Pulling Equal Weight

Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet

Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet

The CrossFit Games and Equal Pay for Equal Play

You don’t have to search too far back in the news cycle to find stories about women being paid less than men for the same work. Earlier this year the firing of Jill Abramson (executive editor at the New York Times) bumped these types of stories back up to the top of the pile.

Recently, The Economist ran a piece on the demand for women’s sports: a sister issue to equal pay for equal work. The Economist focused on the demand side determinants of media broadcasts. The gist of their argument is: females do not draw the same advertising dollars via endorsements and commercial sponsorships as men. With limited broadcast air time available media outlets simply choose not to air programming based on these lower dollars and attendance figures. This creates a negative feedback loop for women’s sports; they are hard to find on television because they attract so little media attention which makes them hard to find, etc.

The Economist argues three interests must align in order to make a sport successful: commercial, consumer, and media appeal. Even though female fandom is on the rise for a variety of sports, this has not impacted the commercial success of female sport broadly. This state of affairs could change in the near future thanks in large part to the burgeoning world of CrossFit.

The Reebok sponsored CrossFit Games began 8 years ago (for a short history and archived footage visit the games link at www.games.crossfit.com ). From the beginning the Games have paid their top athletes the same cash purse–male or female. This year the awards increased in value: $275,000 each for the fittest man and woman (Rich Froning and Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet) $75,000 for second place finishers, and $45,000 for third place finishers. The total cash payout this year was $1,750,000.

How does this pay correlate with the athletes’ performances? A variety of events test a spectrum of skills within the CrossFit sport; typically, there are strength events like a max effort Olympic lift, gymnastic movements like pull-ups or muscle-ups, and endurance type events similar to track and field competition. While it is true that by physiology men can lift more than women in absolute terms, at the elite level men and women are lifting (in proportion to their body weight) virtually the same loads.

Weight lifted (M/F) Avg Weight Males Avg Weight Females Differential
20,155/14,250 lbs 195 lbs 139 lbs 30%
1st Place Finishers Revenue per lift(rep) Revenue per lb
Rich FroningCamile LeBlanc-Bazinet $1309 $13.64


Consider the table above where the total weight lifted in the games is detailed. Together with this list is the average weight of the top 3 female athletes and top 3 male athletes. The differential between the average weights of the male and female athletes is 30%; and as evidenced the differential between the required total weights for the men versus the women is 30%. Using just the Olympic lifts as a proxy for the productivity contributing to the ultimate win for the top athletes, the marginal revenue product for each is around $1,309 per lift (or rep). If you prefer, $13.64 per pound!

So, it looks like the marginal productivity of elite CrossFit athletes is relatively gender neutral. Is there any evidence that fans prefer watching males perform over females at the games? Without better data this question cannot be answered precisely. However, having been a spectator at the games I can report that the stadium stays full for the female competition. In fact, it is perhaps more exciting for the typical fan to watch the females compete since most of the women can outlift and out perform the typical male Cross Fitter at his local gym or (“Box” as the affiliates are called). Couple this with the fact that as the Huffington Post reported recently of the 10 million self reporting Cross Fitters, 60% are women and you get a better picture of the potential fandom–and potential commercial, media, and consumer appeal–of the sport.

None of this changes the fact that Jill Abramson lost her job with the New York Times. But, if Ms. Abramson chooses to, she could compete in the CrossFit Open competition next February (this years’s 2nd place male finisher is a rookie to the games who qualified at the Open this year). She apparently stands a better chance of being paid what her male peers earn at the Stub Hub Arena in Carson, California then behind a desk at the Times in New York.

- Jill Harris