This past week the first season of the National Pro Grid League drew to a close as the D.C. Brawlers made history by beating the San Francisco Fire in the championship game, 20-16. Fans at Bren Events Center in Irvine, California witnessed a close match between the two teams that came down to the final race, with the Brawlers eventually prevailing and earning the right to lift the Pinnacle Trophy as the first ever Grid League champions.
So, what are our opinions of the inaugural season of the NPGL?
Fan engagement has been high
Considering that ‘Grid’ is a brand new sport, the level of fan engagement this year has been surprisingly high. The fact that each team only had three regular season games actually served to help attendance and interest, as it made each match that much more exclusive. Of course, many people in the CrossFit community have kept an eye on the NPGL, given that many big-time athletes from the Games (like Annie Thorisdottir and Lindsey Valenzuela) are now competing on teams in the league. And with several games being broadcast on NBCSN (NBC Sports Network), the NPGL has been largely successful in generating a lot of attention in its first year of operation. After having personally attended a D.C. Brawlers home game, I was amazed at the amount of Grid-related attire on display, as well as the level of noise that the home support made. On top of this, the variety of event formats from race-to-race made for an exciting competition that was full of surprise and drama, which is exactly what you want in a sport.
When asked about what some of his favorite highlights have been from the first season of Grid, NPGL founder Tony Budding touched on fans’ passion for this brand new sport.
“The quality of fan engagement exceeded my expectations. I went to Miami’s (Miami Surge) first home game, and people were losing their minds! They were jumping out of their seats, screaming—and this was the first game [of the NPGL] they were seeing. It was unbelievable.”
The introduction of new athletes
Grid is a unique sport in many ways, but one of the main ways in which it differs from CrossFit is that teams have a combination of generalists and specialists. Where CrossFit seeks to find the most well-rounded athlete, teams in Grid need to have players that are dominant in one particular area as certain races emphasize one skill more than any other. For example, the clean and thruster ladders required athletes who were strong, whereas other races incorporated high-level gymnastic movements like backward rolls to support on the rings, and free standing deficit handstand push-ups. Having a player on your team that excels in these areas could mean the difference between a win and a loss. Because the races of the NPGL are built in such a way, we were introduced to many new athletes who made a name for themselves after dominating performances. One such athlete is the Brawlers’ Taylar Stallings. Stallings, at 5’3” and 160lbs, was initially pegged as a “strength athlete”. While this certainly is the case (she deadlifted 465lbs in race 7 of the quarterfinals), Stallings surprised many by showcasing her talents in a variety of other races that called for skilled gymnastic movements, such as weighted pistols and rope climbs. Her diverse skillset and outstanding performances throughout the season were rewarded as she was named the first ever MVP of the Grid.
What makes me curious is whether we will start to see the all-star performers of the Grid (like Stallings) qualify for the CrossFit Games during the NPGL off-season. Or will their focus remain solely on training and competing with their teams in Grid?
There are still questions for the future of the NPGL
When the first regular season games of the NPGL kicked off, I wrote about some of the improvements that needed to be made in the sport in order to make it easier to follow (such as better explanation of race rules and improved presentation of the matches on the NPGL website). Thankfully, the league made consistent and progressive changes in multiple areas as the season wore on that have served to help the sport grow (such as the head judge making live announcements when challenge flags are thrown, as is done in the NFL). Furthermore, the caliber of athletes on display, as well as the exciting nature of Grid races and high fan engagement has given plenty of reason for Budding and NPGL fans to be optimistic about the future of the sport beyond its first season.
However, there are still some dangers that threaten the survival of the league—namely funding. In early September news broke that several potential investors of the NPGL had backed out, causing the league to cancel several matches and raising questions over whether the young sport would be able to survive beyond its first year.
“That was an extremely frustrating experience for me and for a lot of people,” Budding said. “We’re certainly not alone in being a new company and a new sports league that has challenges like that. But we’re continuing to push forward on every front, and we raised enough money to finish out the season and are continuing to do so for 2015. But it’s the biggest challenge that we’re currently facing.”
But will there be enough funds to support the NPGL in year two? With two additional expansion teams approved for 2015 (the Carolina Crush and Baltimore Anthem), Budding and his team are working to ensure that a second season will go ahead as planned.
“Put it this way. If we did not have the level of fan engagement and quality of TV show that we have, there’d be no hope. The only reason we’re continuing to have great conversations with people to raise funds for the league is because of how excited we are and how exciting the sport is. Now that people can watch Grid on NBCSN or on our site and understand it, we’ve got the whole world of sports investors to talk with, whereas before we only had the world of functional fitness investors that were interested,” says Budding. “There’s multiple discussions happening on what the best course of action is for 2015, and I honestly don’t know which of them is going to end up taking place. It could be anything from another shortened season like we did this year, we could go to an expanded season, we could even go to a tournament-style season where he have multiple teams gather in one spot to compete. Basically, we’re trying to figure out what the best way is to go forward from where we are, given the realities of a growing sport and growing fan base.”
Photo courtesy of the NPGL