THE WEEKLY HOWL IS BODYBUILDING IN MIAMI

Steroids: The Miami New Timespublished an article on the self-described “Pablo Escobar of steroids”, Richard Rodriguez, this week. It is a wild read. Rodriguez made millions selling steroids online and lived a lavish lifestyle in South Florida.

In fact, as the feds soon laid out in court, Rodriguez had built one of the largest online steroid operations in U.S. history. While celebrity bodybuilders flexed on Instagram inside his gym and hawked drugs from his website, Wellness Fitness Nutrition — WFN for short — Rodriguez sold nearly $10 million worth of steroids in two years. He bought a McLaren and a Mercedes-Benz SLS, gifted his wife Cartier jewelry and trips to Europe, and became famous in pro bodybuilding, where he was widely known as Dr. Rodriguez even though he had no medical degree.

Now, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and awaiting sentencing, Rodriguez has offered New Times an unprecedented look at how a steroid operation works today.

Interviews with the steroid kingpin and his associates, hundreds of pages of court filings, and thousands of sales records from his business make two things clear: Scores of clients, from attorneys to medical doctors to cops, brazenly bought his illegal products online before he was busted, and five years after New Timesexposed the Biogenesis steroid clinic — which eventually led to an unprecedented round of suspensions in Major League Baseball — Florida authorities still have little interest in slowing the rise of unregulated steroid clinics in the state.

With drugs shipped in bulk from China and then mixed in legal pharmacies or Rodriguez's own labs, it was almost comically easy for WFN to sell powerful compounds banned by the FDA for human consumption. If a pair of snitches hadn't ratted out Rodriguez to the feds, he might still be lording over a musclebound Miami empire rather than spending his days in a New York prison cell.

"Florida is a vanity-driven state where the market for steroids is enormous," Rodriguez says. "Most of our profit didn't come from power builders or pro athletes; it was just regular guys like you and me."

Some thoughts:

-The next time that someone tries to claim that their sport does not have a PED (Performance Enhancing Drug) issue, just remember how many people are willing to take steroids just to look good. No imagine that there is money and glory at stake and no one is willing to do what it takes to gain an edge on their competitors. 

-Bodybuilding has got to have the worst culture when it comes to PED’s. It has to be the only sport that has separate drug-freecompetitions. And there are a lot of people who doubt whether the athletes competingin natural bodybuilding are really clean. It’s just accepted that everyone involved in the sport is taking a ton of PED’s.

-Prior to 2000, the fitness culture in the U.S. was dominated by bodybuiding. Since then functional fitness has growing and gaining influence and I think that it is a great thing. Bodybuilding’s relationship with PED’s and obsession with aesthetics at the expense of function always troubled me. That kind of culture should not dominate the fitness landscape. 

-Read the article. It’s amazing how quickly this guy built an online steroid empire and how fast it all fell apart. 

Manage your time: Fitness apps are all the rage these days and POPiN has been getting more than its share of attention. The app is a way to purchase gym time by the minute instead of paying for a membership or a day pass. Business Insiderdid a profile of POPiN and one paragraph stood out to me:

The app also emphasizes that time truly is money. Knowing that I was paying by the minute, I was hyper-aware of the quality of my workout and didn't waste time scrolling through my phone or dawdling like I normally would. Each action or repetition felt more intentional — it'd be wasteful otherwise. 

            This is how you should always workout. I don’t think that the existence of pay by the minute services like POPiN will change the way that everyone approaches fitness but it would be great if it did. It drives me crazy to watch people who waste their time in the gym because I imagine that they bemoan the fact that they spend all this time working out yet fail to get the results that they want. Now I will want to read this paragraph to them. 

Business to Business: Subscription models have always been the envy of the business world.Lately, entrepreneurs have dedicated themselves to bringing that business model to new industries. One of the more high-profile ones has been MoviePass, an attempt to make movie theaters a monthly subscription. The company has been struggling to reach profitability, in fact it loses money on every subscriber. Now AMC has announced its own competitor service. Forbespublished an article on and decided to make a comparison to the fitness industry:

MoviePass has built a money-losing business on monthly memberships for unlimited movies. Now AMC Theatres is coming out with their own entry in that business model, A-List, which will cosst $19.99 per month for three movies a week. These movie membership plans have much in common with gym memberships, but also some important differences. A closer look reveals that MoviePass looks unsustainable, but AMC can probably make their membership plan work.

Gyms that rely on monthly membership build their business model on the knowledge that a large number of people will sign up (many of them right around New Year Day) and then rarely cross the doorway to the gym. In fact, some estimates suggest that two-thirds of gym members never use the gym to which they belong. That lets them keep average costs lower because they don’t need to stock the gym based on their actual paying membership, instead they can size their facilities to the ones that actually show up.

