Sunday, February 22, 2009

Five Reasons that Climbing Competitions Will Probably Never Catch On With the General Public

The big ABS competition was last weekend and while I didn't go, neither, it appears, did any of the local media outlets. There was nothing in the Boulder paper, except a picture of a climber at Flagstaff, who was described as being in town for the competition. As far as I can tell, the Denver Post ignored it altogether, as did the TV stations. So the question has to be asked, will this ever change? I want to propose that it will not and here's a start towards explaining why.

1. Climbing is boring to watch
This comes from someone who has seen climbing media change from black-and-white grainy images in obscure magazines to almost real-time HD video. I have seen it all and follow it all still, even after 30 years. Doesn't matter--for the non-climber, it's like watching paint dry. If you aren't at least somewhat interested in the specific route/problem/area, outside climbing videos lose interest rapidly. Comp climbing footage is even worse. Sure you can build bigger dynos or wacky positions into the problems but then it becomes something else, like comparing the Harlem Globetrotters to proper NBA basketball.

2. Climbing is confusing
If you don't know exactly what's involved, it doesn't matter how hard the climb is; you can't tell what matters or why. A 5.9 climber shaking up a jugfest looks as impressive as a 14d climber on the latest testpiece. Try explaining to a non-climber what exactly is difficult about hard climbing. And don't even get started with scoring systems. According to one ABS climber, he was penalized for trying and failing on a problem while a tied fellow competitor came "ahead" after not trying the problem at all. Which leads to point 3.

3. Climbing is easy
I read yesterday of a 13-year old doing a 14d. Maybe in women's gymnastics, owing primarily to the scoring system, do we see such achievement at such a young age. But the truth is that climbing is almost unique among athletic activities in allowing such young climbers such high standards. Talent and genetics pays off very quickly in climbing, far more than anything else, allowing the youngest climbers rapid access to an elite level. But besides their parents, nobody is going to pay to see a 13-year old do something that is boring and confusing.

4. Climbing is too small
By that I mean that the playing field is tiny, comparable maybe to chess or ping-pong, maybe far less if you consider the square surface of a crimper or sloper that could determine success. In big sports, players move around a lot and quickly and do stuff across that space. Even gymnastics is bigger. With climbing you never can tell what's going on from a distance, which prevents mass audiences from vicarious participation, even if wasn't boring or confusing. Even arm-wrestling and poker can be comprehended by comparison.

5. Climbing is pointless
Of course it is but I mean in a way that matters to the non-climber. The game itself does not allow real competition between teams or personalities in a way that non-climbers can understand. The challenge of climbing something does not make sense anyway (see point 2) and therefore the potential for vicarious participation is utterly lacking. Anyone can jump on a skateboard or play football. But you actually have to do quite a bit of climbing to really understand the difference between 5.7 and 5.14 and unfortunately (see point 3) the ease of climbing makes the "difference" increasingly hard to see over time.

I'd be interested to hear from others about this, especially as more climbers seek to become "professional climbers." Who or what can support these individuals and what is the future of selling the sport to the public? In other words, it's not just how the marketing is done but the "product" itself that is proving resistant to commodification at the truly commercial level. I don't see it changing anytime soon.


Anonymous said...

And of course the logical result of all this: speed climbing. A feeble attempt at making climbing a spectacular and telegenic sport. Funny how the climbing "discipline" that is the least related to what climbers find appealing in the activity would be the one with the best chances at being an exhibition sport at the Olympics.

Case in point: the NACC was held in Montreal this winter, and featured a speed climbing competition. Soon after the event several climbers commented on local forums about how boring, long, and pointless that part of the competition had been.

There is simply no reconciliation possible between the general public's need for speed and what climber's enjoy doing.

Unknown said...

While this post may not have been a direct response to Carlo's infamous post about the plight of today's professional climber, I do think it helps to give some perspective on why professional climbers/climbing doesn't have nor will have the lucrative potential of other professional athletes/sports.

I'm relatively new to climbing (under a year) and while I'm utterly obsessed with it, it comes as no surprise to me that climbing fails to seduce a mass audience and consequently fails to attract mass investment.

My only question is, is being a professional climber in Europe any different? Do the World Cup climbers have any of the money, fame, etc. of other professional athletes (even if only on a smaller scale a la "extreme" athletes)?

redoman said...

