How to Differentiate Your Competition

I don’t remember much from 1989, but I do remember sitting at the edge of my seat as I watched Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) slowly walk through the cornfields of Iowa. He was in a white shirt, the stalks of corn up to his ears and all of the sudden he halted as a voice said, “If you build it, they will come.” Then came along James Earl Jones with his booming voice and moving speech that people from all over the world would come to Iowa for reasons they couldn’t explain just to see what happens at Ray’s field.

I’m talking Field of Dreams of course. Ray ultimately risks his entire farm, knocks down half of his crops, and makes a baseball field…in the middle of Iowa. He had passion, but no plan, no marketing, and no help. Normally a recipe for disaster, it was anything but for Ray.  Athletes literally rose from the dead to play at his field. People from all over the country flocked to his farm. He made every mistake in the book, but it worked out anyway! Or did he? Did he really make every mistake? Or did he happen to get the most important thing right?

I originally brought up this movie to say the “if you build it, they will come” mentality simply doesn’t work in the competition space these days. There are too many competitions that are too similar and too close in proximity for that to work. I was then going to build to my ultimate point that for our competition to succeed we must differentiate it.

We must give athletes (and volunteers) a reason to come to our competition vs. any other.

Then it clicked with me…differentiation is EXACTLY why Ray succeeded. People from all over the country drove to his baseball field because it was the only one in the world where they could watch the deceased, legendary players of the 1919 Black Sox team play baseball. Now let’s be clear – Ray had no idea these players would show up when he built his field, but he ended up with one hell of a differentiator nonetheless!

So the question is, what will be the 1919 Black Sox of your competition? Why will people give up their weekend, drive large distances, and pay you money to be part of your event? Answering this question may seem like a daunting question, but the options are endless! Honestly, the hard part is to narrow down to just 1 or 2.

1. Theme

Giving a context or theme to your event is one of the easiest and most creative ways to stand out. At the end of the day, most athletes do these things to have fun and a theme can play a major part in that. It can be something simple like a couples competition near Valentine’s day or a superhero costume competition on…well, any day!

On the other end of the spectrum, you can have the theme take over your competition.  One of the better ones we’ve seen is one that takes place on a ranch and mixes in traditional movements with themed elements like tossing bails of hay.

In the coming months we are hosting one that combines fitness with a beer festival. We’ll use kegs in some of the WODs and name beers after the winning teams. The options are endless.  Have fun with it and have it reflect what YOU enjoy.

2. Location

Logistically (and financially) it is typically easier to host a competition at your own space, but a unique location does have the potential to be a big winner. I already alluded to the ranch in my previous example, which set the tone for the day. You could do beaches, airplane hangers, breweries, mountain tops, stadiums, etc. The easiest thing to do is to ask yourself where would you want to compete and see if you can make it happen. If this is your first competition, we highly recommend using something other than location to differentiate. Get a few competitions under your belt first and then take on the logistical/financial challenge of location change later.

3. Equipment and Programming

From the pegboard to the worm to the team sleds, Dave, Rogue, and The CrossFit Games crew always come to play with new movements and new equipment. Could you imagine if your competition had those? Think about it – your potential athletes do the same 25-30 movements with the same types of equipment every single day of every single week. As they are looking to fulfill their urge to compete, they come across your competition. They see equipment they’ve only heard of. They see movements they’ve never tried. They see a unique, fun way to test their abilities.

Most importantly – they see the competition they want to go to!

New equipment can be a financial burden, so think outside of the box.  Equipment from The CrossFit Games was an example, but use kegs, axes, pulleys, strongman equipment, or things you can build yourself. Pick up the phone and call local gyms to borrow or rent equipment.  Hell, if they know their equipment is being used, they might even send athletes too! The point is even a small tweak to everyday programming and equipment can go a long way.

4. Format

Another potential area for differentiation is format. On the simplest levels this can be team vs. individual, teams of 2 vs. teams of 4, one day vs. two day competition, or even online vs. in person. You can have leagues, pre-qualifiers, or even head-to-head tournament style. Maybe you have individuals sign up and they are paired day of…who knows? Competitions can be super cookie-cutter.  By varying the format slightly, you can break the mold!

4. Specialty Groups

Specialty groups are becoming an easy and popular way to carve out a niche for your competition. This approach intentionally puts a stake in the ground to go after a particular group vs. anyone and everyone. You’ve seen them before—masters events, beginners only comps, and first responder challenges to name a few. This approach brings like-minded people together and makes everyone feel they have a chance to perform well. Putting these things together is simple—take things like age, gender, occupation, marital status, geography, or ability level and put brackets on them.

We highly recommend serving a speciality group that you are connected to and care about.

And of course…be smart with how you bracket these groups.  Bracket them the wrong way and you have a PR nightmare on your hands!

5. Prizes

Contrary to popular belief, athletes typically don’t really care about the prizes. Heck, I still have gift certificates sitting in my closet from a competition I placed at 4 years ago.  I could care less about what the prizes were—the competition looked fun so I did it! The reality is as long as the competition looks fun and is close to home, athletes are in…except with top-tier athletes. High level athletes know they are good and will likely win, so they will be attracted to big payoffs.  Money is the universal language of course, but I’ve seen trips, equipment, and even guns for the winners!

The key piece of advice here is to be very clear on who you want at your competition. Top-tier athletes are fun to watch and can elevate your competition, but those type of competitions come with additional watch-outs and headaches.

Net, if you are wanting the just-for-fun athlete, get solid prizes, but use a different technique to differentiate.

6. Causes

The final way to differentiate is to rally behind a cause. Imagine a potential athlete scrolling through a list of competitions next month. They see one that is your standard competition – $75 entry fee, 3 standard workouts, and is 30 minutes away. The next choice they see is yours.  It’s also a $75 entry fee and 3 workouts but it’s an hour away. BUT…then they see a picture of this cute, but scared puppy. They click on the details and realize that a significant portion of your profits are going to save puppies at the local animal shelter.

Imagine you are that athlete. Do you drive 30 minutes extra and save a puppy or do you save yourself the drive and go with the dime a dozen comp? Easy choice.

Causes are a great differentiator and most importantly do something awesome for other people. As long as you are passionate about the cause and it appeals to others, this is an amazing way to elevate your comp above the rest.

So now what?

We just gave you 6 ways to differentiate your competition. The good news is you only really need 1 or 2 at max.  In fact, using more than 2 starts to over complicate things and can actually do more harm than good.

Be clear about who you want to attract. Brainstorm differentiation ideas. Choose the one you are most passionate about.

At that point you will have your very own 1919 Black Sox ball players and when you build it, they will come!