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Imagine, for a moment, a professional sports league that really pushes its athletes to the brink of their physical capabilities. A league where slacking or coasting is not an option. A league that incorporates all the best elements of competitive fitness into one sport that is easy to follow and always enthralling. And a league where men and women compete alongside and against each other on a truly level playing field.
The National Pro Fitness League (NPFL), nearing its genesis later this summer, hopes to embody all of the above. Dubbed as the “world’s first professional spectator sport with coed teams competing in human performance races,” the NPFL can bring the modern day fitness competition into the limelight like never before. What the NFL has done for football, the NBA for basketball, and so on, the NPFL can do for competitive fitness.
The NPFL is the brainchild of Tony Budding, the former head of media for CrossFit, who decided to embark on a unique venture in the world of competitive fitness. Of course, the concept of a competition like the CrossFit Games or Beast of the East is nothing new; what Budding saw was a real void of an annual, season-based league that pooled the country’s greatest competitive fitness athletes. The NPFL is a league similar to any pro sport where fans from different cities root for their teams, with the ultimate goal of a championship title at season’s end.
“Fitness competitions, fitness as a sport, have really blossomed over the past half-decade,” says David Tao, head of media for the New York Rhinos, one of eight inaugural teams in the NPFL. (The other announced teams so far are the Los Angeles Reign, San Francisco Fire, DC Brawlers, Philly Founders, and Phoenix Rise.) “Most of us will never know what it’s like to dunk on LeBron James, but we do know what it’s like to go through these workouts, and replicate the movements.”
Tao describes the standard NPFL match—made up of 11 human performance races in a two-hour span—as optimized for a cool viewing experience (live and on TV), where the first team who crosses the finish line (i.e., completes all the races) wins. “It will be fun to watch for people with experience in functional fitness and for those who’ve never seen it before,” says Tao, who noted the strategy involved is unlike any other fitness competition. “You’ll be able to substitute payers. It’s a really intriguing variable that makes it challenging for coaches and players and exciting for spectators.”
The layout of the NPFL court is similar to a football field in that it has two end zones—one start and one finish. In between those zones are four quadrants, each comprised of a variety of elements that are swapped out between races. Teams of ten—five male and five female—will compete in a truly innovative form of competition, with two athletes at a time working on a given part of the race, whether it be 40 kettle bell overhead squats or 40 muscle-ups. The reps can be distributed among teammates in any way, and subs can be used to maximize the distribution of reps between the team or simply to give someone a breather.
The key is strategizing a game plan that will get your team through the races the fastest in order to ultimately win the match. Whether that means using your best weight lifters for the deadlift and snatch, or your body weight specialists for burpees and rope climbs, is totally up to the team and its makeup. Team chemistry, according to Tao, may reign supreme in the end among all other factors.
“A lot of the athletes will have similar skill sets, a lot of really strong folks—but are they going to be able to work together?” says Tao, who notes timing will be key to assure every race requirement is met before advancing to the next station. “It’s going to take a lot of internal team communication and it’s going to take a lot of trust. Teammates will have to be honest about what they are capable of, what their capacity is, so they can trust each other. Having great physical specimens is paramount… but they must make sure to work as a cohesive unit, so they can perform up to their physical potential.”
Tao describes the races as a “big mix” of exercises people in the functional fitness community are familiar with, but also with modifications, including a new, innovating approach to the snatch ladder unlike anything done before. “The races will draw from a diverse range of movements and skill sets,” says Tao, who notes that weightlifting and body weight components, as well as gymnastics and other elements of functional fitness, will all be on display.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the NPFL is the diverse crop of athletes that will make up the league in this, its first year. Each starting ten-person squad is not only coed down the middle, but will also include one 40-and-over athlete for both the men and women. It is for these reasons that Tao describes the NFPL as “one of the most egalitarian sporting events you will ever see.”
The coed element is essentially a new frontier in professional sports, and gives the league “carte blanche” in that regard from its inception, according to Tao. “We think that fitness is something that is universal, and not something you can divide across genders,” says Tao. “Men and women are both capable of amazing feats of fitness. It’s not even a leveling of the playing field—that would imply that the playing field was never leveled. This is the genesis of a new sport. Everyone is going to grow in it together. Most sports originated and have a history of exclusiveness; this one is inclusive from the start.”