Peter I agree with many of your point. But let's compare climbing with another sport that Americans know very little about. Let's pick Curling. It's even an Olympic sport.
1) Talk about bloody boring. Are you kidding me It's like watching paint dry..or ice melt. Some fat dork sliding some granite rock down the ice whilst telling his dork minions to sweep the ice in front of the said rock. I think going to the outback with a couple beers down the gullet and watching some hottie play shuffleboard is waaaay better. There ya go If they were hot! And maybe in bikini's it would be alot funner. Yes. Funner to watch.
2) The sport should be called confusing not curling. I mean I know they want to get the fuckin rock in the middle of the circle but I also know the climber is supposed to get to the top. Maybe if they incorporate American Gladiator tactics to climbing like trying to pull the other guy off the wall that would be attractive to the IOC. So what's with the brushing in front of the rock. Do they both brush at the same speed? Are the brush bristles like wire or a toothbrush? Do they have a brush sponsor?
3) Easy is the tough one. Yes it does look easy when Daniel floats the finals like a ballerina. At least they look fit. Curlers.. Is that right? Bloody Curlers? How lame. Have you seen some of the Curlers. Athletes? C'mon now. John Daly is a better athlete. At least he can smoke a ciggy and drive the golf ball 400 yards. Then go to Hooters and get kicked out. Bitchin! I could train for six months and go to the Olympics. Yes. I said it. Let's see a Curler qualify for a national in six months.
4) Small. Yes it is in this country. But so is Curling. In Europe they have comps in town squares with many thousands of people watching. Now I don't think that has happened with curling. I would bet that more people in this country would recognize a top climber over an elite Curler. At least from going into an REI or North Face store and seeing their pic on the wall or and advertisement or Jacket tag. I wouldn't know Curly McCurler if I saw them. But I could recognize a top skier, surfer, snowboarder.
5)Pointless. Definitely! Much like the bantor that is being typed by me right now while watching the Oscars. Although I'd rather watch some hot chick in a Verve top climbing then some fat flexible Canadien in Down toss a rock. That was fun.

Unknown said...

Peter, you are probably right on all counts. But then the same could be said for many non-mainstream sports. I guess that sports media coverage has a direct correlation with the public's exposure to the sport - most people will have played football etc. as youths so perhaps it is easier to relate to these same sports at a professional standard. At the end of the day, climbing is a very small sport.

sock hands said...

re: curling.... an interesting comparison/example is golf. horribly boring, no team involvement to rouse feelings of local pride, etc... and yet, tons of fools watch it in person and on television... they invest a tremendous amount of money into it and allow sponsors to put up huge purses for the events.... but one major difference is that climbing is much more exclusive due to physical issues. even fools on oxygen can drive a cart, hobble to hit their ball, and drive on. climbing 5.5 requires much more... even if on bolts. this is no original point, but it seems to ring true still. kinda like how i do not care about media of multipitch trad in former soviet states because it is not something that i will go out and participate in, the non-climbing public will only have interest in climbing as a novelty or a freakshow. i would be curious to know how much professional curlers make in a given year. i'd be surprised if it is substantial... obviously, this is assumption only, but it seems like a sport that catches what exposure it can during the olympics then fades away again.

i wonder if the future of climbing will come down to collegiate [sp] involvement... i.e. if colleges begin to field teams and recruit, i think that it could spur climbing much more so that a few moments of coverage on the x-games or the like.... collegiate competition would substantially support world cup involvement, the perhaps the olympics.

it seems to me that many of the non-team sports taht thrive do so because of school programs.

just a thought

Anonymous said...

i was a very serious juggler for several years before i got into climbing. during those years i probably performed my routine a couple hundred times. in most every case i was never once applauded for the tricks that took m months to perfect; weaving circular patterns broken up by, say, tight lateral movements. no, instead they wanted me to throw the clubs/balls higher, throw more, throw something bigger, set them on fire, set myself on fire. i thought for a very long time there was some sort of aesthetic learning curve regarding juggling - that if people understood its mechanics better they might appreciate my intense hatred of setting myself ablaze.

but after awhile i realized 'regular' people will never invest time into learning about a new form of entertainment when they could just be entertained sans labour. nope, the only people who would ever care about my sick psychedelic juggling tricks were other jugglers and people on mushrooms.

climbing is similar to juggling in that respect, but its barriers to entry are far worse. unlike juggling balls, it's scary to 'scale those cliffs with just your hands'. it takes time. it takes effort. and you have to own a closet full of brown/forest green/gray/black clothing to really get started.

in my opinion, climbing will always be relegated to the fringes of american sport culture. because climbing while on fire is completely out of the question.