MoviePass has one membership plan that allows you to watch a movie a day for $9.95, plus a more limited option of three movies a month for $7.95. However, unlike gyms, MoviePass has to pay when a member uses their membership. A gym is just crowded if more members than expected get dedicated. In contrast, MoviePass has to pay the full ticket cost for every movie their members go see, so higher usage is much more expensive to MoviePass than to a gym. This difference is not a trivial one; thanks to those costs, MoviePass is losing $40 million a month, and those loses are expected to increase. Unless MoviePass can find a new revenue stream, somehow monetizing the data from its members at an incredibly high rate, it seems doomed.

            Yes, there are a lot of people who pay membership dues and rarely use it. The problem with this is that people don’t like to pay for something that they never use. So they cancel their memberships and now the gym has to acquire a new customer to replace the one that left. And it is always more expensive to acquire a new customer than it is to retain a current one. I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for the fitness industry but it always irks me when people assert that gyms have some magic formula. Subscription models are nice but there is nothing magic about high churn rates. 

The rich get thinner:There is a national conversation about income equality but less well-known is fitness inequality. And the two appear to be correlated. From the Washington Post:

We found that, overall, median household income does the best job of predicting physical fitness out of the variables we looked at: The more money you have, the more exercise you get. You need disposable income to buy a gym membership or running shoes, after all.

The CDC study takes this relationship one step further by looking at the types of jobs people have in each state. States with higher percentages of people in managerial and professional roles, which tend to pay more money, have higher rates of physical activity.

We also turned up an interesting correlation between religiosity, or rather the lack thereof, and physical fitness: States with higher numbers of nonreligious people had higher rates of exercise. As the Public Religion Research Institute has reported, cities tend to be “hubs” for the religiously unaffiliated, and they're often full of the types of high-paying jobs that the CDC links to higher rates of exercise. There may also be a simple mechanism at work by which people who don't go to church have more time to exercise on the weekends.

Conversely, fitness is negatively associated with the share of people in a state who voted for President Trump in 2016. This is where we need to point out, emphatically, that simple correlations like these don't tell us much about causation. It seems highly unlikely that pulling the lever for Trump would somehow make a person decide to hang up her running shoes. More likely, Trump support is related to a whole host of other structural factors, like income and demographics, that also relate to rates of fitness.

            First off, correlation is not causation. The Post acknowledges this but seems to want to find a cause in their data. I believe that it’s a cultural issue. Educated people who live in urban areas are more likely to value fitness. There are a thousand articles about millennials who can’t really afford SoulCycle but value it so much that they find a way to pay for it. That type of person is also less likely to attend religious services and support Donald Trump. 

It does take money to exercise but not as much as people think. Fitness can be as cheap and low-tech as you need it to be. The biggest financial issue holding people back is a lack of walkable/runnable neighborhoods. But that’s more of an inner city issue than a rural one. Although if you’ve ever tried to run in a rural area, you may have found that it’s not always a friendly environment for runners.  

We have a lot of divides in our country. I think that this is another by-product of our diverging cultures.             

Real estate: Once upon a time, landlords did not like gyms. That is no longer the case. The commercial real estate industry has embraced gym operators and they are snapping up some of the best locations. GlobeSt.comtalked to CBRE about this development:

GlobeSt.com: Why have fitness tenants become such active retail occupiers? 

Petra Durnin: Fitness clients seek more experiential retail options that extend beyond the workout period. Fitness centers provide a service that is internet proof, occupy much of the space left behind from big box/department store closures, fill non-peak retail hours, and attract new customers willing to travel farther for unique fitness experiences. The natural partnership between anchor tenants such as grocers is formed due to the trend towards healthy living. Nearby amenities such as restaurants, coffee shops and personal services attract gym goers, increase foot traffic and sales.

            Landlords used to dislike gyms because they didn’t believe that gym-goers were the right kind of foot traffic, i.e. shoppers. A lot has changed in the last few years. Beyond being “internet proof”, gyms attract affluent consumers multiple times a week. It’s hard to imagine how landlords ever considered that a bad thing. What else might change in the coming years?

GlobeSt.com: Is this a lasting trend? What is your outlook for fitness center activity? 

Durnin: A future trend could be for fitness clubs to locate near residential communities or medical/hospital complexes. They could partner with mixed-use and lifestyle centers with a larger experiential platform instead of traditional retail centers. Boutique fitness clubs could look to diversify further to provide an even more personalized experience with unconventional offerings such as trampoline parks and skydiving centers.

            That was very vague. It’s I don’t think that CBRE has a good sense of where the fitness industry is headed. Have you ever been to a trampoline park? You could fit at least 5 boutiques into one trampoline park. That is not something that you offer on the side. Neither is indoor skydiving. 

 

Tidbits:

-So you think that your hamstrings are strong?

-Reebok tries and fails to have evidence from its lawsuit with CrossFit sealed

-You  pre-order Dave Castro’s book

-The CrossFit Games are staying in Madison through 2021

-BuzzFeed goes long on Russell Berger