The Sport That Will Dethrone CrossFit
Less competitive and more social than CrossFit, indoor climbing is everything urban millennials want in a workout. How will your brand respond?
A huge granite peak called the Stawamus Chief towers over the town of Squamish, British Columbia. With thousands of routes charted up its shoulders, “The Chief” beckons climbers from around the world to come and play. But until a few years ago, most of the routes hovered around the 5.10 level, doable for most moderately gifted weekend climbers with a little grit, but mostly inaccessible to beginners.
“Before, beginners could only sit on the sidelines and dream,” says Cam Miller, a Squamish climber and operations activity coordinator at Vancouver’s Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). “That’s not the case anymore. Now there are routes where anyone can go play.”
Anyone, including the fastest-growing segment of the climbing community: indoor climbers. The Climbing Business Journal cites an anticipated number of more than 400 commercial climbing gyms in North America by the end of 2016 (up from 353 in 2015), with analysts predicting continued growth—most of it driven by urban-dwelling millennials.
“This isn’t a micro trend; it’s absolutely going to change the face of climbing and the brands who do it,” says Niclas Bornling, Black Diamond’s VP of marketing. “The real question is: how prepared are brands to cater to this new climber’s habits?”
“This isn’t a micro trend; it’s absolutely going to change the face of climbing and the brands who do it. The real question is: how prepared are brands to cater to this new climber’s habits?” —Niclas Bornling, Black Diamond’s VP of marketing
Indoor Climbing: The New CrossFit
Thanks to the popularity of shows like NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior”—this year won by climber Isaac Caldiero—rock climbing has been enjoying a sudden push into the spotlight. But while most people will never shimmy up a 75-foot rope in 30 seconds—as Caldiero did to win the ANW title, the addition of climbing walls to gyms, cruise ships and college campuses makes it possible to at least give the sport a try. That means off-season rock climbers are no longer the only ones on the gym wall.
Now, they’re joined by what Scarpa climbing category manager Mark Busby refers to as the “CrossFit climber,” or, the urban athlete who started the year off spinning, switched over to CrossFit for beach season, then headed to the wall when bored with the “box.”
“Maybe they have the perception that climbing outdoors is cold, the rock is sharp and hey—there might be bears out there—but they still want to give climbing a try,” Busby says. “For that kind of athlete, the gym is perfect: challenging, a great workout, very social.”
Bornling sees it also: “The gym is no longer just for training during climbing’s off-season,” he says. “But for these urban athletes, it’s not always so much about the adventure as it is about staying fit and healthy and creating a beautiful body aesthetic.”
Various motives propel athletes to the climbing gym, and everyone on the wall needs gear. However, these new urban climbers aren’t always looking for it in the places we might expect.
Gearing Up the New Urban Climber
Large, multipurpose retailers such as MEC have enjoyed catering to this new athlete. Despite recent diversifications into other popular sports, the climbing department—and specifically, the entry-level gear—continues to drive sales. “We’re selling a lot more harnesses, first ropes and gym shoes than we are aid-climbing gear for mountaineers,” Miller remarks.
“We’re selling a lot more harnesses, first ropes and gym shoes than we are aid-climbing gear for mountaineers.” —Cam Miller, operations activity coordinator at Vancouver’s Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC).
But the research shows that these new urban climbers are as likely to reach for a multipurpose pair of shorts made by Lululemon, Nike or Under Armour than they are a pair made by a traditional climbing company.
“They simply aren’t aware of the brands that specialize in climbing because they’re coming from the athletic world, not the climbing world,” Bornling says. “They don’t want to look like climbers. Yes, their gym bag has to hold their harness and maybe a laptop, but it doesn’t have to look like they’re about to haul it up Everest.”
That presents a challenge—and an opportunity—for brands that have traditionally marketed to the hardcore mountaineer. Scarpa’s new “Origin” shoe for spring 2016 hits the sweet spot, with a top-quality look and feel, but with a flatter fit and more comfortable last that’s geared toward people not yet accustomed to shoving their feet in asymmetric shoes. At $89, it’s clearly Scarpa’s introductory shoe, but Busby is quick to note that it’s being billed as part of the “all-day performance” line—not being shoehorned into the “beginner” category. Same thing for Black Diamond’s “Gym to Crag” spring line, categorized by pieces designed to transition easily (and fashionably) from plastic to rock. And, notes Bornling, it’s important to meet urban athletes where they are: in the gym. “Gym retail presents an enormous opportunity,” he says.
But here’s where the data gets interesting: Yes, the climbing population is growing at a rapid-fire pace, with most new climbers starting in the gym. But according to research conducted recently by Black Diamond, a large portion of these gym climbers will never make the transition to outdoors.
“It’s a mistake for brands to look at gyms as merely the portal to outdoor climbing,” Bornling says. “It’s up to the brands to decide whether or not to cater to these peoples’ wants and needs directly, rather than assuming they’ll move to the rock.”
Making the Transition from Gym to Crag Safely—and Responsibly
But for those indoor climbers who do aspire to take it outside, there’s a steep learning curve. Brands can—and are—helping here, too.
“The biggest barrier to climbing outside isn’t the initial investment; it’s the basic skills you need to get started safely,” Miller notes.
In response, brands have taken on the challenge of educating these newbie climbers, sponsoring clinics and festivals to help build skills, or, in Black Diamond’s case, partnering directly with the Access Fund to launch the ROCK Project, an educational initiative “to help climbers adopt responsible behaviors that ensure the future of climbing access.” Or, more simply: to help new and existing climbers adhere to the written—and unwritten—rules of the crag.
Brands have taken on the challenge of educating these newbie climbers, sponsoring clinics and festivals to help build skills.
“There are subtle differences, and not just that one is plastic and the other is rock,” Bornling says. “You’re expected to take care of the trails; you don’t bring your boombox to the crag. We have an obligation to inspire these new climbers to protect and respect the areas they climb in.”
And for those who decide not to transition to the outdoors? “Well, at the end of the day, bouldering with some mates or top-roping at the gym is just a nice thing to do,” Busby says. “You’re 100 miles away from being up on some snowy alpine peak worrying about frostbite and getting caught in the dark. It’s more accessible and that’s the sort of thing that allows more people in.”