Grid League: Meet the New Sport of Functional Fitness

Hold onto your foam fingers, football fans. There’s a new league in town, and it’s all about fast and furious fitness. Combining weightlifting, bodyweight movements, gymnastics and more, the National Pro Grid League (NPGL) has drafted some of the most able-bodied athletes in the world (many from the highest CrossFit ranks), split them into eight teams, and is letting their strength, strategy and collective badass-ness determine the score.

The best part: Grid doesn’t discriminate. Men and women compete against and alongside each other, players over 40 are integral to the mix, and all-around athletes and specialists can each make a difference when it counts.

So how does the team sport plan to change the face of fitness? And why does the CrossFit comparison not quite hold up? DailyBurn went Grid-side to witness the action at the first match of the inaugural 2014 season. As the New York Rhinos faced off against the Los Angeles Reign, we got the scoop on the sport’s rules and regulations, how to watch it, and why top-ranked CrossFitters like Annie Thorisdottir and Mat Fraser are loving their second home on the Grid.

Welcome to the Big Leagues: How Grid Started   

Sure, the idea of team functional fitness isn’t exactly new. If the CrossFit Games come to mind when watching Grid athletes clean, jerk and kip at lightning speeds, it’s no coincidence. The league’s founder and commissioner is Tony Budding, a 10-year CrossFit executive who left the mega-brand to create a true co-ed spectator sport with greater mass appeal.

Taking cues from the NFL and NBA, in April 2014, Budding kicked things off with a football-esque Grid League Combine (athletes were selected via invite and application), which put hopefuls through every imaginable fitness test, from squats to handstand walks.

Next came a traditional style draft in July, where coaches from the eight squads selected the best men and women for their rosters — factoring in not just their combine performance and fitness resume, but also personality and overall “fit” for the team.

Once the teams were stacked, players were off to team training camp (albeit some no more than a week long), followed by pre-season scrimmages to get familiar with the ins and outs of league play, because no, it’s not exactly intuitive.

Unlocking the Grid: How It Works 

The action takes place on a 94-by-50-foot grid, split up into eight quadrants (four for each team) plus a start and finish area. Every team roster must consist of 20 athletes — 10 men and 10 women, and on game day, only five men and five women are selected to start the match (including one 40-plus athlete of each gender). If anything goes wrong, injury or otherwise, three athletes are on standby on each team’s bench.

The two-hour match pits two teams against one another in 11 different races that progress across the grid. Races — some of which are coed, some of which are male or female-only — can include anything from handstand push-ups, burpee box jumps, rope climbs and double-unders for time. Then there’s the “clean ladder,” where athletes must lift progressively heavier loads as they move down the grid (topping the scales at 340 pounds!), with the weight of each player’s lifts added together for a combined team score.

For each battle, the winning team gets two points (exception being the last race which counts for three points), and the losing team gets one. If the squad doesn’t complete the challenge, they walk away with zero points for that race. Not convinced the refs got it right? Coaches can challenge the outcome via instant replay (which was tested more than once in the league’s first match). When all is said and done, the team with the highest number of points at the end of the match gets the W.

Of course, it’s not just about brute strength and top-end speeds. There’s plenty of strategy involved: Players can tag in and out to keep pace during each race or if they’re incapable of completing one more rep. But don’t consider a minute on the sidelines much of a break.

“When you’re competing as an individual you can find your own pace and if you mess up, you have a longer time to make up for it,” says two-time CrossFit champion Annie Thorsidottir, captain of the New York Rhinos. “But on the grid, everything is so fast and high-intensity that you need to move fast while you’re out there. If you start slowing down, it’s time to rotate and change out. You need to be moving full speed, all the time.”

Rhinos co-captain Mat Fraser, who also earned second place at the 2014 CrossFit Games, says the relentless speed is something Grid athletes, himself included, will need to adjust to. “It’s just all-out until the tank is empty. I have never done 20 burpees over a box that fast… “ Fraser says of the 9th race, one of the more challenging from his first match. “When I hit that finish line — I usually try to stay standing — but I just flopped down. There was nothing left.”

It’s this high-octane format that brought spectators to their feet in the last few seconds of each battle at Madison Square Garden. It’s also what might just hold the attention of fans for seasons to come, says New York Rhinos coach Ian Berger.

According to Budding, there’s plenty of potential for the players, too, stating that one of the many goals with this new league is to make functional fitness something the best in the world can finally make a living at.

“It’s an honor to be part of the first-ever, of many, Grid matches,” Fraser says. “The icing on the cake is that my parents competed at Madison Square Garden when they were athletes,” said Fraser, whose parents were professional pairs figure skaters.

Faster Together: The Road Ahead

In this abbreviated first season, teams will play three matches each, giving fans 12 live events total (and ideally adequate time for the NPGL to work out any remaining kinks). In 2015, teams are slated to play 12 matches apiece; in 2016 and beyond: 16 matches.

Playoffs will commence in September, and will culminate in the Grid League Finals in Las Vegas, to be aired on NBC Sports on October 3rd. The ultimate prize: the Pinnacle trophy (and a coveted place in Grid history).

Until then, fans can watch regular season match-ups on NPGL.com via web broadcast. Or, check out the 2014 schedule to find an event near you. For 2015, expect eight more teams to join the league, including the Carolina Crush and others to be announced later this year.

Prefer to get in on the action yourself? There’s always next year’s Grid League Combine. Start practicing those cleans today!