As for the 40-and-over athletes, Tao says one goal of the NPFL is to inspire involvement in fitness for people from all walks of life. “Fitness is relative; everyone can push themselves to be better through fitness, regardless of age,” says Tao. “Whether it’s a 22-year-old Olympic prospect who has switched to fitness competitions, or a 45-year-old who is defying expectations and showing they can hang with the younger folks.”
Mat Fraser is one of those former Olympic hopefuls to make the switch to the world of competitive fitness. After a lower back injury put his Olympic weightlifting prospects on the backburner, Fraser became involved in fitness competitions and was far from a fish out of water. In fact, he excelled in the format and found himself placing high and winning competitions right out of the gate.
“I kind of just jumped into it with both feet and loved it,” says Fraser, who was able to fall in love again with going to the gym through fitness competitions. As a former Olympic weightlifter, Fraser is embracing the team aspect of the NPFL. “It’ll be cool having other people to rely on, picking up their slack, while having them pick up mine,” says Fraser. “Everything is much, much faster paced. With teammates, you have built-in rest. It’s less a matter of pacing yourself… so it adds a whole different angle as far as how you go about [the races]. It’s going to be fast, and it’s going to be exciting.”
Fraser, 24, can be profiled as a jack-of-all-trades in the NPFL game, possessing the weightlifting power, as well as elite bodyweight strength and gymnastic ability. Still, Fraser realizes how strategy will come into play, especially when paired with teammate Ben Smith, who is close to a carbon copy of Fraser in size and ability.
“We have identical lifts; we both have a 300 snatch, both have a 365 clean and jerk, and both have a 375 clean. We’re also within five pound of each other,” says Fraser. “Other guys on other teams will no doubt lift more than us. But when it goes from power cleans to muscle-ups, Ben and I have a way bigger advantage since we’re both near 185 pounds. So cleaning 370, and then jumping up and doing 20 muscle-ups; I think we’re two of the only people in this league that can do that.”
In the end, as with any pro sports league, the NPFL is all about the fans. The goal is to turn competitive fitness into a spectator sport like never before, and that will involve a multipronged approach, on the actual playing field and across several media platforms.
One platform where a strong bond has already been formed between the NPFL and its prospective fan base is social medial, which Tao notes is nothing new in the world of competitive fitness. “Social media is such an integral part of the fitness community—people sharing videos, personal records, and just supporting each other,” says Tao. “It’s really an industry/sport that never had major TV coverage, so social media has been the way people have been following for years.”
Tao mentioned how fan bases are already forming for the Rhinos and other teams, with people asking where they can buy apparel and when tickets go on sale, all while the full league makeup has yet to be announced. “It’s cool that fans are right there invested with us, even before the first match goes live,” says Tao.
Fraser is also feeling the buzz, and firmly believes the NPFL will revolutionize competitive fitness for all those involved. “I haven’t heard from anyone yet that wasn’t excited about this,” says Fraser. “Right now there are fitness competitions fairly regularly around the country, but they’re spontaneous as far as where they are, who’s putting them on, and who’s showing up. [The NPFL] has scheduled matches where you know the format and know who you are going to see. I think it’s going to be huge, absolutely. It’s going to blow up.”
Finally, the NPFL is open to anyone with a dream. Combines are being held through May and a draft in July will allow teams to pick up to 10 additional athletes each for the inaugural season. While it’s too late for 2014, combines and drafts are surely to remain a part of the NPFL’s future and, potentially, so can you. And for that, Fraser offers some sage advice.
“Just find that something you want to work for; whether you want to work on a weakness, your conditioning, or just to become a better athlete,” says Fraser. “I know for me, when I first started I was a train wreck—to the point where during a 100-yard sprint, I was jumping off the grass and puking because I had no conditioning. But it was something I wanted so I just kept doing it and doing it. Always remind yourself about what you’re training for.”