If you haven't heard of the National Pro Fitness League (NPFL) yet, chances are you will soon: The new sport is poised to make major headlines this year, and may soon change the way we look at professional athletes forever.
In short, the NPFL is a program that will bring together teams from around the country for competitive, televised matches, just like professional football or baseball. But NPFL matches aren't decided by baskets or goals scored—they're based on each team's performance in a set of workouts combining strength, agility, and speed. And unlike any other professional sports league, NPFL teams will be co-ed, made up of four men and four women.
A New Type of Competition
During each NPFL match, two teams compete in 11 different races, all within a two-hour window and in an indoor arena the size of a basketball stadium. Most races are six minutes or less and involve challenges such as rope climbs, burpees, barbell snatches, and handstand pushups.
If you think this sounds a lot like CrossFit, you’re right. The NPFL is not associated with CrossFit, but there are similarities between the two programs, owing partly to the fact that the league was created by Tony Budding, a former CrossFit media director.
Budding wanted to take the basic idea of competitive fitness and make it more engaging for spectators. One way he achieves this is by giving each race a clear “start” and “finish” line, so fans can easily follow the teams’ progress. (The photo below depicts a sample course.) Additionally, there are storytelling moments before and after each race. “You get to learn who the competitors are and go behind the scenes in their training, so it'll be a really a great experience for fans watching on TV." (Budding is still in talks with networks, but he expects to sign a major broadcasting deal soon.)
Unlike most CrossFit athletes, the NPFL players are true pros—meaning that they are salaried and will be paid a minimum of $2,500 per match they compete in. (The CrossFit games, on the other hand, awards prizes only to top performers, ranging from $1,000 to nearly $300,000.)
In August 2014, the NPFL will host exhibition matches between its five existing teams in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Philadelphia. The league's first competitive season will kick off in fall 2015, with 12 weeks of matches. The league’s first full 16-week season will take place in 2016. Rosters are still being finalized, but so far, players have been heavily recruited from the CrossFit world.
Women of the NPFL
Take Danielle Sidell, for example: The 25-year-old recently signed with the NPFL's New York Rhinos, after her CrossFit team took second place in the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games. Sidell ran track and cross-country in college, and then turned to bodybuilding competitions after graduation. She reluctantly took her first CrossFit class at the insistence of a co-worker. Looking back, she's so glad she did.
"I am in ten times better shape now than I ever was when I was a collegiate athlete or when I was into bodybuilding," she says. "I feel better, I look better, I'm stronger and faster, and I'm just ultimately healthier and more confident as an athlete."
Sidell loves the co-ed competition of the NPFL, and says she's excited to make a difference in the world of spectator sports. "I really want this to take off—to be comparable to any other pro league," she says. "I want it to be just as fun and exciting as Sunday Night Football, and I want little kids buying Danielle Sidell jerseys, and to know how awesome this sport is."
Another major difference between the NPFL and other professional sports leagues is that each team roster must have at least one man and one woman over age 40. For the New York Rhinos, that female is Amy Mandelbaum, 46, a CrossFit athlete and coach who will be competing in her fourth CrossFit Games this summer in the Masters Division.
Mandelbaum, who has a 13-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter, hopes that her role in the NPFL will help empower women of all ages to find time for fitness. "It needs to become second nature, just like breathing or your morning cup of coffee. Finding something you love and then being committed to it is one of the best things you can do for yourself." (She's also proud to be a healthy role model for her kids: Her son has even started doing CrossFit!)
Budding is hopeful that the team's older participants will encourage more people to watch NPFL matches, but he insists they're not just gimmicks to gain more fans. "There's something really mind-blowing about watching the fittest men and women in the world working together," he says. "The fittest women are so much fitter than average men, and the fittest 40-somethings can be just as good as their younger competitors. It's easy to watch a woman do 25 consecutive pull-ups and then run across the finish line and think, 'Oh, she's a pro, she has no life, all she does is train.' But then you find out that she's 42 and she has three boys and you think, 'Wow, there goes my excuse.'"
How to Get Involved
So this all sounds great if you want to watch it on TV—but what if you want to participate. Can just anyone try out for the NPFL? Yes and no, says Budding. Like other pro sports, the NPFL will host a combine once a year, where invited athletes can try out for open spots. Prospective participants can submit applications online, which include stats like their age, height, and weight, and their performance numbers—times, weights, or number of reps for specific drills and workouts.
While the majority of us will be taking in the action from the stands (or from in front of our televisions), Budding says that's not all he's got planned for the sport. "We've already had licensing requests to scale the program down to college and high-school levels, and to amateur competitions, as well. We expect to see a lot of gyms and fitness studios using our workouts in their classes, and building their own programs around our methods, as well."
While Budding expects many of NPFL's early fans to be members of weightlifting or CrossFit communities, he's optimistic that the sport's audience will grow quickly. "It's a compelling sport that people can identify with," he says. "Even if you can't physically do a pull-up, you still know what a pull-up is and how to do one. It's the stuff kids grow up doing, the stuff they learn in gym class, and now they'll be watching it on a professional level."