There has been a lot of buzz on the climbing world about the public unveiling of a new professional climber's advocacy group, especially with its website now available. Professional Climbers International is the first organization of its kind that I am aware of specifically formed to speak on behalf of and provide resources for climbers who are receiving compensation from climbing companies. This development has not been received entirely positively by all.A media partnership announcement posted by the Climbingnarc caused some stir in the comments section of that site while Deadpoint Magazine commented that "Some (including PCI) believe that the PCI will be beneficial to both athletes and sponsors while others believe that the organization is nothing more than a ‘union’ for pro athletes."
I wanted to go directly to the source, past the press releases, to find out more about the vision for the organization. Kevin, already widely known for his adventures on 5.14 El Cap free routes and Buttermilk giant highballs, shared his thoughts on this recent adventure, perhaps the boldest of them all.
Can you give some background on the history of the PCI?
PCI got started in general conversations between the chairman of PCI, Rusty Klaasen, and myself when I was about 16. The conversations revolved around my own personal climbing career, sponsorships in general, what happens to athletes in their long-term careers, the structures of athletes as icons in sports, and how all of this can affect their careers.
Over the years, it became apparent there was opportunity present in our industry. So first, we spent a year doing research. We began by focusing on a comparative analysis of the climbing industry with snowboarding and surfing specifically. For each industry, we looked at growth cycles, growth catalysts, participation trends, consumer spending levels, sponsorship structures, industry health, media exposure, major events and a variety of other factors. What we learned from this data was that climbing is still super young. It’s had a really strong following, healthy growth, and is poised to grow in the future. PCI was formed to help guide as best it could, the growth of climbing for the benefit of its athletes, its industry and its place, our climbing areas.
By the growth of climbing, how do you see that actually playing out? Because the sport is different from skateboarding or snowboarding…
Climbing is one of the most non-condition and non-location specific sports out there. Whether it’s raining or snowing or you’re anywhere in the world, there’s a major climbing gym near you. You don’t have to live near an ocean to do and you don’t have to wait for the perfect weather window. Looking at just the numbers of participants versus enthusiasts, there’s a lot of potential for converting people to doing it more often. The pool of people that are aware of the sport, who have tried it, is huge. It’s massive. I am of the mindset that climbing is going to continue growing whether PCI has anything to do with it or not. The last thing I want to see is our climbing areas get trampled. I don’t want someone to come in, some corporate entity, and totally capitalize on climbing’s growth potential with no regard for the athletes, the industry, or the environment, but just the dimes. This is our effort to help climbing’s growth along in a way that‘s best for everyone. This is why we incorporated as a non-profit and not an S-corp or a C-corp.
Let’s just talk briefly about the kinds of things you can offer to athletes. I noticed you had the different levels, grassroots and pro-am and so forth. Can you be more specific in terms of the kind of services you can offer to someone just getting into that whole scene?
A lot of this is reflected in personal experience and in conversations with other athletes. I know personally that when I started looking into climbing sponsorship, I had no idea what I was doing. There was no roadmap how to approach it. I had no idea how to do any of it. I literally scotch-taped 4X6 photos on 8 1/2 x 11 pieces of paper and stapled it together and made a portfolio. I went to OR and introduced myself to people and at first it didn’t work. That’s fine, I had no idea what I was doing. The reason we divided up the membership levels is to target our resources to athletes at each stage of development. Grassroots athletes are going to need something totally different than a seasoned Professional. So for example, the grassroots athlete probably needs more help with developing a portfolio and understanding what sponsorship is about, what’s expected of them, and what’s realistic. If they climb V10 and feel entitled to a paycheck, we can say, “Look, here’s really a snapshot of what this looks like and how it works.” It’s designed to inform and provide the tools for them to get off on the right foot.
Hopefully the sponsors in the industry will see that and get more and more professional presentations from athletes when being approached. So it’s not, “Hey I climbed V10 and I want free shoes!” The goal is to raise the standard in a way so we’re not fueling any sense of entitlement but rather raising the standard of what it means to be a supported and sponsored athlete in this industry. So, on the grassroots level portfolio development and education is a huge part. So with your membership dollars you are going to get both a web and print quality version of your portfolio that our graphic designer will work with you on to develop. In addition, you’ll be able to call on the advisory services of Eric Hörst for training. If you have a problem with an injury you can call Noah Kaufman, MD. He’s even offered some pro bono medical services. You can talk to someone like Steven Jeffrey, who’s been in the game for a long time and understands what sponsorships are about. If you’ve climbed at all, you know who he is. He’s not just some young gun getting by on his fingers; he knows what it’s about, really bright guy. He can provide a lot of perspective and insight to a new athlete who may be super talented but has no idea what this is all about.