Peter Beal said...

Speaking of curling, there's a big feature story with pictures in the local paper on the US Olympic Curling Trials in Broomfield, CO. And I hate to say it but it looks more compelling than the average climbing competition.

TT's comment about climbing on fire is quite good as it summarizes the problem. The public will go for anything climbing-related as long as it doesn't have anything actually to do with climbing.

My post was in part related to Carlo Traversi's comments as I basically believe he is wishing for something that will never happen. In Europe there are definitely a lot more climbers but I think the average soccer fan couldn't give a hoot about climbing competitions any more than a typical football fan in the US.

Regarding the college possibilities, the picture for non-mainstream sports in the college environment is very bleak. Even baseball is being cut. Some blame Title IX but the overall problem is more the corporatization of college athletics. I doubt that climbing can make inroads there.

gian said...

some euro perspective. I am italian living in france.

-money depends on the country, but is still not much.
No italian top athlete, even at the top of their career, makes it just with sponsorship. Either they are in an army/police sport group (but they also serve in ordinary function), or they have some regular job. Some are lucky and smart enough to make something that's climbing related : opening a gym and training people, creating a climbing clothing brand, etc...
In france, some top climbers with very good communication/image skills are partially able to live on sponsorship, but just at the fulcrum of their career. Then comes the time to step back into the ordinary world, get a bad drinking habit, and try to slowly put the puzzle back together.

-comps might be greater than US but still they are not that big, expecially in Italy. Interestingly, the climbing-hardcore public is more interested in outdoor exploits, when DosageXV will finally be on sale (or available in p2p), why sharma doesn't shave his chest, is Ondra still virgin, what does Maja Vidmar do on thursday night, etc.
Comps seem to really dig among some newbies, for mysterious reasons, and of course among those hardcores who have a relevant competition history.
France shows more comp interest than Italy (and has a totally better tradition). Probably thanks to a much better organized and serious federation, who does both the comp stuff and an access-fund like activity.
The only times I've seen climbing in general news, apart from deadly accidents, was last year Melloblocco. It was on the main italian general newspaper and the main italian sports newspaper, with roughly quarter-page coverage.
Interestingly, the articles were basically an Adam Ondra celebration. The "wonderkid" figure seems appealing to the uneducated mass, contrary to what this blog says. But if it becomes a rule, if ondra will quit at age 25 and another teenager will replace him, this "freak" will become boring as well as female gymnastics.
The "extreme" era belongs to the late 80's and 90's, as far as general public taste goes...this seems the era of the "freestyle" concept.
Though scary things do sell a lot among climbers, at the moment.

Peter Beal said...

Buon giorno Gian e mille grazie per vostri commenti!

I really appreciate your perspective on this. I may have overstated the lack of appeal that 13 year-olds have but if they became the rule, I think interest would wane.

I think the impression that many Americans have is of Euro climbers making 6 figure salaries because in Europe everybody climbs. I really appreciate your correcting that misconception. I agree that the era of selling "extreme" sports has vanished and I am concerned to see an appetite for danger emerge in climbing media sold to climbers. The consequences of climbing injuries can be very serious indeed.

Again thanks for filling in the gaps here.

Anonymous said...

I think it is funny that a lot of climbers feel that climbing could never be main-stream and how it is not going to be very successful because I feel it is all relative.

Obviously it will never fully catch on with the general public as it is a small niche sport. Even sports such as Soccer which has millions of dollars behind it, major sponsors, major owners, TV rights, etc is really not that popular or mainstream in the US.

So what is the measurement of success?

It is a waste of time to talk about it going mainstream because it never will as it is not a sport that can generate money such as football, baseball, etc due to the points that you stated in the article.

Therefore we should look at the measure of success of how much the climbing community cares about competitions, and then how much the outdoor sport community cares about or respects climbing.

