to the core of what Grid is.
Grid is a new professional sport. The National Pro Grid League is their professional league. In many ways, it’s like every sport you already know. In more ways, however, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Grid is men and women on a team together, playing as equal partners. Yes, the teams are mandated to be 50 / 50, men and women. The women are not relegated to the sidelines as noisy (and scantily clad and underpaid) set dressing to gin up the crowd.
Grid is men and women in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s playing together. Yes, the teams are mandated to include at least one man and one woman over 40.
It still seems like an odd thing, really. Until you think about the fact that the creators of this sport set out for it to be a fantastic spectator sport. Grid evolved as much for the audience as for the athletes, and these teams are awesome to watch precisely because of the novelty of seeing such mixed groups working together.
But it also really appeals to the tribal nature of humans. “It’s like back to the future,” Jim explains to me. (He also steps back to explain that he’s an anthropology and history buff, which gives perspective to what followed.)
“It’s almost evolutionary, really. Roving the landscape, hunting and gathering, you can’t tell me that women did nothing but their nails. Women were powerful functional creatures who contributed to society. They were equally accomplished hunters, gatherers and haulers…. That’s what everybody used to do and it used to be cooperative.”
He’s right. Men, women, tribal elders; in the history of humanity, everyone has had their part to play. Everybody.
“There are variations in capacity, but cooperation is what’s necessary. That’s what this sport is. We’ve created a tribe.”
Of all the things Jim and I discussed, this is where I get the most turned on. They created an egalitarian tribal sport that allows people to excel as individuals and shine for who they are, but that, by its nature, demands work and respect and time from everyone, regardless of gender or age.
“The whole thing is designed to be moderately subversive to existing paradigms,” he says with an undeniable relish. Which paradigms is he talking about? Pretty much all of them. But of all of them, I get the sense that he’s most proud that it upsets gender paradigms in sports.
SO WHAT IS THE GRID?
I’ve heard people say “isn’t that like professional CrossFit?”
They’re not wrong, really. But they’re also not right.
Grid is the sport of functional fitness. (Yes, that’s what CrossFit is too.) Neither Grid nor CrossFit invented the moves you see on the field or in a CrossFit gym near you. They organized them in a way that can be easily packaged in various time domains and consumed as either an exercise regimen or a spectator sport.
Yes, Grid was originally born (as The National Pro Fitness League, but had to change their name because the NFL thought NPFL was too similar,) out of the CrossFit Games. It’s a long soap-opera of big egos and petty grievances, but the original founder of Grid, Tony Budding, came from the core crew that brought us The CrossFit Games. Budding is no longer all that involved, and the growth of the NPGL is in Jim Kean’s hands. (Budding’s original vision of what this sport could be, however, was spot-on.)
The differences between the CrossFit Games and Grid are too numerous to list, and doing so would venture into dangerous territory, awakening sleeping egos. But the most important difference, to me, is that these athletes are paid. Not prize money for winning, but a salary for committing, for training, for doing their job. Just like every other professional athlete. It’s the difference between going to the Olympics, and being drafted by MLB. Both are awesome, but only one is called “the big leagues.”
The sport is made up of a series of functional fitness challenges that include weightlifting, gymnastics, and coordination skills. Everything is scored and the team with the most points wins.
The structure of the matches borrows from the standards of every other professional sport that people currently watch, making it easy for spectators to follow along and not get lost. A complex IT system allows scores to be shown in the field and on TV in real time, so that spectators always know what’s going on.
HOW DO THE MATCHES WORK?
- Each match pairs two teams against each other. Like other professional sports, the teams are tied to a city, allowing for geographic pride. There are currently 9 teams in the league.
- Like any good spectator sport, the matches are a defined and predictable length. Baseball has 9 innings, football as 4 quarters, Grid has 11 races that generally last about 2 hours.
- In each of the 11 races, the winning team gets 2 points, the losing team gets 1 point.
- Each race consists of a variety of weightlifting or gymnastics moves. Or an awesome combination thereof. Yes, these look a lot like CrossFit workouts. For instance, you might see a race that is made up of Snatches (an Olympic weightlifting favorite) and Box Jumps. Or maybe deadlifts and handstand push-ups.
- Where the CrossFit Games arguably honors the single athlete who is overall the best at everything, Grid really hones in on specialists. But more than that, on a coaches ability to identify talent and use it in the right way at the right time. The ability to sub players, within the rules of age and gender, on the fly gives Grid an intellectual energy that is fascinating. And, just as importantly, allows for the “Monday morning quarterbacking” that keeps people talking and builds social momentum.
- League standards mean that the score of one team can be compared to the score of another team, even if they didn’t play each other. Unlike most professional sports, it’s not possible to say, “they only have that record because they played against ‘that’ team, if they’d had to play the other team, they’d have been killed.” Everyone has the same tests of skills, and ultimately, they’re all ranked against each other.
- Last season, which was the inaugural season, each team played 3 matches.
- This season, both the number of teams and the number of matches is expected to grow.
- Like other professional sports, teams are owned by private owners groups, and are developing their own personalities.
- Though many teams have stars of the CrossFit world anchoring them, (like Annie Thorisdottir, my daughter’s hero, who anchors the New York Rhinos,) Grid is quickly producing its own super stars. And ultimately, it really is a team sport. The teams are small enough that we can get to know all the players. And because the matches depend on the specialties of all the players, we will see everyone shine.
WHY IS THIS SO COOL?
How many of you remember when the NFL was formed? (Trick question, it was formed in 1920, so if you were old enough at the time to have noticed, you’re probably not alive now. If you were young enough to still be alive and punting now, you probably don’t remember it.)
The NBA, formed in 1946 is newer, but for most of us, it’s still just “always been there.”
The NHL is actually the granddaddy of the bunch, born in 1917, but never really grabbing the American psyche as well as American Football, Basketball or Baseball. (Despite, obviously, being the best of all sports. Soccer, ON ICE! What could be better than that?)
Many of us probably to remember the epic merger of the American League and (vastly superior) National League in 2000, but as individual entities the NL and AL have been around since 1876 and 1901, respectively.
As a country, we love our sports. Athletes are our modern day super heroes, they are unlike you or I in any obvious way, doing things that most of us will never do. Our professional sports leagues are an integral part of our social fabric. They’re a given. Like mountains and lakes and rivers, they were here before we were, and we don’t expect that to change.
Until it does.
Grid changed our professional sports horizons. For both spectators and athletes. And for those of us who are “just” working out every day, doing the same things the Grid athletes are doing, even if it looks nothing like when the pros do it.
And all indications are that Grid is going to continue to grow. They’ve already been contacted by the military to set up ancillary leagues for both fitness and co-ed team building. There are pick-up leagues forming. People are using the Grid scoring mechanisms, and asking to license the actual technology that runs the scoreboards.
All indications are that Grid is not only here to stay, but evolving in a way that is both organic and unstoppable.
Jim is proud of what they’ve accomplished. He’s excited about what they’ve got planned.
So I couldn’t resist asking him what made him the most proud, and the most disappointed, what made them so different, and maybe the most surprised. He paused and stuttered a bit, like any parent asked to confess who their favorite kid really was. But eventually he told me that their staff is 65% women, as if that answered all of it. Or at least some of it.
The 2015 season will be announced any day now. And you’ll be able to catch all of it on NBC.
This is most definitely the big leagues.
Photo Credits: NPGL Instagram account