USA Weightlifting Finds New Fortunes in Hawaii, CrossFit Boom

·6 min read

When USA Weightlifting left the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, it only had one medal in hand, Team USA’s first in the sport in 16 years. Now, the whole team is in a hotel in Hawaii, a stop-over setup the organization established for Tokyo, preparing for what it hopes will be its best showing in decades.

The tropical training camp isn’t a frill. It’s an investment, one of many USA Weightlifting has made in the past five years in hopes of becoming one of the success stories of the Tokyo Games. The outlook is positive, with three to five medals in the cards.

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The difference isn’t just the athletes. In the five years since Rio, the organization has undergone a complete reorganization that’s created a robust revenue sheet and a more secure financial foundation for team members. Revenues have doubled. There are 27 brand sponsors where five years ago there were none. And more than half a million dollars in donor support have created the “USAW Hawaii Strong Camp, powered by NBH Bank,” taking place in Honolulu after the pandemic threw a wrench in the team’s original Tokyo plans.

The man behind the turnaround, Phil Andrews, took over as the governing body’s permanent CEO just four months before Rio.

“It’s unrecognizable from 2016,” Andrews said of his nonprofit organization, which did $3.2 million in revenue that year. Now, five years into his tenure and with a new governance model, the organization is looking at $7.4 million.

Andrews arrived at the Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach hotel a week before the Olympics’ opening ceremonies to spearhead setup of the training camp in the Aloha State. The site will serve as base for Team USA’s staff—including a sleep doctor, a nutritionist and press personnel—its coaches, its eight competing athletes, who will fly in and out of Tokyo on a staggered schedule, arriving three days before their specific events and departing immediately after, and four training partners. The camp also includes friends and family who are not allowed to travel with the competitors to Tokyo because of COVID restrictions.

His athletes have spent this Olympic cycle training in a newly decentralized system. The team is no longer tied to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, and national coaches instead travel to events around the world with athletes. With only 2% of its budget coming from the USOPC, which Andrews said makes weightlifting the “least funded sport in the Olympic movement,” the organization had to find new revenue streams to support the changes.

It introduced several, including its sponsorships and donations businesses as well as an events business. The North American Open Series of weightlifting competitions, part of that events arm, generated almost $1.7 million in revenue in 2019 before COVID, according to financial documents. The competition series encouraged membership growth, and those fees are now the organization’s largest source of revenue annually, nearing $3 million.

Still, Andrews notes he can’t take all the credit. CrossFit also contributed to the growth. “Every sport that makes a significant change in their business … has something that happens to them that helps,” he said. “There’s always going to be an X factor. In archery, for example, it was the Hunger Games series of films. For us, it was CrossFit.”

CrossFit incorporates elements of Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting in its exercise programming, popularizing the practices. Today, there are more than 15,000 CrossFit affiliate gyms around the world.

USA Weightlifting’s coaching courses have also grown into a leading moneymaker for the organization. Formerly approached as an educational tool, the courses are now sold to gym chains like Life Time Fitness, which has more than 150 clubs across the country. And though USA Weightlifting took some hits during COVID (income from events, membership fees and marketing, in particular, were affected), the organization “went through a pandemic and still came out with a million dollars in the black,” Andrews said.

The additional revenue has allowed the organization to remunerate athletes so they don’t have to work other jobs to support their training. USA Weightlifting now has the largest athlete stipend program of any U.S. Olympic sport. Maximum stipends jumped from $1,000 per month going into Rio to $4,000 per month in Tokyo. Each athlete payment is awarded by level, determined by international competition performance. The eight Olympic team athletes at training camp in Honolulu are all ranked in USA Weightlifting’s top two levels.

The training camp is another example of the organization’s overhaul, and its ability to adjust. When COVID restrictions made a Tokyo camp impractical, USA Weightlifting looked to Hawaii—about an eight-hour flight to Japan, with only a five-hour time difference, key for athlete adjustment. A training facility was built in the hotel’s ballroom for the Olympians, funded by the donations raised between 2017 and 2019 as part of the organization’s “Tokyo Strong” campaign. (That money will also cover medal bonuses for victorious Americans.)

Oahu is cheaper than setting up camp in Tokyo but still a significant investment. Even if training in Tokyo, with its sky-high hotel prices and space limitations, had happened as initially planned, USA Weightlifting and its donors would have found the money for it. They believe success in Tokyo could be a turning point for the sport.

“When it became clear that the USOPC wasn’t necessarily going to fund a training camp operation, we went out there and raised money for it,” Andrews said. “We’ve always assumed we’re a blue collar sport, and we are, but there’s quite a number of people out there who can afford to donate to USA Weightlifting and are willing to. There’s also quite a few people out there who could afford to do what I call Bernie Sanders fundraising and can donate $20 here or $40 there. We’d just never asked before.”

NBH Bank, a Midwestern chain and the training camp’s title sponsor, also helped. But if the sponsorship and donation groundwork hadn’t been laid over these last five years, Andrews said everything from the training camp to assembling a team capable of actual medal contention would have been much harder. Now, it’s time to win, because as soon as Tokyo is over, it all starts up again with preparations for Paris in 2024.

“We have to capitalize on the Games,” Andrews said. “Raising the profile of the sport during these next three weeks is really important as we think about how to grow next.”

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