Has PCI looked into health insurance as a benefit?
It’s on our radar.
What about benefits for athletes further up the career ladder?
Say you are an athlete that has a contract and they’re getting a little bit more than free product. Maybe they have some incentive-based compensation built into the contract, so it’s not just a handshake. You’ve been with someone for a little while and you want to take your career more seriously, get to that next level. You’re likely going to need more exposure in order to do that? What we’re going to offer this year is a grant program. What it’s going to do is offer sponsored athletes grants for rock climbing specific objectives. We will pair the athletes with media professionals in all disciplines (film, photos, print) to tell that story and distribute it as widely as we can. We’re exploring a variety of different media partnerships to help make that happen.
At the professional level, you’ll have all the things that we offer everyone else, but we’ll also have a PR partner in-house. We kind of stumbled across this when I was in Boulder over the summer. Tommy Caldwell and I did a slide show at Neptune Mountaineering. We went out to a bar afterwards and Matt Segal and John Dickey were there and they were like “I didn’t even hear about it! Why didn’t I even know about this?” We came to the conclusion that climbers suck at PR. They just want to go rock-climbing and you know what, they shouldn’t have to be good at everything. In large part PCI was founded to help athletes with those things to further their careers.
Would PCI act in any way as negotiators or agents between athletes and industry?
We work on behalf of a class of athletes, not individuals. We work for our members collectively. We will provide a contact sheet if they’re interested in getting in touch with a particular company, but we’re not going to pick up the phone and say, “Hey Five Ten, you need to look at our member so-and-so.” That’s not our job, or say to an athlete, “Hey, so they offered you this, you need to go at 20% above that at these terms.” That’s not us. That’s up to the athlete and the company. We’re just trying to create more valuable athletes for the company so they’re getting more out of their marketing dollars and the athletes are offering something that’s more valuable to the company without ever getting in between.
One of the funny things about professional climbing is that unlike in other professional sports there is no discussion of how much money anyone is actually making? In the NFL it is straight up, everybody knows that so-and-so got signed for 10 million dollars. In climbing you have no idea what people are actually making.
I’d love to release that somehow, just to quell the perception that there is all this money out there. It’s like no actually, that’s not it. I’d love to get to the stage where it was somewhat uniform, where you could say, “Hey, you know if you’re delivering X and climbing Y, it’s not uncommon to see a contract that looks like this.” Like a Kelley Blue Book for climbing.
How would you describe the arrangement you have with climbingnarc.com?
PCI has partnered with Brian Runnells of ClimbingNarc because he does a great job assimilating global climbing news with a positive, refreshing editorial voice. Brian's effort to bring all the news to one place is very helpful to us (and all news junkies). Through our partnership, we aim to accomplish two goals. One, is to enrich the news content by helping Brian get first hand information from our members. Two, is to link Brian's ever growing archive with PCI's athlete profiles, allowing viewers of PCI's athlete profiles to quickly see the headlines relevant to each athlete. There is no exclusive arrangement between PCI athletes and Climbing Narc. Athletes are free to do whatever they want with their news. We just aim to centralize the news relevant to them onto their profiles and enrich the content we have all come to love from Climbing Narc.
What sorts of obstacles do you see in terms of the organization taking off or gaining widespread acceptance and hopefully popularity?
The main obstacle I see is misconception, people jumping to conclusions and not maybe reading all of what we are all about. We’re taking a very multi-faceted approach to this. We’re not taking a “push it from the accessibility side “only, or a “pull it from the media side” only. We’re taking a very holistic approach to our goal and I think it could be easy for someone focus on just one thing. Some might think “Oh you’re just a consulting firm” or “You’re just an agency” instead of keeping the big picture in mind because everything is related. Without the accessibility, the visibility means nothing and vice versa. And, without looking out for the climbing areas, where are we going to go?
Having as much face time with as many people as possible is really important. I am trying to do that as best I can with as many people as I can because this is a people proposition. We’re just looking out for the people in our industry. We’re trying to take care of our athletes, our business partners, and our climbing areas. That’s as simple as it is. If it gets muddled or if people miss that and think that it’s some money-making venture, it’s not.
How do you see the future path of PCI development?
I want to focus on memberships and industry partnerships because without the athletes and without the industry, this thing isn’t going to go anywhere. Those are two of our primary beneficiaries from this effort. If we can’t get climbers to see the benefits of joining and the industry can’t see the benefits of what we’re trying to do with their athletes, it’s just going to go stale. But I’m not too worried, it’s just a matter of time and working with people and signing people up.