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Corner Office from Marketplace

The business of climbing rocks

Kai Ryssdal Mar 31, 2015
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People have been climbing hills, mountains and rocks as a form of exercise for years. The disruptor  which is really only a couple of decades old  is doing it inside.

The first indoor climbing gym in the U.S. opened in the 1980s, but there’s been a boom of late.

“These gym owners have figured out that they don’t necessarily need people who have climbed Yosemite or Annapurna,” says Clare Malone, who wrote about the new climbing craze for the New Yorker. “They just need who are sort of looking for a cool, different, alternative way of working out.”

Rock climbing gyms are not limited to areas that are surrounded by mountains and hills. They’re up and coming in the Midwest, and very popular in Los Angeles and New York. The new, key demographic here are millennials in cities.

“A lot of the spending in the outdoor industry, which sort of covers a range of different products and stuff, but it’s a lot of young, affluent urban people,” says Malone. “People really like it because it feels so real and so tangible.”

Listen to Kai’s conversation with Malone above, and read more from our follow-up email interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

 


You cite one report that estimates young urbanites account for about a third of spending on outdoor clothing and gear, while hardcore outdoorspeople account for just 17 percent. Can you trace that to the increase in indoor facilities? Or is climbing’s popularity the result of more interest in athletics — and the athletic look — among young people?

While I can’t say for sure, I do think that the proliferation of climbing gym probably means that more people are buying climbing gear—a demographic of people who might not have done so 20 years ago. It’s of course not just climbing alone that accounts for the uptick in sales, there’s trail running, camping, etc. But for whatever reason, younger people are looking to the outdoors for exercise novelty.

But the outdoor look is also pretty popular–you look around New York this winter and you’ll see a lot of Canada Down jackets, a lot of puffer coats. They’re hip, as opposed to the old wool coat I’m walking around in! And I think all these outdoor brands are certainly taking advantage of that trend. 

Have you noticed a meaningful difference in the way brands market to the growing number of indoor climbers, as opposed to outdoor climbers?

I don’t think there’s a meaningful differentiation in branding between outdoors and indoors. Outdoors is obviously the aspirational side of the sport, so I think brands typically will use those star athletes doing crazy things out on the mountains to catch an audience’s attention, but they are also heavily involved in the gyms.

Over and over, people kept on telling me that almost all of the next generation of star climbers will have started in a gym and then moved outdoors. So I think they see those two markets eliding. 

You mention in the piece that some larger brands are hoping to leverage the “mainstream” athletes they sponsor into more exposure for climbing. What’s keeping the sport out of the mainstream? How does social media play into that?

I think climbing has typically been a subculture — hippie-dippie adventurer types who were mostly white and out west. So what we’re seeing now in the sports’s cultural revolution, if you will, is white urbanites appropriating the culture of crunchy white people.

Quite a few people in the climbing world expressed the hope that the proliferation of gyms in certain areas would open up this narrow demographic. And social media is definitely part of this. The sport has also tended to be more male — but again, a lot of people I talked with are hoping that this opens up, and that more women and girls get involved.

The moment where the sport’s at right now might be, one person told me, how gymnastics was right before it reached critical mass: Got some superstars, and pretty soon little girls all over America were taking Saturday morning tumbling classes. 

This quote stuck out to me, from a climbing gym co-owner: “Are we selling climbing or are we selling this vibe?” To what degree are people in the climbing industry comfortable with this kind of attention?

I think that’s a question that certainly cuts to the heart of a culture clash — or perhaps it’s better to say a “slight discomfort” — that maybe more seasoned, hardcore climbers have.

To a certain degree, no matter what you’re talking about — music, sports, a cult movie — early adaptors love being the ones who were in-the-know, who liked it before it was cool.

So I think some people are rubbed the wrong way by climbing gyms that see themselves as event venues rather than hardcore training facilities. But the people on the business side —apparel makers and gym owners alike — couldn’t be happier with the spike in popularity.

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