Like most professional athletes, Spencer Hendel spends a lot of time in the gym. During one recent workout, he performed squats, ran shuttle sprints, and did enough pull-ups for an entire Marine unit.
But exercise isn’t just part of training for Hendel’s sport. It is his sport.
Hendel was the first athlete signed by the Boston Iron, one of eight charter member teams in the National Pro Grid League, which begins play this week. Grid is a co-ed team sport that boils down to a fitness competition. There is no ball or net; instead, two sides go head-to-head in a series of relay races that measure strength, speed, and endurance.
The Iron open an abbreviated, three-match pilot season Sunday at the Tsongas Center in Lowell against the Miami Surge. General admission tickets cost $25, and front-row seats go for $75. Other franchises are in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C.
The league is a gamble that may test the limit of Americans’ appetite for spectator sports. Will fans really pay to watch people work out?
“It’s a monster risk,” acknowledged Iron team owner Josh Plosker, a former private equity investor who changed careers during the financial crisis and opened a CrossFit gym in the Back Bay. “But there’s a built-in fan base. We’re seeing tens of thousands of people pouring into the functional fitness world.”
Functional fitness is an exploding exercise trend that eschews biceps curls and other isolated maneuvers in favor of constantly varied activities, like rope climbs, box jumps, and Olympic-style lifts. CrossFit is the leading functional fitness program. In the last two years, the number of affiliated gyms — known as boxes — has roughly doubled to almost 10,000 worldwide.
Obstacle course series, like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash, also are gaining popularity. For example, entries in the annual Spartan Race held in Amesbury — requiring competitors to scale walls, haul sand bags, and wade through mud — have ballooned from about 2,000 in 2010 to more than 11,000 in each of the last two years.
Participation is turning into live audiences and viewership. This year’s CrossFit Games, an international contest for top athletes, drew more than 60,000 fans to a stadium in Carson, Calif., a tenfold increase since 2010. ESPN started televising taped portions of the Games in 2011 and has aired the finale live in each of the last two years.
National Pro Grid League founder Tony Budding is a former CrossFit executive, and there are clear similarities between the two. Many athletes who have signed on to the league, including Hendel, are veteran CrossFit Games competitors.
But if CrossFit was designed to be a comprehensive exercise regimen — a way of life, even — Grid was created for one reason: rapid fan consumption. While the CrossFit Games are composed of 13 events over four days, a Grid match crams 11 events into two hours. Each Grid race — held on a segmented playing surface the size of a basketball court — lasts no more than 8 minutes. By comparison, some CrossFit contests take more than a half hour.
The Boston Iron and the rest of the league are betting the viewer-friendly packaging of Grid will elevate the concept of fitness as a sport from once-a-year novelty to must-see action. The NBC Sports Network will carry playoff matches live in September and October.
Franchise owners like Plosker are bearing the cost of renting arenas, paying coach and player salaries, and transporting and housing athletes on the road. Under a revenue sharing agreement, the league will keep some proceeds from tickets, sponsorships, and merchandise and distribute the rest to the teams.
Crowds and TV ratings probably won’t be huge at the outset — Plosker anticipates about 1,000 people will attend the Iron’s first match — but the audience could be a desirable one for marketers. CrossFit gym memberships are notoriously expensive, often costing more than $200 per month, and generally attract an affluent demographic.
“This league is a longshot, but CrossFit is hot,” said Rick Burton, professor of sport management at Syracuse University. “It will have to create heroic performers — that’s a critical part of getting a foothold.”
Teams feature five men and five women. Iron coaches Aaron Landes and Justin Wright must figure out how to get the most from each person’s strengths and will have to make tough calls during matches, like whether to substitute late in a race or leave an athlete on the floor to gut out 10 more dead lifts.
In one extra twist, at least one man and one woman must be 40 or older.
“I don’t want to embarrass the people who are 49 out there,” said Lisa Mikkelsen, the team’s oldest member. “I want to make them proud that I can hang in there with the kids.”
For now, league salaries are modest — most earn $2,500 per match — but most Iron athletes are CrossFit coaches or box owners who devote much of their lives to training anyway. Competing in the new league means extra income and a chance to call themselves professionals.
“To work out and get paid for it — who would’ve thought?” said Hendel, who owns a CrossFit box in Medfield. “I went to school for architecture, and I thought that my life was going to be sitting at a desk 50, 60, 70 hours per week.”