I would venture to bet that more then 90% of active climbers have never seen a comp in person. Additionally I would assume that coverage of these events in major outdoor mags (Outside, etc) are very minimal.

So I would think the goal is to get more climbers involved before we worry about the general public.

Lastly, every comp I have been to I am always amazed at the amount of people that are in attendance. For example at the 08 Teva Mtn Games they reported 7,500 people at the finals and being there it was awesome to see such a great crowd. From my point of view I would say that it is growing and becoming more popular, it just needs the right outlets and proper awareness.

Also you bring-up the point of climbing not getting mentioned in the press and from my experience in media that the majority of that is due to the PR efforts (or lack thereof) of the organizers.

anyways my 2 cents.

Peter Beal said...

Good points Andy. I agree that climbing competitions can be successful with climbers themselves. However I would propose that the nature of competition climbing whether roped or bouldering is such that a majority of climbers who focus on outside climbing will never be interested either. This can be demonstrated by the lack of buy-in from most of the major names who are pushing limits outside. They see that a choice has to be made on where to spend their time and energy so Adam Ondra, Dave Graham, Dani Andrada, etc. etc. don't go there. It would be hard to imagine too many other major sports where top participants don't participate in competition.

I am not against competition climbing by the way. I just feel it's unrealistic of climbers to expect to make a living from a sport that not enough people are interested in supporting.

Anonymous said...

Very good analysis !
A lot has been said about that lately on various French websites.
We are at a crossroad: gym climbing is now a sport of its own and competition climbing has more to do with gym climbing than hard routes on cliffs. Even more, competition climbing is rapidly going the way gymnastic went with performers getting younger and younger. Now we see 13 years’ old doing 9 … and more than one !
The types of routes created in gyms and in competition are very different from what you see in nature and demand different skills. Pretty soon, China will enter circus performers and they will get the upper hand over seasoned climbers and win medals.
But you are correct in saying that climbing will never be a spectator sport.
It is too slow; spectators have no way to judge the difficulty; there is no WOW factor and even gymnastic has a better way to add up the points.
Speed climbing … even with two climbers side by side and the best DJ to put some energy in the crowd , most people will be bored after the third pair .
I can tell you that climbing champions are making less money than me who is middle-middle class: yes, they have their gear for free and some trips are paid but nothing like Tiger Wood… and they live in mortal fear that their little contracts with sponsors will be terminated because of the actual crisis or their bad performance.
Curling… That is a weird one … it will get kicked out of the Olympics eventually.
Golf ? Remember that there is an aura around a sport. And there are manufacturers, marketing people, communication and general sponsors. In climbing we have very little ‘’aura’’ , with weirdo/asocial connotations. We have a tiny manufacturing community with even tinier long term vision. We don’t have good press or any press at all except if someone gets killed. And we have no corporate sponsors because who would want to be associated with a weirdo/asocial sport ? Look at surfing or sailing for the total opposite … Tons of money ! Millions of followers !
Still… competition… why not ? To each its own and, as I said , gym climbing is now a sport .

Anonymous said...

And perhaps the heart of climbing and climbers is on the fringe anyway. Mainstream sports attract their talent from the pool of genetically gifted athletes from a very young age, starting in elementary school football, baseball, and basketball leagues.

My experience in 13 years of climbing has been that climbing tends to attract the athletes that didn't fit in the mainstream sport mold. The outcasts, the loners, the more intellectually curious, the quirky; those that really don't care to be mainstream anyway.

Perhaps for this reason, along with the aforementioned, climbing will indeed always remain on the fringe...

And dare I say I hope so; if not for my own selfish reasons, but for its own sustainability in its outdoor form.

Anonymous said...

I must say I am curiuos as to why it would matter to some whether or not climbing becomes a viable "professional" sport.

Any answers?

Peter Beal said...

The people to whom it matters are those who find their desire to climb full-time and maximize their potential abilities is limited by the need to work at something else. Naturally climbing is not something that really matters but there are many people earning a living in far less benign occupations that to me anyway seem just as or more useless. So why not have professional climbers? The issue is that most "full-time" climbers are either heavily subsidized by some outside source of money (which is never talked about) or live below poverty level and have to abandon that lifestyle if they ever want to grow up.