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.