September, 2014 | by

Making the Complex Simple: The Creation of a Sport

At the core of why our agency exists is to introduce ideas that the public has never heard of, and in some cases have no comparison. As a result, our job often is to take the complex or abstract and make it communicate simply. Start-ups, new technologies, gadgets and electronics are the things we launch into the world. So, we’re pretty used to hearing outlandish claims come from the mouths of entrepreneurs consumed with an idea. Most have their thumbs pressed pretty hard on the passion button, and we love working with these types of people and their companies. Such was the case on a bright winter morning last December when Tony Budding came into Theory Associates and told us that he had an idea that was going change the world.

Tony wanted to create a new sport.

He described what could best be categorized as coed work out races with lots of background stories into the lives of the various athletes. “It’s like American Ninja Warrior without all the gimmicky crap,” he said. Tony was the former Media Director of the fitness phenom Crossfit, where he helped build it into the juggernaut that it is today. He sharpened his teeth creating the Crossfit Games, but he had a larger vision that the top brass at Crossfit HQ didn’t share. He didn’t just want to test fitness, but create a real sport under a governing league that had teams in every major city from coast to coast, all competing head-to-head as a spectator sport like baseball, basketball or football.

At the time he had no investors, no sport other than a rough idea in his head, and almost no time. His goal was to launch this thing by the end of the summer which gave us about eight months to create, complete and launch a brand new sport on national television. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that? He already had TV interest and now it was time to create the product.

Let me start off by saying that we are not a sports marketing agency. We are a branding agency that specializes in technology brands. No one on our team really “works out” very much besides the account manager, and he’s the guy that will have the whole agency down the street for burgers and beers to watch every San Francisco Giants day game. I even asked Tony during our initial interview if he was sure that he wanted us to work on this because we might not be the best fit. So why did we jump into this with both feet? It’s a new sport! These opportunities come around every hundred years or so, and something told us after that initial meeting that if this sport was going to happen, Tony was the guy that could do it. And just maybe an outside perspective was exactly what was needed to help the masses understand and crave this new…thing.

But what was this thing exactly? It seemed the way to answer that question was to introduce ourselves to the world of functional fitness. I remember the first time I experienced a Crossfit “box” (gym). I was afraid to enter the room. The entrance was a roll up garage door and inside it looked like a team of Navy Seals were ripping the room to pieces. The loud sound of dropping weights, grunts and crashing iron was intimidating. I stood there for about 20 minutes taking video and sending it to my friends with no captions just to see what they would write back. “WTF?”, “You go to the gym?”, “don’t hurt yourself”. Then one of the guys from inside walked over to the garage door, vigorously yanked a chain and the door closed on my face with a clanking metal thud. That was my first and last Crossfit experience.

In the end, the valuable things I learned about this new sport came from a few really great resources. First and foremost it was incredible to watch its creator, Tony Budding, figure out the races right before your eyes. We listened as this foreign nomenclature just spilled out of the guy like a list of torture devices, “30 burpees, then 20 chest to bar pull-ups, and 20 monkey whatchamacallits.” I mean, you could tell the guy knew his stuff and was passionate about the project but Tony also took the time to break things down for us, and slowly the sport started to come to life.


The next step was seeing the sport live. This started with the Combines that the league threw all over the country to find the athletes who would be drafted. At the combines, we would hover in the shadows listening to how people would talk about the sport organically. The more and more we interviewed potential athletes the more we learned that these races were lighting fast. At each Combine the sport got more and more refined until finally in Las Vegas they played a few days of matches which brought the whole concept together.

For the first time viewer, when you look at a Grid match you can only think that the over arching villain in the sport is gravity. In every race, the athletes are going to war with the various gravitation obstacles that Tony’s gauntlet has unleashed upon them. The shocking part was you wouldn’t believe how happy they were about it. I talked to a quickly assembled team at the Boston combine just seconds after they completed their first race, and they were fired up! It was as if it was the most fun that they have ever experienced and they were thrilled with how fast the race was. “It’s like going flat out” said one of the hopefuls.

