How Madison Won the CrossFit Games

Madison CrossFit Games
The Madison Area Sports Commission had a matter of hours to sell Wisconsin’s capital as the next host of the CrossFit Games. The idea made all the sense in the world to commission President and CEO Deb Archer, CDME, and Vice President Jamie Patrick. But news that the competition to find the “Fittest on Earth” was moving from outside Los Angeles to Madison from 2017 to 2019 caught at least some by surprise. After all, it’s rumored CrossFit’s RFP drew the interest of about 100 destinations. It turns out a short but fateful site visit last August was when the Madison Area Sports Commission officially came of age in its sixth year. Archer and Patrick agree bringing CrossFit’s national event—which draws 50,000 visitors and 400 to 500 athletes throughout the week—to Madison is the organization’s crowning achievement. They took Connect Sports behind the scenes of a major sports tourism victory ahead of this week’s CrossFit Open 17.5 in Madison.

The Backstory

Madison, the terrific college sports town that’s home to the Wisconsin Badgers, has a surprisingly active community given its snow-filled winters. Greater Madison CVB wanted to host events that reflect that fact. Hence, the sports commission was born. While the city forged a relationship with Ironman at the turn of the 21st century and hosted the now-defunct World Outdoor Games, the commission has added to Madison’s repertoire. USA Climbing and USA Cycling count Madison as a mainstay stop, and Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin is running there for the first time June 11.

Initial Interest

Patrick’s interest in the CrossFit Games dates back to the commission’s infancy. He felt the city and event missions meshed. “Madison is a bunch of doers,” says Patrick. “That’s the profile of CrossFit athletes.” At first, Patrick envisioned starting with one of CrossFit’s regional events. But when he saw the RFP pop out on the Connect Sports website, Patrick started to think bigger. “We went full throttle in,” he explains.

Getting to Know You

Archer credits the commission’s ultimate success with the relationship Patrick formed with Billy Rodgers, CrossFit’s point person for events. “There was a stretch Billy and I would talk every day—not just email,” says Patrick. “We built trust. He knew I’d tell it to him straight.” Archer says that rapport ensured Patrick and his team had access to whatever they needed when they attended the 2016 CrossFit Games on a scouting trip.

La La Land

For the past seven years, CrossFit Games were based at StubHub Center in Carlsbad, California, outside Los Angeles—where dreams come true (at least in the movies). Watching the games firsthand confirmed Patrick’s belief that Madison was up to the task. He cites teamwork demonstrated by event staff between competitions as an area his group also excels in. The trip was also an eye-opener for all that goes into the games. For instance, the event is not only about athletic prowess. The food is a big factor—namely, any host better know how to cater to a paleo diet, Patrick says. “I saw what they were eating and asked myself, ‘Is that ice cream?’ No, it was a paleo dish that looked like ice cream.” Patrick was also impressed the athletes were treated as if they were NBA or NFL superstars.

Seeing Is Believing

By the time Rodgers led CrossFit’s contingent to Madison, Patrick was sure Madison could pull off the games. The trick was not to only convince their guests, but to have CrossFit’s crew visualize it. To that end, the initial site visit began with a boat tour on Lake Mendota, offering a scenic view of Madison and University of Wisconsin. A bonus view was the number of people out exercising, reinforcing Madison’s active culture. “They asked if we were paying people to run around the lake,” Patrick jokes. The tour moved from sea to land—to Alliant Energy Center, the 164-acre campus pitched to CrossFit. From there, the tour moved to a higher level—to the state Capitol’s observation deck. “You can see the isthmus, the airport, Alliant Energy Center and how easy it is to get around,” says Patrick. “It crystallizes the sense of destination.” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi reinforced the importance the event would have on the region.

Second Coming

About a month later, Madison hosted the CrossFit crew again. By now, Patrick had sold Rodgers, but the commission had to ensure new visitors would buy in. “We needed to build off the confidence we showed them,” notes Patrick. Most of the second site visit was spent at Alliant Energy Center. CrossFit employees metaphorically took apart the venue and put it back together the way they’d use it.

Secret Weapons

As host of World Dairy Expo, Alliant is a versatile venue. Archer and Patrick knew exactly how flexible it is because one of the CVB’s staff members, Eric Reichert, is responsible for events there. His presence ensures the sort of communication needed to make sure city planners and venue staff remain on the same page. Another bonus was some of CrossFit’s staff worked on the World Outdoor Games when it was in Madison—a fact Archer says her team only learned after the bid process. “They said Madison can do this,” Archer says of those workers. “I’m sure that gave them a little more confidence to help us bubble up to the top.”