When it came time to bottle the elements of the sport we knew once again we were faced with making the complex simple. By controlling the large elements like the name, the field of play, and the visual language we could help to present this new sport in a new way. We could make it honest and true to what these athletes were about, what the spectators would experience, and how the two would help each other to create a new sensation in the world of sports.


Start with meaning: Naming the sport

The sports name, Grid, came from a very simple idea that once the sport took root, each team would have their respective home gyms, or as Crossfiters call them, “boxes.” So, once they reached the size of other professional sports there would be around 30 home base “boxes” scattered around the country, each housing a city’s local professional Grid team. A collection of boxes or squares create a grid. It was just that simple. The name is spartan to match the athletes themselves, who train in a box and…compete on a Grid.


Create understanding: Designing the field of play

The process of creating a new sport had to start with how people were going to understand it. How were the teams going to compete, how were the fans going to root for it, and what does the whole experience feel like? It seemed easiest to start with how the games were going to be played and what that were going to look like, so we started with designing the field of play. In the beginning, Tony was working with a modified version of what he used for the Crossfit games. But taking a field designed for individual athletes and then trying to mash in two teams was a recipe for disaster. The action wound up looking more like a maze than a easy to understand spectator sport. We listened to Tony explaining the races, but the experience was a bit broken when you projected them against a playing surface that the average spectator couldn’t follow.

If you’ve ever watched the Crossfit games you’ll agree they are a little hard to follow. Even with TV announcers walking you through the events, expert analysis from past competitors, and years of familiarity even the competitors themselves have a hard time knowing who’s ahead until the end. Our goal was to create a simple court that when you came back from buying stadium nachos you could see at a glance what was happening and get back to the action. After all, these were races, so there had to be a clear start and finish line and various size increments or hash marks so the spectators could compare both teams progress and understand who was in the lead or when things got dangerously close.


There was also another element that needed to be considered which was the rig. The rig is a metal apparatus that the athletes use to do things like rope climbing, pull-ups, handstand push ups, etc. Both teams had to use this same rig so we put it in the middle of the court and flanked it with racing lanes on each side. Then we added numbers so the 4 lane quadrants were easy to pick up when TV was filming close to the action.

Each match consists of 11 races that take about 2 hours to complete. Each week these 11 race formats change slightly in their execution so the competition stays fresh. Given this ever changing format it was imperative that the playing field look and feel familiar from the very first time you saw it. To make it look as we called it in the studio “grandma simple” so the other complexities were easier to digest in comparison.


Create Crave: Design a logo that the fans could claim as their own

The third and final major element was how the Grid brand was going to be viewed in and outside of competition. When you saw the name Grid, what was that going to look and feel like? Do you design it for television? For apparel? After viewing a few matches online and live in the arena we strongly believed that Grid was a sport that was an amazing live experience. The crowds are LOUD and when the competition created climactic moments the place goes wild. I found myself jumping up out of my seat and a few times noticed that I had goose bumps on my arms. So, seeing Grid live was the inspiration we used to create the word mark.

The last step was to incorporate the name into the field of play so it would be instantly recognizable for the spectators that watched the matches and talked about it at water coolers the day after. Every time people saw the Grid court we wanted them to see the name Grid. We also wanted a mark that worked in an arena so that people sitting anywhere around the court could still read it. So, we created an ambigram for the Grid word mark that allowed the name to be read correctly no matter what angle you saw it from.


On August 19th 2014, after 8 short months, the world was introduced to the sport of Grid on its biggest stage, Madison Square Garden. The hometown team, the New York Rhinos, beat their new rivals from the west coast, the Los Angeles Reign, by a score of 20-15. I wasn’t able to make the trip East but that evening I pull-up the webcast on the big screen and excitedly showed everyone what I had helped to create. Together with my two young nephews and my parents I got to see first hand the power of simplicity. Listening to them intuitively break down the races and really get into it was a blast.

In the grand scheme of things our contributions were small in comparison to the team of people that came together on and off the court to make this sport a reality. We had moved away from our comfort zone into the unfamiliar world of sports, but many of the dynamics turned out to be the same: Simplify the complex, give the audience a way to connect, and unify under a powerful brand. At the end of the day, whether it’s someone at an Apple store with a new phone, or a crowd at an arena with a new sport, we will always search to create crave.